I know it’s a thing lots of people want to be. But here’s the deal: being middle class sucks.
When I was in undergrad labor historian Priscilla Murolo gave a giant lecture class at Sarah Lawrence, the private college where I studied. Sitting there in lecture hall, she asked us: “who among you believes that you’re middle class?” The entire lecture hall full of students raised their hands; I raised my hand. We were all pretty sure that we were financially in the middle. We all knew of people worse off than us, and people who had way more. Then there’s the totally destitute and the filthy rich, we knew about them, we knew that we were not them, so we all figured we must be in the middle. Patricia said “that’s what everybody thinks. But some of you are rich, and some of you are probably poor.” We all looked around. The faces of the rich kids seemed to say “I’m not rich, don’t accuse me of that,” and the poor kids, too, looked like they’d been accused of some gross crime. We were all pretty secure in our understanding that we were in the middle, elitist college and all.
Finances were never really something I talked about with my parents. My dad and step-mom didn’t talk to me about money, except to say things like “we can’t afford that” now and then. My dad worked, my step-mom stayed home with me and my brother. When my step-mom paid the bills she would sit down at the dining room table with a stack of mail, the check book, a pen, and a grim look on her face. I would go watch t.v. We lived in a lovely suburban house on the corner of a small development in the middle of a town full of developments of various sizes. There was plenty of room for my brother, my step-mom, my dad, and me. There was room for guests, room for parties, room for two cars in the driveway, room for each of us to retreat to our own corners when the time came. We always had good food on the table, and new clothes at the beginning of the school year. Christmas and Easter brought gifts and feasts. I didn’t have an allowance, but I was careful enough with my lunch money that I always had a little extra left over for a splurge at the candy shop at the end of the week. When I started private school at Notre Dame Academy I was very proud. I knew it was a big deal, with a big price tag, and I felt privileged to be there. My step-mom told me we were middle class. I believed her.
My mom and step-dad also didn’t talk to me about money. I moved out of the pretty suburban house when I was 16, and like Cinderella finding the match to her glass slipper in a palace, I found myself in a great big stone house within the city limits of Philadelphia. This was a house with a life of its own, stories it would not tell, a maze of tunnels for a cellar, and old growth trees mixed in with the ivy that covered the stone walls and walkways. Mail would be stacked in the kitchen, and someone paid the bills. Money would be left out for the cleaning person and my little brother’s nanny. It felt like no one was ever around, both mom and step-dad worked all the time, and the nanny would whisk my brother off somewhere when I got home from school. School was different too. It was clear that many of these kids were rich, and I knew (because they told me) that some of the kids who had the outward confidence that seemed to come with money were on scholarship. But we all knew whose families owned private jets, and who got BMW’s for their 16th birthdays. I didn’t have an allowance, but I always had cash in my pocket. It was years before Dave told me that I was counted among the rich kids because of where I lived. My mom told me we were middle class. I believed her.
When I finished school and Dave and I were married and sort of on our own, I figured we were still middle class. We’d both come from middle-class homes, from middle-class families, with work ethics and educational priorities. We both had grandparents who’d been changed for having lived through the depression, great-grandparents who were immigrants, and family who’d fought in the Civil War. We worked, Dave and I, and lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Now and then our electricity would get cut-off, or the gas, but we didn’t mind candlelight or cold showers, and figured it was a small price to pay for having done what we wished with our paychecks. We were kicked out of a few apartments, but landed precariously on our feet, so no harm done. We spent the money we had. We enjoyed ourselves. We were your basic, artistically minded, overly intellectual, middle-class kids. We had too much respect for our respective parents to scoff the bourgeoisie, but we liked Sartre anyway, and thought of ourselves as Jean-Paul and Simone. We played a game called Bouvard and Pecuchet, where one of us would yell “I’m Bouvard! You’re Pecuchet!” in phony French accents, and that was the whole game, making light of Flaubert’s bougie men who wanted to live authentically as farmers because they’d read about it in books. We told ourselves we were eschewing the middle-class lifestyle, and we believed it. Dave and I were basically broke, and we thought that being broke was a choice. It seemed that an any moment we could switch lifestyles, and get proper jobs with proper salaries, buckle-down, and have the kind of lifestyle our parents seemed so effortlessly to enjoy. We had money here and there, and we spent it. Mostly we spent it on art projects. We liked art projects. Also drinking, and drugs, and excursions and things. Why not? There was nothing else that seemed worthwhile enough to spend it on.
Our rude awakening came in 2009, when we realized that we could no longer afford our lifestyle. We had not outgrown it, to be sure, but its cost had skyrocketed. We were making more money than we had previously, but still, it just was not working out. Art wasn’t paying the bills, and those bills now included paying back my poorly thought out student loans. Our rent-stabilized lower east side roach nest was quickly reaching market rate, I’d maxed out more than my fair share of credit cards, and it was time to get a grip on this whole money thing. So we did what lots of broke-ass artists have done before us: we moved to Brooklyn. We got our whole money thing in order, paid off some credit cards, borrowed money from my folks, had a kid, and tried to level-up into this whole middle-class lifestyle.
What a fucking chore. To be middle-class, you have to make sure you are working enough to generate the type of funds required to pay utility bills, rent, debt, tuition, insurances, retirement funds, college plans, transit, and still get some nutritious food on the table. It means trying your hardest to give your kid a sense of stability so that he is not all stressed out and can do the hard work of growing up without the extra agony of basic survival. I want a retirement plan so the kid doesn’t have to freak out about what he’s going to do with his aged parents. The rest of the stuff- college plans, health insurance, nutritious food- is also for my son. Dave and I would probably be happy to decay with deep thoughts on our minds and art projects in our hands, sloughing off this mortal coil while on line at the social security office. Perhaps these grown-uppy type things are things I should have internalized long before now, because internalizing them now has been a real slug in the gut, and it’s only rigor that keeps our bank account chugging along toward some hope of future sustainability. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I had my years of broke-ass artist freedom. It wasn’t always easy, but not really giving a shit was a blast. We used to say, when some large ish chunk of money would come in, that it was worse to have it than to not have it. When we had nothing, the choices were easy. If there wasn’t enough money for the rent, we’d just go to dinner. But when there was money we’d actually have to pay things. Making the choice to pay some bills over other bills and not go to dinner was always a way more unpleasant decision.
Being middle-class means working your ass off just to maintain. It sucks.
(Dave read this and said I should say something redemptive about the middle-class, but I’ve got nothing. Okay, it’s our honor and privilege to be capable of supporting our son, but that’s it.)