Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Tattooed Mothers You Will Have Always With You

My father, whose illiterate grandparents came to America about a hundred years ago (on the run from personal tragedy, as well as from crushing poverty and from the hated Camorra who terrorized Naples and its environs), used to urge his children to look their best at all times, saying that only the rich could afford to dress badly, because, for the rich, a sloppy appearance had no consequences. 

I was thinking about his exhortation the other day while I waited in the pick-up line for my son outside the neighborhood elementary school.  A disturbing -- disturbing to me, anyway -- number of the other mothers sport visible tattoos: not just things like hearts and flowers on their ankles, but things like large pairs of bat's wings across their shoulder girdles.   Now, there are plenty of tattooed mothers of young children in New York City, too (including some in my own family), but most of those mothers self-consciously partake in a sort of countercultural-outsider ethos, and tend to be employed in various creative professions, in which their appearance doesn't matter as much as it would if they were working for the man; their life goals, they presume, will be unaffected by the in-some-ways-shocking state of their skin, because they have put themselves outside the mainstream.  But there are two ways to be outside the mainstream.  The self-conscious, creative-class, New York City tattooed moms generally possess a level of education, or of family money, or, for want of a better term, of cultural capital, that ensures that they will not suffer major consequences from what would seem to be a willing self-exile from the workaday world enabled by symbolically marking their flesh. The tattooed moms in my community, on the other hand, do not have this luxury, and their marked skin sets another bar between them and meaningful employment.  So I wonder: is their tattoing truly subversive -- subversive in a way that creative-class tattooing is really not -- because it's a gesture of acknowledgement that, in being poor, they are already irrevocably outside the mainstream? Is it a self-marking of despair?

For the record, I have no tattoos, and I find them unappealing on men as well as women, which I suppose makes me a sort of oddity in my cohort (even up-and-coming opera singers I knew back in New York had tattoos).  And I wonder how the subculture of tattooing and body modification made its way from the edges of Bohemia in large urban areas to half-forgotten, post-industrial backwaters like the place I live now, a place that suffers from the worrisome combination of entrenched and widespread poverty and a dearth of meaningful and well-paid jobs, and how its meaning changed en route.  Sometimes I want to say to the other mothers in the pick-up line, "Why did you deface yourself like this? What does this mean to you, and what does it mean, socially, here, in this place?"  It seems to me that the poor and disenfranchised cannot afford to get tattoos, and I don't just mean that the hundreds of dollars each tattoo costs could be better spent.  I mean that there are certain consequences that come with putting yourself outside the mainstream, and that those consequences are particularly harsh if you don't have a cushion of money or education to soften them.

The public library in my new town -- there is only one -- is my absolute favorite place here. I get a rush when I walk through the front doors.  You could fit four of my branch libraries back in the Bronx into the Children's Room alone.  It is clean and beautiful, and they let me take out all kinds of books on interlibrary loan, and they call me on the phone to let me know when my ILL loans have come in.  I take the bus there once a week, and, as I descend the bus steps, I feel the eyes of those waiting to board linger upon me, because people who look like me don't ride the bus here.  By people who look like me, I mean people who aren't overweight and in their pajamas though there is also a certain ethnic sameness to the people here which I don't share, a sameness which I suppose comes from centuries of intermarriage among the Europeans who first settled in these hills.  People who ride the bus are poor, very poor indeed, too poor for even a few-hundred-dollars' beater car. Another non-tattooed mother in the pick-up line, who teaches remedial reading at the community college, told me that when her students have spent their financial aid grants on textbooks, they're generally strapped for ways to buy food and bus passes for the rest of the semester.  In the end, it's very expensive to be poor.

I walk from the bus stop to the library past small, decrepit apartment buildings with "No Loitering" signs affixed to the front doors, past empty storefronts, past a boarded-up old tavern whose walls are choked with climbing weeds.  One room of my massive library has been turned into a FEMA disaster assistance site, as have several churches downtown, including the parish where we attend Mass.  As I collected my books at the checkout desk the other day, I overheard one of the front-desk workers on a personal phone call.  She was broke, she was telling her friend on the phone, not sure when a child-support check was going to come, and lacking even in milk and bread.  When I left, I passed a family with young children waiting on the church steps across the street for the FEMA center to open.  They all waited patiently, with suitcases piled on the sidewalk around them. 

All of this makes me wonder, and wonder again, about the calling I've always strongly felt:  to show other people, to teach other people, to guide other people to the sublime beauty of the western classical music tradition. Pope John Paul II wrote in Redemptor Hominis about the essential humanity of man's natural "nostalgia for the beautiful," and noted that this "creative restlessness" is part of our longing for God.  But what good is it to tell my tattooed cohort about how uplifting,  how deepening, how connecting, how humanizing, how healing is the stuff with which I usually deal? To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht in Threepenny Opera, "First food, then aesthetics."

And, too, all of this brings me face-to-face with my own hard lack of charity.  I do not love these poor; I fear them. They seem so shaky, so unstable, to me; they are so different from me. Though surely not all of these poor are addicts, they remind me of the junkies I used to see around New York, who you could tell were junkies because they were rail-thin, were young but looked old, walked really fast and crookedly, and, when they had fixed, moved in strange, jerky ways, as if they were marionettes.  I found them terrifying and repellent even as an adult.

Last week, Mark Gordon wrote a hard-hitting and moving piece for Vox Nova about helping the poor. "[Am] I responsible for helping poor people that I know personally?" he asks himself, then answers:

Yes. Am I personally responsible for helping the poor in my community? Yes. Am I responsible for working toward a just social and political order in which poverty itself is eventually eradicated? Yes. Am I responsible for helping the poor in foreign lands? Yes. The poor who are in this country illegally? Yes. The poor with substance abuse problems or criminal backgrounds? Yes. The poor who don’t appreciate my help? Yes. The poor who disgust me in their helplessness? Yes. All the poor? Yes.

OK, I thought, I'm good with a lot of this.  We continue to support N., who's desperately poor and illegal (though I admit to grumbling as I stand at the sink and wash dishes because we just sent the money that was supposed to have gone to a new dishwasher to her when she was in danger of being evicted). I have no problem helping the illegal poor; the fact is, I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the tattooed moms in my community.  The reason the illegal poor are here is that they're strivers, adventurers, risk-takers, and extremely brave; they work their asses off; and most of them share my religion.  The poor in my community, on the other hand, frighten me. They are not like me. They reject the things I hold dear.

Nonetheless, as Sister Mary Martha wrote in response to a reader who voiced his objections to Appalachian culture more strongly than I have (yes, I know she's not a real nun, but that doesn't make her wrong):

Jesus never had a job and just lived off of other people who put Him up in their houses and fed Him AND all his friends. He actually told His friends to STOP WORKING and hang out with Him. His final words to them was a commandment to never even try to earn money and have any money or nice clothes or even shoes. Lazy slobs. No wonder they were all killed.

Jesus loved sinners. Remember? We never have to condone sin to love a sinner. God does it every single minute. It makes me extremely sad to think that we can not let go of calling people some kind of name and that we insist it is just fine and dandy to do so.

Can you imagine if Father stood in the pulpit said "white trash" and meant it? Why is it not okay for Father to say that, but okay for you?

Maybe it's time to bring back the ruler.

Food writer Mark Bittman (whose recipes I love, but who, as a professional chef friend of mine memorably put it, is prone to a kind of "soapboxing tinged with a**hole") wrote a recent post displaying a similar sort of arrogance and lack of understanding when it comes to the food choices of the poor (yes, similar to my own arrogance and lack of understanding about the poor in my community).  Many people in the combox put him straight, and, as one writer put it in a letter to the Times:

Mark Bittman would persuade poor families that nutritious food prepared at home can be cheaper than the fare available at fast-food outlets. He points out that if you can drive to McDonald’s, you can drive to Safeway, but doesn’t mention other realities.

Shopping after work means crowded stores and long wait times, which are likely to interfere with child-care arrangements. Then the meal must be prepared, which with Mr. Bittman’s recipes entails chopping, dicing, shredding, sautéing and cooking. After the meal, the preparer must clean up or persuade someone else to do it.

A trip to McDonald’s allows a family to spend time together having their food brought to them, enjoying the meal and walking away, in less time than is needed for the Safeway option. 

A big selection of healthy foods isn’t available at fast-food prices. Until it is, Mr. Bittman shouldn’t lecture people who are making not-unintelligent tradeoffs.

In the end, there is an appalling lack of love among some of us who are well-fed, well-educated, and even champions of beauty -- of love, that is, for the unbeautiful.  I suffer from this lack, and I pray that God will show me a way to truly love those I would shun.  But I fear this love, too, and its consequences.


Elise said...

Much to think about here. The only thing I will say is in regards to McDonald's vs. Safeway. Many of the poor live in areas where McDs are abundant, provide their teen with employment, and there is no Safeway. Also, you try hauling home groceries from Safeway on the bus, and then walking blocks and blocks to get them home.

Again, much to think about.

lissla lissar said...

There's a family who live in our neighbourhood (which is a mix of long-settled Italian, Eritrean, young professionals with families who can't afford more expensive areas, and blue-collar generic WASP) that are classically 'white trash'- the Mom and grandmother and teenage daughters all dress exactly the same (why is really tight ponytails a cultural marker? It's been like that since I was in high school), the dad and grandfather always wear sweatpants.

Every time I see them, I wonder about them- what does the world look like, through their eyes? What do I look like (enthnically confusing, prone to skirts and Docs, shopping at a thrift store and pushing a really expensive stroller) look like? What are their categories and estimations of class and culture?

They fascinate me and scare me because they're so other.

We are poor, educated, and lovers of good books, and I am hipster enough to feel smug because we cook from scratch and buy used, but they're also economic necessities for us. I wonder intensely what it would be like to be- not me? not educated? Less self conscious?

Pentimento said...

Just today I heard the statistic that fifty percent of children in our school district are at or below the federal poverty level, which is US$22,000 for a family of four.

Rodak said...

Wonderful meditation, Pentimento. Thank you for discussing so frankly things that many of us (I hope) are struggling with. Especially here. Especially now.

JMB said...

Very insightful.

Pentimento said...

For the record, one of the most grotesquely tattooed mothers -- who told me she'd recently moved here from North Carolina, and whose child missed the first two weeks of kindergarten because she wasn't able to figure out the enrollment guidelines -- drove up to school today in a late-model Cadillac. Shows how much I know.

ex-new yorker said...

I have thought a lot about this but there's just too much I could say (you know how true this is, I am sure). I feel like my own experience of class has been all over the place throughout my life. I have experienced similar feelings about similar people but there is a lot more to it especially now that we are perpetually financially insecure and short on the time that helps you do more with less money. This post was on my mind again because today we went to a specialist we hadn't seen for some of my kids in 3 1/2 years, and I realized how much more different I feel now from her because of what I know about her. (She went to a top Ivy League school and is married to someone with a sort of famous name -- you'd definitely recognize it.) Three years ago I just thought, well, she went to that school, I bet she's really smart, and yeah, I bet she has a lot more money than we do. Now I feel so aware of the different "classes" that places us in and I wonder if people like that are always aware, because nowadays, I think you can tell just by looking at us, at least if you are someone more like her.

Pentimento said...

Well, there's a lot we *think* we know about people by looking at them, like me assuming the most grotesquely-tattooed mother was impoverished, and yet she seems to have access to a top-of-the-line new car. This brings me back to my father's code of always looking one's best, and the notion that, traditionally, the rich have always been able to flout it. Perhaps this woman is very wealthy, which is why she can be grotesquely tattooed with impunity?

On the other hand, decent clothing has become very inexpensive -- maybe since NAFTA in the 1990s -- so most people, including those of limited means, are able to purchase nice-looking, reasonably fashionable clothes at big-box stores. Going thrift implies a more conscious effort, especially if you don't want to support slavery in China and southeast Asia. Sometimes I think that kind of conscious buying is a luxury, but I'm not sure; for instance, I have a close family member who gets WIC but has made it a priority to eat organic food and be part of a CSA. I think having a certain amount of time, as you note, has something to do with making things like this work.

ex-new yorker said...

If I babbled on about my own family of origin it would probably be clear why it's so hard to figure out what "class" we come from and I now belong to. Maybe being from Brooklyn is a complication if that whole concept in itself. That is, what I think of as the "real" Brooklyn, not the Brooklyn that's become trendy in recent years. My part still isn't trendy. Too relatively inconvenient to Manhattan, for one thing, I guess.

Pentimento said...

I know exactly what you're talking about, and this was my father's dilemma too. Even though he became an academic he always insisted he was working-class. And his accent really really stands out in his discipline.