I’m not sure what my collar color is.
If anyone were to accompany me on my daily routine they would likely suspect I derive from at least the middle class. They would witness me driving one of our two off-road capable sport utility vehicles, working out at a state-of-the-art university gym, and spending much of my leisure time reading at a coastal cove in one of the most expensive cities in the state of California (Laguna Beach). I go sailing, wine-tasting, jogging, tanning, shopping, and dining with relative frequency. I have a psychiatrist, a massage therapist, a tutoring clientele list, a large flat-screen television, a BluRay DVD player, a handful of iToys, and a variety of other utterly useless electronic gadgets. I recycle regularly and watch movies like “Food, Inc.” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” during the viewing of which, I nod appreciatively and wad handfuls of Orville Redenbacher “extra butter popcorn” into my large maw with a significant sense of purpose.
I’m aware of irony. It’s not like it isn’t overt.
Fucking capitalists. Hey! Where the hell is my iphone? I need to text C—- and tell him to watch this shit. They actually feed Tyson chickens that crap? Dear God.
The truth is I frequently struggle with our middle class “success.” To be sure, we’ve by no means “got it made” or anything even remotely along those lines (although it can be eye-opening to live in the midst of such incredible opulence). We live in graduate student housing on the perimeter of a university. Our utilities are paid for by the state and we have few substantial financial obligations. Life is comfortable, not obnoxiously ornate. We have a front-row seat to the ostentation that is Orange County, but have personally only dabbled in it’s richest offerings only a handful of times.
It wouldn’t, however, be an exaggeration to admit I come from the working class poor. Neither of my parents owned property while I was growing up; my father spent my entire childhood in a one-bedroom apartment. When my brothers and I would visit him we would sprawl out in our Ninja Turtle sleeping bags in the living room and dine on appetizers from Taco Bell’s 99 cents menu. We would fall asleep to some romantic comedy VHS dad had rented at 49’er video (he loves romantic comedies, even shitty ones). On other occasions we would gather around the foot of his twin bed and listen as he provided us with a musical survey of the best of classic rock.
He would play Dylan and Creedence, Clapton and Cream. Grateful Dead, Springsteen, The Beatles, Dire Straits, Neil Young, and Rolling Stones. Young Nathanael would freak out by the dark guitar solo in “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and tuck himself under his sleeping bag. Dad’s CD collection remains, to this very day, his most valuable possession. (Lacking anything else to “divide” in a will, he’s prescribed specific information for how this collection is to be split up in the event of an early death.)
My mom was an L.V.N. (licensed vocational nurse) for several decades before only recently becoming an R.N. (Registered Nurse). Before she completed school for either degree she was a single mom of four boys (which, if you’re not familiar with the experience, is like presiding over a small hurricane). At one point she collected welfare while managing a self-service gas station in the evenings. In elementary school, my brothers and I were eligible for reduced-cost lunches. We had little beige coupons we presented to the mustached lunch ladies that secured us cheap servings of chicken patties, Jell-O, and our choice of chocolate or white milk. Surprisingly, I actually grew to find the food quite comforting. I was raised on blue-collar food. This is something I still struggle with today, even as I attempt to embrace healthier and fresher culinary options.
If it was good enough for us, why isn’t it good enough for you?!. Costco feeds a family of hungry boys just fine; why the hell do you all of a sudden need to shop at a fucking farmer’s market?
In the back of my head I realize precisely how silly this particular speculation is. But food and I have always been at war with one another and I long ago stopped trying to make sense of all of it.
The night my mom graduated from her L.V.N. Associate’s degree in the late 1980s, Sacramento was hit with a major flood. Our old blue van stalled in a tepid pool of water outside of the college. My mom trudged out in her white graduation gown, four young boys in tow. Her gown was soaked as she smiled and accepted her degree. It was like a baptism in more ways than one.
“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
Today, both of my parents are doing fine, financially-speaking. My mom owns a home in the Sacramento area. When she and my step-dad bought it almost a decade ago, it was the first home ownership of her life. My dad earned his J.D. in his fourth decade and presently teaches courses at a business college in China.
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I drive down to Pacific Coast Highway and park my car in some free space near Balboa Peninsula or Laguna Beach. I jog up and down the soft sand or the concrete walkways, scanning my surroundings. The sun cooks the beach, makes the ocean sparkle. Tans and silicon rush by me; sometimes dolphins leap along the wave-break line. It’s all plastic – the waves, the sky, the people – and I’m fascinated.
And I shit you not, sometimes I have been known to take a post-workout lunch of Taco Bell 99-cent items with me.