SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2014 Personal Memory Ethnographies
An Encounter with a Man of Class
My utopian, illusionary middle-class world was shattered when I was about seven years old. It began with the words, “Wake up, we’re going to your grandfather’s house.” I do not remember where in Phoenix it was my grandpa lived, but I remember charging up from the freeway, swiftly passing by stores with Spanish names while my parents shook their heads and locked the car doors. The buildings, the roads—all man-made structures seemed to be losing the war with the desert. Everything was old, dusty, brown. It was my first exposure to a world outside of upper-middle class suburbia, picturesque and safe, where the gun on my dad’s side was simply an accessory.
The apartment complex fit in with the rest of the area. I followed as my parents shied far to the side to avoid other occupants sweating in wife-beaters under the summer sun. At last we climbed into my grandpa’s apartment, and I was greeted by the odor of cigarettes and the sound of sports on the television. Who would want to live in a place like this? Why doesn’t he just move closer to us? I sat on the couch and waited for hours as the adults talked in the kitchen. I never adjusted to the pungent smell and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of uncleanliness. Grandpa should just come over to our house; we have cable.
They have cable. I can see the dysphoria sprawled out across my grandson’s face. I feel inferior to my own family, my son sitting across from me bragging about his accomplishments on the force. I am obligated to display my gratitude and pride, my appreciation that my family still continues to be mine. He is the only one of my children that keeps in touch with me. He wants to help me. The sentiment is there but it is denigrating. For my family and myself I had built a life that brings me still tremendous pride.
My grandpa was just “unlucky.” This explanation was always so puzzling to me, and that can be attributed to the cognitive dissonance that pervaded through my family. My grandpa was a hardworking man, sixty hours a week in a factory, yet he remained poor. The family ideology is explicit in saying that hard work will never leave you in poverty, and so my grandpa’s case must just be an anomaly ascribed to “poor luck.” This exposure to class difference was nothing more than confusing. How can we be sure that other occupants in the complex do not share the same extenuating circumstances; and what makes these circumstances more extenuating than others? Stratification could not be as black and white as my parents had explained it. My only direct experience with poverty and the only subject affected by it I knew did not seem very deserving of it. I vocalized this observation to my parents on the way back, and they laughed about my naivety.
I was always apprehensive about visiting my grandpa. I did not want to spend twenty minutes in the place, let alone stay for a night or two. He had retired by then, and was destined to live in that apartment for the rest of his life. To me, it was nothing but unfair that anyone should have to live like that. It was also illogical to me that anyone would choose to live in such a way, yet that is what my family seemed to think. But what I could not place was the discomfort expressed in his face when in our house. Shouldn’t he be more thrilled for this change in scenery? I was unaware of the issues facing the working class since the dawn of capitalism, let alone this location in history amidst the fight for labor rights and greater welfare security. My family demonized these things, and so I never heard anything of the other side or the macro-forces operating in the country.
My grandson is too afraid to touch things in my apartment because of the dirt; I am too afraid to touch things in my son’s house because of the fragility. Everything is so neat and perfectly clean. My son was lucky to land a wife with an obsession for cleanliness. But the mess is not so bad; anyone can get used to anything, given enough time. They want to save me, bring me where I’m allegedly supposed to be. They hate my apartment complex, the residents, and the surrounding community—“Little Mexico,” my son calls it.
This observation*** of class structure defeated the preconceived notions instilled in me.
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage