Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Working Class Roots: From Hardworking Acorns, Political Trees Grow

photo: me in my artsy-fartsy teens

Since I started a full-force political rant on the Fourth of July (I’m sure some of you think I’ve been ranting since starting this blog in 2007…), I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot while mulling over the subjects of class and race and politicians behaving badly.  My parents were lifelong Democrats with many views definitely left of center, and without question, they played a major role in shaping my politics and values.  Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?

My father, who was black, spent his youth as an ordinary seaman and eventually a Merchant Marine who served with valor during WWII on two different oil tankers that were set on fire.  After that, he was a waiter and wine steward (First Class) in the heyday of the great trans- atlantic liners: the S.S. United States, S.S. America, etc.

When, after seven years of marriage, my mother rebelled against being a seafaring widow and insisted he find work on land, my father then spent more than 25 years as a skycap for TWA.  He was an unabashed working class man and an ardent union man.  He made more in tips than he did in straight salary.  He wouldn’t buy foreign cars and indeed made a constant conscious effort to Buy American in every way possible.  He was a naturalized citizen, born and raised by “town people” (for reference, think “lace curtain Irish) on the British West Indian island of St. Vincent.  His father, who emigrated here after him, worked at the Chunky Candy factory in Brooklyn for about 30 years.  Sans hardhats and beer bellies, they were regular American guys.

My mother was a typical New York Jewish girl.  Both her parents came from some part of Eastern Europe that was sometimes Russian and sometimes Polish, depending on how the political winds were blowing.  He was a tailor, when he wasn't skipping off to Florida to wear white suits like a dandy and bet at the dog track.  She spent most of the year literally flicking chickens and doing whatever odd jobs she could get, and in summer, she cooked in one or more kitchens in the Catskills hotels.

Sometimes the family was on Relief (as Welfare was then called) and my mother’s most vivid memories of her Depression childhood was the year that Relief gave all the poor kids red blazers that marked them as Relief kids for all to see, and, the day she came home from school and found her mother sitting on the sidewalk, crying, all their furniture and worldly goods around her.  They didn’t foreclose so much in the Bronx; they just evicted.

After high school, my mother worked in some large government office in New Jersey, where one of her co-workers, on learning she was Jewish, said “I never met a Jew before.  Where are your horns?”

As time passed, my mother spent 14 years going to Hunter College off-and-on at night, slowly and reverently accumulating credits like Krugerands towards her BA in English Lit.  By day, she worked her way up in New York’s legendary schemata trade – or, more accurately, worked her way back, back in the back offices, from bookkeeper to office manager to comptroller.  They were nasty, seedy little offices with roaches and no windows; the pretty stores were up front.  She ended her working life with 17 years as the manager of the subscription department of a hoity-toity Wall Street newspaper (not the Journal) for which moguls paid hundreds of dollars for a year’s supply of weekly editions.  In all those years, she never bought a piece of stock, because the market made her and my father nervous.

This was my family; these are my roots.  Because I was an only child, as well as an only grandchild and niece, I was as spoiled as a kid could be and since my mother was in the rag trade, I was always dressed to beat the band.  My mother took me to concerts and museums; I went to the movies with my parents.  My father never let us put milk or juice cartons or salad dressing bottles on the dining table, because that was crude.  He would set the table the way he used to set them on the big ships.  And he made classy cocktails: Manhattans and Brandy Alexanders and Whiskey Sours and Sidecars.  I was only in my teens when I graduated from Shirley Temples.  My father believed that if he taught me how to drink properly, I wouldn’t be a drunk.  He was right.  Booze is one of the few vices I’ve never had a problem with.  Knowledge is power.

My father’s leisure time was spent largely in bed, reading newspapers or magazines or books on geography, history or religion; that was his hobby.  My mother was an avid reader, a very occasional writer, a talented amateur painter, and a lover of opera, dance and theater.  She attended as many such performances as she could, often with me.  And because my father worked for an airline, they could fly for free so long as they went off-season and stand-by, so they did, they traveled to many places ‘round the country and ‘round the world.  In these ways, they were somewhat different than other working class folks.  But all the years my mother spent struggling to come up with new things to do with chopped meat and chicken helped keep everyone’s feet on the ground.

I was always a little racially confused and I certainly wasn’t religiously rooted in anything (culturally, yes, but not in matters of faith).  My father was Episcopalian, but he didn’t make a big deal about it and my mother was a classic intellectual Jewish agnostic.

My childhood wasn’t some urban, ethnic, Leave It To Beaver, but if I wasn’t a happy kid, it was largely because I was lonely and already affected by depression, although we didn’t know that for a long time.  Still, people loved me and took care of me; I ate a lot of wonderful food; I was showered and surrounded by books and music.  I went to good public schools, where, according to virtually every teacher I had, I wasn’t working up to my potential.  But I sang (I had a very beautiful voice when I was young) and took piano lessons and wrote poetry and songs and watched a lot of TV.

I also did household chores (no pay, just family obligation) and was a babysitter (to learn the value of work and money).  We talked politics at the dinner table and I learned what mattered.  (But I didn’t know, for example, that there was a social stigma about working for tips; it never occurred to me).  When I got older, they let my friends and me make posters for anti-war demonstrations in the living- and dining-rooms.  And for several years, I was the beloved “kitchen lady” at Pacifica Radio WBAI during fund raising drives.  I also went to a nice Lefty summer camp for teens run by the YM & YWHA.  In the main, it was all good.

So lately, as I watch my country go nuts, I find myself reflecting with frequency on my past and digging ever deeper to get a firm hold on what grounds me, even when I’m not thinking about it consciously.  Gather yee flowers – and yee strength – where yee may.



Anonymous said...

lovely bio and picture of you

Crosby Kenyon said...

That was quite the detailed biography, a truly American story, isn't it? And, yes, nice picture, too.

MizB said...

Thanks, Crosby; looks like I have a new fan :) !