Sunday, May 25, 2014

Children of privilege

Not our house
     When my older son was 16 or so, he would go to parties. I would usually drive him—kids nowadays don't seem to be as keen to get their licenses as my generation was.
     After following complex directions, down streets I'd never heard of, through winding subdivision I'd never been to, I'd finally edge the car onto a block far nicer than ours, a vista of sprawling new brick structures, big homes with elaborate stonework and landscaping, homes that didn't have crazy lawns mottled with crab grass and creeping charlie. The circular driveway, clotted with cars—none of them from 1991—wasn't black asphalt, dotted with potholes and crumbling to rubble around the edges, like ours. I would stop 4o feet from the tangle of arrival and he would hop out and race happily toward the festivities. 
     "Have fun!" I'd call wanly after him.
     Occasionally, picking him up, I would tiptoe into some marble foyer with a big brass chandelier, and catch glimpses of lacquer dining room tables and expensive newness. A clatter of music and voices would be heard, muted, from deep within the house. Eventually a mother or sister or some person associated with the house would take notice of me, cowering there beside a sea of shoes—the carpets!—and my boy would be summoned and we'd flee.
     After a while, I realized that while he was always going over to other places, he never had his friends to our house—our 1905 hand-made farm-house with straw insulation. Not a McMansion, true, but not without charm, of a sort. A certain down-at-the-heels beauty, if you ignore that the aluminum siding is not all of the same color and the floors are not exactly level. It has a spire—I consider the spire very fancy. Hand made by some farmer out of iron strips, as I could tell when it blew down in a storm. Kids would love partying at a place like this. It has a back deck and a yard and everything. 
     After my hints were ignored, I eventually came out and asked directly: Why did he not have his friends over our place? Why not host a party yourself? Fun!
     There was a silence. He looked at me with sorrow. Did I really not know? Must he actually explain?
     "Father," he began—he calls me "father," I believe, in an attempt to add some kind of classiness and dignity to our woefully hectic, scattered and down-market lives—"our house is not a nurturing environment."
      "Not a nurturing environment?" I repeated, wounded. "In what way? In what way is this not a nurturing environment."
     "We don't have a pool table," he replied. 
     That helped. I smiled, relieved. Oh, well, yes, no argument there. Can't expect the gang to gather around the old chess table—Italian, drop walnut leaves, bought back when we had money. Not quite the same effect I suppose. Had I realized that a pool table was necessary to nurture children, I of course would have set my sights on one. But I hadn't and now it was too late. Too late for a lot of things. To take up ophthalmology, for instance, and make sure there was that pool table in the basement instead of just boxes and seepage. Thank God every other home in Northbrook already has a pool table, so my son can be a free rider. So at least they're available. He is like the barefoot child, cadging scraps from the back kitchen steps of chums. Maybe I could buy him a package of those blue cubes, used to chalk pool cues. He could bring one in a little box to his parties, his contribution to the cause. The Steinbergs, they may be down and out, but they have their pride...
     I mention all this to establish the mindset I brought to a conversation Saturday. Driving into the city for lunch—more on that later in the week—we were discussing the op-ed piece in that day's Sun-Times, about the phrase, "Check your privilege."
      My wife explained that this was merely an ad hominen attack, a way to silence another person by attacking who they are without considering the merit of what they have to say. Just because someone was well-off didn't mean they don't have a valuable perspective, she said. They should remember that when they met privileged people...
      The boys objected, both of them, immediately: we are privileged, they said. We come from a privileged family. We are of the elite.
     This struck me as ludicrous.
      "No!" I cried. "Nonsense! We are not privileged! We're frantically clutching to the last greasy rung of the middle class, a paycheck or two away from slipping off and tumbling into the abyss." I considered dragging George Orwell into it—what was his description of his family?  "Lower-upper-middle class." That sounds about right. Not "privileged." People of privilege have leisure. They take their summer vacations in Peru. They don't work every goddamn day of their lives like madmen bailing out a swamped and sinking industry as it settles into the water. People of privilege own lots of nice stuff. The drive German SUVs. They do not, as I did recently, get excited over buying a pair of Rockport boat shoes, so much so that they kiss the shoes. They yawn as the truckloads of goodies arrive. They live in big stone mansions with Doric columns and framed Bulls jerseys and wet bars and slate pool tables with red felt in their finished basements. Our basement is a dripping, dank, moldy, muddy horror show; like something out of a Stephen King story. I began to protest more, but was cut off. 
      "Educationally privileged," one of the boys elaborated, and the other agreed.
      "Oh," I said, stopped in my tracks. Dumbstruck. Educationally privileged. Well, umm, yes, that is correct. No argument here. We are educationally privileged. The Northbrook schools are beyond compare. In elementary school the teachers would send home poetry about how wonderful it was to teach our kids. They would bind their work into little books. My older boy's class took a trip over the summer. To China. Glenbrook South has a gross pathology class, taught at the hospital. My sons have not only never been in a fight in their entire academic careers, but I have never heard of a fight occurring. I suppose I could find fault, but it would take some hard thinking, and time, and I'm not sure what I would come up with. I suppose there has been a bad teacher or two over the past dozen years. So the schools are not perfect. But privileged? Absolutely. That would be the word. 
       I told the boys, well, yeah, in an educational sense, yes, definitely privileged. Conversation shifted to other subjects.
       I don't know why I was happy to hear them say that, but I was. At least they recognize it. And I guess I do too, now. Maybe I was just happy to be privileged in any sense at all. Privileged to have to work hard enough for stuff, to plan and wait and delay that, so when I do occasionally get something I want, I tend to really appreciate it. Maybe I was reminded of an essential truth. You can spend so much time looking up that you forget to look around. 


  1. In the third paragraph from the bottom there is a typo. "So they schools" should be "So their schools".

  2. Good for them. I recently came across this lovely piece talking about privilege as a current that helps you along, so that it makes you seem a better swimmer than you are. . My husband's parents, who really were working class (both high school grads, one working on a GM assembly line, one selling paper to butchers) would always end their Sunday drives through neighborhoods fancier than theirs by driving through ones that were poorer, just to make sure their boys understood that they were not underprivileged.

  3. I was not as smart, or at least not as wise, as your boys. I grew up in an Albany Park bungalow, not poor; maybe lower lower middle, just high enough to see all the material things my peers had and I did not. When my mother answered my complaints about this by telling me how lucky I really was, I never believed her, or even understood her. I was completely clueless (though it did make me more ambitious). We've often seen in your writing how proud you are of your sons, and you've another great reason for you to be so.

  4. I always thought my family was poor. I am the ninth of ten children and rarely had anything but hand-me downs. We never ever ate meals out or ordered carry out. Nothing went to waste. Milk was cut 50/50 with powdered milk. Every conceivable corner was cut. It wasn’t until 1981 when I got a raise to $5.05 an hour that I found out how wrong I was. When I told my mom how excited I was to be earning $10,000 a year, she stated, “Your father and I had 9 mouths to feed before he was making $10,000.” Being number 9 and being born in 1961 I now knew my father’s salary from back then. So I looked up the median income of white males for that year. It was $4,400. Who knew a car salesman could be so affluent. Of course working 6 days a week and 50 – 60 hours didn’t hurt.

  5. You are upper middle class. And hope you've taken care of that mold by now. That could be a health hazard.

  6. People were like sheep then believing religious dogma to have tons of babies, even if there was available birth control to the middle class.

  7. And though non Caths had lots of kids too, imagine a priest who never married or was up at 2am with a sick child or the Cardinals, bishops , Popes, telliing others to have non stop babies. No thought for the female at all. That's why mainstream Prots, not evang/ born agains, makes more sense than the Vatican. This Pope gives some lip service but not much changes.

  8. I liked this essay. It parallels my own life in some ways.

    When my daughter was seven I drove her to a friend's house for a play date. She told me her friend lived in a castle. I told her I was sure her friend had a very nice house, but it was not a castle. But she insisted, so I dropped the subject.

    When I turned down the long and winding driveway, the house finally came into view, and I sputtered "Holy crap, she lives in a castle!" to which my daughter responded "I told you so!"

  9. That house looks very, very familiar. I think I might have gone to a party there during high school. Is it in Evanston? Or does it just look familiar because this column has been re-run before?

    My best friend's family moved into his grandmother's house when he turned 15, and he began attending ETHS, so I got invited to a few swanky parties, on or near the lakefront. I didn't grow up in Evanston, but close enough to explore most of it on my bicycle as a kid, and to fall in love with its trees and its architecture. So many of its homes are like the one in that image. I was privileged and fortunate to have lived in Evanston for twelve years as an adult, until leaving Illinois 25 years ago.

    My present surroundings are green and pleasantly comfortable, but nowhere near as upscale. I still miss Evanston. And yet, while I lived there, I was often discontented because I yearned for and envied the affluence and opulence of Lincoln Park. Most of the time, you don't appreciate what you really have until you no longer have it.

  10. There's an article in the Atlantic and a similar one in Time Magazine that discuss the winners in the inequality game besides the infamous 1%. Apparently, there's the 9.9% who are not only doing quite well, but seem to have found a way to make Technocracy inheritable. Of course, it's likely to end up a disaster eventually, given that the left-out 90% are going to catch on sooner or later and make a fuss, but for the time being the 9.9ers are doing quite well, thank you, as will their children and their children's children after them. I'm sure my daughter and her Microsoft husband would be considered nine.niners. Maybe Neil's family as well, despite their dilapidated house.



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