001

Table of Contents
 
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Introduction
Class Definitions
 
Chapter 1 - BRICKLAYER’S SON: THE BIRTH AND CLASH OF VALUES
 
The Uneven Race
Laying the Groundwork
Navigating Social Relationships
Blue-Collar Values
Class Distinctions and Clashes
Class Flash Cards: Perceptions Are as Real as Origins
F Train: Lifeline from the Past to the Future
Dreams of Escape
 
Chapter 2 - CRAWLING OUT OF THE BLACK HOLE: THE PAIN OF TRANSITION
 
Fighting Your Family : Dot’s Story
Never Educate Women
The Fight for Light
 
Chapter 3 - THE SHOCK OF EDUCATION: HOW COLLEGE CORRUPTS
 
Fighting Self-Doubt
Up from the Corner
Macbeth and Other Foolishness
Unpredictable Alchemy
Don’t Think You’re Any Better Than Us
What We One
 
Chapter 4 - CULTURE CONFLICTS: FIRST ENCOUNTERS WITH THE UPPER CLASSES
 
Work-Study
Always the Governor
Cashmere Living
Intimidation and Defiance
Prep School Confidential
Culture Shock outside School
Border Crossing
Freshman Seminar
 
Chapter 5 - GOING HOME: AN IDENTITY CHANGED FOREVER
 
Carolina Odyssey
Melrose Places
 
Chapter 6 - OFFICE POLITICS: THE BLUE-COLLAR WAY
 
Not the Priest
A Little Help
Unfriendly Territory
Figuring Out the Game
Folks Like Us
A Word about Affirmative Action
 
Chapter 7 - CLASS, LOVE, AND PROGENY: THE ULTIMATE BATTLE
 
A New Terrain
Miles from Monkey Run
Problems with the Clean
Movies You Don’t Talk About
Counting Entitlements
Jerks in the Next Generation?
Jealous
 
Chapter 8 - DUALITY: THE NEVER-ENDING STRUGGLE WITH IDENTITY
 
All the (Expensive) Pretty Horses
Ambivalent Schizophrenia
You Haven’t Changed a Bit
On Strike
Pick a Place
Life, Death, and Money
Sitting in the Duck Blind
The Lower 40
 
Conclusion
Endnotes
Source Notes
Acknowledgments
Index

001

002

To my parents, for the Start.
And to Linda, for everything else that’s mattered.

Introduction
I am two people.
I now live a middle-class life, working at a white-collar newspaperman’s job, but I was born blue collar. I’ve never quite reconciled the dichotomy. This book is a step toward understanding what people gain and what they leave behind as they move from the working class to the middle class.
To be clear from the start, this is a work of journalism, not sociology—not even “comic sociology,” as David Brooks labeled his book Bobos in Paradise, an erudite examination of how the educated have become the new elite in America.1 My goal was to write a book about an existing social class, the white-collar children—first-generation college graduates—of blue-collar parents, and to write one that would be accessible to those without a Ph.D. The little-discussed cultural phenomenon plays itself out in every aspect of our lives—most noticeably in the workplace, but also in our homes and in ourselves.
This book has three components. First there’s my personal story: I was a working-class kid from Brooklyn who crossed into the middle class after acquiring a college degree. After a time, it occurred to me that I was becoming a different person from my parents, and I was becoming part of a different class altogether. The things I valued and the choices I made as the white-collar son of blue-collar parents were sometimes at odds with my folks’ ideas and instruction on how to live life. When I got into the working world, though, my blue-collar roots started to show, and I felt uneasy among the middle-class-born. The sense that I comprise two people who aren’t always compatible never left me. I became curious about whether others felt this way, which led me to identify an overlooked social issue: the emotions involved in social mobility. How does it play in the head and heart to leave family and friends behind and scale the ladder out of the working class? What does it feel like in the new neighborhood of the middle class? And how do people ultimately reconcile the duality within them?
Second, I’ve included a distillation of thought about class and mobility from leading experts, including working-class studies scholars such as Charles Sackrey, Jake Ryan, Michelle Tokarczyk, Michael Zweig, and Sherry Linkon. I also consulted Berkeley mobility guru Michael Hout, class-and-education don Patrick Finn, Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill, and psychologists of class Barbara Jensen and Laurene Finley. In recent years, a working-class studies movement has developed on campuses throughout America. These schools are small and include institutions like Youngstown State University that attract both a faculty and a student body from the working class (Harvard, Yale, and the like are decidedly not among them). Scholars delve into a world that has been overlooked—their lives are not usually reflected in the university syllabus or represented among campus student organizations.
Finally, and most important, the book includes the stories collected from more than 100 interviews I conducted over a nine-month period with people whom I call Straddlers. They were born to blue-collar families and then, like me, moved into the strange new territory of the middle class. They are the first in their families to have graduated from college. As such, they straddle two worlds, many of them not feeling at home in either, living in a kind of American limbo.2
My 100 Straddlers range in age from 18 to around 70. White ethnic Protestant or white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), African-American, Hispanic, and Asian, members of this demographically disparate group express remarkably similar emotions as they tell strikingly similar tales of the seldom-heard, dark side of mobility. Among them are lawyers and doctors, a union organizer, a handful of self-made millionaires, and the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. There is also a clutch of professors. It’s a unique group, because in terms of education, they’ve come the furthest, having earned Ph.D.s in families where parents finished high school, at best. Enjoying some of the best working conditions in America, as Chicago academic Jack Metzgar freely admits, college professors toil in far safer precincts than their blue-collar forebears. The downside is obvious: Rise that far in a single generation and you’re liable to feel hopelessly alienated from those who raised you. Professors are the most self-conscious Straddlers, many of them working with middle-class colleagues who don’t understand them, all the while teaching mostly middle-class kids how to become the bosses of their parents, siblings, cousins, and childhood friends.
My subjects told their tales with an honest eloquence that moved and humbled me, and that I hope will touch you in the same way. Some no longer speak with their families, so profound are the differences between them. Some struggle constantly with aspects of the middle-class life, its rhythms and priorities intensely foreign to folk born to blue-collar parents.
I’ve used the elements of story to communicate their experiences—narratives, memories, and anecdotes. For the most part, people allowed me to use their real names. A handful of interviewees spent hours talking with me, only to request in the end that I not include any aspects of their lives, finding their personal stories ultimately too painful and private for public airing. There are a few who agreed to be included only if I used pseudonyms, saying they were uncomfortable telling me things that would get them either fired from their jobs or flogged by their families. Their hidden identities do not make their truths any less real.
As I explained earlier, I’ve used education as the dividing line between working class and middle class. Any economist or sociologist would tell you that’s just part of the story. Along with education, factors such as income, job status, and the amount of authority and control one has at work are generally described in the sociological literature as the major determinants of class. I should also add that my approach is not one of statistical analysis.

Class Definitions

Terminology can get confusing when one is dealing with class. Economists divide white-collar workers into two categories: upper (managers and professionals) and lower (clerks). Blue-collar workers can be catalogued as skilled, unskilled, or farmers. Experts themselves will argue whether there are 16 classes or 9, or 5, or 3. George Orwell said there are but two economic classes, rich and poor, but myriad social classes.3
Life itself is untidy, definition-wise. For example, a plumber with an eighth-grade education can command a higher salary than a college professor with more degrees than fingers. The plumber is in an elevated economic class, but is he in a superior social class as well? The permutations are many and ... well, confusing. So, at the risk of alienating heavy thinkers, I’m streamlining. For my purposes, blue-collar working-class people don’t have college degrees and perform manual labor. And white-collar, middle-class people are college educated and work at professional-type jobs. One group works with their hands, the other with their minds.
The term class itself is tricky to define. When one human encounters another, scientists tell us, the first things they notice are each other’s race and gender. Class is just as indelible a marker in defining who we are, yet because it’s not obvious to the beholder, it becomes more slippery to pin down. Any blue-collar kid who works in a bakery can take a trip to the Gap and buy clothes that would make him indistinguishable from a sophomore at Bryn Mawr. For the last 30 years, universities have been awash in the politics of self-awareness, teaching the Holy Trinity of Identity—race, gender, and class. While race and gender have had their decades in the sun, however, class has been obscured and overlooked. It’s the “C-word,” Straddler-scholar Rebecca Beckingham tells me, the troublesome component of the iron triad. Sawhill says people would rather talk about sex than money, and money before class.
In America, we sing a hymn of equality, one that says that everyone has the same chances to get ahead. But that’s not true and never has been. Who your parents are has as much or more to do with where you’ll end up in life than any other single factor, social scientists say. Class can hold you back, or limit you. But if you express this, it sounds like whining. We’re all supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in this tough country; those who don’t must be too slow, too stupid, or too lazy to move ahead. We’re a meritocracy, not an aristocracy, right? Well, the truth is, some of us are simply born to better circumstances and reap the benefits. One could also argue that many middle-class people may not even be aware of the good things bestowed on them—they can’t always see their advantages.
When people talk about class, they’re referring to nothing less than a culture, with families as the purveyors of that culture. From the moment we’re born, our families tell us how to be. You adopt the attitudes held by the people around you, and you learn your place in life. Class is a “cultural network of shared values, meanings and interactions,” say Sackrey and Ryan.4 Each class is a distinctive social existence, a culture that creates a sense of belonging among its members. To borrow a phrase from a different branch of social science, class is an “identity kit,” equipped with the proper mask and costume, along with instructions on how to act.5
Class is script, map, and guide. It tells us how to talk, how to dress, how to hold ourselves, how to eat, and how to socialize. It affects whom we marry; where we live; the friends we choose; the jobs we have; the vacations we take; the books we read; the movies we see; the restaurants we pick; how we decide to buy houses, carpets, furniture, and cars; where our kids are educated; what we tell our children at the dinner table (conversations about the Middle East, for example, versus the continuing sagas of the broken vacuum cleaner or the half-wit neighbors); whether we even have a dinner table, or a dinnertime. In short, class is nearly everything about you. And it dictates what to expect out of life and what the future should be.
As powerful as it is, though, class is intangible, a metaphor that marks your place in the world. It’s invisible and inexact, but it has resonance and deep meaning. It’s resilient, having retained shape and structure through the years, sociologists say. I think of class as the dark matter of the universe—hard to see but nevertheless omnipresent, a basic part of everything.
Understanding class helps Straddlers learn who they are. Many Straddlers surprised themselves with their own tears when I interviewed them. They never thought about their lives in terms of class before, and our conversations helped explain a lot—their inability to fit in at work among middle-class colleagues and bosses, for example, as well as the difficulty they’ve had talking with their parents about topics other than how Uncle Bob is doing since the operation.
My hope is that readers will find pieces of themselves in the experiences of the Straddlers and in mine. I also hope that if they recognize this type of class anxiety, perhaps this book will help by putting a name to a vague sense of not belonging.
By ignoring class distinctions, people may be overlooking important parts of themselves and failing to understand who they really are. They are Straddlers in limbo, still attached to their working-class roots while living a new kind of life in the white-collar world.

1
BRICKLAYER’S SON: THE BIRTH AND CLASH OF VALUES
003
My father and I were college buddies back in the late 1970s.
 
 
 
 
 
While I was in class at Columbia, struggling with the esoter ica du jour, he was on a bricklayer’s scaffold not far up the street, working on a campus building. Once, we met up on the subway going home—he with his tools, I with my books. We didn’t chat much about what went on during the day. My father wasn’t interested in Thucydides, and I wasn’t up on arches. We shared a New York Post and talked about the Mets.
My dad has built lots of places in New York City he can’t get into: colleges, condos, office towers. He made his living on the outside. Once the walls were up, a place took on a different feel for him, as though he wasn’t welcome anymore. It never bothered my dad, though. For him, earning the dough that helped pay for my entree into a fancy, bricked-in institution was satisfaction enough, a vicarious access.
We didn’t know it then, but those days were the start of a branching off—a redefining of what it means to be a workingman in our Italian-American family. Related by blood, we’re separated by class, my father and I. Being the white-collar child of a blue-collar parent means being the hinge on the door between two ways of life. With one foot in the working class, the other in the middle class, people like me are Straddlers, at home in neither world, living a limbo life. It’s the part of the American Dream you may have never heard about: the costs of social mobility. People pay with their anxiety about their place in life. It’s a discomfort many never overcome.
What drove me to leave what I knew? Born blue-collar, I still never felt completely comfortable among the tough guys and anti-intellectual crowd who populated much of my neighborhood in deepest Brooklyn, part of a populous, insular working-class sector of commercial strips, small apartment buildings, and two-family homes. I never did completely fit in among the preppies and suburban royalty of Columbia, either. It’s like that for Straddlers, who live with an uneasiness about their dual identity that can be hard to reconcile, no matter how far from the old neighborhood they eventually get. Ultimately, “it is very difficult to escape culturally from the class into which you are born,” Paul Fussell’s influential book Class: A Guide through the American Status System1 quotes George Orwell as saying. The grip is that tight. That’s something Straddlers like me understand. There are parts of me that are proudly, stubbornly working class, despite my love of high tea, raspberry vinaigrette, and National Public Radio. Born with a street brawler’s temperament, I possess an Ivy League circuit breaker to keep things in check. Still, I’ve been accused of having an edge, a chip I’ve balanced on my shoulder since my days in the old neighborhood.
It was not so smooth jumping from Italian old-world style to U.S. professional in a single generation. Others who were the first in their families to go to college will tell you the same thing: The academy can render you unrecognizable to the very people who launched you into the world. The ideas and values absorbed in college challenge the mom-and-pop orthodoxy that passed for truth for 18 years. Limbo folk may eschew polyester blends for sea-isle cotton, prefer Brie to Kraft slices. They marry outside the neighborhood and raise their kids differently. They might not be in church on Sunday.
When they pick careers (not jobs like their parents had, but careers), it’s often a kind of work their parents never heard of or can’t understand. But for the white-collar kids of blue-collar parents, the office is not necessarily a sanctuary. In corporate America, where the rules are based on notions foreign to working-class people, a Straddler can get lost.
Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle- and upper-class values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read.
People born into the middle class to parents with college degrees have lived lives filled with what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.”2 Growing up in an educated, advantaged environment, they learn about Picasso and Mozart, stock portfolios and crème brûlée. In a home with cultural capital, there are networks: Someone always has an aunt or golfing buddy with the inside track for an internship or some entry-level job. Dinner-table talk could involve what happened that day to Mom and Dad at the law firm, the doctor’s office, or the executive suite.
Middle-class kids can grow up with what sociologists describe as a sense of entitlement that will carry them through their lives. This “belongingness” is not just related to having material means; it has to do with learning and possessing confidence in your place in the world. The bourgeois, Bourdieu says, pass on self-certainty like a treasured heirloom, from generation to generation.3 Such early access and direct exposure to culture in the home is the more organic, “legitimate” means of appropriating cultural capital, Bourdieu tells us.4 Those of us possessing “ill-gotten culture”—the ones who did not hear Schubert or see a Breughel until freshman year in college, the ones who grew up without knowing a friend whose parents attended college—can learn it, but never as well. Something is always a little off about us, like an engine with imprecise timing.
There’s a greater match between middle-class lives and the institutions in which the middle class works and operates—whether they are universities or corporations. Children of the middle and upper classes have been speaking the language of the bosses and supervisors forever. An interesting fact: The number of words spoken in a white-collar household in a day is, on average, three times greater than the number spoken in a blue-collar home (especially the talk between parents and kids), says pioneering working-class studies economist Charles Sackrey, formerly of Bucknell University.
Blue-collar kids are taught by their parents and communities to work hard to achieve, and that merit is rewarded. But no blue-collar parent knows whether such things are true in the middle-class world. Many professionals born to the working class report feeling out of place and outmaneuvered in the office. Soon enough, Straddlers learn that straight talk won’t always cut it in shirt-and-tie America, where people rarely say what they mean. Resolving conflicts head-on and speaking your mind don’t always work, no matter how educated the Straddler is.
In the working class, people perform jobs in which they are closely supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. That in turn affects how they socialize their children, social scientists tell us. Children of the working class are brought up in a home in which conformity, obedience, and intolerance for back talk are the norm—the same characteristics that make for a good factory worker. As Massachusetts Straddler Nancy Dean says, “We’re raised to do what our mother says, what the teacher says, what the boss says. Just keep your mouth shut. No one cares what you have to say: Don’t ask, don’t question, do what you’re told. Our mothers were all versions of Mrs. This Is My House.”
People moving from the working class to the middle class need a strategy, a way to figure out the rules, the food, the language, and the music. “It’s a new neighborhood,” Sackrey says, “and it has the danger of a new neighborhood. It’s unfriendly territory. Upper-class people do look down on us. So in your strategy for living, you have to figure out how to make it from one day to the next. It’s an endless trek. You can fit in; you can decide to overwhelm and be better than them; you can live in the middle class but refuse to assimilate; or you can stand aside and criticize, and never be part of things.
“But central to the whole thing is language. If you don’t talk like them, they won’t give you the time of day.”

The Uneven Race

Americans have always embraced the notion that this is a land of opportunity, with rags-to-riches possibilities. It’s true that there are apples to be picked, but one can argue that not everyone has equal access to the fruit. We begin in different places, with some of us already two laps ahead when the starter’s gun goes bang. The family you’re born into may well have more influence on your future success than any other single factor, says Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill. To ensure a rosy future, social scientists who study mobility love to say, “Pick your parents well.”
If someone gets ahead, our national philosophy goes, it’s because they worked harder. Statistics show that there are people who worked just as hard, but were unfortunate enough to have been born on the 2 yard line and not the 42. If your parents are in the upper tier of white-collar folks, there’s a 60 percent chance you will be, too, mobility experts say. If, on the other hand, your parents are manual workers, your chances of getting into those clean and well-paying jobs are less than 30 percent, no matter how many hours you put in.5 Surveys show that two out of three middle-and upper-class high school graduates attended a four-year college, as compared to just one of five from the working and lower classes.6
Mobility expert Michael Hout, of the University of California at Berkeley, says that downward mobility has increased 7 percent over the last 30 years, without much increase in upward mobility. He says that roughly 50 percent move up, 40 percent move down, and 10 percent remain immobile. Even if a blue-collar-born person winds up with the same job as someone originating from the middle class—thanks to college scholarships—the middle-class person would not know the journey the working-class person made. That odyssey, some say, makes all the difference in how one ultimately views the world.

Laying the Groundwork

Although they wanted me to climb out of the working class, my parents would have picked a different middle-class life for me. They foresaw a large bank account, a big house down the street from theirs, and a standing date for Sunday macaroni. My father had a tough time accepting my decision to become a mere newspaper reporter, a field that pays a little more than construction does. He long wondered why I hadn’t cashed in on that multibrick education and taken on some lawyer-lucrative job. After bricklaying for 30 years, my father promised himself I’d never pile bricks and blocks into walls for a living. He and my mother figured that an education—genie-like and benevolent—would somehow rocket me into the rarefied trajectory of the upwardly mobile and load some serious loot into my pockets. My desire to work at something interesting to me rather than merely profitable was hard to fathom. Here I was breaking blue-collar rule number one: Make as much money as you can, to pay for as good a life as you can get. My father would try to teach me what my goals should be when I was 19, my collar already fading to white. I was the college boy who handed him the wrong wrench on help-around-the-house Saturdays. “You’d better make a lot of money,” my dad wryly warned me as we huddled in front of a disassembled dishwasher I had neither the inclination nor the aptitude to fix. “You’re gonna need to hire someone to hammer a nail into a wall for you when you get your own house.”
My interests had always lain elsewhere. Like a lot of Straddlers, I felt dissatisfied with the neighborhood status quo. That sense of being out of step with the very people you’re supposed to be like is the limbo person’s first inkling that he or she is bound for other places. For the longest time, though, I tried to fit in. I mean, I chased girls and played ball and lifted weights—the approved pastimes that keep you from getting beaten up in working-class New York. I even had my high school record for consecutive sit-ups (801 in 35 minutes), a bizarre but marginally acceptable athletic accomplishment. It showed toughness, a certain willingness to absorb punishment, which in turn demonstrated manliness. In blue-collar society, proving your manly worth is high achievement. But truly, I never really liked hanging out on the corner, shooting the bull with the fellas. Weeknights, I studied while the guys partied. By the weekend, they were too far advanced for me to truly catch up. I just didn’t share their interests—like cars. I never wanted to hunch over the engine of a Mustang, monkey with the pistons, and drain the oil. People think New Yorkers don’t drive, but that’s just in Manhattan. Car culture was big in Brooklyn, as it is in most of America, and kids lavished attention on their rides. Chrome had to gleam in streetlight on the cruise down 86th Street on Saturday night. (That, by the way, is the very place John Travolta struts at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever, the movie that told the story of a few of the guys I went to high school with—people who tried for something better than the neighborhood.) I knew a young woman whose boyfriend gave her whitewalls for her eighteenth birthday, and she squealed as if they were opals. I got my first car when I was 23 and drove it to Ohio to work at my first white-collar job. It broke down often, but I had no inclination to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Somehow, growing up, I was bereft of any curiosity about how things worked—how drywall was put up or how pipes connected—the very real working-class stuff that preoccupied the lives of most of the people around me. I just didn’t care. I read books. That came from my mother, a latchkey child who was never allowed to grow intellectually. She nevertheless became a book-a-week reader and had determined that her sons would follow suit, then advance to the higher education that had been denied her.
My mother was bucking a trend; many working-class people in the 1970s saw little need for college. The guys were encouraged to make money in construction and similar tough fields, while the women were expected to find men and breed. As a result, working-class kids from all ethnic backgrounds reproduce their parents’ class standing with an eerie Xeroxity—often more rags-to-rags than rags-to-riches, working-class studies guru Jake Ryan says.

Navigating Social Relationships

Straddlers remember how complicated life in the old neighborhood could get after they realized they weren’t really part of the crowd. Their inability to fully fit in made them uncomfortable and rendered them quasi-outcasts.
Back in the day, I couldn’t compete for the attention of girls as long as there were dark-haired high school dropouts with steady jobs prowling the neighborhood in cool cars. These guys had pocket money to bestow Marlboros and birthday jewelry; they weren’t locked away studying, and they had time to focus on showing girls a good time. In Bensonhurst, I’d be at a bus stop after school, trying to get close to a girl, reaching for whatever charm my heritage would provide. Just when I’d be making progress, one of my fellow cugines (cousins) would show up in his new white Cadillac with red-leather interior and a horn that played the first 12 notes to the theme song from The Godfather. “Yo, Marie, want a ride?” he’d call out, and away my dark-haired lovely would fly. There I’d be left standing, jerk with a bulging book bag and a bus pass, suddenly alone, waiting for the No. 6 bus and a lonely ride home.
So I didn’t fit in. I was smart and got good grades, but I didn’t care about Camaros. This earned me the sobriquet of “fag.” It was bad to be called this. It had nothing to do with homosexuality. My sin was that I had the brains to pass social studies. It didn’t bother me that much. I still got into fights and played guitar in neighborhood bands with my brother, which meant I wasn’t a hopeless case. But I felt just as at home in the library as on the concrete basketball court—not something to boast about. My mother bought a blackboard and used it to teach me to read. When I got older, she let me loose in the stacks, hoping I’d find what she did. “Just read,” she’d tell me, figuring the books would do the rest—pull me up and pull me away.
There were a lot of good reasons to go. I will always love aspects of blue-collar culture that live on in me—the whatever-it-takes work ethic, the lack of pretense, people’s forthright manner—but working-class Brooklyn could be crowded and mean. In our first apartment, in the back of a two-story brick box built 200 feet from the elevated F train, I learned to sleep despite the endless rumble of the train cars and the metal-on-metal screech of the brakes. We lived so close and tight, we could hear arguments and lovemaking, squalling babies, and the disapproving squawks of meddlesome in-laws. Nothing was secret thanks to the thin walls, which showered cheap carpets with plaster chips whenever overwhelmed blue-collar family men would punch them in impotent frustration. There was a surfeit of anger and fear and alcohol. Men’s jobs were hard and sapping. Women’s afternoons with babies were long and relentless. The dominant themes, as social researcher Lillian Breslow Rubin writes, were struggle and trouble.7 In my neighborhood, the son of a man we knew stole from his father’s restaurant for drug money; an immature teenager joined the Marines during the height of the Vietnam War, compelling his father to go into debt to the local Mafia don, who somehow had the enlistment undone for a hefty fee; a depressed wife weakened and gave in to the blue-eyed pizza man from northern Italy, blowing a hole in her marriage. Survival, as Rubin writes, was a frantic scramble to keep the kids fed and the rent paid. This rough life, she writes, engendered “fatalism, passivity, resignation.”8
Most fathers collapsed in front of the tube at the end of the day, incapable of anything else. Kids were shushed and ordered to sneak silently past these half-dead grizzlies, whose self-esteem was often undermined by jobs devoid of creativity, freedom, or flexibility. Sometimes after dinner, a few of the men with energy would tinker with their cars, habits left over from younger, better days. It allowed them, as Rubin writes, a sense of mastery not permitted at work, a project to complete without a boss carping about its progress or quality.9 Of course, wives weren’t happy about this withdrawal from the family. And so arguments would start, and hard days would end badly.
People believed the workingman was getting shafted, and they seethed. Perceived societal breaks for minorities made the frustrated white guys of my world crazy. Later, my Marxist professors would say it’s how the haves always did it, letting the white and black proles cut each other for crumbs while The Man ate his cutlet in peace. Adults looked the other way when on-the-boil teenagers would beat up strangers—read: black people—unfortunate enough to wander through the neighborhood.
Racism was as common as diaper rash. People would pepper conversations with casual prejudicial judgments, which always made me uncomfortable, because I never understood the source of that anger. The night I saw the movie Rocky, a 20-year-old guy jumped from his seat in the theater during the climactic fight scene and screamed racial epithets at the screen. I shrank down in my seat, embarrassed, as many in the movie house applauded his outburst. White Straddlers will say that racism was one of the first things that separated them from their friends. Because they did not share the prejudice, they felt out of rhythm with the neighborhood vibe. Their apparent lack of race animosity made them objects of local suspicion.
I never really recognized class differences in my everyday world when I was very young. Everyone in my neighborhood floated in the same listing boat, tied to the same fate. I remember, though, watching TV and being confused by The Brady Bunch—the lawn, the house with two stories, the maid, the backyard fence (that grassy backyard!), and the father with the apparently untaxing job. Our fathers worked, Jack. Real work. Many Straddlers will say that blue-collaring is the more genuine of lives, in greater proximity to primordial manhood. Surely, my father was more resourceful than Mr. Brady. He was provider and protector, concerned only with the basics: food and home, love, and progeny. He’s also a generation closer to the heritage, a warmer spot nearer the fire that forged and defined us. Does heat dissipate and light fade farther from the source?

Blue-Collar Values

I idealized my dad as a kind of dawn-rising priest of labor, engaged in holy ritual. Up at five every morning, my father made a religion of responsibility. My brother Christopher, who has two degrees from Columbia and is now an executive with the blue-collar sense to make a great white-collar salary, says he always felt safe when he heard Dad stir before him, “as if Pop were taming the day for us.” As he aged, my father was expected to put out as if he were decades younger, slipping on machine-washable vestments of khaki cotton without waking my mother. He’d go into the kitchen and turn on the radio to catch the temperature. Bricklayers have an occupational need to know the weather. And because I am my father’s son, I can still recite the five-day forecast at any given moment.
My dad wasn’t crazy about the bricklayer’s life. He had wanted to be a singer and an actor when he was young, but that was frivolous doodling to his immigrant father, who expected money to be coming in, stoking the stove that kept the hearth fires ablaze. Dreams simply were not energy-efficient. After combat duty in Korea, my dad returned home, learned his father-in-law’s trade, and acquiesced to a life of backbreaking routine. He says he can’t find the black-and-white publicity glossies he once had made. So many limbo folk witnessed the shelving of their blue-collar parents’ dreams. Most, like my dad, made the best of it, although a few disappointed people would grow to resent their own children’s chances, some Straddlers say.
As kids, Chris and I joked about our father’s would-be singing career, wondering where we all would have been had he become rich and famous. His name is Vincent, but everyone calls him Jimmy. So my brother and I dubbed him “Jimmy Vincent,” or “Jimmy V. From Across the Sea,” a Jerry Vale type with sharper looks and a better set of pipes. As a young man, my father was tall and slender, with large brown eyes and dark hair. He was careful about his appearance, always concerned with pants pleats, pressed shirt cuffs, and the shine on his shoes.
One of our too-close neighbors once told him they liked it when Dad took a shower because of the inevitable tile-enhanced concert he’d provide. When one of my father’s sisters died and Pop stopped singing for a while, the neighbor noticed and asked my father what was wrong.
There was a lot about Brooklyn I felt close to. Much about working-class life is admirable and fine. The trick is to avoid glorifying it without painting life in it too darkly. Sure, we lived with a few cafones—what some thought of as the low-class losers (there were classes among the working class, too—a pecking order based on taste, dignity, and intelligence). But the very best of blue-collar culture is something I still celebrate in myself and look for in others I meet. The values are an essential defining factor:
A well-developed work ethic, the kind that gets you up early and keeps you locked in until the job is done, regardless of how odious or personally distasteful the task.
A respect for your parents that is nothing short of religious, something I was amazed to find was not shared among the kids with whom I went to college and graduate school.
The need for close contact with extended family—aunts, uncles, and grandparents—each of whom had the authority to whack you in the back of the head should your behavior call for it.
An open and honest manner devoid of hidden agenda and messy subtext. You say something, you mean it.
Other things, too: loyalty; a sense of solidarity with people you live and work with; an understanding and appreciation of what it takes to get somewhere in a hard world where no one gives you a break; a sense of daring; and a physicality that’s honest, basic, and attractive. (When I worked for New York Newsday, a disgruntled reader had been stalking me and persistently threatening my life. A colleague suggested I get a “goon” to protect me. An editor answered, “Alfred doesn’t need a goon. Alfred is a goon.”)
We could, between money troubles and family crises, recognize the good in life. Nobody laughs like blue-collar people, who are unashamed to pound the table in gasping recognition of a pure truth, a glaring absurdity, or a sharp irony. I have seen relatives grab onto each other for support in tear-blurred spasms of guffawing that nearly choke them. It’s fun to watch.

Class Distinctions and Clashes

Blue-collar origins implant defining characteristics that will cause conflict throughout a life. Straddlers and social scientists can point to specific differences in manner, style, thought, and approach to life that are class-based. Because there’s no exact science to this, much comes from observation and opinion. It’s still useful to understand, though, because it demonstrates that people think in terms of class all the time. And while it may be hard for them to define precisely, they know class differences when they see them. Interestingly, among Straddlers, resentments toward the middle class are never far below the surface.
“We working-class people have an appreciation for people no matter what they do,” asserts Peter Ciotta, director of communications for a $1.6 billion food company in Buffalo. “And we have to outwork people because we have no connections. We’re not going to get invited to the party.”
James Neal, a Midwest medical malpractice attorney, who woke up at 4 A.M. on his parents’ farm each day and went to school stinking of animals, says he takes special delight in facing off against silver-spoon lawyers and doctors because he believes they’re so arrogant. “You just don’t find a hell of a lot of arrogant working-class people. And blue-collar people say what they mean. In the end, I avoid people with a sense of entitlement. Until you’ve had hard times, you’re not a complete person. And if you’ve never had them, well, a whole hunk of you is missing.”
Struggle, the working class will tell you, is central to blue-collar life and the chief architect of character. Journalist Samme Chittum, a former college instructor who grew up in small-town Illinois, understands that. “The middle class knows what money bestows on you. Not what it can buy, but what it bestows. It’s the intangible things—privilege, privacy, immunity from the vagaries of fortune that people who have to struggle are open to. It would be socially immature to be envious of these people; there are so many others in the world whose stack of poker chips is smaller than mine. But white-collar kids did not have to bust their asses for everything they’ve got. They came equipped with helium balloons to raise them to a higher stratosphere where things just come to you.
“But if you want a dirty job done, give it to me. I will do the hard job. I’ll move 50 pieces of furniture up the stairs, take rocks out of the garden. I will push until the job’s done or until I fall over. I don’t understand letting others do things for you, or spending your social currency to get favors. I have a scorn for that.”
The heritage of struggle, as writer and working-class academic Janet Zandy puts it, develops a built-in collectivity in the working class, a sense of people helping each other—you’re not going it alone, and you have buddies to watch your back. It’s different in the middle class, Zandy and others argue, where the emphasis is on individual achievement and personal ambition. The middle class, my Straddlers would say, rarely had to pay working-class-type dues and were most likely unaware of the help they got—the cultural capital—to ensure their sinecures in life and business.
If you could get through college without having to work at some outside job or take out loans, for example, that says you did not know privation, and that, in turn, says something about you and your class. If your parents gave you the down payment on your house (Straddlers often hate hearing this one), that tells us something about you as well. Straddlers tend to see the family dynamic as struggle, and they learn to accept it. You never expect things to be easy, and you don’t whine when they’re not. Nothing is promised, so nothing is expected. “My father’s goal for me,” says Los Angeles Straddler Jeffrey Orridge, a Mattel executive, “was to be able to eat. Not to drive a Mercedes. Just to eat.” The working class is told that anything you get you earn by hard work. “Our family was pain and anguish,” says Sacramento Straddler Andrea Todd, a freelance magazine writer and editor. “I saw my dad—a firefighter—sacrifice his well-being to put food on the table. The middle-class girls I knew didn’t see that, didn’t know that.”
While middle-class kids are allowed some say and voice in their upbringing (“David, would you prefer going to Grandma’s or to the park?”), working-class kids develop within a strict, authoritarian world (“David, if you don’t come with me to Grandma’s right now I’ll slap your teeth out!”) Experts say that children raised in authoritarian homes do less well in school than kids from less regimented middle-class environments. Without meaning to, says Hamilton College sociologist Dennis Gilbert, the parent who stresses obedience over curiosity is championing the values of the working class, and helping to keep their kids in it.10
Temple University sociologist Annette Lareau did some interesting work in this area, she tells me. Studying 88 African-American and white children from the Northeast and the Midwest who were between the ages of 8 and 10, Lareau was able to see distinct differences in the way working-class and middle-class kids are raised. In fact, she concludes, the importance of class influence in their upbringing was greater even than that of race.11

Class Flash Cards: Perceptions Are as Real as Origins

I asked Straddlers and working-class studies types to list class-based traits to help understand what the classes look like. Some truly believe class in America is akin to a caste system of different values and outlooks. Ultimately, working-class and middle-class cultures are based on different foundations, says Minnesota psychologist Barbara Jensen, herself a Straddler. The core value of the working class is being part of a like-minded group—a family, a union, or a community, which engenders a strong sense of loyalty. The core value of the middle class is achievement by the individual.
The middle class, Jensen says, is solipsistic, seeing nothing but its own culture. That’s made easier by the fact that the middle class literally writes our culture. Movies, books, the news media, and television are creations of the middle class. Working-class people see little of themselves in popular culture. (There are exceptions of course: Working Girl, Norma Rae, Roseanne. But by and large, Jensen’s observation holds true.) As such, the middle class gets to see complex depictions of itself, while working-class people view mostly stereotypes of themselves.
What else? Jensen provided me with class “flash cards,” for lack of a better term—quick observations that separate the workers from the managers, the corner boys from the corner-office boys. Obviously, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. They are traits and tendencies gleaned from observation and study, and are by no means scientific:
Working-class people mistrust eggheads, relying more on intuition, common sense, and luck. The middle class is more analytical, depending on cultivated, logical thinking.
In a social setting, the working class may be more apt to show emotion than the middle class. The working class may be tougher, flashier, and louder.
Working-class people are overawed by doctors and lawyers. The middle class knows how to talk to such folks and realizes they are just as fallible and corrupt as the rest of us.
The middle class is burdened with the pressure to outachieve high-achieving parents. Many working-class families are happy if their kids get and keep a job and avoid being seen on America’s Most Wanted.
The working class will bowl; the middle class will play racquetball. At Columbia, where physical education was a requirement for graduation, they taught us squash and racquetball, trying to tutor future lawyers and leaders on the finer points of business leisure. I played it like a neighborhood kid, diving into the walls and feeling a sense of accomplishment when I nearly separated my shoulder. I was never that good, because I played too blue-collar, too straight-ahead, and never studied the angles and the corner shots. It was nothing like the stickball, stoopball, and handball we played in Brooklyn. In summer softball games, I used to think I could play center field because our cement parks were so small. Then I moved to Ohio and played in lovely suburban fields, watching ball after ball get by me. I couldn’t cover the vast territory, green and endless. I switched to first base.
The working class has traditionally expressed a my-country-right-or-wrong patriotic attitude, while the middle class often has questioned government, Jensen says. The obvious example is the Vietnam War era, when working-class kids died in jungles, and middle-class kids protested on campuses.
There’s a greater depth of acquiescence among working class people, who tend to feel more powerless: You can’t fight city hall. The middle class says you can, and there’s more of a constant striving toward self-hood and becoming something else. The working-class man or woman says, “I am what I am.” The middle-class person says, “I have to do this [graduate from college, go to business school, pass the bar] to become who I am.”
Regarding racism, everyone is guilty. Minority straddlers will say the working class is overt in its prejudices, while the middle class is surreptitious, devious, and hypocritical. Ultimately, writes social critic bell hooks, blacks fear poor and working-class whites more because, historically, they have acted out their hatred in more violent forms.12
The working class works at jobs that bite, maim, and wither. The middle class gets to work indoors at desks. This can be stressful, of course, but as Andrew Levison points out in Fussell’s book, office buildings don’t implode like coal mines, and professors aren’t subjected to industrial noises that destroy their hearing.13
Finally, Jensen says, the working class sends out Christmas cards that say, “Love, X.” The middle class circulates Christmas newsletters, with proud news of Timmy’s adventures in the fourth grade.
Obviously, people are more than just class. We all embody interlocking cultures—ethnicities, races, and genders. We possess different skills and inclinations. Still, imprecise as many of the flash cards are, they do reflect people’s perceptions.14