I saw an old friend the other night. Not a “friend” in the soul-baring, coming of age together kind of way, but rather “friend” as in a person I spent quite a bit of time partying with back in what I tend to think of as our “poor years.”
They were fun years, too. We partied a lot, too much probably, partly because my husband and I were young, babies really, and we didn’t have kids yet or a mortgage or even any money in the bank to worry over, but also because we didn’t have any money to do anything else and that’s what everyone we hung out with did anyway because it was easy.
It’s not that we were lazy – far from it, really – we both were going to college and working as many jobs as we could fit in, always more than one and sometimes three or four. And these – restaurant work, bartending, delivery – were the kind of often physical jobs where you work hard and usually well into the night, standing and serving and fake smiling and in return making just enough to hopefully pay next month’s rent and eek out a few after-shift beers. Often we were paid under the table. Usually we made less than minimum wage.
And while we didn’t have much free time or much cash, we did have the after-shift beers and the instant social scenes that late night restaurant work provides and the many, many nights spent nursing sore feet at a bar stool pulled up to the very same table we just got done setting and wiping for other people.
The thing that struck me about this guy was that he was still living that same life, which in and of itself is fine and no big thing, respectable even, considering there’s no way my body could manage a double shift these days and still be upright afterwards.
Except he wasn’t happy. He told me so, but I would have known it even if he hadn’t. His face was lined in deep wrinkles and in them was trapped remnants of the soot from the hot stove he’d stood over all night. His eyes were bloodshot and worked themselves a little bit farther towards closed with each beer he drank, and he counted and recounted the pile of cash on the bar in front of him as we chatted.
We didn’t chat for long, just long enough for him to ask me about my life, my kids, my job, and I did the same, except where I spoke of my family he spoke of his cat. Times were tough, he told me. “I’m only here for her,” he said, more than once. “When she dies, I’m so out of this sh*t town.”
“Where will you go?” I asked, ignoring my assumption that moving a cat couldn’t be that hard because it wasn’t really my cat to move.
“I don’t know,” he said, signaling to the bartender that he was ready for another. “Away.”
It stuck with me all week, this conversation. I was happy enough to see him, of course I was, but the thing nagging at me wasn’t nostalgia. It wasn’t even the shock at how old we are that seeing someone from your past can force you to notice. It was something bigger than that.
I think it was privilege.
Because that’s the only difference I can come up with between him and I. That’s why I was standing there chatting about my family and my career and my mortgage when a decade and a half before I had been there with him, making less than minimum wage and eating ramen from the overpriced corner store and walking out of bars sometimes so far past closing time that the sun was starting to come back up around.
I’m not saying I am some picture of all-American capitalist success. I’m not. I’m modestly comfortable in my life and even that is extremely vulnerable, like I’m always one potential disaster or lost paycheck from losing everything. And while my ego desperately wants to scream out “I worked for this!” the reality is so many chances were handed to me that there’s no way I could look life in the eye and act like all this fruit came from my own labor.
Let’s see: I’m white. I was born – healthy – to middle class parents. I was born here, in this country. I speak English as a native language and do not have an accent. I’m not gay. Other than being born female, I’ve never known discrimination or hatred or bias based on anything outside of my control. I’m so far removed from that that it’s hard for me to understand, although I’m increasingly trying to, because the not understanding feels like it’s almost as bad as not caring.
I’m trying too to understand what makes my life trajectory land me here where it so easily could have led me there. I was already there, really, the difference is I could have stayed. Why didn’t I? What was different? I wanted out, sure, but we all did. We all sat and tipped back beers into the night and talked endlessly about how we were gonna get out, each plan more elaborate than the next.
It’s not intelligence. I’m smart enough to get by but that’s it. I’m no genius. And it’s certainly not work ethic. I am paid now to sit on my butt in an ergonomic chair in an air-conditioned office. I love my job, and I take it seriously, but there is no way I work as hard now as I did when I was literally running from kitchen to table and back again for hours on end with nary enough time for a cigarette break. That’s a whole different kind of work, and I still believe it’s the kind of work that breaks you after a while.
The truth is I got out because I had chances. Many. I went to college because it was what was expected, and my parents helped me. A LOT. I did okay there – not great, mind you, but okay – but I graduated into the IT field just as the IT bubble was bursting, and the only reason I got a job was because of who I knew.
Who I knew also got me my second apartment, the one in a better neighborhood where people were not getting shot in my driveway (yes, that happened) and after that, who I knew got me my mortgage.
Would I have gotten any of that if I wasn’t white? What if I was transgender? Disabled? Or what if I had been raised in poverty and my mother had never stood over me as I did my homework at the kitchen table every night and schooled me on which Ivy League school might be the best fit for my particular neuroses (Harvard, definitely not Columbia, maybe Cornell in a pinch) because she herself was out busting butt for minimum wage just to get some food on the table for us?
Would I have gotten any of that if I wasn’t white? What if I was transgender? Disabled?
Or what if, later, when we were out there making sh*t money and looking no farther than what time tomorrow’s shift started, we hadn’t known in the backs of our minds that no matter what, if we couldn’t make rent or if the cupboards got bare or if something really bad did happen, we could always go home?
I left my job the Monday after seeing this friend, and I drove home a different way. I went down the street I used to live on, drove past the house where my car was riddled with bullet holes while I had slept upstairs. In front of the house some children were playing leapfrog, laughing and jumping over each other on down the street in the late afternoon sun.
That’s it, I thought. Each one of these things I have been given is another leapfrog. Another jump I made forward where someone else didn’t ― where I made it over and onward there but for the grace of their back. My whiteness. My straightness. My cushy middle class upbringing in a cushy middle class neighborhood. My health and the people I knew and the expectations I grew up with from the second I was born. It all set me up not so that I couldn’t fail – no one gets that – but so that if I was gonna fail, I was gonna have to shatter a whole lot of built-in safety nets on my way down to the bottom.
I’m embarrassed by this realization. I’ve often wanted to act like I understood poverty because I lived in that world for a while, but the truth is I didn’t. Not really. I only ever had one foot in that world because the other was still firmly planted in my life of privilege, ready to take on my full weight the second things got real. That and the grace of God and a whole lot of blind luck are really the only reasons why I am not there anymore.
Maybe, I thought, as I pulled into my driveway and watched my own children play in the same summer sun, those (privilege, the grace of God, and blind luck) are the only true differences between any of us, when you get right down to it.