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Christian Livermore | We Are Not Okay | October 2022 | 5,780 words (21 minutes)
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
— James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
I am rummaging through the junk drawer in my father’s kitchen, looking for clay, or putty, or caulking. I am twelve years old, and I have an assignment due the following day for Earth Science. I have to make a working volcano. Most of the time there is no mustard, so I don’t know how I’m going to find the ingredients for a working volcano. Even now, years later, the bar for financial security is mustard. And paper towels. If I can afford both mustard and paper towels, I feel I’m doing pretty damn well. But on the night in question, my father has said he can’t afford the Plaster of Paris I need to make this working volcano, so I’m looking for anything I can use instead.
I call it my father’s kitchen. It’s my father’s apartment, really. I live there, I suppose, but it would be more accurate to say that I occupy the back bedroom of the place. I use the bathroom, and forage food from the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator; cereal and bread and government cheese and whatever else I can find, but mostly I keep to my room and my father keeps to his, lying on his bed listening to Frank Sinatra albums or watching Tarzan movies.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen tells us that shame lies at the core of poverty. Anyone who grew up poor instinctively knows this to be true. She feels that shame every minute of every day, in the background if she is feeling good, in her face if she is not. The shame I already felt was about to get worse, and it would be ground into my bones forever.
It is early in my seventh-grade year. Until now I have been in class only with students from my side of town, the poor side. But it’s a small town, so the rich kids and the poor kids are now funneled into one junior high school, and I find myself sitting next to classmates sporting all the markers of wealth: Straight teeth and sandy hair, Izod T-shirts and madras skirts and boat shoes. My father bought me two new school outfits, from Caldor. A pair of corduroys and a flowered peasant top (for the first day), jeans and a button-down collared shirt that makes me look like a security guard. I am desperate for a pair of boat shoes and have found some at the Salvation Army that are a size too small. I buy them anyway with three dollars I got somewhere, I don’t remember where, and I jam my feet into them and wear them until a bony bump emerges on my heel. Eventually I can’t take the pain anymore and give up wearing them. The bump is there to this day.
I find nothing in the kitchen, so I move to the bathroom, picking through the mounds of cotton balls and razors underneath the sink. My gaze descends the row of shelves in the bathroom closet, and finally, on the floor, settles on an unopened bag of kitty litter. This is the last place in the apartment. There’s nowhere else to look. I take the bag, turn to the sink and remove the plastic top from an empty mouthwash bottle that’s been sitting there for months. I gather cleaning supplies, go to my room, and get to work.
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I stir the litter into a sluice held together with flour, water and glue until it resembles a melting ice cream sundae. I hollow out a cavity at the top, insert the mouthwash cap and smooth the slurry around it to hold it in place. When it comes time for the volcano to erupt, I will pour a mixture of the cleaning supplies into the mouthwash cap, they will react and overflow like lava. I’ve tested it. It isn’t what I’d hoped to bring in, but it will work.
In class the next day I arrive before anybody else and set my volcano on the windowsill. Bits of kitty litter shake loose onto the tray and I quickly take my seat. My classmates file in and place their exquisitely constructed volcanos alongside it, painted, some snow-capped, with tiny trees dotting the landscape below, some even with miniature villagers who will be swallowed up in the impending eruptions. As they set down their volcanoes they cluster around mine and laugh, and I sit in my seat pretending to be engrossed in a book. The teacher arrives and class begins. One by one my classmates demonstrate their volcanoes, which spew and sputter and send lava flowing down their perfectly crafted slopes.
When we are down to one volcano—mine—Mr. Brown calls on me to take my turn. I picture the volcano behind me, kitty litter pebbles skidding off its sides, and I feel my face bloom red and say I haven’t done the assignment. There is only one volcano left, and all the other students have demonstrated theirs, so Mr. Brown knows I’m lying and so do all my classmates, but Mr. Brown is a prince among men and pretends he doesn’t. He pretends to scold me for not doing my work and says that just this once, because I’m usually such a good student, he’ll give me extra time.
At home I tell my father what happened and give him a note from Mr. Brown. I don’t know what it says but I think my father is embarrassed by it. He drives me to the store and buys me Plaster of Paris, and I work all weekend to finish my volcano, and demonstrate it the following Monday.
The shame of this episode is with me even now. It’s like a piece of gut I’ve coughed up into my throat, and it will be there until the day I die.
The more research scientists do on people who grew up in poverty, the more they realize that living in poverty is like being in a war. People who have grown up poor can have PTSD, and many don’t have the mental bandwidth that other people have for normal life stressors. Or at least I don’t. I become frustrated very easily. If I can’t get the lid off a jar, I feel like throwing the thing across the room. I once heard somebody say to an easily frustrated person, “Who do you think you are? Everybody has to deal with these inconveniences. Why do you think you’re so special that you don’t have to?” They have completely misunderstood, at least if it were me they were talking to. It’s that I had already experienced so many normal life stressors by the time I was ten, I used up more than most people deal with in a lifetime. Ironically, that has also left me all out of fucks. I am frustrated and out of patience, so I am ready to dispatch with certain normal life stressors very quickly. I usually do this with the phrase ‘Let me explain something to you,’ and very calmly and deliberately explain to the person why they had better stop whatever they are doing. It’s a strange amalgamation of emotions, and I don’t always understand it myself.
Some things never leave you. You carry them forward to the third and fourth generation. Those things can be good, or they can be bad. When James Baldwin wrote the words in Giovanni’s Room that begin this chapter, he was writing of social isolation, and one of the things he was grappling with was ‘passing.’ In Giovanni’s Room, the scholar Valerie Rohy wrote, for Baldwin and millions of black and gay people, ‘passing’ had to do with racial and sexual identity. For me, passing means something different. It is a highly freighted term for a cis white person to use, I know, but I can think of no other way to describe it. For me, passing means trying to be anything other than what I was, and what I fear so desperately I always will be: poor white trash.
I am leaning against the wall in a game arcade watching another girl play pinball. A group of us are standing around her. The other girls have taken their turns and are waiting for the girl to use up her quarter so they can go again. The ball pings against the sides of the machine and bells trill and lights flash. I am desperate to play, but I don’t have any money.
The girls are part of the drum corps I also belong to. We are at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, on the tail end of a ten-day trip to perform at Disney World. I spent weeks selling candles and chocolate bars to raise money for the trip. That fund-raising covered the cost of gas for the bus and the other travel costs. But it didn’t include any spending money. The other kids have received cash from their parents, enough to play arcade games and buy T-shirts and candy and souvenirs. Before I boarded the bus the morning we left, my father gave me $20. I spent it by the end of the third day. I do not belong here.
The girl’s quarter shows no signs of giving out. She has kept the same ball in play for about five minutes, bouncing it off the sides, batting it away with the levers whenever it ricochets back. The director of the corps, Mr. Johns, comes up. He watches the game a minute, then looks at the other girls, their quarters ready, then at me. I lean against the wall, trying to look disinterested.
“Don’t you want to play?”
“Don’t you have any money?”
“I had $20, but I spent it.”
“Your father gave you $20 for ten days?”
I don’t answer. I feel the heat rising on my face. I manage a shrug.
Mr. Johns takes out his wallet and finds a $100 bill and offers it to me. I thank him but decline.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Take it. I’ll get it back from your father.”
I know I shouldn’t. I think of how angry my father will be that I told. How angry he’ll be that he’ll have to repay the $100. But I am nine years old and the pinball machine is ringing and the lights are flashing and I want to play. I take the $100 and thank Mr. Johns, and run to the change machine to get quarters.
I know I am lucky to have gone at all. But that’s part of the shame. The other kids belonged there. I was lucky to have been included. I am a charity case.
I don’t know exactly when I gave up on America. I only know that it was long after America gave up on me. There are many stories of America, but this story is one we don’t hear so often. It’s the version of ourselves we don’t like to think about, the one where poor people can’t always pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, where not every smart kid makes it out of the ghetto. The one where the American Dream is a lie. How do I tell it? How do I tell it so you will understand? Not for sympathy, just so you will understand what it has done to us, growing up poor.
John C. Calhoun said, “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black.” With that pronouncement, he told one lie to hide another. He asserted one divide that does not naturally exist and denied one that does. There is no natural division between black and white or brown. Indeed, as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out, there is no black or white. The artificial division between black and white was invented by white people in the early days of America’s formation through the court system, specifically, by wealthy white people. They needed a reason to justify their right to profit from the labor of others, so they invented labels. Black and white. There absolutely is a division between rich and poor, but the rich would prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. Otherwise, it would be clear that they have taken far more than their fair share and left the rest of us without.
From the outside, I am the story we like to tell ourselves. At the age of 54, by any reasonable standard, I have ‘gotten out.’ I have a PhD, I’ve lived in Europe for more than ten years, I was a journalist, I won awards. But on the inside, I am still the little girl in the projects eating government cheese. I dropped out of high school and still managed to get a PhD, but sometimes I don’t remember how far I’ve come. I’m up here, but in my mind I’m still down there. It’s not only that there are external barriers, although there are; I still have severe money problems and have never managed to achieve financial security. The barrier is internal, and it affects nearly everything I do and every interaction I have. I suspect it is the same for many Americans.
People don’t want to hear about poor whites for many reasons. One is that it threatens their ability to perpetuate the same old racist narrative that poverty is a ‘black problem.’ If black people are poor, goes the racist trope, it’s because of something they did, so there is nothing society can do about it. If people acknowledge that there are also poor whites, they will have to acknowledge that it is not a ‘black’ problem. It is a problem with how we reward work, the kind of work we reward most generously, and how we conceive of society’s responsibility for its poor and not just to them—in other words, people are poor because society makes them that way and keeps them that way, because it is more important to most of America to pay millions of dollars to bankers than it is to pay a decent salary to teachers and sanitation workers and store clerks, and because they need to keep people poor enough to accept work they may not want to do. If people admitted all these things, then they might have to do something about it.
The term poor white trash serves the same purpose—to dismiss, to deny, to denigrate. If you’re poor, it’s because of something you did. If people acknowledge that there are poor whites, they must acknowledge that they themselves could also be poor at any moment—if they think about it, perhaps they already are. This threatens the narrative of American exceptionalism, that anybody can get rich in America if they work hard enough. That is not true. It has never been true. But people fervently believe it; some so that they can view their own success as a sign of virtue and the result of their own hard work, others so that they can imagine their struggles as temporary, a bump in the road to their own eventual American Dream.
Contrary to the national narrative, we have always had class in America, and there have always been poor people. The nation was designed that way. As historian Nancy Isenberg, the author of White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, has written, when the English were establishing colonies in Virginia and New England, they envisioned the poor as an expendable labor pool that would till the soil and husband the animals and build the colonies. They shipped them—the working poor, ex-soldiers, beggars, and criminals—to Jamestown, the Colony of Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, in exchange for their passage, they would work to build the New World. They called them ‘waste people.’
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Nobody wants to hear about poor whites, unless those whites are what people call rednecks and they voted for Donald Trump. I don’t know any poor person who is a Republican. All the poor people I know are Democrats. And I mean yellow dog Democrats, an expression which means we would vote for a ol’ yella dog before we would vote for a Republican. I can only ever recall meeting one poor person who voted for Donald Trump, and he had brain damage from an IED in Iraq. We vote Democrat, that is, when we vote, because we sometimes have trouble getting to polling stations, for lack of transportation, a lack of childcare, an inability to get the time off work, disabilities, and other problems.
We don’t have the generational wealth of home ownership that allowed many working-class whites to move up to the middle class. It was also denied to black people because of redlining to keep black people out of ‘white neighborhoods,’ another way that black people and poor whites are in the same boat. Poor whites are kept out of those white neighborhoods, too, just in different ways; minimum credit scores we can’t meet and down payments we can’t save up or borrow from family. Another way we are not quite white. We are Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, agnostics, atheists. We are of English heritage and Irish, Italian and Portuguese, German and Polish and French and Greek and Hungarian and Scottish and Dutch.
I grew up in Groton, Connecticut. The way I grew up conflicts with the idea people have of Connecticut as nothing but big houses and leafy neighborhoods and clench-jawed bankers with Brahmin accents, the narrative you see in films, on television and in books. Unlike some working-class communities where factories that had formerly employed a whole town shut down and threw an entire community of working-class people into poverty, Groton had—and still has—two thriving major employers, Pfizer and Electric Boat, which employed a large part of the town and the surrounding towns besides, but no one in my family worked there. Hardly anyone in my family worked at all.
My father blamed a teenage dive off a dock into shallow water for a neck injury and worked less and less until he stopped working altogether and went on welfare. He continued to cut hair in the kitchen and used the money to buy the first VCR as soon as it hit the market, as well as a stereo and every Frank Sinatra tape he could find. When he couldn’t pay the rent anymore, he went on welfare and we moved to the projects. My mother had moved herself and my brother Adam there years before, along with my sister Jennifer, who she had after marrying my stepfather. My sister Charity would come along much later, from another man my mother lived with for several years.
The truth is, we couldn’t stay where we were. We did not belong in a middle- or working-class neighborhood. It would not allow us to be who we were. So, we moved down, and down, and down again, until we settled in a place where our family’s antics would be tolerated by our neighbors because they had no choice. No one had anyplace else to go.
No matter how much we cleaned, the apartment was crawling with cockroaches. One night as I lay awake in bed, I looked up and saw one crawling on the ceiling directly above me. I launched myself out of the bed and slept on the couch that night. The next day I prowled my room with Raid, but I never found that cockroach.
In the projects, every time I went outside, there was a need to be on guard. The scowl, arms at the ready, casual but alert, show that I was watchful, ready to go, that I couldn’t be caught unawares, either by a girl who wanted to jump me or a boy who wouldn’t accept no. Years before, when I was seven years old, an older boy of about twelve stole our kickball as friends and I played. I went to retrieve it, and he slammed it into my stomach so hard he knocked me to the ground. As I sat on the tar, catching my breath, I heard a voice above me.
“Did you hit my sister?”
I looked up. I don’t know why he was there, he didn’t even go to that school anymore, but there stood my brother. Adam’s reputation preceded him, and the boy began stammering and apologizing.
“Oh, is that your sister? Sorry, man, I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have—”
But before he could finish the sentence, my brother punched him in the stomach. After that, he taught me to fight. The elbow is the hardest bone in the body. Use it. A hand to the nose will knock somebody out cold, but be careful or you might kill them. If they have hold of you from behind, a headbutt to their face will break their nose.
I also began to realize that I could use things in my environment, so when a school bully picked on my friend on the playground and began shoving her, I tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned, I knee’d him in the groin, spun him around, and slammed his face into a metal maypole. He later went to prison for rape.
But if you got caught out in the open, you had to front. A girl got in my face in the school parking lot one day out of the blue, throwing arms, her face up in mine. Her breath had that stale quality of someone who didn’t brush her teeth regularly. A crowd gathered to watch. I didn’t even know what I had done to her. Act casual. Eye the field, see what you can use. But we were in the wide open.
“Look,” I said, my voice casual, my arms at my sides, but flexing, ready. “We can go if you want, but I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t even know what you’re mad about.”
She fronted a little longer and I held my ground, my heart pounding, that click of dread in my throat. Then I guess she decided I might be able to take her.
“You’re all right,” she said, offering her hand. “I thought you’d chicken out, but you ain’t no punk. You’re a good kid.”
I shook for an hour afterward.
You become hard. Don’t smile. Don’t show weakness. That is with me still. I never stroll. Part of me is always on watch, waiting for the unexpected launch, the assault, the confrontation, the male on the hunt. I catch myself doing it and relax my arms, then a little while later I notice I’m clenching again, my shoulders tight. The need to do this is exhausting. The need to hide it even more so, to hide it from friends and colleagues who think I’m another kind of person, that I’m like them, that I’m comfortable in my own skin.
When I talk about poor people, I do not mean working class. It’s important to stress that. There are many ways to explain the difference. It is in the shame a poor child feels in the cafeteria line for his free school lunch, in the face of a single mother as she tries to hide her food stamp card from the person behind her in the check-out line, in the worry of a man who has just finished another 12-hour shift and still doesn’t know if he’ll have enough to buy groceries for his children.
One way to explain it is in a conversation I had recently with a friend. He insisted that, until recently, America was guided, to its benefit, by middle-class values, that there was an understanding that education was important, knowledge was important, that you went to work, did your job, came home, kept your yard clean, respected your neighbors. Poor people do that, too, I said. My grandmother did that. It struck me, then, that we were talking about the same things; we were just using different terminology.
When my friend talks about the middle class, he mostly means the working class. Teachers make $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Teachers are middle class. Garbage collectors make $60,000, but nobody would call a garbage collector middle class. Garbage collectors are working class. My friend was talking about his grandparents. His grandfather was a groundskeeper; his grandmother worked in a ball bearing factory. He wanted to laureate their values, but saying that somebody is working class speaks of a lack of sophistication, so he spoke of middle-class values. The values were the same, but he had grown up absorbing the American idea that the middle class are better than the poor. Nobody ever talks about the values of poor people as though they’re a good thing.
Working-class people can, for the most part, keep their lights on. They can at least know that they will be able to buy groceries. They probably are not college educated, but they have steady jobs, jobs they may have had for years, jobs with benefits and a pension, however much they have shriveled in recent years. Or they have been laid off from one of those jobs but they have a skill, and that skill conveys pride. As well it should.
Poor people work two or three jobs, unskilled work that doesn’t require a trade. Or they don’t have the wherewithal to hold down a job and are on welfare. Their parents were poor and their labor wasn’t valued, or they were mentally ill or addicts, and their children imbibed that hopelessness. Maybe they have dropped out of high school. Maybe they have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Maybe they have an addiction. Mental illness, substance abuse and poverty can go hand in hand, as they did in my family. Which begets which? It’s not always that simple. It is not correct to say that drug use causes mental illness or that all those who are mentally ill are poor by choice; the same is true for those who are disabled. Indeed, in my experience, substance abuse is often done for self-medication. My mother did it, my brother did it, many people in my family did it, because they had undiagnosed mental illnesses and were ignored by the system because they were poor. My mother’s bipolar disorder went undiagnosed for years, so she lived with the misery of the depression and the crazed ideas fomented by the mania, and we, her children, lived with the outcomes. That is not my mother’s fault. It is the fault of the people who saw her behavior and its results as her own fault, a perception colored by the fact that she was poor, and didn’t look past that to recognize that she had a mental illness. Other people are just ignored because they’re poor. Waste people.
People may pick up the drug or the bottle, and certainly we are all responsible for our own choices, but what has America offered them instead? The idea that we are waste people is older than the country, and that knowledge that you are not valued by society wears you thin. In the housing project where I grew up, we were a bike ride away from the beach. But nobody I knew from the projects went there. Working class people did. But they had cars. There was no public transportation where I grew up. No bus to the beach from the projects. Or to any place of work, significantly. You needed a car or a bicycle. Most people in the projects didn’t have a car, except the drug dealers, and they slept during the day. Hardly anyone had a bike. Maybe they had enough money to give their kids a dollar for the ice cream van, but not enough for a bike, not for their kids and certainly not for themselves. And even if they did, they couldn’t conceive of the energy it would take, biking to the beach. It’s easier to sit on the porch, fan yourself in the heat and take comfort from an ice cream bar. This is the despair of poverty.
I have never owned a home, and I probably never will. Part of the reason for that is that I have never made enough money to make home ownership an attainable—or practical—goal. There was no down-payment loan available from a parent and I couldn’t save the money on my own. I could barely pay my bills. Once, when I was living in New York City, a friend called asking if I wanted to split a summer house in the Hamptons. My share would be $2,000. I desperately wanted to go, to get out of the city, to feel the sea air and hear the marsh grass flutter in the breeze and make smoothies and drink them on the deck, to spend time with my friend, but I didn’t have the money. Friends went on expensive holidays, ate at upscale restaurants, lived in apartments in Manhattan; I lived in a studio apartment in a condemned building. I had a degree from a prestigious university. I had a professional job. But I have never been successful at saving money.
That is also a consequence of growing up in poverty: the need for immediate gratification. If I get money, I spend it immediately, as though somebody might take it away from me. Because my whole childhood, people did. When I was nine years old, I had saved about $400 from working in my grandmother’s lunch shop. Syl’s Food Shop, it was called. It had been serving breakfast and lunch to the workers at Electric Boat for years when my grandmother and aunt bought it from Syl, and they kept the name because the Electric Boat workers knew it. My mother convinced me to open a joint bank account. She would keep the money safe, she said. My father warned me not to do it, but I was drawn by the lure of the bank account as a connection to my mother. So I did it. When I went to withdraw $20 a month later, the account had been cleaned out. When I was twelve, I had saved up more money from working in my grandmother’s shop. This time I was smart. I came home every afternoon and hid the bills in my books. A few dollars in each book. One day when I came home, the books were spilled out all over the floor, splayed open, all the money gone. My brother had found it. When I was in my early twenties, I bought a plane ticket to Italy and was waiting for a check to arrive to use as spending money. They sent it to my mother’s house, and she convinced a bank teller to cash it.
So, when I get money, I spend it quickly. Psychologists tell us that people who grew up in poverty have trouble controlling impulses, especially the impulse to buy. Being poor can have a permanent detrimental effect on your decision-making. If I had left the house with a dollar in my pocket, I would have spent it by the time I got home. This decision-making continued into adulthood. I once paid $600 for a set of Calphalon cookware when I was about to take custody of my baby sister, even though I only made $23,000 a year. My reasoning was that I had to have enough pots and pans to make a complete Thanksgiving dinner at all times. It’s something I’m working on, and I’m much better than I used to be, but not too long ago I bought a skirt on credit for £175 because I thought I would look cool in it at readings.
A few years ago, a friend of mine, in a well-meaning attempt to understand the impoverished diets of poor people, ate a Food Stamp diet for a week. On the last day of the diet, he talked about what he had learned and spoke philosophically about his renewed appreciation of healthy food as he prepared to end his restricted diet with his first good meal of the week: homemade vegetable pizza. He thought about what he had learned as he kneaded the pizza dough. He had already sliced the vegetables, and they sat piled high on the cutting board. While he had the best of intentions, what he said made me sad. He had misunderstood.
In his week of eating like poor people, he had missed two crucial ingredients: fear and shame. While he was looking forward to breaking his fast that night, poor people don’t get to do that. They don’t get to look forward to the end of impoverishment, to a good meal. My friend would eat a healthy meal that night, and he had known throughout the week that he could stop whenever he wanted, that all he had to do if he missed healthy food was open his refrigerator. Poor people never know when their next good meal will come. They look in the refrigerator on the 25th and maybe they only have enough food for a couple more meals but they don’t get paid for a week. And vegetables are expensive. Most poor people can’t afford them. All of this causes great shame. Shame that they don’t make enough money, shame that they can’t give their kids decent food, shame that they must rely on government assistance, shame that they can’t afford the restaurant their friends want to go to on Saturday night. That shame never goes away. It is not my friend’s fault that he does not know this. He doesn’t know it because society does not talk about such things, does not want them talked about. The result is that my friend would never understand how poor people feel—never understand me—and I felt sad and alone.
How do I tell it? How do I tell it so you will understand? Not for sympathy, just so you will understand what it has done to us, growing up poor. Because you have to understand. We are not okay.
We Are Not Okay was published on October 1st, 2022 by Indie Blu(e) Publishing.
Christian is also the author of a fiction chapbook, Girl, Lost and Found (Alien Buddha Press, 2021), and her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and literary journals including Santa Fe Writers Project, Salt Hill Journal, The Texas Review, Meat for Tea, and Witch-Pricker. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews in Scotland with an academic focus on medieval English literature and has taught creative writing at Newcastle University and medieval literature at the University of St Andrews. She worked for ten years as a journalist.