This Christmas season has me thinking about privilege—those who have it, and those who don’t; those who are in the mainstream, and those who aren’t. I grew up in a small rural area of southeastern Illinois, an area where most people were working class. I remember a few folks who appeared to be on another level financially, either due to extensive land holdings or by virtue of the good fortune of having oil discovered on their property, but by and by we were all the same: laborers of modest means.
But there was poverty, too. There were those families who were barely getting by—families who drove old vehicles that were always breaking down, families with too many kids to feed, families who relied on food stamps or government commodities. I remember the year that my family was one of them.
I remember waiting along the railroad tracks in Sumner in a line of people, some of them waiting with empty boxes, some with clothes baskets or bushel baskets, for the commodities train to arrive. I’m not sure whether we qualified because my mother had lost her teaching job, and the income my father had from farming was so minimal, or whether it was because my grandmother, who lived with us, was nearly blind with cataracts and qualified for what at the time was called “old age assistance,” or whether it was some combination of the two. The point is I still remember that waiting—waiting and waiting for the powdered milk and the pails of sorghum and the peanut butter—and the feeling I got when people drove by and looked at us. I couldn’t articulate anything then, but as the years went on, I understood well what it was to be tagged as less than equal to those around me.
I was an only child of parents who were both over forty when I was born. I remember being in a store once, asking for a pup tent that I thought I just had to have. My father wasn’t listening to my pleas. Then the clerk said, “Oh, why don’t you get that tent for your grandson? You know you want to.” Just like that, I felt singled out, somehow outside the norm because my parents were old enough to be my grandparents.
My father, as many of you know, lost both of his hands in a farming accident and wore prostheses. The people who knew him best came to admire how he persevered, continuing to farm, continuing to believe in the work that had cost him so much, but always the fact that he wasn’t able-bodied was very much in my consciousness. I remember the way that people who didn’t know us always looked at those prostheses. Some people feared my father; others looked at him with pity. The message was always clear: by virtue of his disability my family was on the outside of something I couldn’t exactly identify at a young age.
That identification would come later and only when I began to find myself privileged by education. My essay, “Twan’t Much,” which I post below, first appeared in Brevity and was then included in my latest book, Such a Life. The essay offers an account of one of the first times that I was aware of the advantages I had because my parents both believed in education and insisted that I pursue a college degree. I’ll let the essay say whatever it has to say about these issues of privilege and empathy, things that I think should be in all our minds this holiday season. For now, suffice it to say, that when you experience disadvantage at a young age, you’re always aware of the fact that in our country people are excluded all the time due to all sorts of factors, many of them beyond those people’s control. If you’re lucky, as I believe I’ve been, you’re also aware of what privileges you among others and you’re always striving to do what you can to close that gap.
Here’s the essay. Peace and blessings, this holiday season, in hopes that we’ll all remember what unites us.
At the tire repairs factory, I knew a man named Jack who had no teeth, who brought the same thing for lunch every day, a fried egg sandwich in a wrinkled and stained paper bag. He had a family he could barely support, one that didn’t have, as my father often said, “as much as a pot to piss in.” This was in 1976, a time of double-digit inflation and high interest rates in a small Midwestern town going nowhere fast.
One day, Friday the week of Christmas, I brought Jack a platter of homemade cookies. I gave it to him in the parking lot after work. “For you and your family,” I said, certain he’d be pleased.
I was twenty-one and saving money to go back to college. I had no idea that my gift would call attention to the fact that Jack’s life would more than likely always be exactly what it was at that moment. He was a poor man with poor prospects.
He bowed his head. He held that platter in his big hands, calloused and scarred, the knuckles all knobbed up, and he mumbled, “Much obliged.” Then he walked away, leaving me to feel the embarrassment I’d caused him, the shame.
The next day, my wife and I found a box of Whitman’s chocolates leaning against our front door. No card. No note of explanation. But I knew right away that Jack had left them for us.
The factory held its Christmas party at the Elks Lodge that evening, and I watched him get drunk on free liquor, so drunk that toward the end of the evening he was sick outside the bathroom, and his wife had to ask for help hauling him to the car.
Come Monday, he was back at work, cutting slabs of rubber from the mill drum. I never said a word to him about those Whitman chocolates, nor did I tell him that I wished that I or someone else had told him to lay off the booze that night at the party, to let him know he didn’t need to ruin what was a fine evening for his wife—a prime rib dinner, a few spins around the dance floor—and that was sure as heck what he was going to do if he kept guzzling that bourbon. How in the hell would you say that to a man ground down by work and the circumstances of his life on a night when he had a chance to cut loose, when the liquor was free, and for at least a little while, so was he?
Well, you don’t say it. That’s what. I regretted the gift of the cookies and all it had wrought, so I kept my yap shut.
Then the day comes when I’m back in college, and I’m in a theatre class, and one day I’m performing in a scene from Our Town. It’s the scene at the end of the play when the Webbs’ daughter, Emily, is granted her wish to come back from the dead and relive one day of her life. She chooses her twelfth birthday. February 11, 1899.
I play Constable Warren, who meets up with Emily’s father, the newspaper editor, outside on the street as he’s coming home from the train station. My character has been out early to rescue a drunk, asleep in a snowdrift near Polish Town. Constable Warren has been doing his work on a morning when it’s ten degrees below zero. He’s saved a man’s life, but still he doesn’t mean much of anything to the give and take of the Webb family that morning. He’s just a minor character, a simple man of duty, on the periphery of their lives.
I have a line at the end of the scene, a line I’ve worked over and over, trying to get it to please me. Constable Warren, when Mr. Webb says he’ll have to put word of that rescue up near Polish Town in the newspaper, says, “Twan’t much.” I want just the right balance of humility and pride and unease. Just the right hint of things unsaid, things I learned from a work-worn man one Christmas season when neither of us knew that he had anything to teach me.
“Twan’t much,” I say.
The next thing is easy. The exit. All I have to do is leave.