You’re not supposed to be able to really appreciate love songs until you have actually been in love. The same is supposedly true for songs about heartache. I’ve come to learn that the same is true of those terrible mainstream, pop songs that still get stuck in your head.
About the time that I exited the lower class and climbed over the poverty line, I entered the country of Business Casual. Suddenly, “Independent Women” from my 90’s Destiny’s Child days actually started to make sense, and “Jenny from the Block” suddenly started resonating more. Yikes. With my musical tastes feeling sullied by this new understanding of pop lyrics, I felt it was time to re-examine how I got to a point where the poetry of J-Lo started to sound meaningful. You know, like poetry.
As a young graduate with a B.S. in Education, I found myself having a quarter-life crisis just after turning twenty-two dealing with the BS of young adulthood. There were suddenly a million things to do and no guidance counselor to provide the appropriate options anymore. There I was, a small 5’2’’ little Hispanic girl and everybody had the audacity to give me free will. Of course, such anxieties can be overcome with the appropriate amount of hyperventilating and calling your madre. Once a job was secured that actually has a salary, it seemed that that’s the end of the strife. No more bussing tables for me!
Silly, silly little girl, how little you know.
Upon entering adulthood, I was faced with the social gauntlet of upward mobility. It is a struggle I am still grappling with six years later. Awkward as it was, it was ironically why I had been killing myself for the last eight years or so. I would find myself in mindless chatter in groups of women old enough to be my mother, discussing Ann Taylor apparel or the best dentists for extractions. Whereas, I only wore secondhand, Goodwill ensembles. When I had to fill out my health benefits form, I almost started crying because nobody had ever taught me how to understand that kind of reading. I had nothing to offer in those “invigorating” conversations. It was a world I didn’t know and still don’t.
They had norms I didn’t understand and used products I never used to be able to comfortably afford. They buttered their lips with Burt’s Bees. Their fingernails were regularly decorated with French manicures. They cooked with Pampered Chef and let their DVR substitute their presence for television watching. They watched more than five channels—things like HBO, Showtime, and the Food Network.
Lunchtime was the epitome of the culture shock. I would sit at this table with men and women who were supposed to be my peers with a humble, cold cut sandwich and perhaps an apple (granola bar optional depending on my appetite during a morning lunch). What’s the deal with morning lunch, by the way? My counterparts were gorging on things like Chobani yogurt, a dairy item I had never seen before. I assumed it was one of those items that they sold in high end stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I was still stuck in Yoplait Land—most of the time Great Foods Land—and eating lunch with middle-aged folk who drank Silk and crunched cashews like chips. They would bring foreign utensils to the table like grapefruit forks or orange peelers, and I became painfully aware and self-conscious about my lower class background, feeling like a barbarian for starting the peel of an orange with my non-manicured fingernail. Always feeling like the sole source of impropriety at this breaking of bread became a regular emotional experience, not that anyone sees emotions in the Business Casual cafeteria.
Some days I would eat in silence, quietly calculating the expense of their grocery list in my head. I was positive it had to be some obscene total. I would’ve bet that the money they spent on one of their grocery trips would have paid my electric bill—maybe even my gas and electric bill. Lunchtime was the best opportunity to learn about this new culture—you know, really observe them in their own habitat. It was fascinating in the same way your first meal in another country seems like a learning experience.
There were the spinach grazers: women with at least one, but likely two or more kids who every single day ate a salad that contained everything but lettuce: walnuts, cherries, fresh spinach leaves, tofu, etc.. If it was less than four dollars for the package then it wasn’t in their salad. I tended to see things in terms of $4, which is more or less the amount a person is budgeted on SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) per day. The men were typically the reflections of their home life, the bringers of leftovers that their middle class wives had cooked: meat, meat, and meat with a side of meat. Pulled this and shredded that and smoked this and sauteed that. I felt like I needed a full china place setting just to observe this eating ritual. This tribe ate finely prepared portions of sun-dried tomatoes, edamame, and varieties of salads—potato salad, fruit salad, vegetable salad. An exchange of recipes involved at least one mention of olive oil and a trip down the produce aisle. After weeks of surveying these patterns, I decided to keep the Pizza Rolls at home and started transporting my T.V. dinners into Tupperware to look more legit. #NailedIt
The first middle class man I ever dated used to put me through the same torture. We would dine at places like The Bonefish Grill or Olive Garden or Red Lobster regularly. I have since learned that these places aren’t especially considered high end by many. The experience was nothing to him too, but it was definitely no Steak N’ Shake or Super China Buffet to me. He used to like to take me to what I called the rich people’s mall a lot. It’s the one that sold Coach purses and North Face sports equipment. Around every corner was a mannequin modeling the kind of dress I’d imagined California girls must wear at night clubs. I guessed this was the middle class date: dinner and a shopping walk?
One night we left Olive Garden and he wanted to walk around the mall to do the usual perusal of hifalutin stores. That time we were on a run to the Apple store so that he might buy some completely unnecessary gadget simply because he didn’t own one. I’m not being snarky; he really said that. (Don’t get me started on the social norms of the Apple store.) Electronics were always first, and then we’d visit a sequence of home goods stores. Some of the stores were a showcase of beautiful, shiny copper pans glistening under the store lights. Some of them were a museum of lamps, each with some lighting or aesthetic novelty. Then there were the area rug masters, the “things you should see on T.V. but don’t because we don’t market that way” store, and the furniture stores with decor I’m pretty sure I saw in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or maybe Sex and the City. Los Angeles, New York—what’s the difference? It was the set of some television show with sets depicting a higher standard of living than I’d ever know in the quaint Midwest. But on that particular night, I noticed a running motif in almost every store we attended. Every store had artichokes. There wasn’t an artichoke sample lady or anything; I mean decorative artichokes.
They had no function, no purpose, and didn’t seem to be exclusive to any one kind of room. I asked my escort if he could account for this as he could so many of my questions about middle class behavior. “I’ve never seen so many artichokes,” I said to him. “What’s the deal with that? Are they in fashion? I haven’t seen them anywhere else.” He didn’t have an answer for me—or at least not one that gave me any resolution. They were small. They were large. Some were bright like the copper cookware and others were dull shades of blue that blended with bath towels or yoga mats. I decided to look for the useless artichoke at other stores. Perhaps I was simply missing a trend that was coming about. For the next few weeks, every time I entered a store, whether Pier 1 Imports or Dollar General, I looked for the useless artichoke. It was like a social class version of Where’s Waldo?. It was a game that got me thinking about my relationship with the elusive artichoke. Before that, my only real encounter with them was when I ordered an expensive meal at an expensive place at a venue I rarely visited, special occasion kind of meals when you can indulge in delectable vegetables like artichoke hearts.
When I shared these observations with the madre, the knower of all, she said she’d never seen an artichoke like that either. Then one day at the grocery store it clicked. This was one of those “four dollars for one serving” kind of foods. I reported back to my mother, the woman who raised me without a college education on tortillas and beans. I considered my childhood and thought about the top shelf of the refrigerator reserved for produce. It was the garden of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. Cilantro was fifthteen cents a serving! Damnit! I thought to myself. Even my food has been lower class its whole life; our diets are the reflections of our wallets. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s an entire, unnoticed categorization of our socio-grocery status. From Meijer versus Aldi to plastic versus canvas bags. I felt genuinely baffled. How did I go my whole life never noticing the trickle down effect of my income?
Then I remembered, I had noticed this trickle down effect before. I had taught myself how to forget it—how to forget the anxiety that festers in your chest on the first day of school when you don’t know if your free lunch benefits will kick in or what you should say to indicate that to the lunch lady without looking like a Ewell. I had taught myself how to forget the outings that I never took with friends after school to get fast food or an ice cream or the dates I never accepted in college, because I didn’t know if I could cover my own half if my date went dutch tree. Memory by memory, I unveiled this secret I had been hiding from myself. I had been pretending not to be lower class. I had consumed myself so thoroughly in the pursuit of upward mobility and education and articulation that I had repressed every memory of being something else. I had been forgetting to feed myself. When I asked my mom what she thought—when I asked her if she had considered my theory of the social classes of our tabletops—she agreed that I may have been onto something when you consider Ramen noodles and Macaroni and Cheese or the difference between Kool-Aid and Crystal Light households. Our differences are subtle and faint, yet ever present and distinctive.
I made a declaration more dramatic than intended. “Mom,” I said, “I know that I have to dress up for work now and I have benefits now and all that, but I think I’ll know I have made it when I can buy artichokes anytime I want.” She eyed me curiously. “When I can just pick it up at Kroger whether it’s on the list or not, you know?” I concluded. She laughed at me her cackle and simply stated, “You’re a silly goose.”
That winter we were browsing HomeGoods, the store, and hunting for holiday gifts that look more impressive than they cost when we passed it: the elusive artichoke. I gave my mom a look, a look that children give their parents when they yearn excitedly and succumb to a wondrous ache. It is an expression that liquefies a hardened heart and invokes a generosity people don’t know they possess. When I moved into my first apartment that I would be paying my own bills for and living by myself within, alone, I had a dining table with one chair, a dish set for one courtesy of Goodwill, a small cooler substituting a couch, and the artichoke. It has no function, but it does have purpose.
The upward mobility ladder is a forever uphill climb either with your wallet or your identity. It is a cobblestone avenue, a grand walk with many irregular steps along the way. I still trip all the time. The elusive artichoke rests in my decor as my conquest and emblem of success. Yet in my pantry, a different emotion lingers.
A handful of years into a salaried job, and I don’t have to hide my frozen dinners in plasticware anymore. I’m buying the brand name kind now. A handful of years into a salary, and Paul Newman dressing is not a myth but a well-known acquaintance. Then one day, I found myself at Meijer (not Walmart or Kroger or Aldi) with Chobani and artichokes in my cart, and I realized it’d happened. Without any knowledge or conscious effort, I accidentally joined the tribe and stamped my passport for the foreign country of Business Casual. It didn’t taste as good as I thought it would.
I had wondered what I had become, though I knew in my artichoke heart. I had become a spinach grazer. A cashew-chomping, edamame-eating, “keep the change” spinach grazer. And unfortunately now, Jennifer Lopez songs make sense to me.
Don’t be fooled by the hearts that I’ve got…Used to have a little, now I’ve got a lot. No matter what I eat, I know where I came from.
From then on, whether I find myself crossing more cuisine boundaries or standing at the checkout with organic, hipster foods, I remind myself that the proof that I have made it—that I have grown beyond the confines of the poverty line and food stamps—is never going to fit in a pantry.