Hopscotching the Tracks

In my last essay, I spoke of my experiences of the disdain I receive as a working-class woman walking among the denizens of the middle-class world.  Just yesterday I received another cool reception – in my old neighborhood, of all places.

I still cling to my working-class ways, including shopping at thrift stores, and I continue to patronize the thrift store in my old neighborhood.  As I was checking out, the cashier nastily snapped at me, and all because I committed the “wrongdoing” of standing on the wrong side of the cash register. (It wasn’t my fault, either.  She had rung up a previous customer on that side.)  When she asked to see my driver’s license, I meekly handed it over.  I know the drill about asking to see ID for a credit-card purchase, having worked in retail, so this wasn’t an issue for me.  The issue was the way she slammed my driver’s license back onto the counter and continued to give me a hostile reception.

As I left the thrift store, inwardly seething, I understood what had happened, although it may not have been obvious to the other customers.  Clearly the cashier was resentful of this educated “rich” woman shopping in the thrift store, who obviously could afford to buy expensive new things.  “Get back to your side of the tracks,” were the words I had read between her lines.

Wouldn’t she have been surprised to learn that I was on my original side of the tracks!  Now it is clear to me: I don’t fit in my new white-collar world, but, it would seem, I no longer fit in my old blue-collar world, either.  My blood isn’t blue enough for my new world, yet it’s too blue for my old one.  The word for me is Straddler, a term I learned from Al Lubrano’s seminal treatise Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams.  A Straddler is a person from a working-class (blue-collar) background who has moved up the ladder into the middle-class (white-collar) world, yet keenly feels an attachment to both worlds and “straddles” both.  It would seem that’s precisely what I do.  Wrong side of the register but both sides of the tracks, I thought ruefully after this incident had passed.

So here I am, too white collar to be blue and too blue collar to be white.  The educated refinement I put forth in the white-collar world smacks of blue-collar bluntness, and the down-to-earth candor I present in the blue-collar world screams haughtiness and disdain.  I’m in an odd, frustrating position, and it makes me ask, “Who am I?”

To that I must respond: Either don’t categorize me or invent a new category for me.  I am me.  That’s the only person I can be.  You don’t have to like me, but I refuse to change because you don’t like me.

4 Responses

  1. Pete Daly
    Peter Daly

    It’s hard to tell whether this person was just having a bad day or something in particular you did ticked them off or there was financial resentment there. I came from a mixed white collar parents raising kids in a blue collar neighborhood and am now a pediatrician but I have found I am usually received just fine in Dollar Stores and Thrift Stores. Despite the fact that both my parents were English majors and left me with a very formal speech pattern I can’t get rid of. I also tend to dress in a way that would make it hard to pidgeon hole me as to income status and that can be key.

    There are certain things all people will react to well. Most of all kindness. But then also lack of arrogance, true genuine displays of respect, and lack of rigidity. If I interact with anyone and display those things genuinely the response is usually very positive no matter what the income difference.

    But it has to be genuine. From the time people are small children they can sense whether it’s genuine or a put on no matter what your dress, or speech pattern, or what you say. It is just an inborn skill almost everyone has.

    But I think most of all if you can eminate kindness and genuine respect to people by your facial expression and body language, they will pick up on it and respond well back. Especially people with less money who are frequently treated with no respect or false or forced respect.

    But if it is false or forced they will not react well no matter how hard you try to fake it.

    It won’t work 100% of the time but it will work 95% plus of the time.

    Hopefully, this was just one individual having one bad day.

  2. Celeste Harmer

    I considered that maybe this clerk was having a bad day, but the thing is, I get rudely treated by service workers almost everywhere I go. This was just one such episode, and it makes me wonder. I should also mention that Philadelphia, where I live, is a very class-conscious place. The lower classes despise the upper and vice versa, so that could be the root of my problem. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the disdainful attitude the working class gives me when I go back to my old neighborhood; how astounded that person would be to learn that I used to walk on that side of the tracks, too!

    I am always polite to service people, and I dress nicely without swathing myself in designer labels. But more often than not I am received with rudeness, and that’s what makes me wonder if something else is at work. Thank you for your advice. Perhaps killing service workers will kindness will give me better shopping experiences.

    1. Pete Daly
      Pete DAly

      I owe you an apology. And I have learned it never hurts to apoligize. As soon as I clicked the send button I thought better of my comments. I work in a shopping mall in an old steel mill town near Pittsburgh where there may not be such severe class consciousness. All politics, and class consciousness, is local. I also find the bigger the city the more the class consciousness and the smaller the setting, like a small village, the less the class divisions.

      I can remember once walking into a blue collar bar to get a six pack and instantly being recognized by the guys (and they were all guys) as not of their class. I had on a tie and button down shirt. The comments that came my way were pretty nasty. I offer this eplanation very tentatively. Maybe class is more amplified if you are the same gender. Women who the US would sterotype as lower class rarely resent me, but it’s not the same way with men. Just an observation from real life, not something I think should be true.

      My apoligies again.

      Pete Daly

  3. Celeste Harmer

    Hey Pete!

    No harm done! 🙂 You didn’t upset me at all. 🙂 I think you’re onto something about perceptions of class between and among the genders. I can tell you that this clerk really got salty when she saw the address on my license was from the “better” side of the tracks.

    As a counterpoint, when my husband and I were at Mass this past Sunday, the couple behind us refused to shake our hands. As I originally stated in my article, I take flack from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Funny thing is, I now laugh when the people from my new, more affluent neighborhood are cold to me (as the people at Mass were). But I’m quick to get upset when someone from my old, less-affluent neighborhood gives me a ‘tude. I guess because my white collar is really a blue one in disguise, and it hurts me more when someone from the blue-collar world is rude to me.

    Thank you for responding to my post! I appreciate your time and thoughts, and again, you didn’t upset me at all. 🙂


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