Most stories about “millennials” focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
I have a routine: Some days I leave the Venice bungalow my husband, daughter and I rent for $3,000 a month and take a walk down to Abbot Kinney Boulevard to buy lunch. It comes out to $15 for a salad and $5 for a coffee. It’s too pricey, so I overtip, a penance for my indulgence. Then I head a bit farther down to take a peek inside a fancy store called Will Leather Goods I often pass just to see if it’s still there: In giant letters on the back wall, just above leather bags and wallets that go for hundreds of dollars, hangs a giant neon sign that says BARTH TRAILER PARK.
Each time I see it, I go through the same cognitive dissonance, class edition: Can anything channeling trailer parks be considered legitimately chic or cool? Especially on a street that GQ says is the “coolest block in America,” where Pharrell’s haberdasher plies his trade, where you can buy the perfume of your zodiac sign for $350?
The sign is still there. But what’s long gone is the trailer park 2,100 miles away where I grew up on food stamps in Algood, Tenn., with my three sisters and single mother who made $12,000 a year. My dad was MIA—a liar, a con artist, a felon, a hologram.
The trailer park is where I first learned how to steal. Where I learned the word “hussy” from my six-year-old neighbor. Where my sisters and I would sometimes sleep huddled in front of a space heater on the floor in cheap polyester coats, waking up to find the backs nearly grilled down to our nightgowns. Where we ate Vienna sausages and fried bologna cups. Where we dragged our knock-off Barbies through tar to make them black so our other neighbor Maddie and her six kids would have a doll that looked more like them. Where sometimes the neighbor’s oldest daughter, Vanessa, would ask bluntly, “Where’s yo daddy?” And Maddie would shout, “Nessa! Quit meddlin’!”
I wanted more than anything for someone to meddle, to point the way out. It took me two more decades, but I eventually located the exit, by building an exquisite bridge made of praise from teachers, reading copiously, studying success stories, and staying good and pissed. While every cell in my body seemed to want me to settle into complacency—to sleep, to fail, to stay where I was from—I somehow managed to draw from a reservoir of spite I’d felt working shitty fast food jobs and waiting tables and living in that trailer to keep me motivated through college. I stayed in the South for another decade, but every reminder of my past was too close. Finally I split for the West Coast, a pilgrimage away.
Now I’m here on this street-long nod to grabby materialism, by all accounts having earned it. But I don’t feel entitled to these premium amenities. While on the surface I seem solidly middle class, my working-class background hides in plain sight.
I may fit in with the rest of my peers who came from educated families and went to college because that’s just what you did, but hidden are the scars of scrapping it out at every turn. I went to an unremarkable state school, and survived by pawning the title of my $2,000 car—which broke down the day I bought it—every 90 days to get a recurring loan of 10% of the value just to eat and make rent, a trap that kept my bank account empty.
Meanwhile, my neighbors in this cushy Venice hood are architects, graphic designers, real estate agents, actors, screenwriters. They have master’s degrees; they own homes; they travel to Barcelona or Moscow for the summer. They talk extensively about travel and remodeling projects and entrepreneurial endeavors that frazzle them. They outfit their homes with carefully chosen pieces, and always seem to have new, expensive clothes. There is always a family, somewhere, with wealth to help out in a pinch. If, when dining out, the food isn’t just so, they send it back. They expect the best for their money.
The assumption that I share these values or concerns feels jarring to someone who has only just become accustomed to a high-priced meal, a fancy whiskey, a thoughtless purchase. I can’t decide what’s stranger—the assumption that because we’re at the same schools and coffee shops that we must have the same background, or that I’ve begun to blend in so seamlessly.
But what’s missing is a language of having always experienced the world like this—mostly, the sense that I deserve these things.
Which is why, standing here on this street looking at this trailer park sign, I still have some questions: Why do I feel poor? Why did I get out, when so many others can’t? How am I supposed to feel about the juxtaposition of affluence and slumming demonstrated by this neon poverty porn? Should I be proud? Ashamed? Amused? Offended? Can anything poor, white people do be culturally appropriated? Since when has anyone given a shit about poverty, let alone white poverty?
I can’t ever shake the formative identity of poverty, no matter how far I come. Even my Twitter handle is @iusedtobepoor, and people often ask me whether I “really” mean it—or do I just mean spiritually poor or something? This is a comedy routine I’ve set myself up for. Being asked whether I was “really” poor forces me to trot out my best poverty bonafides, the parameters that signal yes, really, actually, truly, definitely poor. Yes, I really was. No, didn’t see a dentist until I was 13, a doctor until I was 19. Yes, I wore socks and sandals in the winter.
“You were like, Southern poor, Tracy,” my friend Mark Shrayber has often teased, confirming what I already know to be true about white poverty being unremarkable. “Not like, Ukrainian poor,” of which he is intimately familiar. Not urban poor, or Latino poor. Not the kind loaded with vastly more complex risks and consequences. White poverty—the poor white trash from which I hail—is largely ignored unless it’s a caricature or the butt of a joke.
But regardless of race or ethnicity, “poor” is a mindset of deprivation that takes a toll for life. You can’t outrun it.
The bootstrapping stories of our Henry Fords, our Benjamin Franklins, our Jay-Zs, don’t help matters. They perpetuate the illusion that anyone can pull themselves up if they simply work hard enough. I too have succumbed to this story at times. My own narrative about my escape from cliché white Southern poverty is fueled by such a tale of hard work, though in truth I am not sure I’ll ever understand why I was able to jump classes. According to research from the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, 65% of the people born into the bottom fifth of incomes remain there. And even though “good learners can become high earners,” and I was nothing if not a quick study, the deck is stacked in favor of the middle class and up.
And yet what I can’t escape is the way poverty informs your world view in a self-limiting way, how being poor is so normalized that you can’t help feeling poor no matter what you accomplish. Researchers document the long-term health effects of poverty on adults, even those who’ve moved out of it, and they include chronic illness, stress, and early death. I think of it as “thinking poor.” Even when you escape the life that fosters poverty, it can be nearly impossible to break the mindset.
Growing up, I learned to scrutinize and examine the mechanics of popularity and their outward symbols—why were these brands and these clothes considered desirable, while others weren’t? I came to despise a kind of reflexive materialism that I still feel today when meeting people who wear branded, trendy clothes, or who seem overly concerned with telegraphing the symbols of class. And I find that even when I want something I can afford, I can’t just want it. My brain won’t let me, not without an argument.
“Thinking poor” is also being hyperaware of how people value things and talk about what is good or nice. For most of my life, “nice” was going to Applebee’s or Red Lobster. “Fancy” was a $10 cut of prime rib and a glass of White Zinfandel at O’Charley’s. “Luxury” was a vacation on Gulf Shores, a.k.a the “Redneck Riviera.” In Los Angeles, where the best restaurants include fusion, multiple courses and triple-digit bills, Red Lobster is a can of Vienna sausages. Gulf Shores is living at Dockweiler Beach, next to the sewage plant, directly under the flight path of LAX. Sure it’s the beach, but it’s nothing to brag about.
“Thinking poor” is also about self-care. It took me a long time to feel like I could go to therapy or even a dermatologist, even once I had the money and insurance to do so, because I'd always been told those things were luxuries. It’s hard to think of ever going to a doctor for preventive care, not just when you’re sick. It’s also measuring what nice things it’s “OK” to give myself, and which ones are frivolous. It’s still refusing to believe that I “deserve” a vacation just because I can afford one (Didn’t I “deserve” it when I couldn’t? I certainly worked just as hard then). It’s an imposed minimalism, a refusal to be able to overindulge in a carefree way, even when it’s well-earned.
These rituals of forcing myself into discomfort are a kind of salve, a way to trigger and work through these tensions. It’s how I process feeling like a middle-class impostor—too successful to be working class, too underachieving to be affluent—and try to forgive myself for my survivor’s guilt. That guilt is predicated on the dirty secret of every bootstrapper success story: that you sold out your people for a better life, that your new life, by its very definition, is a fundamental rejection of their values.
It’s hard to talk about. People find discussions of class uncomfortable as it is. I find myself helplessly tabulating the class tells people drop, and explaining, or trying to dodge artfully, that I have never been to Costa Rica, don’t have a housekeeper, and that I cannot relate to the idea of one being a “catch” because she’s too scared to steal because she’s an “illegal.” It can be a strange, intrusive mindfuck when I’m just trying to have a conversation with a lady whose kid goes to my kid’s elementary school.
Or when I try to enjoy a nice meal. The other night, my family and I trekked down to Abbot Kinney to eat at Willie Jane’s, a “Southern” restaurant where fried chicken and biscuits, a few cans of beer, and mac and cheese made with pimento rang up to over $100. I felt my status anxiety creep back in as I noticed the mismatched dinnerware, the folksy affirmations on the walls, the homespun charm of the staff—and these affluent Los Angelenos sort of slumming it. In their faces, I saw the culture of my own poverty sold back to me via the same food from the city I’d escaped, thousands of miles away.
And it struck me. It isn’t thinking poor that won’t leave me—it’s me that won’t leave it. I think back to Barth’s Trailer Park’s neon sign, and I still can’t decide what is more disconcerting—that it’s quadruple what it ought to cost to eat here, or that I’m being asked to pretend that this is high-end, when I know better. I might have been poor, pissed, full of shit, spiteful, hung up on class. But I’m not stupid. We pay up, and I tip extra well.
Tracy Moore is a staff writer at Vocativ, contributor at Jezebel, and author of the book Oops!