Living into my luck
Reflections on class, fortune, and Trader Joe's
“I’m tired of being a gentleman down on his luck,” I wrote on Facebook in the spring of 2018. I’d been working at Trader Joe’s for just over six months. I was homeless. I slept at Victoria’s apartment three nights a week; other nights I slept in my car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Some days, I didn’t have money for lunch, and worked a shift hungry.
There’s nothing unusual about how I was living. In late-stage American capitalism, plenty of working people live out of their cars and call themselves lucky to sleep in a bucket seat rather than beneath an overpass. The discomfort of a skipped meal is desperately commonplace. Even the particulars of my story were not particularly original. I’m not the first person to go from comfort to homelessness as a result of reckless choices. Cancel culture has increased the number of those who tumble from grace, but the phenomenon is an ancient one. Many before me had also lost nearly everything thanks to addiction or mental illness or a series of reckless, selfish, dishonest choices.
What I wrote on Facebook was not a self-pitying lament. (At least I didn’t think it was.) For a change, I wasn’t interested in rehashing the story of my fall. Rather, I was trying to frame what had happened to me in terms of social status. Did bagging groceries and stocking cans of beans for a living give me the right to call myself “working class?” At the time, my freelancing had dried up – Trader Joe’s was my only source of income. I was starting to love my fellow crew and the store (I adore them all the more now.) When, I wondered, could I be simply a worker among workers, just one of the crew? Could I pretend that class was simply a function of how much money I made and what I did to make it? I knew enough to know better.
What I wanted was a way to reframe my work at TJ’s so that there wasn’t a hint of tragedy left in it. I knew that part of me loved wallowing in the details of my fall from grace. Almost weekly, I declared breezily to someone, “I used to have my name on the door of my office. Now I wear it on my shirt.” Somedays I liked the melodrama of how that sounded, but now the appeal was wearing off. “You keep saying that,” Victoria told me one day. “It’s really getting old.”
What I wanted to come across as raffish insouciance increasingly came across as thinly-disguised trauma. It also came across as snobbery. Working at Trader Joe’s is not beneath anyone, as the actor and former Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens repeatedly made clear in interviews after he was “outed” for working in a New York-area store in between acting gigs. How could I describe myself as “down on my luck” without implicitly insulting every one of my fellow crew members? How was it not offensive to speak of a fall from grace that landed me at TJ’s, when the folks with whom I worked had ended up in the very same place without having made the same mistakes?
From boyhood, I was taught the difference between being flexible and being dishonest. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s decree that a gentleman should be able to make himself equally welcome at both a homeless shelter and at Buckingham Palace. If it was required that he sit on the ground and eat with his fingers, he should do so; if he needed to navigate a complicated place setting at a formal dinner, the intricacies of when to use cake forks and finger bowls should come easily. At the same time, a gentleman does not pretend to be what he isn’t. He doesn’t pass himself off as what he’s not.
So much of the dance of WASP privilege is knowing certain things without making people feel ashamed that they don’t know the same things. When I posted about being a gentleman down on my luck, a friend of mine from a similar background to my own reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.” In the novel, Sherman, who comes from comfort, has an exchange with his mistress, Maria, about the English playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Maria asks, “You do know who he was? That’s one of the things you’re supposed to know, isn’t it?” Wolfe continues: “The only thing that had truly stuck in Sherman's mind about Christopher Marlowe, after nine years at Buckley, four years at St. Paul's, and four years at Yale, was that you were, in fact, supposed to know who Christopher Marlowe was. But he wasn’t about to say that.”
Put on the spot, the hapless Sherman would have been better off saying that in some places, maybe places that don’t matter all that much, you are supposed to know who Marlowe is. Maria already knows that in the world she desperately wants to inhabit, she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to and Sherman’s silence doesn’t protect her from that pain.
When I started work at the store, I tried my best to be eager to learn, to be enthusiastic and teachable. I tried as well to hide my background, both the specifics of how I had lost my old life and the signifiers of education and opportunity. It didn’t work. One of my co-workers came up to me after a few weeks and told me that there was a rumor that I was a journalist undercover, writing a book about Trader Joe’s. It wasn’t true, I told her. “It’s the way you walk and talk,” she said. “You’re cool, we just want to know what your deal is.”
So much for disguising what one is. I didn’t need to say I had a PhD; or had grown up in a light-filled house, full of books; that I’d been to all seven continents. Somehow, something of all that seeped through. Not in a bad way, necessarily – it just couldn’t be hidden for long. I began to share “my deal” with my coworkers, and they heard it, and they shrugged in sympathy, told me their own narratives, and reminded me to pull the salad codes before the hour was up.
I’ve come to realize that despite my obsession with my own particulars, my story is remarkably commonplace. “I never thought I’d end up here” is a nearly universal refrain, particularly among my Millennial friends. Virtually everyone I know is haunted by a sense of ambitions unfulfilled and intentions thwarted. The only difference between me and most people struggling in this appalling economic environment is that my circumstances are entirely the result of my own choices rather than structural and cultural barriers.
Perhaps, I’ve come to realize, I’m not a gentleman down on his luck – I’m a gentleman living into his luck. I’m not working-class, nor will I ever be, regardless of how many pallets I break down or bananas I stock. I am simply living the life I chose, doing work that matters with people I love and who accept me for what I am. It is not the life I imagined for myself, but it is richer and more consequential than I could have hoped.
In the first few years after I lost my old life, I often dreamed of being back in the classroom. I dreamed of being back on CNN, pontificating and punditing away. I dreamed of the elegant hotels in which I’d stayed more times than I deserved. I’d wake up from these dreams, ashamed and shattered.
Last night, I dreamt I was in the store, bagging groceries. An older woman came towards me, cradling a half-dozen loose avocados in her hands. One fell as she got to my register, and I put out my hand and snatched it out of the air.
“Good catch,” she said with a smile.
“It’s what we do here, miss,” I replied. “Just what we do.”
Good to see you writing again, Hugo. Hope you're doing ok here in the year of our horrors, 2020.