Archive for July 15th, 2012

Middle class in America

In college, I spent an academic year abroad in Florence, Italy. It was pretty much the greatest year of my life. I have a million memories from that time but one in particular has been flooding my memory inbox the last year or so. During our spring break, my friends Andrea, Jon & Andy and I decided to go on a trip we called Operation Behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, the Iron Curtain had been opened by this time – March 1997 – but we all remembered it and thought we were very clever for our name and brave in our exploration. We flew from Rome to Athens and then took a bus around Greece for a bit (and hitchhiked up Mt. Olympus) and then took a bus into Sofia, Bulgaria and finally another bus from Sofia to Istanbul. The trip was really something. One of the things that really stands out for me, though, despite all of this time, is a guy we met on the bus from Sofia to Istanbul. I can’t remember where he was from. Somewhere in South America maybe. Anyway, my friend Jon really took to him and they were supremely chatty on the bus and the rest of us sort of worried this guy was going to latch onto us when we got off the bus in Turkey. We weren’t xenophobes or anything, but the guy just didn’t seem very, well, nice.

I don’t remember a lot of what he said, but I do remember this. He said that he would rather be a peasant anywhere (I actually think he named a place, but I can’t remember where it was) than be middle class in America. I was floored. I seem to remember Jon nodding knowingly. I had never heard someone say such a thing before. He wasn’t disparaging suburbia or strip malls or chain restaurants; he was insulting millions of people, including me and my family and pretty much everyone I knew because of their bank accounts. The statement feels as arrogant to me today as it did fifteen years ago. The difference is today I can’t shrug it off as a foolishly ignorant, condescending and pretentious thing said by a young man who had too much privilege and too little education and compassion. Today I see that young person’s sentiment all around me. The assault on America’s working class is as real as it is heartbreaking. And I don’t know what to do about it.

I try to buy American-made products, but not nearly as much as I should. I cry when I read about the unemployed and those that are losing their homes. I refinanced our mortgage so that it would no longer be held by Bank of America, but I have a half dozen credit cards that are held by banks that may be equally greedy and heartless and irresponsible. I don’t know when things got so bad, but I do know that it feels that I am complicit in letting it happen.

The thing that felt most important to me about last year’s protests and the recall movement was that it was more than a million people coming together. Teachers and professors and fire fighters and cops and iron workers and plumbers and lawyers and electricians and professors and paralegals and custodians – all working together, all singing together, all marching together. It felt like we all realized that we are in this together. Our lives and livelihoods are completely intertwined and we would not be taken in by The Rich’s effort to turn us against each other. We would refuse to fight each other for scraps and pennies. We would stand up for our neighbors and in turn stand up for ourselves.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t feel like it’s getting better. I hope that’s not true. I hope that we realize what we used to know: a rising tide truly does raise all boats. I want Mollybear to have the dream, which I’ve always understood was to be middle class in America.


July 2012

Join 78 other subscribers