Sunday, January 04, 2004

A Working Class Hero

For a couple of years at the end of the 1980s I wrote a weekly column called "Tales" for In Pittsburgh, an alternative weekly. It was a pretty popular column around town, and the particular column reproduced below, "Changing Classes," probably got the most response. There were poignant letters to the editor from women and men who identified with it. I even heard of a young man who read it during his lunch hour at work and had to take the rest of the day off, it had stirred up so much emotion in him.

It's a very Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania story, but with obvious resonances for people in other places who've grown up in similar circumstances. Class and its particular contemporary American effects aren't much discussed or written about. But some observers are realizing that class trumps even race and gender in its determining impact. That's even more true in the early twenty-first century than it was in the last decades of the twentieth.

It is masked in part by the ubiquitous consumer culture, by the American faith in classlessness many of us grew up with, and by the economically and politically powerful whose interests are protected by ignorance of class. For one thing, in just about any year of the 20th century, that sentence alone would be enough to get you branded a communist. These days the code would be that you're engaging in "class warfare," which amounts to exactly the same thing.

As this piece indicates, class can be subtly cultural as well as economic. When I was growing up, industrial workers were comparatively prosperous. Steelworkers could suddenly afford not only their own homes but maybe a second one, as well as a new car every year, and maybe two. Others who were a generation removed from the mills and the mines before unions were strong (like my father) benefited from the penetration of prosperity, so their lives---our lives---were crossing into the middle class. It was definitely the lower middle class in many instances (ours included) but there was new economic freedom not associated with the immigrant working class of previous generations, or the paradigmatic British working class.

I also happened to be of the generation that had a sudden opportunity to go away to college. It didn't last all that long, but it was possible for awhile without plunging oneself or one's family into massive debt. I also knowingly benefited by the informal version of affirmative action of those years, which was called "geographical distribution" but was also an attempt by colleges to create a little spice if not too much diversity in admissions. I'm sure I got admissions and even a scholarship partly because I didn't fit the profile of their typical applicants.

But then those of us who went away to college or otherwise fostered ambitions we derived more from books and movies and TV than anyone or anything around us came up against the ethnic working class culture hidden within the lower middle class economic status. The culture was much slower to change, and still is, which is not all together a bad thing, but did cause much grief and confusion.

It was many years before I began to realize this. I absorbed the British working class "kitchen sink" films, plays and novels. I read D.H. Lawrence with keen interest. When I was in college, the English working class was a very fashionable source of style, thanks to the Beatles. But except subliminally and tangentially, I didn't really relate the working class part of it to my own experience, not even in 1970 when the raw emotion of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" grabbed at my gut. But the tenets of the working class culture were deep and pervasive, as I began to see when I returned from the eastern cities to western PA.

So at about the time I wrote this column, it was becoming clearer to me what was going on inside me, and what the conflicts and drawbacks were. I had seen enough of Boston and Washington and especially New York---the book business, media, the arts, national politics, etc.---to realize how hampered I was by not understanding middle class and upper middle class cultural attitudes, and not having those skills or those resources to draw on for support, savvy and counsel. When I was fighting for my book---will it be published, will it not?--- as it was buffeted by New York publisher politics, while living in western PA, there was no one to turn to for help or advice in practical matters, and my psychological state was a mystery to everyone, including me.

Part of the paradox always remains: aside from knowing the right things to do and say that middle class kids learn even before their ABCs, in order to hold on and keep going you must believe in yourself. But how can you? Nothing in your background, none of your friends, really believes you can succeed, or maybe even that you should. For some it's just bewilderment. They've heard stories of people from our background succeeding, but they don't know them, and don't know how they did it, except by getting lucky, by winning the lottery so to speak. For others who are more worldly wise in the unspoken class system of America, you're a fool for even dreaming. And those voices are never stilled.

I was beginning to see this part of myself, this part of an experience more common to my generation in western Pennsylvania than I even knew, when I wrote this column.

Tales/Changing Classes/A Working Class Hero is Something To Be

It is in many ways the most powerful theme in the lives of the younger Pittsburgh generations right now, and the most characteristic phenomenon of the changes this city is still going through, yet it remains almost spookily unspoken. Let's call it the phenomenon of changing classes.

Changing classes is the movement from the working class culture to the middle class culture. It isn't often intended to be simply that: it's not social climbing, but a product of vocations aspired to, or of economic necessity. But changing classes is what these other changes inevitably involve.

Although changing classes has been a matter of choice for some, it is especially apparent now because it has been forced on others. With the decline of manufacturing jobs, former mill workers face the choice of dropping down economically or, in trying to move up, of adopting the necessary middle class cultural attitudes. Their children are faced with that same choice.

Working class culture, deeply rooted in western Pennsylvania, stayed strong even after the upward economic movement of industrial workers after World War II, and the accompanying diversification. Even with the more abrupt changes since the 1970s, this city and region are still characterized by economically middle class people living in a mostly working class culture.

This is the culture that Pittsburghers like to brag about, when they describe it as family-oriented, down to earth, day's work for a day's pay, no frills and no nonsense. It means being honest and forthright with others, and not putting on airs or lording it over anyone.

However overstated and cliched, some of these positive elements have been tested recently by this movement away from working class jobs, and there's a certain poignancy about it. If workers wanted factory jobs when local mills closed, they often had to choose moving away, which meant abandoning family and local roots. If they wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, they had to look for new kinds of jobs, which not only required retraining but learning such middle class skills as how to slant a resume and how to say only what job interviewers want to hear. In other words, how to be less than honest and forthright. How to play middle class games.

There are all kinds of other choices they must consider that are so loaded with class feelings and violate so many sacred tenets about belonging to tribal Pittsburgh. Like trying to lose the local accent. Or realizing that hundreds of dollars in clothes and hair styling does not register with the powers-that- be as much as a mouthful of chewing gum.

But before this latest round of workers and their sons and daughters forced to try changing classes (mostly without admitting it, especially to themselves), there were pioneers: the sons and daughters of the working class who confounded their parents, their peers and their culture by trying to become more than their class could comprehend: artists, writers, scholars, or any vocation that so foreign that it is mostly practiced in New York or Los Angeles.

They were the ones most acutely aware of the destructive side of the ideal and often sentimental image of the working class culture. Some of these elements simply don't prepare people for life outside the working class. And some of them are just destructive in themselves, turning vital and sensitive people into emotional cripples.

For someone raised in a working class culture, just paging through a book like Lillian Breslow Rubin's Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family is itself an acutely painful experience. The pain this time is that of recognition.

The working class home, loud voices and smoke, always noisy, always with the television on, rarely with an adequate reading lamp; anyone wanting privacy is considered strange and uppity. Mothers in constant nervous motion, fueled by anxiety, usually about money; beaten down, silent fathers sitting stunned after work. Alcohol abuse in many homes (Rubin found a rate of 40%); loud bickering and wife-beating, treatment of children that at best often qualifies as low-level abuse. Psychiatry is as alien as Buddhism. Through it all, a basic insecurity--one layoff, one big expense away from financial disaster--adding up to a pervasive feeling of helplessness, transmitted from parent to child invisibly and effortlessly.

So what is the result? John Lennon knew: "When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years/then they expect you to pick a career/when you can't really function you're so full of fear/ A working class hero is something to be..." There is no better description in all of literature of what it's like than the lyrics of this song.

The effects are most poignant perhaps in the area of education, which traditionally has been the escape route to a bigger if not better life. Although some lip service is paid to it in the early grades, a child who wants an education is threatening. Especially during the heyday of the mills, they were laughed at and discouraged: Why spend all that time and money with books when you have a good lifetime paycheck waiting for you at the plant? And if such notions persisted, particularly if they weren't channeled into something understandable like engineering or dentistry, incomprehension could turn to hostility.

Even now, when it comes time for college, novelist Mary Gordon describes the difference this way: "Those in the middle class get special coaching and have guidance counselors who tell them what to write on their applications. They work with their parents on the application essay. Who are working class kids going to talk to? Are they going to ask their mother who works in K mart how to write a jazzy application that will get them into Amherst?"

If middle class kids show any artistic talent, as Rubin notes, their parents most likely have the knowledge and the inclination to see that they get encouragement and training.

Working class kids are brought up to think of non-representational, non-landscape painting as ridiculous. Literature is beyond comprehension, dance and music are for sissies and snobs. Art isn't gainful employment, and even if it were, they could offer no more guidance or support than they could to Harvard.

For those who persist anyway, and who pursue the arts (including the popular arts, like rock and roll music), there is another rude awakening: the working class culture just doesn't prepare you for dealing with the middle class outside world-- of the entertainment business, for example. You don't know how those people think, and you don't know what their words mean or how to talk to them. You just don't know how things work outside the working class.

It isn't just lack of knowledge; it's an inbred sense of fated failure. When you aren't prepared for middle class machinations, you take your mistakes personally, as further confirmation of what you were always told you were: crazy and worthless. " Working class parents bring up children to think the world is a dangerous place and 'they'll get you,'" Gordon says. "The middle and upper classes assumed that the world is theirs and they should go out and take it." Rubin makes the same point and adds that without the middle class resources to back up plans, thinking of a future different from the present seems so fantastic that it seems insane--or it's just unthinkable altogether. "...the inability to envisage a future...most sharply distinguishes the consciousness of the working class from that of the more privileged classes."

The results are plain to see. As Tillie Olsen points out in her book Silences, it's been barely a century since any children of the working class have become writers. (One of the pioneers, then, was D.H. Lawrence, whose first subject was the working class family conflict brought about by artistic aspirations.) Mary Gordon makes clear an additional local burden: "You don't see a lot of Catholics in American writing, and that's not an accident...That kind of creativity was not valued in the American Catholic Church; it was seen as a threat because it would get you outside the parish, open you to the world and let you think in ways that could be threatening or dangerous."

If you go away, you find yourself in truly alien territory without a compass, shelterless. If you stay, your efforts seem so strange they become invisible, or at best get the characteristic reaction, "Well, it's different"--the curse wrapped up in a compliment.

Yet if you have aspirations, if you've pursued your talent, you are no longer just a member of your own working class culture. Your aspirations have changed you. And everybody in the working class culture knows it, which may account for its mixed attitudes towards the achievement and fame of its own sons and daughters. Actor Michael Caine recently bought the plush London home where his mother once worked as a cleaning lady. What do the working class neighbors of his childhood think of his riches now? "They think it's great." But what did they say when he told them he wanted to be an actor? "They said, 'Who do you think you are?'"

"Who do you think you are?" That is the heart of the matter. When you're changing classes, but you carry the working class culture inside you, it is a question that dogs you like the hounds of hell.

Berkeley 1969

I remembered the following article as I was talking on the phone with Michael McClure, veteran San Francisco poet and playwright, about the influence of Buddhism on Bay Area arts and culture over the decades, for my San Francisco Chronicle article on that subject (which you can find here.) I suddenly recalled having heard him read many years before in Berkeley. He also remembered the reading, even the color of the poster. It was a stellar gathering of Bay Area poets, which at the time I blithely assumed happened all the time, but my guess is that this was the last time that all of these poets read together.

I was a temporary resident of Berkeley at the time: the autumn of 1969.
In some ways, it was a mistimed visit. I missed the political heat of the People's Park affair the previous spring and summer. And while I was there, I picked up a Life Magazine to read about something amazing that had happened back east, called Woodstock.

But in other respects, it was still not too late to catch the late 60s counterculture in something like full flower. My report, even though it was published in an underground newspaper, was a bit circumspect on the extent of the dope culture, and on certain personal matters. (I sent it to "view from the bottom" in New Haven, because I was headed there, to try to reconcile with my significant other of senior year. She was teaching school, and living in a nearby tiny town, just across the Sound from where a law student named Bill Clinton was living at the time. It's possible that she met him.) But smoking dope was so open, and grass so common, that it really seemed it would be an ordinary part of the culture quite soon. And there was still an ethic attached to it, summarized by the fairly characteristic moment when a friend (probably the Michael named in this piece) and I were walking down the street in absorbed conversation, and passed two other guys walking in the opposite direction. One was smoking a joint---wrapped in yellow paper, pretty much the standard look---and he handed it to me as we passed. Neither pair broke stride, and we acknowledged the transfer with a simple wave.

At the house I was living in, there were a few acid trips to the accompaniment of the recently released "Abbey Road," and several of the others made a blundering attempt to deal, losing money in the process. Other than that, the memorable events were several trips to the mountains and the beaches (including nude runs into the ocean, though one wave was usually more than enough, the water was so cold. That experience shows up in a metaphor in this article, I notice.) One of these trips resulted in a bad case of poison oak, which I suffered through by drinking inexpensive California white wine from the corner store, eating oreos and reading Hemingway. Otherwise, I spent a lot of my time on Telegraph Ave, in the bookstores and cafes, and on the Berkeley campus. Money was a problem, so I supplemented the house diet of oatmeal for breakfast, and brown rice with whatever vegetables could be scrounged for other meals, by sneaking into the student union line for a tuna fish sandwich, which was more like tuna paste, on white bread, with a slice of carrot. And coffee. Always and everywhere, coffee.

By the time the article was published, I had made my way back east, through Chicago and my home town in Pennsylvania, to Stony Creek, Connecticut. "view from the bottom" was a typical underground paper of the time, with sex, drugs and rock and roll and antiwar politics and countercultural arts. It was supposed to be a cultural as well as political revolution coming. The slogan we'd been hearing that fall was: All power to the imagination. Power to the people.

I remembered the article because I remembered the poetry reading. As it turns out, an account of the reading is a small part of it. (It's funny to see Gary Snyder referred to as old-looking in 1969, but then I was 22.) I wish there was more, since it's possible that this was the last time Lew Welsh read in public, at least with his friends and fellow poets. Not long afterwards he disappeared into the woods with a gun, and was never seen again.

Elsewhere in this issue there was an account of a speech by Abbie Hoffman, an obituary for Fred Hampton, the activist gunned down in his apartment by Chicago police, news stories on a New Haven park being turned over to a rowing club organization and on police actions against local Black Panthers, a surreal short story, a piece on a Paul Butterfield concert, and cartoons about Rufus, the Rosy Red Radical Reptile. As it was the Christmas issue, there was a lead article on the holiday as the Festival of Plastic, and a centerfold of Santa doing the dirty with a comely angel.

My piece, with its weirdly New Yorker type title, was on page 4, illustrated with a nice woodcut. I notice that it ends abruptly, so I'm guessing that they didn't want to bother with continuing it onto another page. I remember what happened next in the encounter I was describing. I told Angela that I was leaving California in a few days, and she began to cry. She couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly leave California. I remember running into this a lot: the idea that life outside California was unimaginable—that beyond its borders there be nothing but monsters in the void.

Letter From Berkeley

published in "view from the bottom," New Haven underground newspaper, on December 25, 1969.

Traveling around, moving from world to world, catching a glimpse here, a fragment there, of places and people's lives in them, but with no place or field of life of my own except the thin connecting shafts of similar experience, leaves of my mind floating in a kind of permanent state of multiple schizophrenia...the dream state.

And when one is also a traveler of the imagination, muddling around in that inner sea of continuous combining and disintegrating organisms, life becomes like the cereal box picture within a picture within, or the play within a play continuing in geometric succession, dreams within dreams at the speed of light.

Berkeley is a friendly place. One encounters people and places that are instinctively sensitive to the vulnerability of travelers, but Berkeley is a congregation of travelers trying to become a community, so it is as hospitable to its established own as it is to its transients and fledglings.

Hitching is a regular part of community life. People hitch because they want to get from place to place, or because they are lonely. Last Friday night I was picked up by a very spaced out twenty-six year old electrical engineer who had started just driving around in San Francisco, picking up hitch-hikers and taking them where they wanted to go. It was then three hours after he began and he was in Berkeley. He wanted to know the freeway entrance back to the city where there would be the most people waiting for a ride.

Hitch-hiking is a way to meet people, make dope deals-the only form of true free enterprise now functioning in the western world---and learn things. In the course of a conversation with the driver I have changed my destination because where he was going sounded groovier than where I was going. The reverse has also happened. You can do it because you know that you can go just about anywhere, and get a ride back.

Dear Jeremy,
A good rule to follow in life is: always put the cream in the cup before the coffee.
I am writing this during my daily hour or so of lucidity. Sometimes more, but rarely. And often less. The rest of the time I am a citizen of the dream state.
I don't mind living in a dream world, as long as I get to approve the final script.
Right now I am sitting in the sunshine on the patio of a coffee shop on Haste Street. Smoking my pipe, occasionally punching ashes into the picturesque ash trays---old pickle jar caps---drinking coffee to keep the lucid state going, and writing to you.
Behind me, as I sit facing the late afternoon sun, is a fenced in area once called People's Park, and despite the Regents of the University of California, destined to be known forever as People's Park. Today it is divided into three sections, one grassy, one asphalt, one a desert of dry dirt cut by a rivulet bed running from a central, solitary clump of weeds.

I went to a photo exhibition on College Avenue, about six blocks from here. It is the People's Park exhibit. It shows people planting things, and soldiers pulling those things out of the ground. It shows people shouting, and people being beaten and gassed. It shows men with beards showing little children how to hoe the earth, bare chested women touching bare chested men, men with masks like mollusks lined up in the streets, police cars burning, and little old ladies with signs: "People's Park is a beautiful, creative thing. Go see it."

The photo exhibition is a very large success. It will soon tour the country, and a book is being made of its photographs.

The Regents of the University of California say that People's Park is to be an intramural playing field until it becomes a parking lot. But it is not an intramural playing field now, because no one will play on it. The inter-fraternity council voted to boycott it. They refer to a student referendum held last spring that overwhelmingly supported its use as a People's Park. They do not feel that the Regents paid much attention to what the students thought.

And as a parking lot, so far it doesn't look very good. The first group that was offered the right to run the parking lot refused it. Not very politely either.

Pretty girls walking by. Berkeley has beautiful women in disorienting quantity. I feel lucidity evaporating into timeless spaceless everything at once. Only the past is real. Lucidity is seeing reality, and coming to it from the dream is like being washed over by a cold ocean wave, your mind shocked to your body's awareness of itself: "so this is what it is (was)."

The newspaper today says that scientists believe that from 50 to 60% of man's physical ills can be traced to the fact that he has stopped walking on all fours and his body hasn't caught up with the change.

* * *

The other night we had a difficult decision to make. Would we go to the second evening of the First Annual Northern California Holy Man Jam (featuring Timothy Leary) at the Family Dog in San Francisco, or would we attend the Ecology Benefit Poetry Reading in Berkeley?

In the end the problem was solved when we found that we didn't have enough money to get our bus across the bridge and still pay the admission (yes, even in the bay area, you still have to pay to get into a holy man jam.) We had attended the first night, and I'd been ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church. Communion was a toke from the longest bong I've ever seen.

So Michael and I went to the campus to the poetry reading. Michael is the only person in the place I'm living in that I knew previous to a month ago. We live with a kind of floating commune situation in a pleasant old slum on Shattuck near Ashby. One of us-the guy who owns the bus---is a northern California Indian. His girlfriend is a New England girl named Priscilla who cooks oatmeal or brown rice in the nude. Bob is a 19 year old from Philadelphia with a Jewish last name. Michael dropped out of Stanford where he was doing graduate work in philosophy. He's from Joliet, Illinois. His girlfriend comes and goes. I think she is from hereabouts originally. She once referred to my presence in the household as "solemn and tacit."

It's strange about crowds in Berkeley. They are not like crowds I have known before. They seem more comfortable in the identity of a crowd.

I had hardly been in Berkeley a week when I accidentally heard Bernadette Devlin speak. I was just walking through an unfamiliar building on the campus when I came upon the signs saying she would be there. The time and place on the signs were the same time it was and place where I was standing.

So I went upstairs where there was an auditorium. A girl at the door smiled and told me I shouldn't have been let in and smiled again and let me in. Inside, Bernadette Devlin had been expected for about a half hour and hadn't appeared yet. A great many people were amusing themselves by throwing paper airplanes at the stage. When one made it, or when there was a particularly spectacular flight, everyone cheered.

Then the inevitable began happening. Someone threw a frisbie. Frisbies had been outlawed on the campus the previous spring. But, even in the midst of the People's Park crisis, Berkeley students responded with a mammoth Fris-Be-In in Sproul Plaza.

Now a guard confiscated the frisbie. Which touched off a ritual, but good humored and slightly melancholy chorus of "Off the Pig!" Any time a policeman appears, even in a movie, even in a Laurel and Hardy movie, he is given this same greeting.

Finally Bernadette Devlin arrived. Someone tried to give a "we are all happy to welcome the woman who..." introduction but he was shouted off. Nobody wanted to hear a bullshit introduction. They wanted to hear Bernadette Devlin.

It was a different group at the poetry reading. They were people whose concerns were ecology and the land and the water and the air and the poetry. We sat in quiet, spacious rows of folding chairs, waiting for the program to begin, just as at any reading. People were looking around, talking a little, staring ahead, and smoking. Finally the master of ceremonies, an ecologist, came to the microphone and said that he knew it might be difficult for most of the people, but if somehow some room could be made at the back of the ballroom, more people could get in.

Immediately everyone moved their chairs towards the front, obliterating the orderly rows and pushing everyone closer together. Then everybody looked around at each other and at what they had done, and giggled.

The M.C. watched it all and said, "What just happened was very much like the action of wind, or water. I think we're ready to begin."

It was a fine reading. Gary Snyder was the crowd's favorite. He came to the microphone, looking like a wise old shaman, or the wind-aged Indian on the Sierra Club poster, and asked that all the doors be opened to let in the air. For some of his poems he received applause after every line.

Michael McClure read, bringing nature and politics together. David Meltzer spoke of the sensations of a city boy moving to a cabin in Marin County. Richard Brautigan, the confederate general of Mendecino, pranced around the stage at the end of each one of his short, delightful non sequiter poems. Lew Welch, a tall, theatrically handsome but obviously gentle man, read poems about a child's view of the world, authentic and pure.

Welch also expressed a view about the mythology of the bay area that one runs into constantly. As an introduction to his poem/prayer in praise of Mount Tamalpais (a mountain in Marin County north of San Francisco widely regarded as magical) he asserted that all of the great revolutionary movements in America---westward expansion, the Beats, psychedelia---began in the bay area. A recurring line of his poem is "This is the last place/There is no where else we need to go."

After the reading I stopped at Giovanni's for coffee. I met a girl in Colorado who had worked there. I mentioned this to the cashier who, it turned out, knew her. The cashier's name was Angela. She was a Leo, but she had a strange attraction to Cancerians. She had known I was a Cancerian when I walked in. Her current lover is a Cancerian.

We talked about my being in California and how I was doing. She asked me how it was to be in California alone. I said that part of it was not good. She nodded and had to rush off to a customer.

In the peculiar matrix of the traveler, people who make you welcome quickly become friends. Yet lacking a context you are really grounded in together, and without any sense of permanence---sometimes, with an active sense of impermanence---you always remain strangers.

Tonight, or this morning, it is raining. It is the dawn of October 15, the Moratorium. Already in Berkeley it has begun. People are standing in the rain somewhere, reading the names of men, boys who died in Vietnam.

Laura is 18, a freshman at Berkeley. I met her yesterday on the campus. We started talking when I asked her for a sheet of paper. We sat in the sunshine drinking coffee. We talked about all the beautiful places to go, like Big Sur, Marin, Mendecino, Sausalito, Yosemite. She told me that if I was ever hungry, to come to her sorority house for a free meal.

Sometime this morning the people standing in the rain are going to read the name of Laura's only lover.

Earlier tonight I went back to Giovanni's and had coffee. That's where I got all this lucidity. Angela was there, but she was unhappy. Her job was getting to her, all the rushing around, her uptight boss who was getting ulcers and complaining, but mostly it was the gloomy, rainy day that was bringing her down. At the foot of the soaring soul of all Californians is sunshine. At the peak, there must be a coolness, a breathlessness, a quiet, still closer to the sun.