Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blame It All On My Roots

I can sometimes go years without remembering that I am, indeed, a little bit white trash.

My branch of the family tree behaves well and has been well-educated, so we blend in. I was raised above my raising. Good manners, cleanliness, appropriate clothing, and a strong grasp of proper English usage were values taught. My parents had very humble beginnings, but they strove for me have better.

I can honestly say that I didn't even understand the term "white trash" until college. I started being aware of the use of the term in different formats both from pop culture and from literature. Reba's "Fancy" was born just plain white trash, but Fancy was her name. Hannibal Lecter wounds Clarice in his first meeting with her by telling her she's just one generation removed from it. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! makes a distinction between poor white trash and black house servants in a scene where a house slave prohibits poor-white-laborer Sutpen from entering the plantation house at the front door and orders him to go around the back. In our class discussion of the scene, our professor told us to ponder what this meant for antebellum southern caste systems: white trash is absolutely the bottom rung.

Being raised mostly as a middle-class child, I thought I had seen enough and experienced enough to feel comfortable in any social setting. I had never been an attendant at a formal wedding reception with a fancy-sit down dinner with multiple plates, forks, glasses, and spoons, but I had worked as a caterer in high school and knew enough to fake it. I had never eaten in a restaurant nicer than Red Lobster, but I had seen tuxedo-clad waiters on TV scraping crumbs from white cloth table coverings and knew that when one orders a bottle of wine, one is supposed to swish it around delicately and pronounce it serve-able.

What I did not account for were social settings where you're not outclassed so much by the place as by the people in the place, with whom you have to make conversation.

My sophomore year in college, the singers got invited to sing at the annual trustee's dinner. We would be singing for them after dinner, but as a special treat (and no doubt to make the trustees feel in touch with their investments), we were also invited to mingle during cocktail hour and to be spread out among the tables at dinner, breaking bread with the upper crust. We begged our director to just let us all sit together; it was for naught. There would be two of  "us" and eight of "them" at every table. And our job was to be delightful.

Carefully sipping my cocktail of straight ginger ale, I waded into the waters. I was lucky to have as the fellow singer at my table a girl from upper-middle-class Boston who knew how to swim in these depths. I whispered to her that I could figure out what the little spoon at the top of my dinner plate was for, but that if someone asked me where I summer, I would need her help. I was joking. Mostly.

I can answer any question put to me. I love to talk about myself (clearly.) But I froze when asked:

What do your parents do?

I had listened to my friend handle this question first, and listened as the various rich old men at my table introduced themselves to us as lawyers, doctors, and chief executives. I am ashamed of my own discomfort when I told the group, rather quietly, that my father was a laborer for General Motors and my mother was a beautician. Today I am ashamed of myself that I let myself be intimidated in such a way, and that I was not in that moment intensely proud that my father worked on an assembly line to put food on our table and send me to Uppity University.

A few minutes later the whole table bonded over the mysterious white meat product on our plates that seemed neither chicken nor fish and was later identified as broiled swordfish steaks. One of the trustees announced that he would really rather be home eating a fried bologna sandwich, and I felt comfortable enough that I immediately regretted not just letting my hillbilly flag fly.

Since then, my knee-jerk reaction to feeling a little outclassed and over-judged by the people surrounding me at whatever snooty event Jason and I have found ourselves mistakenly invited to is to just go ahead and Cousin-Eddie it. I so far have been able to successfully stop myself from coming out of the bathroom and announcing that the shitter is full, but someday I will have too much beer at one of these things and then I can't completely rule out that possibility. Don't get me wrong, I was raised too well and respect myself too much to not keep my behavior classy. But the minute I detect a dash of condescension served alongside the risotto, I feel a rush of meanness that can only be expressed by exaggerating my accent, looking for pork rinds, and ordering an MGD that will stand out among the martinis and pinot noirs. Not that I wouldn't rather have a martini or a pinot noir, but I feel obliged to play a certain role here. I'll show up in boots and ruin that black-tie affair yet, y'all.

This Sunday, we found ourselves in a private box suite at a Bengals game. Jason was offered them through work, and though I am not a big fan, I was not about to turn down this opportunity to see how the other half enjoy sporting events. A few hours before, I actually started to get nervous. I wouldn't know anyone else in the suite; the likelihood of snootiness could be high. And yet, as a friend reminded me, this was a Bengals-Browns game; there is no such thing as classy at such an event. I blended in just fine, save for the fact that I have no Bengals fan attire. In fact, I chose the bottled Sam Adams from the cooler while everyone else was drinking canned Buds; I may actually have been the designated Snoot at this particular gathering.

My parents would be so proud.

No comments: