Once, in the ninth grade, I was told by my English teacher that the majority of kids in my school district came from the poorest households in the city. I was shocked. Who around me was poor? I had been taught that poverty was something immediately recognizable and visceral, that poverty was as visible as a tattoo. I had imagined that poverty existed somewhere far from the world that I lived in. Poverty was the kid in torn clothing, the kid who inhabited some permanent Dickensian nightmare.
My teacher's response was cryptic, but I instantly recognized its meaning, even if I had not yet articulated it: "The first thing that a poor person buys is clothes."
She said this smugly with clear disapproval, the kind that I agreed with at the time: These people would do better to wear their poverty with pride, buy healthy food, rent a decent place to live. If they wore cheap, secondhand clothing, who cared? We would recognize them for what they were: the deserving poor. Lesser than us, to be sure, but the kind of people who demonstrated the values -- proper nutrition, decent education, a puritanical disdain for material culture -- that made them worthy of our sympathy.
I should have known better. Many of my friends were poor or at least working class, though, because they were also prettier than me and resourceful, I hadn't noticed. When I was 13, my best friend taught me how to shoplift. We shoplifted things that my parents would have bought me anyway (we were middle class) -- $25 T-shirts emblazoned with surf and skateboard company logos, polo shirts, miniskirts. But our first theft was the most symbolic: We stole the Guess? jeans triangle.
At this time, Guess? jeans, the skintight ones with zippers on the ankles, were $50 a pair. The knockoffs were also skintight with zippers. They sold for $19.95. The knockoffs had plain back pockets, the originals had the Guess? triangle.
Melissa couldn't afford the brand-name versions, but she had a solution: Steal the triangle. We would go into the dressing room with a pair of Guess? jeans and a razor blade. We would slice the label from the jeans and, later that night, sew the label onto a pair of generic jeans.
How we got caught is another story, involving a diary (not mine); but the lesson I learned was not along the lines of "Thou shalt not steal." Instead, I realized that having (or appearing to have) the right stuff is essential to being seen as an ordinary (read: middle-class) person. Melissa already had long legs, she was the best student in accelerated math and she was popular. Having Guess? jeans didn't make her visible; we all had them. Having Guess? jeans made Melissa -- the daughter of a single mother who worked as a grocery store clerk -- invisible.
Of course, poverty was never invisible to her. Owning Guess? jeans didn't make her house bigger or remove the 20-year-old beige carpeting or make her father, a kind, brilliant alcoholic who lived in a trailer, any less likely to pass out in front of the television. Her Guess? jeans insulated her; they gave her privacy, a privacy that actual middle-class students took for granted.
The story of Melissa and her Guess? jeans can be read as a moral fable about the evils of material culture. We have all read the essay about teens and their stuff. It changes only as the status of brand-name labels waxes and wanes. One year it's inner-city kids and their Tommy Hilfiger, the next year it's suburban kids and Abercrombie and Fitch. There is usually a subplot involved, about the shameless way that advertisers use sex to market to teens.
It's true that marketers are probably shameless, and that most people want their stuff to make them sexier, but the ideology behind the perennial screed about materialistic teenagers is that it implies that there is some ideal world that we all live in, a world in which the content of our characters does not have to be communicated by a corporate logo emblazoned on our ass.
But it doesn't work that way, not as long as we have castes in our culture. How we consume says everything about who we are. Our consumption can be as refined as selecting the right wine by knowing which year the grapes in some obscure French vineyard were particularly acidic or getting a $100 haircut because it makes you invisible.
It can be as vulgar as the Chanel logo on a gallery-owner's shiny pants, the cell phone in a restaurant or the working-class solidarity indicated by Carhart, Dickies and Ben Davis brands. We all consume selectively and what we choose to buy tells us -- and the world -- what we value.
In some ways, choosing to put a Guess? jeans logo on one's ass is more honest, a cheap way to buy (or steal) social invisibility. Nevertheless, conspicuous consumption is frequently and loudly reviled: No one but teens, working-class adults with upward pretensions and our favorite whipping post for centuries, the nouveau riche, would dare partake. This is why those who hate logo tees, Louis Vuitton and Tommy jackets hate them with such a passion. Conspicuous consuming is frequently associated with billboard advertising; it's blissfully obvious and much less complicated than acquiring the social training to recognize that one's plain black sweater is merino wool.
But there's a reason that we demonize people who try to buy their way into other classes through conspicuous consuming: We are afraid they will "pass." We are afraid that we won't recognize the intruders like Melissa -- who passed the first test of junior high acceptance by being pretty and smart and then sealed the deal with the Guess? corporate logo.
Inconspicuous consumption is much more expensive and much more difficult to master. I know, because I managed to lose my class identity and had to negotiate ways to get it back. One way was by buying stuff, certain stuff, to rehabilitate my outward appearance.
I went from being a middle-class kid in a mostly working-class town to being a single parent living at or near poverty level for about six years. I did this by becoming a parent at a scandalously young age, one of the most efficient routes to poverty. My story is hardly original; the fear of falling out of the middle class is one of our great national phobias, mostly because it so damn easy to do: Have a child, get a divorce, become a grad student or a have an ill-advised outburst with a boss and you're there.
My plunge was particularly weird, because when I fell out of the middle class, I landed in the upper-middle class, arriving with a heavily subsidized education at a very expensive, very liberal, very private East Coast university.
I don't know what constitutes class identity for a teenage single mother from Idaho who is quite literally the only one of her kind at a private school. My school -- which was nicknamed "diversity university" -- took great pride in having a student body that spanned the "rainbow" of economic class, race, gender and nationality. In this rainbow, I was a particularly unusual shade.
In a more conservative school, I would have been suspect; in a less exclusive school, I would have been ordinary. In this school, I became something of a political symbol; my daughter, a minor celebrity. The college invariably had reporters call me, the token single mother, whenever they were preparing a story on our school. Just last night, one of my friends, who I haven't seen much since college, said that he remembered that it was "cool" to be friends with me or to baby-sit my daughter.
I sometimes did resent being viewed as an Instructional Tool for more sheltered students (After all, I reasoned, I was there for my own edification as well), but it wasn't all that different than the way I had treated my working-class friends when I was still firmly ensconced in the middle class.
Although my unusual demographics sometimes gave me something close to an elevated status, it only increased my proximity to the other students -- and exacerbated my desire not to play the role of uncivilized house pet. The amount of information required bordered on the absurd: I had grown up in a town of Budweiser and Coors drinkers, and found myself negotiating the difference between muscadet and port, grappa and cognac.
I learned what Melissa already knew: I learned how to lie through careful consumption. But I -- unlike Melissa -- was learning the art of inconspicuous consumption. It was much, much harder. I needed more than a simple pair of Guess? jeans.
Inconspicuous consumption -- the kind that I learned -- operates under the luxurious belief that consumption should occur in the context of noble ideals. One must consider quality, utility, longevity, ethical and/or environmental impact, safety and educational value. These are the qualities of good consumers and good citizens. The implication is that we are not choosing to consume to satisfy our egos, but to express our morality and good judgement.
The unfortunate side effect of this philosophy is: a) Quality is expensive, and b) People who, for whatever reason, do not consume in this manner become not only bad consumers, but bad people.
Perhaps one of the best symbols of how inconspicuous consumption works is the Volvo. My college parking lot was loaded with hand-me-down Volvos with bumper stickers which read "Live simply so that others may simply live." Of course, there is nothing simple about a car that, while sensible and safe, costs more than the annual income of the average American family.
This college operated on an inverse relationship between household income and how well a person dressed. The affluent kids dressed in Bohemian chic: They wore faded jeans, sweaters with holes, T-shirts with environmental slogans and fabrics from Third World countries. The kids in Diesel jackets or color-coordinated Gap jeans and T-shirts, the kids who pointed out the fabric of their sweater or gave you a daily update on their classical CD collection (made possible by the Visa card that mysteriously appeared in the campus mailbox of every 18-year-old) were invariably the ones with class anxiety.
The affluent kids claimed to be rabidly against any form of commercialism, materialism, exploitation of forests, farmworkers or factory workers. You would never see them in Nike tennis shoes, though Doc Martens, John Fluevogs and Birkenstocks were OK. Of course they were against materialism: They already had large houses, good food, trips to Europe and Latin America, a good education and intellectual sparring partners in their family's living rooms. If you couldn't interest them in a Tommy Hilfiger jacket or a Luis Vuitton handbag, it was only because they were busy competing over their relative fluency in French, Russian or Japanese.
But fluency in French is usually a lot more expensive than some damn handbag. To begin with, you usually have to drum up the funds to spend some time France.
Of course, one of the other truths is that kids in this class, kids who have been raised to inconspicuously consume, usually don't want to be investment bankers (in my experience, most of the people who went straight from college into some lucrative career were people who had never had money to begin with). They want to be artists or social workers or writers or book editors or professors. And this means that eventually, a good many of them will spend a few years in "respectable" poverty. Of course, some of these kids still have trust funds, but most of them don't. And most of the time, checks stop coming from parents, if they came at all, soon after college.
But a Bohemian period -- the requisite amount of time spent unconcerned with one's possessions -- didn't work for me. There is nothing charming or romantic about raising a child with very little money. I didn't kill any little old ladies with knives, but I did find myself, after college, with a very bad, very low-paying job in a phone bank, as well as an ugly apartment and a serious sense of dislocation.
I became predictably depressed. I was very self-indulgent and spent a lot of time lamenting my lot. My friends were sick of me. I was, as they say, very high maintenance. I was not a fun person. I was still writing (freelance, at night, between the hours of 2 and 7 a.m.), but I had pretty much lost my identity. We still had books; I presumably still knew the work of the same French philosophers I'd always known. But I was not a student, I was not a professional, I was simply a very poor, very young, single mother in a very big city.
In college, at least my daughter's school had been small and everyone had known my university's pedigree, which counted for something at parent-teacher conferences. Now, I had a shitty job and everyone knew our income, because it seemed that we had to turn in a form every week with the figure written all over it: We qualified for free lunch, subsidized day care and student-loan deferments. All of this was very helpful -- in fact, mandatory -- but it also changed the way people looked at us.
Suddenly, my daughter's grief over the death of her pet mouse meant that the teacher called me in to talk about where exactly her father lived. When she had a bad cough at school, the teacher sent home notes asking about our health insurance. My nearby relatives would invite us to visit and ask if we needed bus fare.
Maintaining the illusion that everything was OK required some very careful inconspicuous consumption. I had to selectively consume above my means, but -- because an important part of being middle class is wise consumption -- I had to do this in such a way that it appeared invisible.
Stuff became important again. Stuff like silk sweaters with just one tiny hole or a pair of very old, very faded Diesel jeans from thrift stores (consignment was well out of my league). Even labels started to matter again. I hadn't paid much attention to our clothes for the past five years, but when Gap Kids had a 75 percent off sale, I asked for early Christmas money from my mother. When relatives sent us clothes from discount stores, I tried to hide them in the bottom of the laundry hamper. When the same relatives would extend social invitations, I would show up with a bottle of wine or a small birthday present, even if I had $14 left for the week. I combined my first two freelance checks to buy an interview suit.
Today, I am actually middle class, demographically speaking. I still have a small apartment, no car, not a lot of furniture. Some days I show up for work in my old black wool sweater and jeans, but if I have to dress up, I have the shoes, I have the dress, I have the coat. I like the feeling of my check card going through, of buying small-pored French soap, of saying yes when my daughter asks for some large object (last month, it was a 3.5-foot stuffed shark), of buying a household object when we need it (last week it was a vacuum).
Theoretically, it's possible that I will one day have the means and the class confidence to consume in a way that directly expresses my values. Unlike Melissa, I won't need to steal my logo to tell the world who I am. If I buy silk or cotton, organic or non, wine or whiskey, it will not be because I wish to declare my identity to the world, but to express my identity to myself.
This will never happen. Not to me -- nor to anyone, I believe. Because having the means and the confidence to choose what to consume is itself a luxury.