My friend Shay told me that it sounds to her like I am a class straddler.
I explained that I was incredibly uncomfortable while in the crowd at The Moth Mainstage event at The State Theater. (The Moth, for the uninitiated, is a live storytelling event, recorded versions of which air on MPBN Radio.) MPBN President Mark Vogelzang touched on the demeanor of the crowd in his opening remarks. “This is a public broadcasting crowd,” he said. “Lot’s of good hats. Lot’s of good beards. Lot’s of good tats.” In a funny and sardonic tone, the emcee said something similar by referring to the audience as “Farm-to-table, organic, bicycle-loving non-GMO chiclets.”
I found my discomfort particularly perplexing, I told Shay, because it wasn’t even a couple of months back that I went to a Bill Burr show and found myself just as put off by a crowd that made me another form of uncomfortable altogether—it was loud, drunk, high, and out of its mind. “I grew up with those guys,” I told her, “and I feel like I am constantly trying to run away from that. But if leaving it behind means finding myself at home in the audience from the night before, I am at a loss.”
“It sounds you are a class straddler,” Shay said.
Before diving into what that means, I should clarify that this reflection is about me and a phenomenon known as class straddling. While it mentions The Moth, it isn’t about The Moth. As for the show, it was largely impressive, particularly the story by Samuel James, who I had specifically gone to see preform. I very much enjoyed most of the stories, the storytellers, the emcee and I appreciate that MPBN and the State Theater made it possible. I hope that it continues.
When I refer to the crowd at The Moth show, of course I am not categorizing every single person there. I am specifically referring to a feeling I get when in that setting based on a number of encounters I have had over the past decade.
I come from a poor household in a poor town. I actually live back in that house, which I inherited and renovated over the past handful of years, and so I am back in that town. For whatever reason, because of various peers and various circumstances, I have often passed as, or been accepted as a peer by people in the upper-middle to upper classes. This is largely where one finds well-meaning, well-intentioned liberals who would, in this case, pay $50 for a live storytelling event. They are the folks who talk about the evil in the world, and decry it, and in the same breath snicker at what they perceive as hair-brained behavior of poor folks. When they are none the wiser, they will do so in the presence of the poor folks immediately in front of them because they were under the impression that they were in good company.
I usually agree with the way the well-intended liberals vote, and with their ideals, but there have been dozens of occasions—if not hundreds—where I have been put off in conversations with folks who match this description because they have displayed astoundingly out-of-touch comprehensions of how poor people live. Shay, who has worked in organizations that address issues that face people living in poverty, explained that the reality of the person living in poverty is entirely alien to those who are not. People with means scoff at decisions those who just trying to catch up make because people with means have not lived in this mentality, or if they have, many have intentionally distanced themselves from it. It is alien to them. But people living in poverty don’t make decisions others see as unwise because they are dumb. These decisions often stem from feeling stuck. And sometimes that reality is so alien to those with means that it becomes the but of jokes while in reality, if they recognized the conditions that lead to those behaviors and decisions, those jokes would land flat.
The first storyteller, for example, told a story that put a terrible taste in my mouth. It was about how she came to be engaged, but really it was one anecdote about being uncomfortable around poor people after another. There were pitbulls in the streets! Children roamed free! A waitress spoke frankly about her sexuality! I was at once put off by the story, and by knowing I have been guilty of relying on these types of tales to distance myself from my own background in the past.
“I guess I feel torn between these two inevitabilities,” I told Shay. I have always, sometimes consciously and sometimes not so much, run away from my background. Sometimes I do so based on style, and sometimes because the attitudes indigenous to the area I grew up in were stifling to my own development, but not because I don’t love and respect the people there. To where do I run, though? I certainly don’t want to find myself in a position where I find it entertaining to shit on the people I grew up with, and I don’t envision myself ever feeling comfortable with the people who do.
I am a huge—HUGE—Robert Altman fan. One of the things I most admire about Altman is that he was a teller of lurid stories about all sorts of people, but the audience never gets the sense that he has disdain for his characters. Unless, of course—and totally apropos to this reflection—they are the sort of people who find pleasure on shitting on working people in films about class, ala Gosford Park. I always ran from my upbringing and, while honoring it, have tried to disassociate myself from that because somewhere in the back of my head, I always feared that poverty was exactly what we allow it to be in our society: a contagious disease. Once it has you, there is no getting out. Run, boy, save yourself.
(Note: I have no idea what to do with the fact that Altman, along Paul Thomas Anderson—another favorite director—co-directed the film adaptation of The Prairie Home Companion, which is like the mothership for the Moth Crowd.)
And so that is the internal plight of a class straddler, Shay pointed out. It is that of someone who exists between classes, but never really feels comfortable in either. She described coming from a working class family and finding herself having to teach herself a taste for sushi when she came to find herself in an academic and professional environment. At that time, eating sushi had become fashionable and, without explicitly being so, it had become a statement about stature and status, a particularly glaring one for those who weren’t engaging with it. We come to learn to perform by the rules of the class we find ourselves surrounded by, though some never really find themselves comfortable with doing so. Shay was happy to report that she’s since become comfortable with simply foregoing raw fish.
I am glad I held out to hear the other storytellers, as their tales helped to offset the bad taste left by the first. A marine shared his struggles with his suicidal nature, and would-be world-saver talked about being shaken by her first interaction with someone in need. My friend Sam told about finding hope in a foster family who had given him a chance he was positive he had long since blown.
When I was in my early 20s, I worked at a bookstore. At the store we held a reading where this graphic artist came and talked about a book she had written about her exploits with a community of young kids who were squatting in a building. There was this saturated air of self-satisfaction that really put me off, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly. I understood their ideals, and I respected them, but I had grown up poor and I know a lot of people who did as well. Whether or not this was actually the case, I couldn’t help but to feel like the kids in her book were just poverty tourists. The audience sat rapt while the author over-enunciated every word of her story, when these three, young teenagers came in and started to burst out obscenities and farting noises. Things became tense, as nobody in the audience wanted to intervene. And how could anyone, really? Weren’t we celebrating a group of young people who were essentially breaking the law? Again, I understand the issue she was presenting was more complicated than that, but the new tension felt like a breath of fresh air, like a refreshing alternative to the pretentious preciousness of the reading. The boys continued to escalate their antagonization until my co-worker finally walked them out of the store.
While the stories at The Moth had only gotten better and the intensity of my initial discomfort had eased, I remained on edge until the end when I was reminded of the fart-noise boys back at the bookstore. In between storytellers, an emcee took to the stage to tell short stories and jokes, keeping the flow of the show moving. Before the final storyteller came to the stage, the emcee, who I quite enjoyed, took some extra time with his stories and interaction. A man a handful of seats down broke through the aforementioned NPR audience stereotype by telling the people around him, “He’s just not funny. I don’t like this guy at all.” He sounded drunk. “Bring on the next storyteller! Get off the stage” he bellowed. It wasn’t fart-noise-in-the-back-of-a-bookstore loud, but it was loud enough to create a tension among the people in my section who weren’t sure of how to respond. As everybody turned to glare, to attempt to will somebody else to intervene, a wave of relief washed over me.