My Working-Class Background, Or Why I Hoard Freebies

The scrappy poor kid in me will never die.

Jan 9, 2012 at 1:29pm | Leave a comment

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I don’t know how long it would have taken me to acknowledge my working class/poor roots if someone else hadn’t pointed them out.

In the summer of 2006, I was a grad student speaking at a decidedly non-academic conference, sharing a hotel room with two other women attendees.

The first full day, my roommate Shelia and I arrived in the conference hall early to browse the swag bags and schmooze. We loaded up on flyers and approached a table full of bottled water. I grabbed two bottles, tossing one into my bag as I opened the other.

Sheila stared at me as I drank. “Why’d you take two?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I want one for later.” I may or may not have added, “They might run out.”

Nevermind that I could afford to buy a bottle of water or could just refill the first one.

Shelia, a newly minted social worker, paused.  “I’ve never seen anyone do that except the poor inner city kids I work with,” she said.

I don’t remember her tone or emphasis. I don’t remember my reaction. I just remember that this happened and how that moment profoundly shifted the way I thought about the ups and downs of my socioeconomic situation.

Now, you might be thinking that the pal in question was intrusive or rude. When I told this story to a different friend recently, a friend who arguably grew up poorer than I did, she was appalled.

“What right did she have to say that to you? Sheesh, she should mind her own business!”

But for all the social norms ignored, I was thankful for that interaction. I don’t hide my weird habit, nor am I ashamed of it. It just took me a long time to realize that some parents do a remarkable job of concealing how bad things really are. I imagine most parents would argue that it’s part of their responsibility.

As an adult, I needed someone to point out why my hoarder habits have deeper meaning than being half-raised by Depression-survivor grandparents. Otherwise, when do you realize as an adult that the electric oven was on during childhood winters because there wasn’t any other heat? In my case, it’s when you're told.

The scenes came back instantly once I started searching through the archives of my own memory. The sweltering summer my mother’s friends chipped in for a window AC and threw us a “house cooling party” because she couldn’t afford to spring for more than box fans on her own. The time my mom sobbed after we lost the affordable lease on a house we’d been renting because the owner’s daughter wanted to move in. That it was a major treat to spend $5 on chicken legs and breadsticks for dinner from the Village Pantry deli.

Even now, it’s almost impossible to bear the sorrow of knowing that when my mother left my father, she had to choose between taking me or her beloved dogs -- who were there long before I was even a consideration -- because she couldn’t afford to feed us all.

The weight of these inescapable truths, the learned reality of a childhood without, still shows up from time to time.

When I see mold on a loaf of bread, I scan the whole thing for some redemptive area before conceding that I have to throw it out. I throw out tattered underwear only when the physical discomfort of wearing fraying rags is intolerable.

Similarly, I was deeply insulted when my partner’s relatives bought us expensive flatware one year for Christmas. I knew how far I could stretch that money and exchanged their gift for one giant utilitarian pot that I still use to cook most meals.

I didn’t even realize that under my xoJane writer’s profile, I listed hotel freebies as beauty products I hoard. It doesn’t register because it’s simply how I operate.

At a writers’ conference recently, the subject of finances came up. To my horror, I started crying when I explained that no matter how successful I may seem to others, how well off I may be relative to many, I am always terrified of not having enough money.

One other guy at the table, my working class kindred spirit among upper crust colleagues, looked over at me. He shook his head and asked grimly, “It never leaves you, does it?”

No. It doesn’t.