Education, race, sex and age are only a few aspects that make up class in America. These storytellers recount their journeys using art to navigate the class system.
Guests: Nick Kupsey, Erlina Ortiz, Christian A’Xavier Lovehall, Nic López, Lexi White, Daniel Laurison
Read the transcript
COMMONSPACE: LOOKING CLASS
Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace, a collaboration between WHYY and First Person Arts. I’m your host Jamie J. Commonspace is a place where true personal stories about important issues connect us to each other and the world.
So, how often do you talk about class with family and friends? Complain about ends meeting; pay gaps, seemingly unbreakable ceilings? I’m sure you’ve noticed that everyone seems to have a different view about what it means to be working, middle or upper class. But did you know, in Benjamin Franklin’s time, the three classes were: “better”, “middling”, and “meaner.” Right! The people at the bottom were seen as coarse, vulgar, unfinished. Can you imagine? Whenever someone asked my grandmother how she was, she’d reply, “Fair to middlin’”. It gives that a whole new meaning for me.
Class titles may have changed, but the desire to improve our circumstances, to overcome income inequalities, to break through ceilings using sheer will, hard work and perseverance – it’s as powerful as ever. And the stories we bring you today follow the journeys of different writers in their pursuit of, or to retain prosperity through work, education, or by any means necessary.
So, today’s Commonspace episode is called, Looking Class.
Now many families find class stability by choosing the same career path for generations. I mean, from military and law enforcement to “the family business”. But in his career choice, Nick Kupsey felt at times like stability made him an invisible observer of the class mobility around him. Please welcome Nick Kupsey.
Nick Kupsey: Nobody says “I want to be a mailman when I grow up”, right? It’s usually something sexy like a cop or firemen. It’s not like someone graduates Harvard and says “You know what? I want to take a job with a crappy eagle mascot on the chest.”
I started with the United States Postal Service in July of 2002. I was laid off after losing my very prestigious job of running a family restaurant straight into the ground…and I was only half-heartedly looking for jobs in between getting drunk with my friends. My job prospects where somewhere between “Maybe I could become a bar back, maybe I could sell weed?” To be honest, my resume was about as thin as a supermodel who only eats ice cubes. Growing tired of having to hear me puke from my excessive drinking during my period of “fun-employment,” my brother, who at the time was an acting supervisor at the postal service came home and said “Dude, that’s it, I’m getting you a job. And when was the last time you showered?” Both my uncle and my brother worked at the same post office in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. And the interesting thing is that the Postal Service is one of the last places on earth where whole families can be employed. Fathers worked alongside sons, mothers along daughters, sometimes, spouses even. Which made it really interesting, trust me, it was a nightmare. It’s almost like a throwback to the old steel mills where generations of families all worked for the same company. Getting a job with the Postal Service is like hitting the blue-collar lottery. We used to have a saying where you go…“Yo, got the job, got the bennies, set for life!” Because it guaranteed that you were going to have a lifetime of employment. Rarely did they lay anyone off. I was a shop steward…like, there were people that that did drugs at work, and they kept their jobs. It was absolutely insane. And to be a letter carrier in those days still meant something. People held it in high regard as a respectable position and job. And it was my entry into the middle class. When you become a letter carrier, you instantly get woven into the fabric of the neighborhood you deliver to.
You get this glimpse into the lives of people you would never see otherwise if it weren’t delivering their magazines, or soap, or in some cases, sex toys. Look, nobody knows you better than your mailman, not even your mother. Remember that. I took this job thinking to myself, seriously, how hard can it be to walk? Like, I love walking; this has got to be a cake job.
I was gravely mistaken. Walking to the bar with your friends is one thing; But try walking in the middle of a heat wave while you have a fifty-pound bag on your back and the sweat is just dripping off your eyes and like, searing your eyeballs shut so you’re walking around streets looking like Bugs Bunny when he would crawl through a desert. I lost 35 pounds in my first three months as a letter carrier. I’m 5’6 – that’s what my license says, sticking to it – I’m 5’6” and I was 150 pounds at the time. I looked like I spent the past three months in a crack den. People actively worried about my health. They would come up to my friends and in hushed tones they’d be like, is Nick ok? And then they would come up to me and like, “are you alright?” And I would be like, “Dude, I’m just walking, man. Got that whole walker’s high.” It’s unlike any other job in the world. There’s just nothing else you can ever compare it to. There’s no water cooler to dish with coworkers. There’s no respite from the elements. The human body wasn’t meant to walk up so many steps or up so many hills while carrying fifty pounds of Victoria Secret catalogs. Actually in one week of work a mailman walks the equivalent of two marathons. So that’s a helluva strain on your body. And not to mention the strain on your mind – because it’s seven hours alone. Trust me...no human being is supposed to spend seven hours in their own head. And honestly, you know what it is? It’s like walking solitary confinement. That’s the best way I can describe it to you. Oh, and if you’re not careful, your mind can go to places it really, really shouldn’t.
Try going through a tough breakup when you have seven hours to think about nothing but that breakup. OK? You take all that and you add a blizzard and your mettle as a human being is tested in ways that only Special Forces people can understand.
But when it was good, damn, it was really good. The ability to walk, unabated, during a beautiful crisp fall day where there’s a light breeze and the sunshine just kinda skips across the grass...smell of leaves being burnt. People outside raking their lawns, talking to their neighbors. Kids wearing hoodies, riding bikes screaming at each other…there was joy to be found in the overlooked parts of our lives. Like how a cup of coffee in my mail truck while I was taking break just seemed to taste better while there was a light snowfall and no one was outside and you feel like you can see and hear for miles and miles. Or when I would deliver to row homes, and when all the row homes with porches were connected I felt like I was Spider man, swinging from porch to porch to porch. Or because I’m small, and like, a mailbox, I didn’t have to walk up the steps and I could just reach it, so I would just slam the mail into it like I was Michael Jordan taking a dunk over Shaq…
And don’t even get me started on the uniform…red, white, and blue…I looked damn good in it. I have really nice legs, so when I walked down the street, I looked like I was a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
People respected that hard work. They knew it was a tough beat to walk, but somewhere along the line that feeling changed. I don’t know if it was the recession, you know, the one where white collar folks literally screwed the economy up so bad that I would spend most of that period delivering certified eviction and foreclosure notices to good families. To people who had become my friends, and who did everything right. They tried to follow the American Dream, but they fell mercy of forces beyond their control. Yeah, that super fun time. And when the economy crashed, the Postal Service’s fortunes went down with it. My bag became lighter and lighters as mail volume plummeted, as did our country’s blue-collar base. But even more interesting, was how people began to view people who worked with their hands or sweat for a living. Liberals couldn’t understand how I still existed in the era of electronic communication and treated us, and myself, as a quaint, backwards throwback to a bygone era. Conservatives believed the postal service to be a drain on the federal government even though we received zero government assistance. We somehow went from a country that was like, “Hey, that’s my letter carrier, I love that dude!” to “You still have a job? Don’t people use email?” Oh sweet, thanks. Self-esteem’s perfect by the way.
There was a sea change on how people treated us and me in regards to my choice of employment. Suddenly it was ok for white-collar people to call me a “Glorified Paperboy”. People would actively look at me with contempt or confusion when I told them what I did for a living, which never any made sense to me because I was raised to never shame someone for how they earned a paycheck. Some women would flat-out not date me based on my job. It wasn’t impressive or sexy in today’s high tech, post-every-moment-of-your-life world. The ones that did would disparage both me and my job, publicly, and say things like “Well, you know, when Nick gets, like, a real job.” As if being a letter carrier was a phase, like how a teen becomes Goth halfway through sophomore year. This is true, people I actively dated said these things to my face, to my friends, to my family, to their families, as if making $60,000 a year with benefits and a retirement plan doesn’t constitute a real job. But who am I to say? I’m just a glorified paperboy.
In October of 2016, just as the election was reaching its strange fever pitch, I visited a high-end grocery store to procure some beer and charcuterie for what I was hoping to be a very relaxing night at home. I made my way to the beer section and as I was straddling the aisles, you know how you do, when you’re trying to look for something, you’re like, doing this…this gentleman about my age…tall, with like that, that impeccable white dude jaw, and, this, like, three piece suit that made him look like Lex Luthor or some other super-villain - took one look at me and said, “Hey, bro, Miller Lite’s over there.” I stared him down as I grabbed a six-pack of craft beer and slowly backed away as if to say “Glad you judged me on my uniform and not my suspect taste in strawberry wheat beer. I then made my way to the cheese and charcuterie section, because under that uniform I was a very fancy lad...and this woman about, probably around my age…hair, impeccably done. Make up done. Workout clothes…let’s just call her Becky… you know, she had that big Coach bag and the garish diamond ring that just screams “MY HUSBAND MAKES MORE MONEY THAN YOU!!” So she comes up to me and she says “Ooo, do you help you with anything?” Ggggrrrrr…Look I love charcuterie. I love cheese. I spent years in the restaurant business. I’ve taken classes on this stuff. I couldn’t help but feel insulted. She didn’t approach anybody else, only me. I took one look at her choices in her cart and I was like, “Ummm I wouldn’t pair that soft cheese with that Salami…”
I walked out of the store perplexed at how I was just treated. As I exited the doors all I could think of was “Yep. I think I know who’s going to win this election.”
I understand, and I’m not naïve. But I do believe we are our jobs. But our jobs don’t tell the entire story. And to judge people based on that is folly. Earn your keep, be a good citizen. That’s all that should matter. Somehow it no longer does. I would leave the Postal Service a few months later after spending fifteen hard yet rewarding years, and I had a little success of the comedy and a book. You know, also I wanted to leave because, who the hell wants to be a mailman when they grow up? When I tell people what I do now they immediately respect me and treat me differently from when I would tell them I was a letter carrier. I would be lying if I said it didn’t make a difference about how I feel inside or that it didn’t make a difference about how I viewed myself overall. I really wish it didn’t.
Jamie J: Nick, quick question…during the recent recession, more than 8 million people lost their jobs and 3.1 million homes were foreclosed on in 2008 alone. What was it like delivering foreclosure notices to homeowners during that time?
Nick Kupsey: It was probably one of the single most devastating things I’ve ever had to do in my life. These were people from all walks…they were middle class but from everywhere in the spectrum of humanity, and people that I had become very close with. Friendly…I would go to family parties, Christmas parties…and to walk up and give them…and the look on their face when they would come out of the door, and they would just have a white-washed look over their face, you know, knowing that this was it, there’s no more recourse, there’s nothing that they can do, and then a few days later you would see them moving out. And then a few months later you’d find out that they got divorced, or that a kid was hooked on drugs. It decimated them.
Jamie J: Wow. Thanks Nick.
Nick Kupsey: Thank you.
Studio Announcer: You’re listening to Looking Class, a special live edition of Commonspace, on WHYY-FM.
Jamie J: Nick Kupsey is a comedian, author and storyteller from Upper Darby, PA. He is the author of "The Five People You Meet In Wawa and co-founder of Laffcast.com, a comedy podcasting network.
Jamie J: Today, we have a special guest to help us kinda sort out this whole thing about class distinction. We invited Professor Daniel Laurison, author of the book “Class Ceiling” and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College. Welcome Professor Laurison.
So, we’re hearing stories about tonight about class mobility, but before we go any further, can you help us understand class stratification?
Professor Laurison: Sure. So, Nick was talking about his experience as a postal carrier, and a couple of times during that great story, he said, “I was middle class, these were middle class people.” And I heard Nick using “middle class” sort of, as opposed to rich, as opposed to well off, as opposed to at the top of the class structure. Another way people use “middle class” is, as opposed to poor, or as opposed to working class, or as opposed to not making it. So, when we talk about class one of the sort of key challenges that we have is that different people use the same terminology to mean really different things at different times, in different contexts, so, you know, “middle class” on its own doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, right? Lots of people use it to mean “regular just like me”.
If you give people on a survey the questions, are you working class, middle class, or upper class, most people will choose middle class. People with income near the bottom of the income distribution to near the top of the income distribution. So I think when we think about what does class mean, what is the class stratification system, it’s worth being specific whenever we can. Also, I’m an academic, so that’s what we do. But, you know, occupation is part of class; the other resources that you have are also really important parts of class. So, sociologists sometimes call those sorts of things, along with your education, and other stuff you know, “cultural capital” - ways that you understand the world that could be useful to you in getting ahead or doing well. The other thing I’d say about class definitions, is that for lots of sociologists, when we look at class definitions, we put blue collar jobs and working class together, and white collar jobs and middle class together, which is a different combination than Nick was doing. So I don’t think there is a right or wrong definition of class, but I think when you talk about class, you need to be as clear as you can about what you mean or you end up confusing people. The other thing I was going to say is that when we think about the stratification system, one of the functions of the sort of narrative of the American dream or the narrative of upward class mobility is sort of to make this argument that if everybody has a chance at the nice stuff in life, if the game is fair, so to speak, then the fact that the rewards are unequal is less of a problem.
Jamie J: Right.
Professor Laurison: Of course, we know as sociologists, and astute observers of the social world, the game is not fair. The game is not fair and has never been fair in this country for black and brown people, the game is not fair for women, the game is not fair for queer people, and there’s also ways in which the game is not fair in terms of class origin, right? So people from working class background, people who grow up with fewer resources, have less chance of getting those nice jobs, whatever they may be, especially the sort of white collar professional ones, than people from privileged backgrounds.
Jamie J: But class mobility comes at a cost, and for our next storyteller, Erlina Ortiz, its “price tag” was ever present. Here’s Erlina….
Erlina Ortiz: $11,000. That’s how much the American dream was worth. Cash. My mom is beautiful, brown, worried; she has dark curly hair that always makes me jealous. My dad is energetic, not as tall as you’d think considering how tall his kids came out. He is finally fulfilling his promise to my mother to buy her a house. He is all joy. He is bald. I’ve always known him with a shiny bald head. My older brother is about 12 years old. Tall, skinny, glasses, like me, brown. I am the only one in my family who came out pearly white. La Rubia. The blondie. It is 1998 and they are about to purchase The American Dream. Our house. And it wasn’t done with banks, or checkbooks, but with an auction, and pure hard earned cash, which my father pulls out in chunks from his pockets, then from underneath his hat…my mom pulls out from her fanny pack, and my brother pulls out from his shoes. I was too young so my little brother and I were not there but the story has been recounted to me in detail. “That way if one person gets robbed, the other two can run away!” Genius. When we first get to the house, I’m 9 years old and it is a haunted mansion. Three stories, 3 staircases. 2 full bathrooms, 5 bedrooms…we all get our own rooms for the first time! “Man,” My dad says joking. “We are gonna have to get beepers to find each other in this place!” I didn’t know how much $11,000 was really worth, but I knew that we were RICH. Like Richie Rich rich. When we first get to the house, it is covered in trash from top to bottom and we kids are enlisted as the clean up crew. Abandoned. Crack house maybe. I always wondered. One single bullet hole in the front window that I would run my finger around over and over wondering, “Who shot here? Why?” A crooked bush outside that only bloomed one week out of the year. We say we will trim the crooked bush, make it straight, but we never do. The kitchen, “it’s not my dream kitchen,” my mother says, “but it’s better than the one from our last apartment.” “I’ll build you your dream kitchen,” my father says. They measure every wall. They see the potential in every corner. If there was one day when my father was happiest, it was when we pulled the old piss-stained carpet up and saw beautiful hardwood floors underneath. When he saw the work, the sacrifice, the coming here when he was 16, the toil, the coming home after hours of working at the restaurant, smelling like grease, the sacrifice, the fear, the searching…finally, finally, finally --- being worth it.
$175. The gas bill to heat our new big house was maybe not something my parents had anticipated. The winters became brutal. I was always cold. My mother always made it clear what we had money for, and what we did not have money for. And we did not have money for everyone to be all comfy cozy in the house all the time. The summers were another kind of sweaty animal. We had two air conditioners. One was in my parent’s room of course and they only used it to sleep, and one was in the living room. My brothers and I would abandon our lonely hot bedrooms and bring all of our blankets and pillows into the living room and sleep in front of the air conditioner. We stay up late eating ice cream, watching Conan O’Brien…playing video games, telling stories. Happy. Before we realized our differences. Before it seemed like my opportunities kept growing while theirs kept shrinking.
$25. A new pair of shoes. “Erlina! Por dios, camina derecha! Walk straight! You are going to break your shoes again!” By the time I am 12 years old, I have the opposite problem of Nick Kupsey, at five foot eleven inches tall. Long bones.
I don’t know if it was the brutality of our poorly heated winters, or my diet of Tootsie Rolls, Caramelos, and Cheetos from the bodega, but my bones hurt. My body hurt. I walk on the edges of my feet. I feel like I need a cane and even the tainted spot on our bannister was used to haul myself up the stairs to my bedroom, where I escape into my books. My shoes bear the brunt of it. My mother buys me a new pair and within weeks the edges are completely shaven off to the point where you can see my socks. “Como! How are you doing that? I don’t have money for new shoes every week!” One morning her ire turns to worry when she sees me. Frozen. I am frozen. I need my arms to move my legs. And even my ribcage feels like it’s going to crack when I take a deep breath. “I can’t move mommy! I can’t move.” Okay, something wasn’t right.
$35. Co-pay. A diagnosis of Juvenile Arthritis. $6 for a bottle of Ibuprofen. My new candy. I need a new bottle every week. I need more, more, more, to keep the frozen away. 3 free visits to a physical therapist before the insurance stopped covering it. “Learn what you can from these three visits m’ija because we can’t come back.” We can’t come back? It’s too expensive.
$350. A flight to the D.R. As soon as we could save up enough. 2 suitcases for us and 4 suitcases for the family, to bring back an offering. “Here sister, here Tia, here nephew, here cousin. Forgive me for having more than you.” When we get to the airport my mother’s worst nightmare comes true. The suitcase is too heavy. It is too stuffed with love. We open the suitcase in the middle of the airport floor. What gets left behind? $2 shirt, $5 jeans, $8 pair of shoes. Who is not going to get the thing they wanted? Needed. This visit I am older. Dominican Republic, my birth land, had always been this magical land in my eyes filled with cousins, and hide and seek, y la playa, a break from the cold. But this time I see the need. I’ve gotta start making money, I think. I gotta make sure I can bring back someday too. This could be me. I was born an American citizen abroad, but being the giant recessive gene that I am, I came off so much whiter than my parents that it took four years for an investigation to conclude I was in fact my parents’ child. Yeah, so that took lawyers, and money. I feel ashamed for all the times I complained about my unfashionable clothes or my shoes to my mom. I start fixing my shoes myself by gluing pieces of cardboard to the bottom of them. My mom catches me one day. “M’ija we are not that poor!” I don’t know this but she tells me years later that it made her cry, to see me gluing my shoes together. We get a new pair the next day.
$300. Rent for my dad’s new apartment. He says to my mother, I don’t love you anymore and gets a room up the street. He still picks me up for school in the morning, so I see him then, but he never comes inside the house. One day he never shows up to pick me up, and we find out he is back in the Dominican Republic. The American Dream was not enough. He is searching again for something. Something I know he will never find. I don’t see him for 10 years. I miss the smell of grease when he came home.
$7 an hour. How much a soul is worth. I want to go to prom, I want to go on senior trip, I want to I want to buy a beautiful prom dress, and isn’t this what you wanted for me mommy? I want - Oh? Well you’re going to have to get a job and pay for it yourself Mi’ja. Things had gotten a little tight without my dad around. So Wendy’s it is. I lose my evenings for $35 dollars a day, before taxes. I get my first check and go, “Is that all? Is that all, really?” I come home and collapse onto my twin bed exhausted, smelling like grease. Like my father. I hate it. I hate the toil, the thankless job, the grease. How could he have done this all his life? This won’t be my life.
$2500. Bail money for my brother. The first time. The second time my mother leaves him in there, even though it tears her apart, so he will learn his lesson. He is 19. He is a jokester, smart. He is rage and resentment at my father. I see a bunch of the other girls in my grade getting pregnant, dropping out. Uh-umm. I think. That won’t be my life.
$6,000, per semester, for my education at Temple University. Everyone tells me I will go to college but when I see the price tag I’m not sure who was feeding me this impossible dream. But not going to college was not an option with my mother in charge. “It took me 10 years and I’m still paying for it but I did it!” She tells me. So I figure that I can probably do it too. Through scholarships, loans, and you know, grants and all that, I jump into a new class of the college educated. I join a Lambda Theta Alpha, Latin Sorority Inc. – where I see strong, smart, and professional Latina women for the first time. Women who dance bachata and salsa, who grew up eating the same foods as me, women who are leaders and activists. My mind is blown and the possibilities I see for my life feel infinite. I can do it all! I become president of the chapter. I get every type of apprenticeships or internships you can think of. I start babysitting for actual money. I take all the artistic work I can take, no matter how much it pays. I don’t need sleep! I am young! I am healthy! I am ambitious. I make a list of things I will accomplish by 25. Hmmm…nothing can stop me, I….
$25,000. About. I’m not sure what the full total was, actually, but it was a lot, for...emergency room, hospital stays, pain killers, CAT scans, x-rays, 3 surgeries, etc., etc.…I was still under my mother’s insurance…thanks Obama! Yeah, seriously…I don’t know if it was the over-achieving, the lack of sleep, or my diet of Ibuprofen, Red Bull, and Krispy Kreme cakes from the 7-Eleven but my intestine had had about enough. A diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. I lose 12 inches of my intestine, and gain the status of “disabled”. Disabled? No. I am not a disabled person, I was meant to do great things, I wasn’t brought here to this country, I didn’t work this hard to be disabled, this isn’t my life, I am not…
$750. Seven-hundred-and-fifty dollars a month for being disabled. Wait a second. This changes things up a bit. This covers rent! $750 a month buys me 9 months to recover from the surgeries and get back on my feet. I let go of the shame. I reorder my priorities. I start doing yoga everyday, I let go of my beloved junk foods, I schedule acupuncture, massages, and naps like rich people do. I determine that I will stop taking artistic work for free. I buy a book called “You Are A BADASS At Making Money”. No sooner than it is purchased do I cross off the last thing on my things I will accomplish by 25 list, only a year and a half delayed. Get paid properly for an acting gig. Yeah.
$7000. More money than I’ve ever seen at once. The first person I call is my mom. Not enough for your dream kitchen Mommy, but almost! I want her to know it was worth it. My brother bought our old house off of my mother a few years ago. He is in there among the memories with his fiancé, a pit bull named Buddy, and a cat named Ninja. He went to community college and he works in HVAC now, and is a master at Jiu Jitsu. I don’t know if that was his dream, but, I think he is happy. Whenever I go home sometimes I drive down pothole-ridden Front Street, past our old house. That crooked bush is still there. I can’t see it from the road but I’m pretty sure that mysterious bullet hole is still there too. I never go inside. Thank you.
Jamie J: Erlina Ortiz is a Dominican-American playwright, performer, and theatre-maker based in Philadelphia. Her plays have been produced by Power Street Theatre Company, where she is a resident playwright.
You know, for a while it was almost a given that children were expected to do better that their parents, right? But a recent March 2018 study by the Equal Opportunity Project revealed that children’s prospects of earning more than their parents have actually fallen from 90% to 50% over the past half century.
Professor Laurison, you spoke to Commonspace Associate Producer Jen Cleary about parent versus their children’s income as well. You said class is a “sticky thing”. What did you mean by that?
Professor Laurison: Sure…you know, despite all the rhetoric about, you know, the dream of social mobility, it’s actually not that common for people to change classes radically over the course of their life course. It’s especially unlikely for people of color in this country because of the racist policies we’ve had over the course of…you know, the whole time…
I was going to say something more specific, but you know, I can fill those in. So definitely many people change classes over the course of their life, but the idea that there’s a fair playing field, that everyone, if they just work hard, can do better than their parents, it’s not ever been true for many groups of people in this country, and it was actually sort of a rare blip in the middle of this century, that for white Americans at least, because of the changes in the occupational structure, because there were so many more higher paying jobs, and so many more white collar jobs being created, that people could have higher incomes, and sort of better jobs in terms of better respected, more professional, etcetera. So that’s one way in which class is sticky, that social mobility is not equally available to all of us, and is not a fair playing field. The other way that class is sticky, is that the class that you grow up in, the ways, you know, that your family works when you’re a kid stay with you into adulthood. There’s a concept from a French sociologist called Pierre Bourdieu, where he talks about this thing called Habitus. And all that really means is that the ways you understand the world are deeply shaped when you’re a kid, and the ways that we learn to see and understand the world are different in different social positions. And that stays with you into your grown up life.
Jamie J: Wow. I think everyone agrees that education is an essential motor for class mobility, right? But education is not an option for everyone. In fact, for some families, the sacrifice of one member seems greater than that of the others. Storyteller Christian A’Xavier Lovehall shares his memories of a larger than life man, whose place in the family as the eldest of all the other siblings, made his sacrifice required. Please welcome Christian A’Xavier Lovehall…
Christian A’Xavier Lovehall: My mom struggled a lot trying to raise me. She was low income, a single mother...divorced...and caretaker to her elderly mother, who lived with paranoia schizophrenia. Struggles that eventually led to her alcoholism and drug abuse...that led me down long dark roads of foster care, group homes, and shelters. Unknowingly to her, I would watch my mom. Spy on her. I would watch her cry in her bedroom and pray to Jah, and ask him to take me away, because she couldn’t handle everything that was on her plate...including raising me. It was hard for her to be proud of a daughter who was ultimately a transgender batty boy. “Chi Chi mon fi dead!” they say. There are people in Jamaica who want to kill people like me. But my grandfather – my grandfather – he always saved the day.
When my mom wanted to lessen her stress load, she would drop me off at my grandfather’s. He lived in South Philly, Wilson Projects to be exact. And I spent several days a week with him. I always looked forward to spending time with my “Pop-Pop”. He stood 6’4, but due to bad posture, many people only believed him to only be 6’2. He was a joyous man, with a wide smile that carried several missing teeth. His voice was raspy and deep, but with me it was always soft. The whites of his eyes were brown as the liquor that seeped thru his pores. But staying with my grandfather was a warm escape from the harsh realities I experienced at home. But I hated his cooking and he knew it. I think it was all the hot sauce and spice. But going to my grandfather’s meant all the pizza I could stand! And burgers and fries. I really, really loved burgers and fries.
And on top of all of that, when my grandfather and I would go into places like Checkers and Burger King, he would always give me money...cash…and put it in my hand, and allow me to order and pay for our food. And he would stare and smile at me in amusement, because at the age of 6 years old, I just knew I was grown! I had money! But things began to change, as I grew older, I began to internalize feelings of being unwanted and unloved by my mom. I thought of suicide quite often. And I was always sad and angry at the same damn time. And I remember getting dropped off at my grandfather’s house one day, I was about 13 years old. I didn’t want to go. I was depressed and I started to feel like a burden to both my mom and my grandfather. And when I arrived, he noticed my demeanor, and in attempts to cheer me up, he offered to take me to Burger King. I didn’t wanna go, but he insisted and I figured that the walk would be nice. I was wrong. It was hot, very very hot that day, and when we arrived at BK, It was crowded, the line was long, it was lunchtime. I just wanted to get out of there. As we got closer to the cashier, my grandfather, he did what he always does...he dug in his pocket, pulled out some money to give to me to order our food. But I was in my feelings that day, and I refused to take the money. When we got up to the cashier and it was our time to order...I watched my grandfather slowly point to the value meal he wanted on the enlarged menu, behind the cashier. Immediately the cashier gets an attitude, refuses to turn around, and becomes frustrated with my grandfather’s slow pace. And for the first time, I was not on my grandfather’s side. In my mind agreed with the cashier. I wanted to go. My grandfather grew increasingly embarrassed and yanked me out of the restaurant that day without ordering. When I got home I ended up ordering us a pizza over the phone. My grandfather passed away when I was 15 years old. It was a very emotional time for me. I felt empty and alone. And I remember at the re-pass, listening to estranged uncles and aunts, and cousins and “play cousins” share stories about my grandfather. My uncle playfully boasted, “Mi Glad mi don’t haffi pay mi broder’s bill no more!” And my aunt reply, “Wah ya mean? Yuh paid wid iz own money!” See, my uncle paid my grandfather’s bills with my grandfather’s own money. Hearing these stories, I came to understand that my grandfather could not read. He was the oldest of 8 siblings. His father was a grower of sugar. And at the age of 9 my grandfather had to quit school and to help tend to the sugar cane. When they would go to school, my grandfather and his brothers and sisters were often teased because they were so poor. They would wear shoes and clothes with holes in them. And my grandfather quitting school allowed them to buy new shoes and patches. He provided money for them to eat. It was a generational sacrifice. One rooted in oppression…poverty…and lack of access.
A sacrifice that wasn’t by choice, but one my grandfather was born into. It was something that turned little boys into big men. But that manhood came with a deep shame. And my grandfather was the chosen one. But he was our hero. Hearing this truth took me back to that one day in Burger King. I realized that my grandfather struggled ordering that day because he could not read. All those years he gave me that money because he could not understand the menu. I also realized that those smiles of amusement were also smiles of pride. I was a product of his sacrifice. Seeing his grandchild read and count money was important to him and meant the world. He was able to see me live a life he was not able to live. I was a confirmation that all those years he worked on that plantation was not in vain, and it was worth it. I was his daily reminder that things do get better. I beat myself up about that day for many years. As a teenager I became what people call a bookworm. I was most captivated by black writers and poets such as Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. I spent summers at the free library, in the parkway, drowning in stories and books. Eventually I became a poet and a lyricist. I released 10 albums of conscious hip hop independently, and I even performed with celebrities whom I admire, like Black Thought from the Legendary Roots Crew, The Floacist, from the neo-soul duo Floetry and the late Guru from Gang Starr. And in hindsight, I realize that all of that is a manifestation of what it looks like to keep on my grandfather’s memory and to continue a legacy of greatness. It is also a daily reminder to myself that things do get better. And we gonna be alright.
Studio Announcer: You’re listening to Looking Class, a special live edition of Commonspace, on WHYY-FM.
Jamie J: Christian A’Xavier Lovehall is known for his poetry, music, and freedom fighting. Through his Stage persona: Wordz the Poet Emcee, as he said, he’s released several albums, a documentary and a poetry chapbook. He’s also the founder of Philly Trans March.
Of course, we’re all familiar with the term “Glass Ceiling”. It’s a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier keeping a group, or a person, from rising beyond a certain level. Professor Laurison, within that same concept, you wrote a book called, “Class Ceiling” about class mobility. You purport that class mobility does not end with access to education, or getting “that job” or “that house”, or finally “arriving”…does it?
Professor Lauriston: Yeah, so, the book is about people who come from working class backgrounds whose parents did manual or blue collar labor, and who have become doctors or lawyers or CEOs or professors, and the ways in which their class background continues to matter in those jobs. This is a study of folks in the UK, but you see very similar patterns in the US, that people who are lawyers from working class backgrounds, or any of those sort of high status elite jobs, tend to earn on average about 6,000 pounds, which is about $9,000 less a year than otherwise similar people from privileged origin backgrounds. So there’s actually sort of a class pay gap that is similar in many ways to the gender pay gap that we’ve heard about. And I think that’s important because it gets at the ways that class is sticky, and the ways that merit is tricky. The ways that when people judge each other in jobs and interviews, etcetera, they’re often making classed judgments, but they think they’re making judgments about merit or skill or talent. So that class background continues to matter, even at the point where, you know, somebody’s a lawyer, somebody’s a doctor; class has a, sort of a profound and deep effect on how our lives turn out, no matter where we land.
Jamie J: Our final storyteller, Nic López, is a queer Latinx DJ, poet, and activist. She’s currently the Executive Director of GALAEI: A Queer Latin@ Social Justice Organization.
Nic Lopez reminds us of the beauty of the human spirit and introduces us to the power of “Bregando”. Please welcome Nic Lopez.
Nic Lopez: The Spanish verb “to struggle” is bregar. At least to Puerto Ricans. But it means so much more to me. When we Puerto Ricans use this word, we mean that gritty determination, right? It’s that deeply cultural will to not just survive scarcity and hardship but also to use creativity and humor to thrive within it. It’s why I fell in love with Philly so much. I’ve come to realize it’s a city of neighborhoods with histories of people and communities just constantly bregando. The people, they live freely. And you feel it most in the air in North Philly on the first warm summer day, when the winter finally cracks and you step outside for a walk and smell pinchos and the weed in the air, and you hear salsa blasting from the local music store, but also in the alley ways all of a sudden you hear a rooster…all against the concrete of a ball dribbling. Children laughing. There’s life. And even though the papers and the studies will tell the same thing over and over again, that for 46 years Latinos in the city have remained in the same economic line. That over 40 percent of Latino children are living below the federal poverty line. We’re the poorest of the poor. But its people, still find beauty in bregando. They struggle to go beyond resistance, to grab everything.
“Yo no me quito”- is a phrase my mother would constantly tell me. “I ain’t gonna give up”. It echoes in me today, as I make these moves as an adult. And for the longest time I forgot about my mother, and that life in Florida. I was fixated running away from that Jim Crow South, that barren dead zone of palm trees, and white folks who rode around in pickup trucks, waving confederate flags who asked f***ed up questions like “Where in Mexico is Puerto Rico? I was running away from that type of constant struggle. The constant game en bregando. You see, because bregar has been that rhythm that I have proposed, and that I’ve imposed, and that I’ve transposed, and reposed, and posed in the phenomenon of just trying to survive. Right? It’s all that shinnying up and digging down into the flavor that came out of Villa Turabo, Caguas, Puerto Rico, Daytona Beach Florida, Philadelphia, United States of the America, the Earth, the Solar System…and the images of survival are always here with me. If I close my eyes, by now at the end they’re gonna appear: in a form of a book. Toothpaste and a tub. Our daily feast. See, my mother new how to conjure up magic. And sometimes I imagine myself rescuing my mother from that pain of bregando. A time traveling of sorts where I return to scenes of angst and sometimes despair and I come up with the answers I wish I had then.
Like one Christmas, when my father was living with another woman, while still married to my mother, he brought this bag full of presents, with his woman and her daughter in hand, and comes inside our house to pass out the gifts to my brothers and me. And even though it was late morning, the house was entirely quiet. No one woke up early that Christmas. And when he showed up, all of a sudden we were happy and we opened our gifts while my mother slept--or stayed in bed. And this was the same father who would be in and out of our lives, who actually broke into our house to steal our Super Nintendos and pawn them for cash for his next fix of crack. That same father who would come home with the yellow in his eyes and his daily cologne of Budweiser beer - would beat my mother senseless, for not making enough money, and turn around and say to a 5 year old girl, “Shhhay…you know that I love her right?”— that man. Who after he left, I went into my mother’s room to show her one of the things that I received. It was a word processor to type away, before computers. And all Mami said was, “Nicole, I’m sorry for this Christmas that I didn’t have a lot of money”. And she handed me a small gift anyway, wrapped in newspaper. And when I opened it, I saw it was a book.
This morning when I woke up and I began my morning routine, I noticed that my toothpaste was almost gone. And I was about to throw it away, when all of a sudden I heard my mother’s voice say suddenly “Nicole, saca las tijeras,” – “Cut it open, scrape the sides. There’s always more than what you can see”. I experienced a possession of Mami. An apparition of scenes where she would conjure up magic, in the most fantastical ways. ‘Cause let me tell you, we were some po’Ricans. But I never felt poor living in those Florida project apartments. Mami taught us the ritual of bregando. Like that one time we had no electricity - no electricity in Florida, in the deep south, on a hot summer day. And we received a notice that our water was about to be cut off by the city. So Mami quickly sprung into action. Ran to the bathroom and she filled the bathtub with water, just enough to ensure we would have clean water to use and bathe the next day. And then she ran into the closet and she started pulling out a bunch of frisas and started hanging them up in la sala, and she lit candles and she looked at me and she said, “Mira Nicole estamos camping.”
My mother’s never been camping.
My mother loved us ferociously. And that’s how she gave us hope. By Bregando with the circumstances. When I was older I found out that for 20 years she would wake up every single day at 5 am in Holly Hill, Florida, to take me and my brothers to school, to then teach four -years-old in Head Start, because she saw the genius of those children, the future possibilities, and their shapes and their colors, in their drawings, and all their ways…all of them poor, all of them black and brown. And she hoped, a utopic hope, that she could help some. Because she saw the possibilities of the many Americas within the Américas. -- the possibilities before they are wiped out. I found out that my mother only made $12,000 a year for twenty years.
She loved us. And at our hungriest, when we would open up the refrigerator and there would only be water, she somehow conjured up the magic of serving us feasts. It would be in the form of white rice, one can of tuna fish, one boiled egg, and one tomato to dice up. That was a feast. And there was always enough to serve the many. But I wondered, because I noticed my mother would never eat when we would…What does she eat?
There is nothing like an everyday moment, like waking up and brushing my teeth. That you start to experience it in triplicate: past, present future, and you experience the trauma and the ecstasy over and over again like a history, or a virus, or a haunting.
And there’s is no choice sometimes between remaining true to that class in that Daytona Beach project apartment, or when you’re paying rent in studio in Philly, and you still remember the rituals of Bregando…like what I did last night where I left the lights on in the kitchen through the night, and the cabinets open, so that in case I got a little thirsty and wanted a cup to drink I felt a little less queasy about what sorts of feet might have been crawling on the rim of the cups.
Estamos bregando…we do this to go beyond resistance, to grab everything. And that’s how we say “f*** poverty!” By learning quietly the language of survival in Bregando.
Jamie J: Thank you, Nic. Thank you. It seems to me that as long as we’ve had class labels, we’ve had class mobility. And it’s been inspired by this unstoppable human spirit to better our circumstances. But what about the second part of Adam’s American Dream? His “utopian” ideal that once we succeed in moving through the classes, we will be welcome into society based on what we achieve and not where we’re from? Is that really possible in America? I don’t know. As we’ve heard today, class movers stand on the shoulders of generations before them, whole communities working together -- all struggling to move. But do we really need the acceptance of other people to be content with our hard worn accomplishments? Like I said, I don’t know, but if we didn’t, wouldn’t that be utopia?
This has been Commonspace, a collaboration between WHYY and First Person Arts. And this Commonspace is a place where true personal stories about important issues connect us to each other and the world. It’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Listen and subscribe to us anytime at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
I’m Jamie J, your host, thank you so much good night.
Looking Class was directed by Gabrielle Sanchez. Our story tellers were Nick Kupsey, Erlina Ortiz, Christian A’Xavier Lovehall, and Nic Lopez. Poet Lexi White appears in the online version of this program. Our guest commentator was Professor Daniel Laurison, and the percussionist was Karen Smith. Conor Lundrem was the Stage Manager, and Jen Cleary was the Production Manager. The Commonspace team includes Executive Producer Elisabeth Perez Luna, Producer Mike Villers, and Associate Producers Ali L’Esperance and Jen Cleary. And from First Person Arts, Dan Gasiewski Tanesha Ford, and Archivist Dr. Neil Bardhan. Our engineer was Charlie Kaier. I’m your Host, Co-writer, and Producer, Jamie J Brunson. Thanks again for listening to Commonspace.