My father came home from work every day with grease under his fingernails. His place of business was a southside auto-parts yard the family referred to as “the store.” The first thing he did upon coming home in the evening was scrub his hands with Lava soap, and even then, you could see the faint but indelible trace of black.
I was the youngest kid of four and, as such, am not sure exactly what he did at the store all day, but I am told he spent those 10 hours trudging through the lot, helping to disassemble junk cars for their trunk lids, transmissions, tires, wheels, window glass—anything that might be of use. When the cars were fully stripped down, he sold them for scrap. A railroad trestle sat on the lot, and train cars unloaded coal into Dad’s trucks, which delivered it to homes and businesses for heat. It wasn’t an easy job.
Occasionally, I got to accompany him, and I remember a multitude of steering wheels in the office, as well as those swiveling glass knobs used to operate them one-handed, and dozens and dozens of notes tacked on the walls like so much confetti. There was a time clock, which I loved to punch—ding!—and junkyard dogs that scared me half to death. It was more fun to sit on a stack of tires than on the cockeyed desk chair, and I found it thrilling to answer the rotary phone with “Dorman Brothers” rather than “hello.”
Dad also taught himself the real-estate trade, including complicated deeds and abstracts, and then bought broken-down commercial properties, fixed them up, and sold them. He was smart—so smart that he skipped several grades in elementary school; a cherished class photo shows him standing on a chair to make him appear as tall as his older classmates. Had family responsibilities not precluded higher education, he might have been anything: a senator, a scientist—heck, a Supreme Court justice. Instead, he made his way with physical labor, long hours, and mouths-to-feed determination.
His business was successful. Not by accident, of course—his work ethic paid off. He had learned as much from his own parents, born in Eastern Europe and introduced to one another on the boat here, who toiled in their southside grocery store and parented seven children. This is what immigrants did when they came to America: worked. And worked and worked and worked. There were no vacations, no sick leaves, no weekend reprieves, no personal days. Once in America, people wanted to get ahead.
Over the last few years, I have been bothered by overt class distinctions, percentages of the population segregated by earning power, and even the favored term “working class,” which is thought to be the opposite of “upper class.” When I first made this observation, my younger son, a physician trained in a public hospital, snorted in disbelief, as if I couldn’t possibly understand what “working class” meant. But I do. I saw it every day, under Dad’s fingernails.
What my father lacked in opportunity, he made up for in brainpower and tenacity. He built a business that allowed our family certain comforts. We had a two-story brick house on a wide street; cars in the attached garage; a princess phone, a Philco portable TV, and a window air-conditioner in my room. My closet was full of cute outfits, and, due to my early-childhood nearsightedness, I was lavished with stylish eyeglasses. We enjoyed a country-club social membership (no golf—who had time?), and my mother had a mink stole. Nobody demonized us as the top 1 percent (I’m not sure if we were or weren’t; such matters weren’t discussed); my father was as respected and admired outside the family as in. If, by today’s standards, he earned enough to count in the highest bracket, I hate to think anyone would consider him privileged.
I’d rather folks not be separated into classes at all—they bring to mind grade-school social-studies units on the plebians and patricians of ancient Rome—or march en masse in support of one group’s 99 percent or against the other’s 1. I liked it better when everyone respected each other for their accomplishments. I hope we can get back to supporting—rather than blaming—one another. Granted, I have not had to pry off a bumper or yank out spark plugs, but I have worked for 35 years, gotten up in the dark and gone home in the dark, and fared nicely as a result. I am proud of myself and hope no one hates me for that.
Grandma and Grandpa on my mother’s side worked shoulder-to-shoulder in a Cincinnati grocery/delicatessen that they built from the ground up. Grandma was a trailblazer for working women in the early 1900s, putting in the same long hours as her husband. The store wasn’t just their livelihood; it was their life. They, too, came over from the “old country,” and they, too, enjoyed success. In fact, I always considered them “rich,” by virtue of their large home on a hillside, its rooms filled with fine furnishings and beautiful collections of porcelain. We ate multi-course meals there and slept on ironed bed sheets. If you work hard, you should enjoy the benefits. If you work hard, you should get credit for whatever you achieve. If you don’t work hard, and you are wealthy anyway, by virtue of fame or lottery winnings or inheritances, well, then, you are lucky. And I’m not mad at those individuals, either. It’s America, after all. Anything can happen here.
In the upcoming four years, I wish most of all for jobs, thousands of them, so the “working class” can become huge again. I wish for people to have opportunities to get those jobs. And then, when workers succeed, I’ll cheer them on, no matter what percent of the population they happen to occupy.
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue.