I (1962-) grew up in Glendale, so I can commiserate/rejoice to some extent. But that's not why I'm writing. I want to recommend a book to you. No, I want to force you to read this book. You won't believe how well this book describes our upbringings. It's called Class, by Paul Fussell, 1983.
Read it, dammit! You'll love it.
Since I always read books recommended to me by readers of Avocado Memories - that's how I discovered Booth Tarkington's wonderful book Penrod - I checked this one out of the library and read it as well.
Paul Fussell, Summit Books, New York, 1983, 202 pages
Mr. Schmidt is correct, this book describes my upbringing well. Class was published in 1983, during a resurgence of class awareness associated with the preppie clothing fad (Lisa Birnbach's Preppie Handbook is cited throughout), the John T. Malloy dress-for-success works and the new conservatism of the Reagan Administration. In other words, it's a very Eighties work. Normally I have confined Avocado Memories to the Sixties and Seventies, the decades when I "came of age," but since Class analyzes the American class structure so well, and since Avocado Memories is essentially a look at life among the middle class (as I originally assumed - as it turns out according to Fussell being middle class would have been a step up), this book is worth comment.
It's certainly not what I would call a kind book, but it is an accurate one. (The surest sign of sarcasm on a writer's part is when one is "enjoined" to put out a cigarette in a replica of a little toilet emblazoned with the words "Put your butts here.") It certainly isn't an easy book to read, either, in that it illustrates a lot of the pretension that so characterizes America. Europeans often comment on how crass this country really is; there's fuel for their fire in this book. However, the only problem I really have with Class is Fussell's Northeastern liberal/academic slant. Sincere Christianity is described as being low class; I can only imagine what he'd think of Brigham Young University, where I went to college!
Anyway, Fussell defines nine levels of American society (and, by the way, these are his descriptions and not mine - it won't do to get upset with me!):
Top Out of Sight - Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don't want us to.
Upper Class - Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don't have to work. They refer to tuxes as "dinner jackets."
Upper Middle - Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn't be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.
Middle Class - The great American majority, sort of.
High Proletarian (or "prole") - Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term "proletarian."
Middle Prole - Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)
Low Prole - Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask "Would you like fries with that, sir?" as a career.
Destitute - Working and non-working poor.
Bottom Out of Sight - Street people, the most destitute in society. "Out of sight" because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don't vote.)
Fussell is quick to point out that class in America is not decided exclusively upon finances; it is also a matter of taste, what one does with one's recreational time, what one reads, what colleges (if any) one has attended and how well one speaks. He describes the anxiety associated with maintaining or bettering one's position in society, and identifies the phenomenon of some members of the upper class descending in class ranks - apparently for kicks.
What was distressing to me was to read about why my family was "mid prole." Proletarian? Who, us? We had always thought of ourselves as being at least middle class! True, we had goofy collections that we thought would "...be worth money someday." (When Mom passed away I conclusively learned of the fraudulence of the "collector's market" when I sold her Franklin Mint Collector's Annual Christmas Silver Ingots. I hate the Franklin Mint.) True, Mom once cut up an old tire from my Volkswagen, turned it inside out, painted it with turquoise enamel and used it as a planter - an exact characteristic Fussell ascribes to the low proles. (He didn't describe the turquoise enamel, which would probably have forced him to come up with a new class level.) And yes, it's true, we ransacked Goodwill Boxes and people's trash on trash night for usable decorative items. But my friend Angela and I knew this was a low diversion at the time, even if we were avid roller derby fans - doesn't that count for something?
And didn't we decorate in the designer colors like avocado, harvest gold and turquoise we used to see in glossy chic magazines? Didn't the black and white simplicity of our house's (stucco) exterior ape the elegance of the estates in Beverly Hills we used to drive past on Sundays?
Early on, when I was dating the woman who would become my wife (a member of a decidedly non-prole family who once asked, on a date, "Why couldn't you be a lawyer?"), I described myself and my parents as upper-middle class. The haughty snort I got in response took me by surprise. The fact that neither my father nor I owned a suit or tie or that my mother didn't own a dress seemed irrelevant. We were making good money from the Lincoln Café and could buy just about any consumer item we wanted - which describes the Montgomery Ward trash compactor in designer brown we purchased one Sunday. (Fussell points out that showy consumer items are, in fact, signs of the middle class or the proletariat.) If refrigerators were the sign of affluence in Soviet Russia, trash compactors used to announce that one had arrived in Seventies America.
I must point out, however, one significant variance from Fussell's descriptions of the prole class as they pertain to my mother. According to him, proles don't entertain because they don't really know how to and are anxious about the rituals and requirements of socializing. (Do I have to wear my new pants suit? How do I serve the Chee-tos? How many six-packs should I buy? What TV show should be on?) As I have written elsewhere Mom was always ready for the party that would never occur. It wasn't that she didn't want to entertain - before she had her own business we used to have people over all the time, a natural side-effect of owning a pool - it was that she didn't have the time or energy. Naturally gregarious, she enjoyed chatting with people about Hollywood celebs and displaying her hand-crafted items throughout the house. If the bellows table that served as a living room coffee table was spread with back issues of the Weekly World Report or National Inquirer rather than with the Forbes, Yachting or Robb's Report seen in the homes of the upper class, it could at least be said that Mom liked to entertain.
I always suspected there may have been something wrong with me, and my wife is quick to point out these days that I must have been some sort of a changeling; that I couldn't possibly have been the result of my parents. Mom didn't know about, let alone like, Sibelius, Stravinsky or Berg the way I did when I was sixteen - in fact, she used to demand to know why I liked all that boring "band music" (her term for classical orchestral music - her phrase for rock and roll was "swing"). Dad couldn't understand why my nose was always in a book about English history, or why I liked Russian cinema. Turns out Fussell describes a category - not a class - for me and those like me, "Category X."
Well, thank goodness for that, I'm saved from being a prole after all! According to Fussell, Xers are defined by taste, talent and for bowing out of the class system entirely. Xers dress for comfort and are characterized by unfashionable, poorly maintained automobiles, an interest in international cinema and media, and a general bohemian outlook. No wonder Angela and I got along so well... while she was imagining herself as Napoleon's consort, dressed in the height of high-waisted Neo-Classical fashion I had fin de siecle art and New Viennese School music on my mind. To have to put up with the crassness of our San Fernando Valley surroundings was, to us, unfair but understandably temporary. We would do better when we were fully in control of our own fortunes and destiny. (What happened instead was that we simply grew up!)
So, yes, I can recommend Fussell's Class, and I'm glad I read it. Thanks for the recommendation, Jack!