Growing Up Poor in America

I recently posted a picture of where I grew up on Facebook—half of a cramped cinder block house with about as much insulation as the average butterfly. I noted that my childhood SES (socioeconomic status) was working-class poor. This prompted Heather, a friend and former student—how I love to type that phrase!—to comment that she knew what I meant, but that I probably wouldn't have been considered poor in China, where she has lived. 

Heather is absolutely right. Except, of course, we don't measure our wealth vis-à-vis the Chinese. Poverty is always relative. We measure ourselves by what we have, lack, or desire within the small circles in which we rotate, not those far away on this spinning planet of ours. Metaphorically speaking, we either are the Joneses, better than they, or envy them. Sadly, no matter how far down the pole we slide, there's always someone lurking below who envies what we have. As the old film The Gods Must Be Crazy humorously revealed, in a world of handmade tools, a Coke bottle makes you a king. 

Poverty can be parsed, and it also changes over time. My memories are of being poor in the 1950s and early 1960s. Let's call the Joneses "middle class." My family wasn't desperate; we were, if you will, the upper strata of the poor. But the Joneses certainly reminded us we weren't their equals. Here's what I recall:

Food: The middle class ate nutritious food and plenty of it; the desperate poor relied upon Salvation Army meals and government surplus food. In the days before food stamps, welfare was government-issued bags of dried beans, powdered milk, tins of corned beef (with congealed fat), and paving-stone slabs of American cheese. My family sometimes had to rely on these, but usually we were a small cut above in the "buy food and make it stretch" category of thin stews, macaroni-based casseroles, and Ramen noodles in salty broth. There were no elementary school hot-lunch programs,  so my two brothers and me walked to a neighbor's house at noon—both of my parents worked. She fed us toasted white-bread Velveeta sandwiches that sometimes contained a piece of fried Lebanon bologna. I later surmised the bologna added protein to our diet, as Velveeta has almost no nutritional value. (Look it up—in a kinder society it would be banned!) We seldom went hungry, but we seldom felt satisfied. Poor food is high in salt, fat, sugar, and filler powders, hence the great irony in America that those who have the worst access to food are often pudgy—like I was around 6th grade.

Housing: Middle-class people owned their homes, we rented, and those even poorer lived in hellaciously awful "projects" run by slumlords. The local "project" was called Cardboard City, which should tell you all you need to know! But at least there weren't many homeless people in those days.  

Not enough money: For the middle class it meant they couldn't afford orthodontia*; for us it meant bills piled up, necessities were purchased on installment, and mom asked the landlord for a few weeks grace. The really poor moved a lot. (*To this day, you can tell the childhood SES of people over 50 by their dental work/non-work.)

Broken: The Joneses tossed it; we patched it. Torn jeans later became a grunge fashion statement, but for us it was reality. My first year of junior high school, I owned two pairs of school pants and when I burst the seat of one, it was sewn up the backside with heavy thread. No baseball bat was ever scrapped. If it split, we drilled screws into the barrel and taped it. Ditto baseballs, which were properly "tape balls."

Shoes: Middle-class kids had $10 Chuck Taylor Converse; we had sneakers from Endicott Johnson that were a buck a pair. And they came in colors that embarrassed the hell out of us: yellow, red, green, and bright blue. Yeah—those are cool now too. Not then! Like baseballs, sneakers didn't wear out until tape no longer held them together. Holes in the soles? Stuff cardboard inside and repeat as often as necessary. Pray for dry weather.

Desires: Instant gratification was for the Joneses. We got new stuff three times a year: Christmas, birthdays, and back-to-school sales. My parents were exceedingly generous and often did without to indulge me and my brothers, but the top three or so items on one's "dream" list were pretty much out of the question. A new bike was usually your brother's old bike. Really poor kids just walked.

Lessons: Middle-class kids had music, riding, sports, and dance lessons with private coaches. My world was public: school, playground, and ball fields, where I learned by observing. I learned to hit a curve ball by watching one of my not-so-bright friends repeatedly lean the wrong way and get hit by pitches. (I never did learn how to hit fastballs very well.) I also learned tennis  and guitar by watching. And, yes, I bought a Sears Silvertone on installment–one of the models not destined to become a collector's item.

Other Stuff: Middle-class kids wore fancy clothes and went to proms; we wore jeans to dances at the YMCA. Middle-class parents took showers before they went to work yet came home looking clean; ours took baths when they came home covered in grime. Middle-class kids went on vacations to exotic-sounding places; we went to Worcester to see my paternal relatives. Until I was 16, the most exotic place I had ever been was Atlantic City.

College: Guidance counselors assumed middle-class kids would go to college and that working-class kids might attend trade school (or enter the military) before entering the workforce. SES came into play even if you decided college sounded like a good idea. If you were rich, you looked at Penn. Middle-class kids went to Penn State, and my kind never bothered to think beyond a local state college. (No regrets—I got an amazing education at Shippensburg University, but I was stunned I was when my buddy John decided to go to whole way to Philadelphia to go to college.) Need I tell you that no guidance counselor ever advised me to go to college? (Fair enough—I had exactly the attitude toward them that they encouraged.)

I ask for no sympathy. Mine wasn't a Dickensian childhood—it was what I call a "paper cut" existence: small indignities that irritated and rubbed the wrong way. By the time the Sixties rolled around, it didn't bother me—partly because materialism was on the outs and people dressed worse than I by choice.  Poverty also stopped stinging when my friends and I reached our teen years, secured part-time jobs, and earned pocket change we spent on records, food, camping, and hanging out. Poverty taught me perseverance. I admired how much my mother did with so little. But I was always aware I wasn't a Jones.

Maybe I never will be. I've got plenty of dough now and, as an educator and writer who owns his own home, has cool toys (guitars, cameras, books, computers), and extensive travel under my belt, I'm objectively a member of the upper middle class. But I still don't understand middle-class people. They often seem vain and shallow. Mostly they seem selfish, heartless whiners who utter pious banalities, moan about their taxes, and hate the poor. They don't have the slightest idea of what poverty means. Just like I have no idea what it means to be poor in China, or be a slum dog in Kolkata. Like I said, poverty is always relative. But I still have a hard time equating a lack of orthodontia with deprivation.  

Rob Weir


Noah Gunderson: Carry the Ghost a Haunting Release

Carry the Ghost
Dualtone (2015)
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Here's a name to remember: Noah Gunderson. The Seattle-born Gunderson has been kicking around since 2008 and has a few EPs to his credit, plus Ledges, his 2014 full-length recording. If his second LP, Carry the Ghost, attracts the notice it deserves, folks across the continent will come to know this talented young singer songwriter. Gunderson claims Neil Young as his inspiration for Carry the Ghost, especially the rawness of Young's Tonight's the Night. The influences can definitely be heard on "Heartbreaker," a song whose emotional wallop is carried through a pain-laden voice atop a quiet guitar.  Also like Young, many of the songs are neither bitter nor sweet, rather something that lies within the seam between them. On "Jealous Love," Gunderson implores "I want it better than I've ever had," yet he dangles on a wobbling wire that makes us think it's not going to turn out that way. Another Neil Young trait is the way in which Gunderson lures us into thinking we're in for a quiet song and then cuts us with a hard edge. Gunderson's "Slow Dancer" opens with tristful piano and sad memories, and then adds percussion and electric guitar. It's not cacophonous, but the thicker mix adds fuel to lyrics such as "Light it up again, burn like a holy fire/Light me up again if it makes you feel free." Yep—a lot of these songs are what Gunderson calls "post-relationship" musings.

Having made the Neil Young comparison, though, don't see Noah Gunderson as a Neil-clone. He's a much better singer than Young and possesses a voice capable of climbing to the upper register, but adorned with controlled husk. The singer of whom he most reminds me is Ellis Paul, both in some of his vocal qualities and in his writing, a blend of the tender, the sad, and the introspective. I liked Carry the Ghost so much I checked out a few things from Ledges. "Guardian Angel" would certainly be at home in Paul's repertoire, especially in the way that Gunderson casts illusions with his voice. When you hear it the first time it sounds like poetry, but what you're hearing is the way Gunderson wrings suggestive meaning from relatively simple lyrics. Listening to Noah Gunderson is often like a fist in a velvet glove. Will it strike, or caress? Check out this lyric from "Bag of Glass": "In a bag of broken glass/It's not the parts of busted hope/It's the memories of then past." Noah Gunderson has earned his way onto my playlist. Make him part of yours as well.
Rob Weir


Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale a Moving Look at World War II France

Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's, 438 pages, #978-0312577223
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I didn't plan to read a lot of books about World War Two this year, but it was inevitable given that 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over fascism.  World War II is often dubbed the "good war," and it has also turned out to be a very good conflict for skilled novelists. Count Kristin Hannah among them. The Nightingale is set in Nazi-controlled France. (Note: France fell to Hitler's blitzkrieg in May of 1940. The northern part was directly controlled by Germany and was called Occupied France; the south—Provence and adjacent regions–was the "Free Zone," though the government in Vichy was only nominally governed by Marshal Pétain, who was little more than a Nazi puppet. In 1942, the Vichy fiction ended and Germany assumed direct control over the entire of France.)

The theme of Hannah's novel is nicely summed near the end when an elderly woman (one of our protagonists), recollects: "In love we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are." The book centers on two sisters: married, cautious Vianne, who lives in the Loire Valley near the border of Occupied and Vichy France; and headstrong 18-year-old Isabel, whose greatest knack prior to the war involved being booted from a series of boarding schools that failed to make a young 'lady' of her. Isabel had the bad timing to wash out of her final school weeks before the Nazis arrived in Paris, where she   is living with her broken-down, widowed, and drink-prone father–a World War One hero who wants no part of sharing his living quarters, least of all with the outspoken Isabel, an omnipresent danger once Paris falls. Vianne doesn't want Isabel either–she's a village teacher trying to to feed her daughter, Sophie, while her husband is in a POW camp after the Fall of France. Even worse, Occupied France is subject to a quartering act and Vianne's home is one of those that must house Nazi officers.

Hannah builds on the time-honored sibling rivalry theme; at least on the surface, Isabel and Vianne are oil and water, with Isabel becoming the book's namesake "Nightingale," a secret Resistance operative who helps smuggle shot-down Allied pilots out of France and into Spain. The descriptions of her activities are page turning and harrowing; they are also totally believable as her character is modeled upon a real heroine: Belgium's Andrée de Jongh. In many ways, though, Vianne is the more complex character, as she must walk a tightrope whose terminus she cannot see. Can she trust Captain Beck, the first officer who billets in her house? He seems kind, but is he? Are his questions innocent, or sinister? Can she even respond to kindness without being viewed as a collaborator? Moreover, she's hemmed in by a dilemma that transcends war: to what lengths will/should a mother go to protect her child? How should she react when that child comes to admire her aunt's chutzpah over her mother's caution? Indeed, how does one explain to an elementary-aged child just what's happening in her nation and village?

That village, Carriveau (possibly real-life Touraine) is also central to the novel. Its border town setting means that Vianne's and Isabel's worlds will collide at some point. The decision is, as an old union song phrased it, which side are you on? Hannah's descriptions of Vianne working her way through moral dilemmas would do proud a modern values clarification expert. She also does a wonderful job of drawing out the tension and not resolving matters in easy or formulaic ways; in fact, we don't actually know how a lot of things are settled until near the end when we find ourselves in 1995.

Hannah has done her research well and presents a solid portrait of the French Underground, acts of everyday resistance on the part of non-combatants, and the confusion that French people must have felt in the countryside. In Paris and other cities, the Nazis were an impersonal and ever-present irritant; not so in rural France, where citizens had both more personal contact, yet less frequent dealings with their occupiers. Give Hannah credit also for delving into a shameful event the French have only recently confronted: the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver. Shortly after the Vichy government was dissolved in 1942, more than 13,000 Jews–4,000 of whom were children–in the south of France were rounded up and placed in a cycling stadium until they were transported to prison camps. Few survived.*

The Nightingale is emotionally impactful, thrilling in its action scenes, and honestly ordinary is its depictions of everyday life and universal dilemmas. Add this one to your list.

Rob Weir

* The film Sarah's Key (2010) is a deeply moving take on the Vel d'Hiv (as it's usually called) roundup of Jews in Provence.