a blue-collar girl in a white-collar town

I grew up on the East Coast, in a suburb of a medium-sized city. My parents are older than many of my friends’ parents and were tweens or teens in the Depression era. My mom’s folks were immigrants, who came to America to look for a better life, although I’m not sure they found it upon leaving the sunny, warm Mediterranean and landing on the icy shores of New York. My father’s family moved around the Northeast a lot, trying to find opportunities during the Depression. They owned several businesses, including a post office and general store, a poultry farm, and an inn. While running the inn, my father, by then an adult, met my mother and the two were soon married. They settled down in the town in which I was born and worked on the assembly line of a large factory that made television sets, radios, and other electronic devices.

Then the kids came along in spades, as they often did in that era. By 1964–the end of the baby boom–there were seven of us crammed into a 1,200-square-foot, one-bathroom home. When my grandmother would stay with us, sometimes for weeks at a time, there would then be eight people sharing one bathroom.  I lived in an area with similar older homes, so this wasn’t so unusual, although by then people were beginning to add on a room or a bathroom, especially in basements where plumbing was accessible. I remember my father talking about doing this, but the plan never came to fruition. So, there we lived until 1977, when six of the seven of us packed it up and traveled cross country to the land of milk and honey.

Southern California, to a girl from the frigid North, is a bit of a culture shock, to say the least. I stood out like Gandhi in a biker bar. My classmates told me I had an accent, although to me it was they who had trouble enunciating and pronouncing words (so what if I dragged out my short a’s or over pronounced my short o’s, how in the heck does the word “appreciate” turn into “appriciate,” as so many Southern Californians like to say it?) I didn’t have the right skin tone either (I’m not sure I ever had a tan in my life pre-1977) and, worst of all, I didn’t have the cool clothes. My wardrobe consisted of a couple pairs of shorts, a few T-shirts, and one pair of plaid, bell-bottomed pants. You see, we packed up our pop-up camper before moving out West, not a moving van. We never officially committed to staying until we were here and ensconced in the services of a realty professional, who found us a house. So I had a crummy summer wardrobe (and that lovely pair of plaid pants) and I needed to dress for school.

Fortunately, there was a department store within walking distance of our new home (this one had two and a half baths!) and I was able to sift through the $3, $5 and, if I was really lucky, $7 clothing bins to find some things that would fit. We didn’t have much money–my dad had retired before we drove out (I’m reluctant to call it “moving”)–and Social Security will go only so far.

My first job was at an Orange Julius in a nice shopping mall, which I was able to access by bus. I would pour the Juliuses and serve up the hotdogs while dreaming of the days when I too could be on the other side of that counter, enjoying a leisurely meal with the children that I’d one day have. I’d take them to the movie theater; we’d go ice skating on the indoor rink right below the food court; we’d shop at all the awesome stores without a care as to what things cost.

That day finally came when, after quite a financial struggle, my husband and I were able to buy a two-story, 2,000-square-foot home with three bathrooms, I might add. My kids have attended public school as I had, but the neighborhood is something quite different than the one I grew up in or even the one my parents settled in 30-plus years ago in this same city. Most of our current neighbors are professionals or business owners. They drive nice cars. They have 401(k) plans. They have one kid per adult. Living in a nicer, white-collar neighborhood means I need to supply my kids with a white-collar lifestyle–a car to get them to school and back, money to put gas in said vehicle, the right clothes, the right accoutrements.

There’s a part of me that is happy I have been able to give my kids more than I had, but at the same time I feel as though I don’t quite fit in here. My politics are a bit more to the left (as in blue-collar, Union-member left) than most of my friends and neighbors. I don’t go on fancy vacations. I don’t belong to a gym. I only drive an SUV because it can fit all six of us in it. I don’t live a six-figure lifestyle. I still clip coupons, because I’m still the girl from the Northeast who shared a tiny bathroom with four siblings and two parents and a sometime grandparent. I’m a blue-collar girl in a white-collar town, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fit in.