Listening Post

Note: This blog post was authored by Manny Frishberg.

Between staking out the mayor’s house in Greenwood Friday night and preparing the next newspaper for people to purchase from their cadre of street vendors, the people at Real Change made time to begin a dialogue with a few members of the community Saturday, April 21. I was one of them.

The half-dozen people in my Listening Circle had some things in common and some not. All of us were White (though that wasn’t necessarily true for all the groups). In all likelihood no one there in my group was under 40 – only one person shared her age and she was in her ninth decade. No names have been changed because none are being given. Nor will I delve into the details of anyone’s personal history. One of the rules for the listening session was that what was said in that room, stayed in that room.

All of us had been poor at one time or another. Half had been in the military and half had not, or if they had, it didn’t come up. Most of us had been to college; some had advanced degrees, others hadn’t finished even one. All of us had attended the School of Hard Knocks, where the only diplomas are etched into your face. But no one there felt sorry for themselves, and that may have been the most important feature we shared.

A couple of us came from privilege. One of the questions we answered in turn was “When was the first time you met someone of a lower class than you? When did you first meet someone of a higher class?” A couple of people in the room answered to the first part of that question by talking about the servants or housekeeper their families had employed when they were growing up. One answered the second part by talking about the time one of his schoolmates was given a ride home by the family’s butler – so even the well-to-do had encountered people far above their stature. Then there was the person whose family had lost their fortune in the Depression and grew up as the poor relation in a family used to wealth.

Myself, I said I’d grown up as one of the have-nots (or have-lesses) in a decidedly middle class suburb of New York. But I only became conscious of class divisions when I moved into New York’s Lower East Side in junior high, where 90 percent of my schoolmates were people of color, and even though my mother could barely make ends meet on her salary, the gulf was undeniable. A few years later, after I’d quit high school and joined my first Occupy movement at Columbia University I hung out with people who, I later learned, were not just among the 1 percent but the .001 percent – and I had more in common with them than the high school classmates I’d left behind.

We talked, for the hour-and-a-half allotted, about whether we had ever not had enough to get by. And, while some had lived on the streets or with no permanent address for at least a while, no one seemed to feel that they hadn’t had what they needed – after all we’re all still here. And we shared our thoughts about what class means in this society. While most of us spoke about it in socio-economic terms, one person took the discussion in a different direction – talking about what it means to have real class: to be kind, to share what you have, to treat others like you wish they would treat you.
And we talked for a time about fashion, about the Junkie-Chic portrayed in the pages of Style sections — $300 distressed jeans and the like, and the people who cannot afford to dress down because dressing for success is the mask that ensures them a modicum of respect.

So what did it have to do with ending homelessness or rebalancing the scales of economic justice? Maybe just a reminder that nobody – not the 99 percent and not the 1 (not even the .001) percent – gets out of this world alive, or unscathed. And that, in the end, 100 percent of us have only each other to count on. Not a bad lesson for a sunny Saturday afternoon.