TW for talk of police brutality
I just finished reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and dang. It gave me a lot of feelings.
I read it for Young Adultery, which is a) a book club where a bunch of fabulous grownups sit around and talk about YA literature and b) the coolest book club around. Like, what up, I spent last night sitting in a gorgeously hip Queen West book store talking about a super great book with some of my favourite people in the world. It was so great (and the perfect diversion from all the mental health stuff that I’ve been dealing with).
What was interesting for me was that for a lot of people in the group, this book brought them back to their first romance, their high school crush, their awkward first kiss. And, I mean, Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story, so that makes perfect sense. For me, though, the book stirred up a lot of memories about what it was like to be the poor kid in high school with a group of nice middle class friends.
I was always embarrassed when people came over to my place. We lived in this ugly brown townhouse, which was part of a low-income housing complex owned by the city. The places had probably been nice back when they were built, which is to say back when they were all privately owned. But the lot was right next to a former landfill site that everyone called Mount Trashmore, and sometime in the 70s there had been a health scare about it. It turned out that the giant mound of decomposing trash (covered by some very attractive sod) leaking methane into the air, so they evacuated everyone and for a while the houses were abandoned. And then the city bought them and moved the poor people in. We all had to have methane detectors in our basements and here was this giant industrial flame that burned day and night. It was supposed to burn off the methane.
None of my friends had to worry about dying of methane poisoning in their sleep.
It wasn’t unusual to see the cops in our complex. Like the night we heard gun shots and my mother tried to laugh it off and pretend for our sake that she wasn’t scared. Or the time the police came to our door and said that a neighbour had accused me of stealing their car. I didn’t even know how to drive a car, but they wanted to question me because, they said, I matched the description of the thief exactly. Or when another neighbour’s brother showed up high as fuck and stark naked. Someone called the cops and when they came they immediately started beating him. Like, they didn’t even give him the chance to come quietly. And he was rolling around on the ground screaming, “Oh god, oh god, oh please no,” but they just kept going. I was on my way to school when it happened, and I stopped and watched because I felt like I should do something. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t call the police, because the police were already there. They were there and they were hitting a man senseless with their batons.
And the next time I saw the cops in our neighbourhood, I made a point of smiling at them. I wanted them to think that I was harmless. I was afraid of what would happen if they didn’t think that I was harmless.
All of my friends lived in nice houses on tree-lined streets where no one was ever high or naked or puking on their front lawn because it’s Christmas and the whole family, even the five year old, is drunk. My neighbours thought it was funny to get their five year old drunk. But only on special occasions.
I always had the wrong clothes. Always. I was so embarrassed by my clothes. And when they ripped, which they often did because I wore them to shreds, I didn’t know how to fix them. I would put safety pins through all the tears, and I was always so worried that someone would see the flash of silver in my armpit or my crotch and realize that my clothes were pinned together and, like, not in a cool way. Not in an on-purpose way.
Speaking of clothes, this one tine time in English class my jeans were sagging low enough to show my underpants. I figured this out too late, after a kid called out, “Hey, nice panties.” I was mortified. My body was the biggest it had ever been and I didn’t want them to see the rolls of fat above the waistband of my pants. I didn’t want them to know that I was wearing stretched-out baggy underwear full of holes. But they saw everything and they all laughed. Even the teacher laughed. Having a grown man laugh at my torn up worn out purple grandma panties felt unbearable, but it must have been bearable because I still came back to school the next day.
I could never afford anything. I had to beg and beg my mom for money just to go see a movie with my friends. Sometimes after the movie my friends would want to go out to a restaurant because hey, we were young and fancy-free and why not stay out late on a Saturday night? I would tag along because I always wanted so badly to be included in everything, but I would always just order water because I couldn’t even afford a Coke. Watching my friends eat would always make me so hungry, so I would ask if I could have one of their fries and then they would get mad and say that if I’d wanted fries I should have ordered some. They weren’t being mean they just didn’t know why I never ordered food, and I didn’t want to tell them.
Speaking of food, it was all canned soup and grilled cheese and frozen dinners at my house, because my mom got home from work late and then often went out as soon as she got home, because she was finishing her bachelor’s degree in night school. This meant that a lot of the time, I would end up making dinner, but I didn’t know how to cook. I mean, I knew how to make pancakes and fried hotdogs and stuff, but nothing with actual nutritional value.
Sometimes my friends would invite me over for dinner, and their parents would prepare this amazing meal made up of food that I’d never even seen before, like eggplant and zucchini. They would make stuff like macaroni and cheese from scratch and, like, that wasn’t even a thing that I knew you could make from scratch; I just thought it only ever came in a box. And I didn’t want to have my friends over for dinner because I didn’t want them to know that we had Chef Boyardee not as a once-in-a-while treat, but all the time because it was fast and easy.
One time my friend’s mom gave us a giant box of food for Christmas and she started crying and I was so mad at her for crying. No one else got boxes of food for Christmas.
I remember telling my friends that I was going to my dad’s on the weekend and he wanted me to go a rave with him. His friend was going to bring some speed for us. I’d thought that my friends would think that my dad was such a cool, bad-ass parent, but instead they just looked uneasy. Having a forty-something dad who went to raves and did hard drugs was apparently not the same as having laid-back middle class hippie parents who were hiding but not quite hiding their pot habits. They didn’t think my dad was cool – they thought he was scary and weird.
I had this boyfriend who lived in a beautiful house in the next town over, and I was excruciatingly embarrassed whenever his parents dropped me off at home. I didn’t want them to see where I lived. I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t good enough for their kid. I could tell that they didn’t like me. It was like my poverty had a smell, somehow, coming off me in waves. They wrinkled their noses when they saw me, even though I could tell they were trying to be nice.
Being poor meant that I couldn’t afford the twenty dollar student card fee in grade twelve, which mean that I couldn’t collect the extracurricular participation points that year. This meant that I wasn’t eligible for the giant silver participation plaque that they gave out at graduation and you know what? I am still fucking sore about that. When I am super-famous my high school will call and BEG me to take that stupid plaque and I’ll be like HEY, FUCK YOU, WHERE WERE YOU FIFTEEN YEARS AGO but also I will be like, yeah, give me the damn plaque because I am still not too cool for this. But the point is the office would happily have waived the fee for another kid, a cleaner, nicer kid, but they did not give a shit about me.
Being poor meant constant vigilance over how I acted, dressed, even smelled. It especially involved hypervigilance when talking about my family because there was just so much to edit out, or else to purposely misconstrue so as not to make our family life sound so bad. And I should clarify that it wasn’t bad – my mother did the best that she could for us, and she did a fantastic job. Our life wasn’t bad, but it was so different, and I knew that I was being judged and found wanting on a daily basis. Appearing to be middle class was especially critical when meeting my friends’ parents, who all seemed to size me up as soon as I went in. I was irrationally terrified that they would tell my friends not to bring me around again.
Being a teenager was just so much trying to hide our economic status. It was avoiding awkward questions from the school counsellor, because what was she going to do about it? It was using money that my grandmother had given me for Christmas or my birthday to buy the disgusting nachos at the school cafeteria, because for once in my life I wanted to be someone who was rich enough to buy nachos in the cafeteria. It was telling teachers that I couldn’t go on field trips, because I couldn’t afford them. It was scouring the Value Village down the street and learning to develop this cheap funky style that no one could make fun of because it was obviously intentionally tacky. It was borrowing a prom dress from the mother of the kid I babysat for, because I couldn’t afford anything new. It was a million stupid little humiliations, and a few big ones.
And everything, all of this, had to be kept hidden at all costs. Because I was already being made fun of, and I didn’t need to add fuel to the fire. And I didn’t want me friends to think of me as so different from them just because they had more money. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.