Friday, August 11, 2006

Middle class guilt

I had a car oil and lube appointment today (not metaphorically, literally) at the local dealership. I tend to just wait there, in the little waiting area, reading; today I took Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed with me so that I could work on prepping for class and such.

The last time I got oiled and lubed was in New Mexico, and they told me my car was due for some mileage triggered maintenance, which I put off until I got back so the local dealership could do it. When I told the garage manager, he checked and found that indeed, my car was due for a tune-up, too, but warned me that the work would take about two hours. He asked if I preferred to have to work done today, or would it be better for me to come back another day.

And it hit, my awareness of the utter freedom of my current flexibility. I've been reading about Ehrenreich's looking for jobs, having to sit and wait for application interviews, drug tests. She talks at one point about realizing that she doesn't have food for the weekend, and calling a help line, getting passed along to various folks, finally ending up with a food voucher at a local store for a limited variety of foods. She talks about the time and phone money it took, and figures it as between 2 and 3 bucks an hour.

I asked the garage guy which would work better for him, and he said they could do it today or not, with a smile. So I said today would be great (because then all the work will be done and I won't have to worry about it next week!), and headed for the waiting room. But he stopped me to point out what I knew but hadn't thought of, that there's a very nice coffee place across the highway with food and such. He correctly read my social class (not necessarily from my clothes today, but more from my car and probably the ease with which I contemplated the tune-up bill), and made the suggestion.

So I walked over and had a very tasty scone and cup of named coffee, and read comfortably in the sun-lit warmth of a window in a little cafe area. Except there's a point at which it's uncomfortable to read Ehrenreich in middle-class comfort.

I finished the sections on waiting tables and housecleaning, making notes of words I need to look up (why, oh why, do I remember looking up "soteriological" when reading Deb Shuger's Political Theologies [page 115, thanks for asking] but couldn't remember the definition well? And how weird is it to run across "soteriological" twice in one summer, for the first time?).

The housekeeping section discomfits me. Yeah. A couple of years ago, I moved into a larger house, larger than I really need, but perfect for me in many ways, and great for entertaining small or large groups and overnight guests. And I hired a housecleaning company to send someone every other week to vaccuum, dust, clean the bathrooms and kitchen.

I tried to be ethical about it, hired a local company started with help from a local small business start-up grass-roots type organization a friend of mine worked for. She assured me they pay a living wage and treat their employees decently. They pay social security and obey labor laws. The owners (a couple) still participate in cleanings and such.

But still, I feel out of place. My mother would have never hired someone to clean for her, even raising kids and all. And one of my grandmothers was a maid of sorts for a short while, I recall.

I try to be decent in a no-doubt guilty way, leaving fresh fruit out with a note to please take it when I have extra, making sure the cleaners know there's cold water in the fridge and soft drinks and to please have some if they're thirsty. I try not to be a disgusting slob, and I've consciously put most of the gift tchotkes I have away where they don't need dusting. (Okay, that's just an excuse so that I don't have to look at them.)

The benefit to having someone else do that hard work is that before she comes every other week, I clean up the clutter, put things away, and that makes my house much more comfortable, especially for when I want to have friends just drop over. I used to have a feeling that I had to clean my house if someone was going to drop over, but now I know it's always at a fairly reasonable level of clean, and so I'm way happier to have folks over just 'cus. That's a great bonus.

Still, I felt guilty reading Ehrenreich in the comfort of the cafe. I live well. I have great job flexibility except for the hours I'm actually in class or meetings. I have work that's satisfying on many levels, gives me lots of social interaction, challenges my brain, garners me a decent paycheck and the ease of social respectability.

I could try to cover and say I worked hard for it all, and I did, but a lot of people in this world work way harder and never have the benefits I've had or enjoy the success.

For a period of my life, I sort of slipped out of the middle class. Party, though, I hadn't because even when as a grad student from the middle class I made little money, I always knew some family member would help me out if things got really tough, and indeed, my parents did in some huge ways. So I was never without the ease of knowing there was a safety net around. (Though, I do understand that on some level the netting is illusory, it still helps reduce stress to have the illusion.)

I'm getting more and more sense that teaching Ehrenreich to our students is going to be a real challenge. Many of our students are comfortably middle class, some delusionally so. But we have substantial numbers of students who have more experience with homelessness, low paid work, family tragedy and health problems, and constant financial worry than I've ever had.

More work ahead!


  1. I've got middle class guilt and I just moved into the middle class! I thought about hiring a cleaning service, briefly, when I was hired and bought my house here, but I just don't think my working class roots will let me do it - not to mention that my mother would have a heart attack. My parents are already taken aback that I hired someone to take care of my yard. It's disconcerting to realize that I'm making a good living and I can afford to live differently than I grew up. Which is a very long-winded way to say: I know what you're talking about.

  2. Bardiac - send me an email at reassignedtime [at] yahoo [dot] com. We used the Ehrenreich book as our first year book in the past and I'd be happy to talk with you about my experience with it, and from other things you've posted I get the sense that we teach a similar range of kinds of students, so I might be able to help you to anticipate some things, with assignment ideas, etc. By the way, my experience with the book when I taught it was GREAT. Yes, it was a challenge to teach in some ways, but I've never had better discussions of a text in a comp class, and the assignments that the students did that were generated by it were amazing.

  3. I had many of the same feelings when reading N&D (which I've never taught, however)--and about being a grad student.

    I remember being with a friend and being approached by a woman in Grad School City who was trying to get bus fare or something together. Neither of us had any money on us, at all, and said so, but the woman cussed us out anyway for being "rich [School] students." As we walked away my friend said, "you know, with all our loans, we probably actually have LESS money than that woman does, and much less net worth. . . and yet, in another way, she's completely right." Which is to say, we had economic *potential* in a way she didn't.

    It's an experience that I think of often.

  4. Nickle and Dimed was a book that changed the way I look at the world. You really, really, really should teach it. A good friend noticed that the only form of discrimination or difference we don't try to fix in colleges is economic -- so getting your students with experiences similar to Erenrich's to talk could be a challenge.

    I'd love to see a post about teaching this when you do -- I've thought about how to use it in ethics, but I haven't put it together yet.

  5. Anonymous7:28 AM

    I spent some time in India dealing with this. I could not stand it that little old ladies were squatting on their haunches doing the gardening and that young men came to clean my house every day. I felt like a Rich Sahib Bitch.

    I realized eventually that my being born an American was, well, not my fault. The fact was that I *was*, and as such had access and powers that others did not. The way I used that power counted. Paying the people well and treating them respectfully, being grateful for their services, was what I could do for them. Contributing to the local economy was my role, and if I was uncomfortable with it, that was my problem.

    That said, after I read N&D, I resolved never EVER to be snarky with a clerk or waitress ever again.