A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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When we would walk down Sixteenth Street in San Francisco to the schoolyard or across Sanchez to the corner store, we’d keep a lookout for cool cars. If one drove by — a red Mustang convertible, a tiny MG, a black Jag with the silver cat ready to pounce off the hood — whoever saw it first would point and say, “That’s my car!” We could play this game anywhere, my brothers and their buddies and I, shouting the words loud and fast to drown out anyone else who might be thinking about claiming the same car. You could even play the game alone, whispering the three magic words while walking home from school or sitting in a window seat on the bus, leaning your drowsy head against the sun-warmed glass. Then the car would speed off through the traffic, carrying your dreams out of sight. You’d covet, grasp, and lose, all in a few quick seconds of shiny colored metal whizzing by.
But time, like traffic, moves on. In a moment that lasts maybe a year or two, everything that was clear about the world becomes hazy and then sharpens up again, like the view through a camera lens as you twist the focus in and out. What you once knew without thinking begins to clash with the evidence darting out at you from all around — from TV and movies and comic books and magazines, and even real life, like the way your mother oversmiles as she takes the crumpled green bills out of her fabric wallet and hands them to the department-store clerk to pay for the book, scarf, dress, hat, and kerchief that you need to join the Brownies. This is the moment when you discover that there are people out there who have things that you don’t have. You’re not sure why things are different for these other people, but you’re sure how they are different: these people have lots of things — new things, big things — and they are always getting more things, and even the things they throw out are things you wouldn’t mind having. Now that you know this, it is hard to make a game out of claiming cool cars as your own. And no one you know — not even your father, who finds you melancholy in front of Saturday-morning cartoons — can comfort you, because they have long known and therefore cannot understand the awfulness of these truths: that the world goes on around you, and parts of this life are untouchable.
I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and what it causes and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person. It gets inside you, nestles into your bones, and gives you a chill that you cannot shake. Poverty becomes you — it shapes what you see and taste and dream — till there is no telling where you stop and poverty begins. To be poor is to live in denial — not the denial of professional counselors and self-help books, which is an avoidance of some truth too painful to admit, but denial in its most literal sense: you must say no to yourself constantly. Being poor means stripping down to the essentials, and there’s not much a person really needs to survive — bread, cheese, blankets, a little black-and-white TV, some toothpaste, soap, pencils, a library card. In and of itself, it isn’t bad not to have things, and if all of us lived this way, there would hardly be anything wrong with it at all. To be poor is one thing; to know that you are poor is another thing altogether. That is when poverty becomes poison.
In my junior high school, an L-shaped, four-story stucco building with a yard covered in blacktop and painted with white and yellow lines, I got transferred into what was then called the “gifted classes.” It was there that I met people, not just characters on TV or in the movies, but real people who were gifted in every sense of the word — gifted with homes and meals and stereos and cars and vacations, and gifted also with a faith in the rightness of the world and their place in it, a faith that was, and still is, foreign to me. Until my second semester of seventh grade, my world was full of kids like me: Kids whose parents were struggling to keep them fed, clothed, in school, and out of trouble. Kids who arrived accidentally or too soon, who spent a lot of time on their own, scheming and scamming to get by, just like their parents. Kids who zipped up their blue-hooded sweat shirts on a damp Saturday morning and stuffed their dirty clothes into a pillowcase and lugged it down the street to the laundromat. Kids who made their own lunches and were sent to Safeway with booklets of orange-and-white food stamps to buy milk or tuna fish or a quarter pound of bologna from the meat counter, and who kept their fingers crossed that the cashier would have a heart and give them real change back instead of the coupons for fifty-eight or thirty-five or twenty-two cents.
Then suddenly I was plopped into the middle of these gifted classes filled with the middle classes — kids, mostly white, many Jewish, who wore braces and were driven to and from school by their parents and who brought homemade lunches in crisp white paper bags, not oversized and wrinkled brown bags left over from carrying home a half gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, but bags bought in a package expressly for the purpose of packing school lunches. Every morning they picked up these bags, plump with promise, from clean tile counters. Then at lunch, they brought them outside to the benches in the yard, rather than sit inside the cafeteria, where the rest of us were eating hot lunch for free or a reduced price, our parents having filled out the requisite forms, putting the right numbers into the right blanks. The gifted kids ate outside, with the clean smell of fog and eucalyptus, and got first dibs on the handball court, and left portions of their lunches — half a sandwich, a baggie of raisins — for the seagulls who flew up from Ocean Beach and hovered above the schoolyard, waiting until the bell rang and we ran inside for class.
The first lesson of the Gifted Program was that money made you smart: poor kids went to the regular or the dumb classes; rich kids went to gifted. There also appeared to be some connection between race and smarts; I was white, so I could pass, could slip by and seem to fit in with the gifteds, even if I didn’t. The San Francisco Unified School District used to send its notices home in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog, so the color line was far from black and white, but it was there nonetheless. I had a social-studies teacher — also coach of the public-speaking club I had joined — who once told me how she wouldn’t let a black girl in her class go to the “baffroom” until she could say it properly. She told me this as a joke between two people of the same color and, she assumed, class. But all I could feel was the pressure of a full bladder and the fear of peeing my pants in front of thirty kids as a teacher taunted me for reasons I didn’t understand.
What happens to a poor white girl who gets transplanted into the gifted classes? A girl whose way of thinking is based equally on logic and emotion, whose affinity for schoolwork, like her younger brother’s affinity for sports, could be traced in part to the void left by a recent divorce, which split up not only the parents but also the three children? At first I wonder if a mistake has been made. My confidence, the sassy way I hold my own against my brothers and the boys in the neighborhood, leaks out of me like water from the bottom of a potted plant. In class, I don’t raise my hand or join the discussion; I’m not even sure what the others are talking about. Is it possible they are speaking a different language? Like an exile from another country, I don’t know where to sit at lunchtime, don’t know what to do when my old friends — the ones I used to cut school with and go smoke in the bushes or steal lip gloss from Woolworth’s — call me “traitor” as we pass each other in the hallway.
Eventually, my curiosity, my creativity, and my yearning for praise take over. One day during a spelling bee, I am one of only two students left standing, and it dawns on me that I am as smart as these gifted kids. One of those kids, an especially kind Jewish girl with honey blond hair and perfect manners, lives on the way to my house, and we start to walk home together. Pretty soon she invites me over. We walk into her kitchen and drop our backpacks on the counter next to the stacks of towels that have been washed, dried, and folded by the cleaning lady, and my friend opens a huge refrigerator filled to bursting. Like in a filmstrip, her voice narrates the contents of the fridge: “We could have salami and crackers, grilled cheese with pickles, turkey and mustard. . . .” Then she opens the freezer — it runs the whole length of the fridge — and continues the narration, “Orangesicles, mini pizzas, frozen Milky Way bars . . .” as frosty vapor pours into the kitchen like the five o’clock fog coming off the bay.
After our snack, we go up the carpeted stairs to her bedroom. Though she has her own desk and chair, she prefers to do homework on the thick fluff of her peach-colored carpet, and therefore so do I. The bedroom has two doors, the one we came in, and one that leads to a bathroom with clean white tiles and a fuzzy blue rug on the floor and a matching fuzzy blue cover on the toilet seat. (A cover for a toilet seat!) On the other side of this bathroom is another door, leading to her brother’s room. Her parents have their own bathroom in their bedroom. And there is yet another bathroom downstairs, near the kitchen.
After we’ve done our homework, we put our books and binders away and listen to Elton John sing “Goodbye, Yellowbrick Road” on her very own stereo. Then we go down to the game room in the basement, where we play ping-pong and, one time, I eat dog food on a dare. As the hour turns from 4:30 to 5:30 and the sky goes from hazy blue to dark purple, the smells of cooking start to wind their way downstairs from the kitchen. Some evenings, my friend conferences discreetly with her mother (Who initiates these talks, I wonder; does the daughter ask the mother, or does the mother ask the daughter?), and I am invited to dinner, a meal in which half a pink grapefruit or an artichoke waits in its own little bowl at each setting, and cloth napkins lie in wooden holders brought back from safari in Africa, and the father and mother and sister and brother take their seats and slip their napkins out of their holders and put them on their laps, then slowly, accompanied by the foreign language of polite conversation, work their way through the first course, the main course, and dessert.
“Don’t you need to call home,” the mother asks, her teeth as big and white as the pearls in her ears, “to let your parents know where you are?”
A queasy panic seeps into my gut. How much should I tell? First, there are no parents, just a mom. Second, Mom’s not home — she’s either at class or at work. Also, there’s no dinner waiting on the table. There are fish sticks in the freezer, or ground beef in the fridge, which my younger brother and I can shape into patties, put in the frying pan, and press down on with a spatula, sending the juices, red and clear, sizzling into the grease, and then top them with slices of bright orange cheese, covering the pan to help the cheese melt and filling all four rooms of the house with the smell of frying meat.
“Oh, no,” I say. “It’s fine. My mom won’t mind.” Sometimes I accept the offer to let me use the phone, and I pretend to call my number and, speaking to the dial tone in the refined way in which my friend speaks to her mother, ask for permission to stay for dinner. And if it is winter, which in San Francisco means not snow but rain and wind and early darkness, the mother again conferences, this time with the father, a man in a suit whose first name I am never told, so I don’t know how to address him, and it is decided that the father will drive me home; the only thing left to decide is whether the daughter will accompany us in the car. The panic now gushes inside me, because even though it’s cold and dark and possibly raining, and even though the walk is almost forty-five minutes long, I must prevent the father — and at all costs the daughter — from seeing where I live: a clump of old army barracks with gray asphalt siding and peeling-paint porches that the university has converted into cheap, drafty, roach-filled apartments for students who have children and can’t afford anything better; a place that was once called “married-student housing” but is now referred to as “family student housing” because the single parents outnumber the couples; a place that looks no better in darkness than in light.
The dreary truth of the place I call home is just one of the things I don’t want the gifted kids and their families to know about me. I also worry that they might discover I stole my beautiful royal blue brushed-denim jeans from the Emporium, stuffed them into a shopping bag after I first stopped at another store in the mall, looking innocent and studious, with my schoolbooks about to fall, and asked the salesclerk if she would be so kind as to give me a shopping bag. New, unwrinkled, and imprinted with the store’s logo, it acted as a hall pass that read, “I’m a shopper, not just a looker — and certainly not a shoplifter.” I then walked confidently into the Emporium, where I shoved my new jeans under the books in the shopping bag, so I could look sort of like the gifted kids.
And what if the kids at school realize that my running shoes are a cheap, no-name imitation of the expensive brand? What if they find out that my parents are divorced, my mother doesn’t have a car, and my dad drives a dirty old International pickup that he works on himself? What if they learn that we don’t have a lawn or a dishwasher? Or that I’m not really Jewish, despite my last name (my mother is Catholic), and I’ve never been to a Seder or a temple, and know nothing about Zionism or keeping kosher? What if they find out that I’ve never been on an airplane or stayed in a motel? That I’ve done drugs, cut school, and stayed out late without my parents caring? That I get no allowance, qualify for free lunch in the cafeteria, and walk home in order to save the five-cent bus fare? But most of all, I worry about them finding out where I live.
But of course they had to find out eventually. On my thirteenth birthday, I went home sick to that crescent of army barracks. I’d been in bed for several days but had forced myself to go to school on the one day of the year when I could hope people would make a fuss over me. It was a mistake to go in; I was weak and had to leave before lunch, sweating on the streetcar, then shivering as I walked down the foggy hill. My friends at school had been oddly pleased to see me go, but I was too feverish and cloudy-headed to think much about how they’d acted and why.
Then, around 3:30 that afternoon, while reading in the bed that I shared with my mother, I heard the sleigh bells of girls’ voices, faint at first, then closer and closer. I looked out the window and saw an image so horrifying that I had never even imagined it: six or seven of the gifted girls were walking down my street, toward my door, carrying a white bakery box and bright armloads of packages along with their book bags. I had sixty, maybe ninety seconds to get the house looking clean and somewhat respectable before they figured out which door was mine. I ran around turning on lights, making beds, swatting crumbs off the sheet that covered the foam mattress that sat on the floor posing as a couch.
The rest of the afternoon I remember only in flashes, like the dreams that come with delirium: the happy colors of the girls in my gray doorway; not enough forks or chairs; their asking where my mother was, since I was home sick; and how quiet it seemed when they finally left and I was alone again, surrounded by the bright shreds of ribbon and wrapping paper, wondering how I could ever show my face at school again.
They think they’re doing you a favor by letting you in, moving you up, but to be let in is worse than to be kept out, because it is the start of a secret life of knowing looks and gracious smiles and wondering who’s heard the truth. It is the start of shame — not the shame of doing something mean, like keeping a girl out of the hopscotch game, but the shame of simply being who you are.
It took me a few days to recover from the flu — and the birthday party — and return to school. These girls were brought up well; they knew how to ignore uncomfortable facts and smile with extreme kindness and many straight white teeth, how to ask after your health and make sure you were invited to almost all the get-togethers; how to act as if nothing had changed.
In junior high, things were always being passed around for you to sign and hand off to the next kid — notes written on binder paper, yearbooks, “slam books” with questions about your favorite bands, TV shows, and which boy you’d like to slow-dance with. At the end of eighth grade, even though we didn’t graduate for another year, I collected autographs in my own little book. “Dear Frances,” wrote one girl, perhaps the first girl I ever hated, “I’m so glad you became part of The Group this year.”
But shame can’t last forever, and it began to mutate. One summer, when I was trying to make some money for college, I went to work as a telemarketer in a large, old-fashioned, private-eye-type office downtown — my first job besides baby-sitting and housecleaning. A heavy wooden conference table took up the center of the room, and around it sat a dozen or so people, each with a phone and a phone book. There were a couple of stylish young Filipino guys saving up to buy Camaros, some senior citizens, a man who looked not much better than a bum but sounded fine on the phone, and even one of my brother’s friends from the old neighborhood, a kid who used to shout, “That’s my car!” with me. We were selling tickets to some kind of charity circus, and we each had a copy of the script, typed and laminated: “Hello, my name is _______ ,” it started. “How are you this evening?” Every time someone answered, I’d start my little speech, only I’d fill in the blank with the name of that girl from junior high who had been so happy to let me into The Group. I let people think it was her working in that hot, filthy office with the smelly old people and the kids who weren’t going to college; I spread her name all over the city.
By day, I went to school and tried to pass as gifted, but by night the shame turned into anger: anger at my mother, at the flat we lived in, at my little closet-turned-bedroom with a curtain for a door; anger at my brothers and the kids in the neighborhood; anger at myself and whatever it was that made things unfair, that created the Haves and the Have-Nots and put me in the wrong box. My very self was splitting in two. This shame by day and anger by night went on for years, well into high school — the gifted high school, what is now called a “magnet school for academics,” where I began to mingle with the true upper classes, kids who’d gone to private elementary schools and lived in houses that appeared in magazines, whose mothers owned art galleries and whose fathers owned professional sports teams.
For a while, I was able to channel the anger into ambition, into courteous but fierce competition for grades, awards, trophies, elected offices, test scores, and teachers’ recommendations. Success went to my head, and I started to feel invincible. In a kind of reverse snobbism, I felt compelled to teach the Haves a lesson, to show them that I could outshine them at their own game.
When it came time to apply to college, I turned up my nose at the University of California, an excellent, well-respected system practically free to state residents, and the destination of all sensible middle-class kids. Instead, I applied to and was accepted at one of the most prestigious universities in the country — certainly the trendiest, with John F. Kennedy Jr. among the student body, as well as various Du Ponts and Rockefellers and royalty of tiny, oil-rich countries in the Middle East. I had the audacity to buy a one-way ticket and fly east with a suitcase and a backpack. Then I took the train from New York to New England and caught a cab up College Hill, to a campus whose buildings were actually covered in ivy, and settled into a dormitory room as if I were going to glide through life from here on out.
Shortly after I arrived, I watched my roommate throw her typewriter into the trash because the space bar was sticky, then call Daddy for money to replace it, and use the money instead for a half gram of cocaine and a round-trip weekend plane ticket to St. Bart’s, or Tortola, or some other island I’d never heard of. I had arrived without a typewriter — I hadn’t known one was necessary — and had no choice but to take hers out of the garbage, clean its keys with alcohol and Q-tips, and write my name in black magic marker over her monogram.
That semester, my body walked across the pristine campus in crisp autumn temperatures to attend lectures followed by receptions with platters of spice cookies and glass pitchers of fresh apple cider. My mind produced papers and exams and pored over books till one in the morning, when the library, named after John D. Rockefeller, finally closed. But some vital part of me — the part that houses my conviction — never made it across the ivy line. Once again they had let me in, but I was getting tired of sucking in my stomach and holding my breath, trying to make myself fit.
And so the anger, for so long turned inward, toward myself and my circumstances and the exasperating unfairness of it all, began to turn outward. My pride swelled in an attempt to erase years of shame. It was these coddled rich kids who were from the wrong side of the line, I began to believe, and I who was from the right — indeed, the righteous — side, for I had earned every single thing I had.
But the pride that comes from anger is hardly better than anger itself. It’s a tenacious little beast that swings you around by the tail until it burns itself out. Then it leaves you stranded, paralyzed, unable to think or speak or even see clearly. It breaks you down and drops you off at square one, except there is no more square one because you left it years ago, abandoned and destroyed your own home with your anger. You no longer have anywhere left to go.
I was back in San Francisco, the summer after my freshman year, when I got a call from one of my roommate’s boyfriends, a college tennis player from the Upper East Side who had gotten some sort of job, through his father, at a Pebble Beach golf tournament, and had looked me up in the college directory, as we students were encouraged to do while traveling. It was a cool, damp night, and my mother and I were in our latest flat, in the front room, which was also her bedroom, sitting on her bed watching Annie Hall on the little black-and-white TV I had won in a public-speaking contest in high school. “I know it’s kind of last-minute,” this boy said on the phone, “but I’m in San Francisco, and I was wondering if I could stay at your house.”
My first instinct was to stall him, come up with some excuse — the house is being remodeled, or a film crew is visiting from LA and all the bedrooms are full. I knew what kind of New York apartment he probably lived in, how a man in a cap and a uniform opened the thick glass door for him, and another man pressed the buttons in the elevator that landed him right in his living room. But then my mother — thin blond hair, big happy mouth — looked at me with excitement: were we going to have a visitor? And I heard myself saying, “No problem. Stay as long as you like.”
Feeling numb, I took the streetcar downtown to the big hotel where the airport shuttle would drop him off. We had ten-dollar sandwiches at a deli in the theater district, then put his luggage in a cab and headed for my neighborhood. We stopped at my building, beige stucco with bars on the windows, and he paid the driver while I unlocked the gate and shoved his bags onto the steps. Inside, my mother would be sitting expectantly, her hair brushed, the red patchwork quilt smoothed over the bed in the living room. The bathroom door would be slightly ajar because it didn’t shut all the way, and the two kitchen chairs would be pushed up against the table that we used for cooking, eating, reading, and doing homework. I should have stopped at the grocery store, I realized; there would be nothing to offer him for breakfast except maybe a cup of tea with nonfat milk.
Then suddenly, standing there on the stoop surrounded by this boy’s designer luggage, I felt the embarrassment evaporate and the wonderful joy of rage descend upon me. Years earlier, I had stepped off the perfect corner of Sixteenth and Sanchez, leaving my brothers and our friends to shout, “That’s my car!” as bright orange Porsches, almost toy-sized, zipped out of reach. And in my pride and naiveté, I had hoped, pretended, almost convinced myself that I could step into one of those fast, shiny cars and drive away. I’d sat in classrooms while they talked about Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington, about the American Dream and lifting oneself up by the bootstraps. I’d quoted back what I’d learned, used the “chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage” line to win accolades and scholarships. When I was let into the Ivy League, everybody at my high school seemed to know about it before I did, and one girl presented me with a card and a check from her parents; they were so happy to hear the news. Then, once in college, which was more like a country club than a school, I’d met the rich: the flagrant rich, the stupid rich, the oblivious rich, and the radical rich who shopped at the Salvation Army to irritate their parents and never had the cash to pay for our late-night meals at the snack bars, though they had their parents’ credit cards to buy whatever else they wanted. The shame and anger had been fermenting inside me ever since I’d first stepped into the gifted classes. Now, as I stood on my grimy concrete front steps, shame and anger did an about-face, so that instead of pointing at myself and my family, they were aimed back at the people on the other side of the line.
This pleasant young man who played tennis and golf, who had very nice teeth and skin and hair, was one of the oblivious rich who had never met anyone who lived the way I did, didn’t even know white people could live like this. He was about to have his mind blown, and I was suddenly happy to do this for him. I couldn’t wait to see him stammer under the dim light of the hallway, wondering, Is this all there is? I looked forward to watching him try to guess where the guest room was, to figure out how to speak our language, to understand the way things were done in our world. The transformation of shame to anger was now complete; it had turned into a fierce, vengeful pride. I was furious over all those years of feeling ashamed of who I was. I couldn’t wait to stuff all that shame into his winning and benevolent smile and cram it down his throat. Welcome to my world, I thought, as I opened the door and let him in.
In January 1980, I returned to college as a twenty-four-year-old single mother of a two-year-old boy. I learned all too quickly that my fellow students were likely to spend more on their cocaine habits than I received on welfare each month: $287, if my memory serves me right.
I was deeply moved by Frances Lefkowitz’s memoir “The Gifted Classes” [January 2003]. For the gifted members of this country’s underclass, the desire and opportunity to pursue our dreams doesn’t come without a price. Lefkowitz charted the hairpin turns and emotional tailspins of that journey with eloquence and tragic beauty.