When I think of class issues I think of them in terms of corridors. In every gleaming office tower they are there, in every upscale marble, glass and steel mall—they are there. They are dark concrete, engrimed, lit by harsh fluorescence behind steel cages, streaked with the residue of years of waste. They are the corridors that the service staff use—the maintenance staff, the cleaners, the truck drivers, the blue collar guys who cart the heavy boxes and fixtures around. They are ugly and often they stink.
It’s that squalor that underlies the worlds of both opulence and sterility - the opulence of the upper class, the sterility of the middle classes' office buildings. It’s those corridors that those who earn little more, and sometimes less, than minimum wage work out of. For Lord save the clean little people in their white shirts and ties, their buffed oxfords and their clean fingernails—Lord save them from seeing the people who do the work to keep their white walled world clean and running—the people who keep the air conditioning and heat on, the carpets clean and the light fixtures working.
The trolls come out at night as the offices empty. Scurrying out from their tunnels they are allowed to move through the offices once the daytime denizens are gone, not to be offended by the sight of those who sweat for a living or those who deal with dirt and garbage. And when the daytime denizens do see you, if you are one of those night time trolls—they don’t see you. Their eyes don’t track, they move right over you as if you were a piece of moving furniture—an appliance. Only if they need something will they reluctantly approach you—then, after they’ve gotten what they wanted, whacked the machinery, as it were, next time you run into them you usually find you’ve gone back to being an invisible appliance with whom eye contact is to be avoided at all costs. And you are paid in scraps, for your labor you receive a pittance compared to those whose fingernails are clean, whose work involves the strain of typing on a keyboard, attending meetings and picking up the phone.
That’s my second world. It’s a world I inhabit no longer, but it’s a world that haunts me, that I know exists alongside the antiseptic office world. Those corridor dwellers are the ones whose labor makes that new world possible—they are the trolls of the modern world, who come out at night, or who scurry through tunnels in the day, never to be seen by those whom their work helps. If seen, they must be ignored.
Salem has these people too. I prefer to call them the "otherclass", since we are a liberal city that gives much lip service to the "underclass".
So long as they're in another country.
Who are the otherclass in Salem?
Those in the Point, who do all the service jobs the rest of us can't afford to do. Those people who make your coffee at Dunkie's--you know who they are. Those "others" you see taking the 455 bus from Walgreens downtown.
The otherclass is in my old apartment building in Salem Common, something I've long written about.
And so I listen to John Edwards and I marvel that he dares speak of the unspeakable, of the great fear—not just of the middle class, but of all Americans. For we choose not to look at that which we fear. It's not that we fear the working poor, or their humbler cousins, the broken, those who don't even have a bad job. It's that we fear that in them, we might see people like ourselves.
For, to feel secure, in our beautiful world, we must believe that there is something fundamental that makes us different from the poor and the broken. We must think, "ah, but I'm smarter", or "I work much harder", or, less gratifying but still good "I have a better education than them."
We must think, then, "I am more valuable than them, I am different, what happened to them could never happen to me! I'm different! I am!"
We cannot see them as humans like us. That many of them work hard, or worked hard when they were allowed to. That most are not stupid, and that many are no worse educated than we (and isn't that the easiest thing to fix anyway, as if everyone had a high school diploma, or a B.A. or a Ph.D there would be jobs for them all.)
I've found this to be so true, no less in Salem, whose elites show no lack of concern for Darfur and other places conveniently far away.
My example: I grew up in a French-Canadian household. Salem loves its French people--we even elected one as mayor, Jean Levesque! French-Canadian immigrants built much of modern Salem, a great generation and deservedly so. There are many Pelletiers, Gauthiers, LaPointes and Jodoins in Salem still and to this day Comcast carries a Montreal TV station on our cable.
The French-Canadians came down from the north around the turn of the century, probably by land through what is now Route 114, and settled in Salem. There was no Border Patrol in those days, so these folks just hitched the wagon and set out as one of many undocumented immigrants. They settled down in the Point where the mills were.
The French-Canadians--Catholics almost all--built St. Joseph's Church on Lafayette St., and built it anew when it was destroyed in the Salem Fire. The French stopped coming in shortly thereafter.
Over time, and several generations, the French families moved out to Jefferson Avenue, A new church, St. Anne's Church, was established. It also burned in the 1980's, and was likewise rebuilt. My family liked to joke to cabbies, cruelly, about the "border crossing" as they approached the Jefferson Ave. railroad bridge.
My mother's family was on Jefferson Ave., though she herself moved to Webb St. (where the Poles and Russians settled) where I grew up.
In the meantime, the Point became the home of a new generation of immigrants, mostly Hispanic.
In 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston closed St. Joseph's Church. A few years afterwards, Mayor Driscoll proposed building a combined senior/youth center on the site of the church.
Thus was born the ugliest idea in Salem.
Many seniors, egged on by activists, now believe that the Hispanics drove out the French and put the church out of business.
(If my mom were still here, she might point out that St. Anne's has been the center of French Catholicism in Salem for a long time, but that's an inconvenient point.)
The seniors and many activists, including some good friends of mine, complain about traffic and crime. They complained about being "mixed with kids".
After all, it's in the Point, and we know how the "Hispanics ruin Salem/the neighborhood" (a thought usually expressed in much cruder terms than I want in my blog.)
A few years ago, when the archdiocese nearly broke the lease on the Immaculate Conception school on Hawthorne Boulevard where the Salem Boys and Girls Club was located, the club explored moving to the old Fort Ave. fire station.
The Salem Willows neighborhood would have none of it. They suggested, "why don't you move to the Point?" The Boys and Girls Club is after all, for those other kids.
Some dear French friends of mine have even expressed the old, ugly "pull up the ladder" idea; their parents were "good" immigrants, while the people coming in now are "bad immigrants" and "illegals". (If my mother's parents and grandparents ever had entry papers, I never saw them...)
This is very sad, and not just for idealistic liberal reasons.
Many seniors are themselves invisible people. My friend Leo Jodoin became a loud activist for senior citizens. He likes to refer to them as the "forgotten people" and too often that is true.
I see seniors in my own building sliding down the slope at the end of their lives. I see people ignored, but a few times a year, as adult children make the trip in the elevator to grandma or grandpa.
To get in my building, you have to be middle-class at the most. If you're in my building, you had nowhere else to go. You don't have a house, or you couldn't keep your house. You're probably disabled, with another set of problems that keep you down. The only way out for most here, is a nursing home, or feet-first, and some of us fervently hope for the latter when they get up in the morning.
From personal experience, I know too well how far one can fall through misfortune, or simple aging.
Even seniors who own property are not immune. In an instant, they can become disabled and forced to move. They can be slowly forced out of their homes as property values ratchet up and greedy developers mentally subdivide their family homes in anticipation of expensive condos.
I, those in my building, and many Salem seniors are an "otherclass" ourselves.
We just don't admit it.
We like to pretend it's about crime or traffic or some such, but it isn't.
It's all about class.
We're a lot more like the "otherclass". We just don't want to admit it.
Now Teazie Goggin and the Senior Center Committee want a resort for our senior center next to Camp Naumkeag at the Willows away from any badness, or anything at all really (including MBTA access, of which there is none.)
It's probably easier for the Committee to go through the motions and pretend it's not about class.
But I know better.
I'm all for a new Senior Center, but I won't put up with racism or classism, and that's what the arguments are about.
I think we will find that the St. Joe's site was the best we could have done. I think the Willows site won't happen unless Teazie herself puts up the money.
The center will still be on Broad St., and I think that's where it should stay, as long as we keep pretending it's about traffic or crime.
Instead of about "those people".