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The Privilege Button

“Do not, under any circumstances, tell us you grew up in poverty.” An essay by Maya Jewell Zeller.

  • December 6, 2019
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  • Feature
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  • By Maya Jewell Zeller

This essay originally appeared in a different form in the anthology, This is the Place: Women Writing About Home.

A young poet with low elite-culture literacy walks into a wine bar and scans the menu, not sure what to order. She’s trying to come off as sophisticated—after all, she holds an advanced degree—but wine bars make her nervous, because she has never heard most of the menu items pronounced out loud. She finds something that sounds simple and familiar enough—she knows well what wild things a hungry person can eat. Rose hips are high in vitamin C, and they make a bittersweet, earthy tea. The poet says loudly, confidently, “I’ll have the RŌSE,” pronouncing it like the flower, one syllable, with a long O.

“What’s that?” asks the bartender, assuming he misheard.

Her friend leans in, interjecting. “She’ll have the rosé.”

“Right,” the poet says, blushing. “That’s what I meant.”

When the wine comes, it does not taste like roses. This is because it is drawn from the skin of fermenting red grapes. Named for its color, it has nothing to do with flowers.

*

When I was a child, I dreamed of a literary life. I could feel it when I read poetry—the dark spirit of the earth coming up, as Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca would say, through the soles of the feet.

Wrote Lorca: “One must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.”

My blood is sort of more like a trailer park.

But this is the story of how I came to live in an H.O.A., an acronym which you may know, but in case you, too, were ever flustered at a dessert menu, and had to look up how to pronounce “ganache,” H.O.A. stands for “homeowners’ association,” which comes with a set of rules for neighborhood living.

*

            Fairwood Park Protective Covenants, 2.04—Temporary Structures: No trailer, basement, tent, shack, garage, barn, camper or other outbuilding or any structure of temporary character erected or placed on the property shall at any time be used as a residence.

When we first moved to town, my husband and I lived in a 1912 house near West Central Spokane. We pulled weeds, planted lilacs, phlox, and fruit trees. We put plastic on our old windows to keep out the cold, and when, that first January, the temperature dropped into the negatives for over a week, we used a hair dryer to thaw the un-insulated pipes too close to the foundation wall. We tried wrapping them, too, but it seemed their freezing was inevitable. There were things about the house that we couldn’t fix, and we loved it.

I always felt rich there, and I thought our $100,000 loan was a fortune. We were homeowners! Or, at least, could be if we made our payments. I was still baffled by the notion of permanent address. My parents had been renters, even squatters; sometimes, we lived in a garage. Sometimes, we lived in a van. When I repeated this to my husband, years into marriage, he shook his head and said, with a realization I hadn’t reached, “Maya, you were homeless.”

I had never thought of myself as homeless. Itinerant, maybe, gypsy, sure—I didn’t yet know the term’s problematic usage. Not homeless. More like a mouse after a flood, finding a new place for its nest.

We made those nests in rural areas, where we ate salmon my brother caught from the river, blackberries we picked in the fields. We always had some kind of roof, a basin, a wood stove. We usually went to school, and we visited the library.

Wrote Lorca: “One must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.”

My blood is sort of more like a trailer park.

My mother sang Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” while she darned our socks, and my father hummed “King of the Road” when, two beers into the night, he still felt jolly. Sometimes, my father drove a tow truck, and filled the bushes around our homes with junked cars, treasure troves where we discovered free cassette tapes (!) and cool T-shirts (!). The cars were playhouses, magic passageways to other lives, fuel to dreams of a future in which I would be sophisticated enough to attend fancy fundraiser desserts in ornate buildings. I dreamed these things the way a child dreams them, without any real awareness of my family’s economic status, without any shame of it.

Section 2.05—Minimum Dwelling Cost: No single family dwelling shall be permitted on any lot at a cost of less than $100,000 exclusive of land.

When I began college in the late 90s, the socioeconomic privilege of my peer cohort was often taken for granted by my instructors, who said things like, “Well, we can’t really understand, being middle class.” They used words like cul-de-sac and IRA, and sometimes made cultural references from TV shows like Seinfeld and stations like CNN. They said The Dow is down two points; I kept my eyes low. I didn’t really know what middle class meant, though I’d been passing so far. When I took a course in the culture of poverty as it related to education and language register, I finally understood: I grew up “in poverty,” “in a family of addiction.” But I knew how to move between formal and informal language register, so no one picked up on my past. Still, I was what we were studying: how to move from a culture of poverty into a culture of education. How to serve an “at risk” population, students who had family lives like mine: cycles of addiction, impermanent addresses, free and reduced lunches. In discussion, my classmates often said things like “I had no idea so many people in America lived like this,” or “I never realized poverty could be so beyond your control.”

I kept quiet; I was not interested in being a lab rat. I was not interested in changing, in their view, from a competent, assertive person I’d worked so hard to become, into an anomaly of class transcendence. How many questions would follow? They were questions I did not feel comfortable answering.

*

Section 2.06—Minimum Dwelling Specifications: . . . All dwellings shall have enclosed garages of at least 20 feet by 22 feet, with completely sealed interior, walls and ceilings, and with fully paved driveways to the street.

A few years ago, after careful deliberation, frugal living, and in accordance with the standard social mobility of the educated middle class, my husband, children, and I moved from our “starter home” into a four-bedroom, three-bath house in a 1970s neighborhood, north of town, with a half acre yard and HOA bylaws. I was nervous about acclimating to these new, strange rules, but I had also grown weary of nightly car break-ins, anxious from regular sirens, and I looked forward the quiet of stars.

At our first HOA meeting, people were welcoming, but some felt furious about the Smiths, converting their one-family home into a shared living space for their parents and elderly friends (“Three families in one house? Who heard of such a thing? There’ll be cars coming & going all hours of the day!”). And they also ranted about the apartments just beyond our HOA boundary, transitioning to low-income, government housing. It’s the beginning of this conversation, and I pick up a subtext: do not, under any circumstances, tell us you grew up in poverty. This breaks Section 2.08, Exterior Maintenance, which stipulates, among other things, you must always keep a clean curb.

*

For several years, I taught writing at a private liberal arts institution, a school known for its basketball teams, its Jesuit tradition, and its students’ relative privilege. (There are students on full scholarship, from Washington apple country, urban areas, or small Montana towns, who navigate a sense of culture shock and socioeconomic gap even wider than the one I charted at a state school.) In my first year of adjunct work at this private college, where at the time my salary was less than my students’ tuition, I approached the topic by teaching Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she works as a Merry Maid. When students expressed surprise at the maids’ working conditions, of the meager American Dream offered to someone employed full-time, or when they made statements about how a person could “pull themselves out of it” if they “get a degree,” I asked how many of their families employed maids; half the class raised their hands. After their awkward glances and equivocations, I shared that, to put myself through college, I worked as a custodian, changing sheets and cleaning dorm showers of high school football campers who, mostly oblivious to who replaced their towels, would sometimes prank us by shitting in the shower or behind the beds.

My students went back to their dorms and cleaned their own toilets; they ventured into Spokane on city buses, many of them using public transportation for the first time. In reflective research essays, they referenced these experiences, a range of statistics, Ehrenreich and other authors, and the university’s social justice mission. But it was still difficult to help those sweet young people–many of whom, since the age of sixteen, had driven their own cars (cars in which they did not also live)–understand how hard work does not necessarily equal a fair shot.

As is the case with many of us raised in (and out of) economic poverty, as an adult, I often feel guilt over my privilege. At the private university, I rarely admitted this to my students. I also didn’t tell them that Barbara Ehrenreich’s anthropological experiment made me personally angry, that her immersion in poverty for the sake of narrative journalism felt like exploitation, that I always feared the essays I assigned might skirt appropriation. The entire time Ehrenreich worked undercover as a journalist, she had a bank account on which she could fall back, health insurance she could access. She did not have to make any hard choices; for her, there was a clear end to poverty. I understand what she was doing, though: passing. Playing a role.

*

My navigation of this world is still tenuous. I don’t always pronounce words correctly, and I don’t fully understand middle class social cues. I sometimes make generalizations, like “Many people who grow up with money don’t understand they have money.” (My children will be these people, no matter how much I ask them to reflect; they cannot fathom that the amount we spend each month for piano lessons is the equivalent of what my family once paid monthly in rent.)

I am deeply grateful for my life, but the irony of my socioeconomic extravagance, and the existence of systems that privilege my particular literacy and race, does not escape me. When I drive home from work in my functional car, past the “No Soliciting” signs at the neighborhood entrance, the deer grazing in yards, where pre-programmed sprinkler systems water the plants, when I pull into my “fully paved driveway,” I reach up to my sun visor and press the button on my automatic garage door opener. Like magic, the door glides up. I call the garage door opener “the privilege button,” and every time I push it, I shake my head, giggle to myself.

I laugh, but I also tell the story to my students, where I now teach, at a state school. I tell them I want to believe if we communicate thoughtfully across our intersectional ad- and dis-advantages, we might bridge some boundaries. I tell them I still need to work on my daily actions, my hypocrisies—we all do.

I tell them that when I push the privilege button, my garage door glides up to reveal a very human, middle class mess: kayaks stacked on cement blocks, bicycles and scooters piled on a lawn mower, old tires still in their bags, an unplugged refrigerator, a workbench covered with tools and manila folders, crates of books, a box of childhood treasures, old cassette tapes. They’re safe and warm here in this “completely sealed interior.”

The door that conveniently leads directly from garage to house opens, and out spill two giddy children, their faces sticky with melon juice. They’ve been practicing piano, building worlds that lead to Narnia. They’re learning to say words in more than one language, and they’re learning what code switching means, and they’re learning they must practice empathy, be mindful when they push their privilege buttons. They have big dreams and finely tuned senses of humor. And on the off chance we find ourselves in an expensive restaurant, they’ll probably laugh kindheartedly at their mom, who still won’t be sure if she got it right: “ganache.” “Guanache?” Whatever.

Maya Jewell Zeller is currently at work on a memoir called “The Privilege Button.” She is also the author of the interdisciplinary collaboration (with visual artist Carrie DeBacker) Alchemy For Cells & Other Beasts (Entre Rios Books, 2017), the chapbook Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015), and the poetry collection Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press, 2011). She also contributed to the anthology Women Writing About Home (Seal Press 2017), and her prose appears in such places as Brevity, Bellingham Review, and Booth Journal. Recipient of a Promise Award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation as well as a Residency in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Maya teaches for Central Washington University and edits for Scablands Books. Find her on Twitter @MayaJZeller and Instagram @mayajewellzeller, or visit mayajewellzeller.com for more info.