(This piece is also available at Enough.)
I’ve been thinking about class and community. I’ve been thinking how hard it is to build cross-class community. Lots of stuff comes up in my cross-class relationships. Stuff about money of course, but really, it’s not just the money. There’s stuff about talking, stuff about eating, stuff about dressing. There’s stuff about how close you stand and who you touch and how far in advance you make plans. There’s stuff about how often you do laundry and who has your spare key and how you feel about the kids on the corner.
And also, there’s stuff about stuff. Who has good stuff and who has crappy stuff. Who has lots of stuff and who has just what they need. Who goes and buys the stuff they want, and who just kind of assumes that they can’t afford to, or that they don’t really need the stuff anyway. Who shares their stuff, who borrows stuff, who gives stuff away.
One thing I notice is that I feel really awkward accepting stuff that my friends are giving away. I feel … exposed, kind of, as if everybody’s going to look at me and just know that my new stuff is someone else’s hand-me-downs, and judge me for it.
And this is weird, because I didn’t used to feel embarrassed about hand-me-downs. When I was a kid hand-me-downs were no big deal. It was just how you got clothes. It was kind of exciting actually, like a little party, when some friend of my mom’s would bring over a pile of clothes for us to go through. We’d sit and have tea, try stuff on, decide who looked best in it, and who could use it best. The difference is, mom’s friends were working folks just like us. They might have had a little extra sometimes, or they might have had a growing kid that was bigger than me. They might have bought something at a yard sale hoping it would fit, and found out it didn’t. So they shared. Sometimes we had extra too, and we gave our hand-me-downs to the same people who gave us theirs.
These days most of the folks I hang up with are middle class or upper-middle class. They often have extra stuff, or at least, they seem to have a lot more than I can imagine one person needing. I have extra sometimes too, but it’s a different kind of stuff. The stuff my friends give away is high quality stuff. And because their extra stuff is so good, I’ve convinced myself that my extra stuff is so crappy that no one would possibly want it. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it makes the whole exchange feel uneven and shaming.
I remember the first time a college friend gave me a tee shirt that didn’t fit him anymore. I hadn’t realized there were different grades of tee-shirts. I guess I knew tee shirts could be cotton or not cotton, and they could be printed well or they could be printed with that crappy shiny stuff that was big in the ‘70s. What I didn’t realize was that some tee shirts were double-weave, heavy-duty, reinforced hems and embroidered. All that for just a plain tee-shirt, with one stripe across the chest. This plain blue tee shirt with one white stripe must have cost as much as my best shoes.
And it didn’t even fit me. I felt offended that my friend would think I’d want his cast-off when it didn’t even fit me right. But I also felt like, how could I pass up something so much higher quality than anything else I owned?
I took the shirt, and wore it for a few years. Even with all that wear, it’s still in pretty good shape. I guess you get what you pay for. Now the shirt’s in my give-away bag, waiting to be taken down to the shelter. I take my extra stuff there, because I think none of my friends would want my stuff, especially twice handed-down stuff.
I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed about accepting good stuff from friends who can afford to give it away. Actually I think it’s very just and appropriate to get stuff that way. I mean, as long as we’re living in a grossly unjust economic system, it’s more just that they should give it away to someone who uses it, rather than just throw it out. And I guess it’s more just that they should give it to someone who couldn’t afford something as good, rather than give it away to someone just as rich who really doesn’t need any more stuff. And I guess it’s more just that I get free stuff from people who can easily afford it, rather than from people who work hard to have just a tiny bit of extra once in a while. And I guess it’s more just that I give my extra stuff to the people at the shelter, rather than to people who, like me, have enough even if they don’t have much extra.
But somehow, giving stuff to strangers doesn’t feel quite as good as sharing with friends. Sharing used stuff amongst people with similar means feels like … well, it feels like sharing. It doesn’t feel like charity. It doesn’t feel shaming. It doesn’t highlight a power relationship. It feels ordinary. It feels … can I say natural?
“Hey, my tomatoes came ripe all at once, will you take a bag full?”
“Kenny got a big buck the first day of hunting season. Do you want a few pounds of venison?”
“The new hens just started laying, and we got all kinds of eggs, here have some.”
The kind of sharing I remember … It wasn’t about having extra exactly, it was more about natural waxing and waning. The seasonal rhythms of rural working-class life required that we share. And the other, less predictable cycles of layoffs and draughts, big jobs and bumper crops also encouraged us to share. When we shared our extra, we didn’t assume that there would always be extra, or that the sharing would always flow the same direction. We all gave stuff away, and we all accepted stuff when others were giving. It was a way of spreading around the luck.
Later, when I was first out of school and living in working-poor queer youth community, we also shared that way. When someone didn’t have a place to stay, they’d stay on my couch. But it didn’t feel uneven because I knew I might someday need a place, and I knew if they had a couch they’d share it. When someone got a pay check, and it was a bad week for some others, they’d buy dinner or groceries for everyone. That’d be their whole pay check, but they trusted that the next week, someone else would buy. Everyone had times where we couldn’t afford food, but between us we were always fed. We shared so freely because we had so little.
Lately I’ve caught myself thinking that middle-class people don’t know how to give stuff away. That the problem is that unless you’ve been that poor, you don’t realize how much you can live without, so you don’t realize how much of your stuff is extra. I think that’s true, but I also don’t want to let myself off the hook. It’s not just that my middle and upper-middle class friends don’t give stuff away as freely. It’s also that I don’t accept stuff as freely from them. If I thought maybe next week, or next month, I’d be the one with extra, then it would be easier. But if I accept stuff from my upper-middle class friends, I have to realize that I’ll probably never reciprocate. And politically, that’s fine with me. But relationally, it doesn’t feel right.
I am trying to trust that we enter into friendships and stay in them for good reasons. I am trying to believe that I am reciprocating, not with stuff but with all of myself that I bring to these relationships. I am trying to remember that my friends wouldn’t offer me stuff if they resented the exchange or felt embarrassed about it. I am not entirely convinced about these things, but I am trying. And I’m also trying to grow a bumper crop of tomatoes. Because that is something I can share with anybody. That’s a kind of sharing I understand.