Sometime in the early 1970s, my parents got into a still-infamous row after one of them splurged two dollars on a houseplant the other insisted they couldn’t afford. That spat took place a few years before I turned up, but they’ve laughed about it so often, I almost remember being there. It fits into my real memories of other squabbles they had in that shabby apartment we lived in on the north side of Chicago, the worn green carpet in its kitchen, a claw-foot tub without a shower in its single bathroom, scuffed paint on its walls, their arguments tumbling through whole evenings. It fits into my memory of what money meant to their otherwise happy marriage. Sundays we’d go in the used Oldsmobile from one market with a sale on tomatoes to the other where a gallon of milk sold for 10 cents cheaper. On the way home, we’d forgo the bright new gas station for the gloomy old one where unleaded cost a few cents less.
These are some of the ways my immigrant parents survived recessions, layoffs, and the disappearance of entire industries from the U.S. economy. This is how they earned, saved, and invested enough to move us into a brick split-level house with a two-and-a-half-car garage in the suburbs by the time I started secondary school. Though my father clocked into the same hydraulics parts plant as a machinist for more than a decade and my mother did data entry for an hourly wage at a financial publishing company, they could afford to buy me a set of encyclopedias and an Apple computer. They could pay for tennis lessons and give me a stereo system with a CD player and a double-cassette deck. They could send me to the private academy instead of the public high school.
This is how I lived a socioeconomic reality almost entirely separate from theirs. While my parents scrimped and stressed daily as part of the working classes, I went to a school with honors societies, study abroad programs, and AP courses. I went to college. I managed to turn my philosophy major into a high-paying job at a software startup south of Silicon Valley. Higher education had kept its promise of onward and upward mobility, which seemed easy enough in the bloated turn-of-the-century tech economy. Still, after less than six months at the startup, I decided to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. This didn’t make sense to my mother and father. Though we were far removed from the ragged apartments of my childhood, their class consciousness remained rooted in those earlier struggles. It told them we weren’t the kind of people who did certain kinds of things. Abandoning a salaried job with stock options for a graduate degree offering little hope of future employment or reliable income was chief among these, but I liked the integrity in my plan. If a degree in poetry dumped me into bohemian poverty, I thought, so be it. At least I was being earnest in my pursuit. I was that kind of people.