Update 3/26/14 7:00 AM:
BUMPED this blog post because of the excellent comments thread. Go read it (grumpyoldswitch’s final postings are in reverse order). I wish my blog had more than 8 readers. I invite anyone who has an opinion to weigh in. You may comment anonymously.
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Both of my parents grew up in poverty that would be nearly unimaginable today. When I hear that the Germans had the best education system in the world at that time, I am a little skeptical, because my grandparents were pretty uneducated, parochial, and suspicious of anything cosmopolitan. I mean, decades in the US and they wouldn’t try to eat spaghetti or a fucking taco. I am surprised the US let them in.
My father was sensitive about being a poor boy and tried to become middle class. For a while, he even succeeded. He had a lot of native intelligence and graduated college. After the Army and the Peace Corps, he taught History and German while studying for an advanced degree. Readers will know that teaching would not be the best fit for Franz Adler’s, uhh, personality. That didn’t work out very well. Then the wheels started to come off when he was about the age I am now. He couldn’t hold it together. He became homeless for a time and was institutionalized. We were on welfare. When I was old enough to work, I supported him.
My mother got a decent job and worked very, very hard. She now enjoys a modest but comfortable retirement. She does not discuss her childhood. There are no pictures of it in the home and I don’t know my grandfather’s name or what he looked like. I do know that my mother, like her many siblings, was born at home.
I’m very well-educated and my parents taught me good manners, so I can pass myself off as being middle-class, but, really, I’m not.
My Ph.D. program was full of comparatively rich kids and the professors were pretty well-off, too. My best friend there was a fellow hick from the provinces. We had many long conversations discussing culture shock. Then I started working at my secret job and I met the Surgeon, and I started spending a lot of time with rich people. Rich men, specifically.
It was an interesting experience. Rich people never intimidated me, because I am educated. But one thing that struck me, over and over again, was just how little I knew about the things that these men took for granted.
The Surgeon grew up upper-middle class and he’s an insane social climber. Now he has millions of dollars. He was constantly shocked at all the things I didn’t know. He thought it was funny, but it also concerned him, actually–he was frightened for me at times–and he started going out of his way to teach me things that he thought I needed to know about the world.
The first time I got a nice suit, I thought that the pockets were fake. I was actually complaining about it at school (“$200 for a suit, and it doesn’t have pockets!”) and one of my professors pulled me aside and gently showed me that the pockets were there, they were just sewn shut.
The first time I flew on an airplane, I took out my wallet to pay for the meal. This was when meals were inclusive. The stewardess looked at me like I was crazy.
I did not know what a Roth IRA was. I did not know how the stock market worked. I did not know how to buy a stock. I was completely ignorant of all banking terms. I understood the primary mechanisms of capitalism because I’d read a lot of Karl Marx. It was all theory. I had absolutely no practical experience with anything involving money. If you handed me $200,000 in cash and told me that I had to buy a house, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do or where to go.
One thing that made me angry during the housing crisis was seeing all these rich priviliged blowhards on TV screaming and complaining about all the stupid poor people buying houses they couldn’t afford. What they don’t understand is that when you’re poor, nobody ever teaches you this stuff. Fixed or adjusted rate mortgage? What? Three-quarters of Americans don’t graduate from college. We are a nation of innumerates. Really poor people can’t even read a bus schedule. How the fuck are they supposed to avoid getting taken advantage of by a credit card company?
Another thing you have to remember about growing up and living poor is that you are absolutely at the mercy of the institutions that control your life. Cops tell you what to do, the courts tell you what to do, the welfare office tells you what to do, schools tell you what to do, the banks tell you what to do, the IRS tells you want to do, and, of course, your boss and the church tells you what to do. You get used to it. One thing that shocked me–astonished me, really–about observing the behavior of wealthy people, or even middle-class people, was their contempt for authority, and they way that they felt free to do whatever the fuck they wanted. Cause they do. They don’t ask for permission to do things a million times a day. They certainly don’t have to ask their boss at work if they can take a bathroom break. It’s easy to be powerful in the world if you have that mindset. The Surgeon was absolutely gobsmacked at the way I would calmly accept it when someone told me “no.” Can I get a late check-out at the hotel? No? Oh, all right then. I wasn’t used to fighting for things, or getting what I wanted, with the exception of my academic success. All the cultural factors and institutions in my upbringing socialized me to work hard to earn what I want, and to be obedient, and to respect authority. When you’re poor and vulnerable, resistance means that you’re out of a job or you’re in jail.
(Incidentally, I think one of the reasons rich people hate the IRS and paying taxes so much is that they HATE the idea of an institution forcing them to do something, or having power over them. They HATE that shit. That is how used they are to having power in life. Remember that hilarious scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, when DiCaprio throws the Federal Agents off his yacht and throws lobsters at them? The Surgeon would definitely throw a lobster. Definitely. If a Federal Agent knocked on my door, I’d have a heart attack and tell him whatever he wanted.)
Wow, look at all the stuff I can write when I’m not drunk.