Two more cars & class stories

We obviously hit a nerve with the two recent stories about cars and class. Besides the long and intense comments under the posts, I received two more moving stories submitted to Classism Exposed.

The first writer shared this story anonymously:

“My husband is about to sell his car so we can save some money.  He told me he felt sentimental about it, connected to it.  He told me he’s been that way with every car he’s ever owned.

I understood very well what he meant.  Since the first car I can remember in my family’s driveway, I felt protective about our beast of burden.  My parents’ station wagon was always more than a car.  It was home when my Mom ordered us kids to get in with our blankets and pillows.  It protected my Mom when she had to escape my Dad’s drunken rage.  It was the tour bus that took my sisters and I for a Sunday drive after church, allowing us to imagine a different life.  Our station wagon was a jungle gym for my brothers, a visual reminder of debt for my Dad, and a statement of freedom for my Mom and my sisters.

It was also the equivalent of an office when my Dad needed privacy, and on the rare occasion, it served as a kissing booth when my parents made up.  I remember hauling dirt, bricks, and sand in the back of the wagon.  The work simply had to get done when my Dad was lucky to have work that month.  Then for about five years, we used the car as a storage locker for gallon containers of water.  Our plumbing was down and we had no running water.  And a station wagon sure can hold a lot of jugs!

Not very long ago, I heard a comment made at a progressive gathering of nonprofit folks.  Someone said, ‘Working class families and the poor don’t need cars. They need to be protected from their own desires. They don’t need to repeat the mistakes of the middle class or the upper class.  How can we make them understand they are hurting the environment?’

I imagined massive ropes tethering me down, keeping me from bolting across the room, and doing something to that person I would regret.  Why is the answer to take away free will and why is it the right of the upper classes to do so when it comes to working class folks? Anyway, I understand as a novice environmentalist myself, the value in removing the car culture in the US, but as you can see from my story, the car is not the biggest issue here.”

The next car story comes from Fisher Lavell, a working-class counselor in Manitoba, Canada:

“I have a friend, call her Lee,  who is a writer and leads writing workshops with adults and young people. Most writing workshop leaders, I find, are wonderful at their craft and at connecting with people, but no more likely than anyone else to have a class analysis unless they have been educated (small e) about class.

I had arranged for Lee to do a writing workshop for a small group of high school students in our school. When I organize any kind of positive activity for talent or giftedness (not sure what terminology Americans use), I am always aware of the tendency for school staff to only recognize talents and strength areas in the middle-class kids. So I am always on the lookout for the working-class ‘sleepers’, kids who might have a talent or strength but haven’t been able to realize it and excel in the eyes of school personnnel because of disadvantage, their own tendency to shy away from showing talent, or because of ‘bad behaviour’.

So that’s the group I had put together for my friend Lee’s writing workshop; about half middle-class ‘stars’ and also some working-class and Native kids whom I knew loved writing, and who sometimes wrote furtively and alone because they didn’t feel their kind of writing was ‘the right kind’.

One of the activities Lee always uses in her workshops to help writers understand the importance of providing detail and image is one in which she asks them to think about a car and its driver. She does a go-round, in which people share what kind of car they are thinking of. When we did this round, the middle-class kids were all able to provide lots of detail on cars, including their makes, models, years and so on. They were clever at characterizing the driver, implying things about their personality, just by the kind of car they drive.

But Lee had to keep nudging ‘my’ kids, who seemed not to get it. Seemed not to have a clue about makes and models, just as I didn’t really know these things. Probably this was because most of their families didn’t own vehicles, similar to how they don’t know how the brands of pants or shoes one wears is supposed to show something about the wear. They don’t have those brands at Walmart, you see.

I remember the first time I was in Lee’s adult workshop and she asked the participants to describe the first car they ever owned. Many described cars they bought with the pay from their first job or the one their dad bought them for graduating. I got that this was symbolic and we were using the character of the vehicle to tell about the person who owned it. But I was really clued out about the specific focus of the tittering and laughter because I didn’t know which vehicles were stereotyped as super safe or super expensive or over-the-top showy.

Nobody giggled when it was my turn and I said that the first car I ever owned was a 2005 Buick Rendez-vous. I bought it when I turned 50 to celebrate that I had paid off my student loans, and it was sitting in the parking lot outside right now. I did point out the class embeddedness of the question, but I don’t think I was really understood. And of course I didn’t want to make people feel weird over something they were obviously having fun with.

Many of the people I know don’t own vehicles. Or they drive older unreliable vehicles because that’s all they can afford and they have to make it back and forth to work. Just like with our clothes, some of us don’t have the privilege to shop for something that makes the right statement. ‘What car you drive and what it says about you as a person’ is yet another vehicle for gauging class position and for judging each other by it.”

If you have a car story, or another story of how class plays out in everyday life, I hope you’ll send it my way at

1 Response

  1. right

    The utility of things, like cars, is the disconnect between the perspectives some of your writers cited and the rest of us about what what will make a difference in a community. Not everything boils down to some inability to make responsible decisions ,including environmentally responsible decisions when it comes to the inequities people experience outside the middle class.

    Also, yes I commented on the cars aging in place and no it didn’t strike a nerve. I didn’t understand how something as superficial as the appearance of a car in someone’s yard was important enough to spur community involvement and class discussion or, as the other person pointed out, activities like cook outs the bring people together. The cook outs apparently had a low turn out and the poster was not sure why people didn’t seem as engaged in the cook out’s objectives. I was unclear about why either the original blog poster or the first comment were putting emphasis on such issues of appearance when there are much more important problems to be thinking about, like other class based divides that get completely ignored. When the author of the blog post responded with the “broken windows theory” I became more understanding of their perspectives. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t account for the utilitarian reasons why neighborhoods are the way they are because it is based on the assumption the appearance is an independent variable you can some how deduce some sort of conclusions from, about the nature of a certain neighborhood.

    There are a few more things to consider in an area besides broken windows, that broken windows can be caused by or a function of-not the other way around. Analogous to broken cars, why are those objects broken in place sitting there being so unsightly? Have you considered any possible functions that generate these unsightly things which are not exclusively directly proportional to some perceived lack of responsibility or pride in one’s residence?

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