Punching Upwards

In my official writers bio, I mention I’m working class. That’s a bold thing to do. Some might even say it's 'peculiar'. Shouldn’t I be embarrassed or something? It’s called ‘humble origins’ not ‘tell the world origins’.

24 January 2021 | 6 Minutes

And anyway, who is working class these days? Everyone is middle class now – and nobody say otherwise; nobody wants a class revolt on their hands.

The fact is that I do not feel the least embarrassed by my origins, though it might surprise you how often people seem to think I should.

I enjoy being working class. I get to express emotions. I get to ride public transport with grace and confidence. Police are always around when I need them, and I’m always being told how marvelously I’m doing. Also, I can make sociopathic jokes and nobody really panics. Nobody expects me to go to therapy, and if I’m feeling gloomy, I can get very drunk and get into a fistfight. Which I just think is a lot less fuss.

These days, however, almost all my mates are a few classes above me. They do yoga and eat only organic foods, and dress like they’re about to summit a mountain. And I like that; I appreciate it from a respectful distance. “You do you, etcetera.”

But I’m not changing, and the reason is that I refuse to wear polo shirts. In fact, I have never owned a polo shirt in my life. I don’t even own a shirt with those cloth triangles near the neck – you know, the magical triangles that confer respectability.

Besides, being working class isn’t too different. Whenever I feel under the weather, I go to my doctor like anyone else. Mind you, she’s a friend of mine, and I go to her because she’s nice, and she also doesn’t charge me any money – which I happen to think is clever of me. Of course, when she feels under the weather – my doctor, I mean – well, she goes to an acupuncturist and has her chi realigned.

You see how class differences can be subtle?

All the same, the middle class has a certain attraction some days, even to people like me. Somehow, last year, my doctor convinced me to try yoga. I’m not prepared to talk about that yet. Still a bit traumatised.

But my situation is interesting because I’m a working class Australian living in a recently gentrified town in the United States. When I bought this house, there were rats in the basement (so … many … rats) and the house reeked of urine. Two years after I moved in, all the heroin dealers moved out of the area and the streets filled with professors, lawyers and medical professionals. It’s still okay, though.

So it should be understandable that ‘issues of class’ are frequently on my mind. And concerns come in all directions. Back in Australia, the very fact I’m over here writing books is a bit of an awkward subject with the family. Not a month has gone by, probably, in which I haven’t taken a call from some distant, well-meaning relative who’s worried about this ‘writing books stuff’.

Wouldn’t I be much happier if I came back and joined the police force? Or the army? Because ‘creativity is fine, but let’s be realistic’, etcetera.

I get it, though. My people don’t chuck in the towel and write books. And so until I do stop writing books and get sensible, I shall be known in family circles as ‘Uncle Kris Who Lives in America and Works With Computers, Now Stop Asking Questions’.

No, really; I’m sympathetic. My mum cleaned motel rooms in Toowoomba and my father stole cars for a living – or, ‘repossessed’ them, as I call it, because two can play at that game, Dad.

But I’m being serious when I say that working-class people everywhere have to be realistic. I believe that devoutly. Something motivates me to continue writing books, anyway. There has to be more to life for my social caste than shutting up and keeping one’s head down. And more than that, I hate the way the book industry was colonised by the upper class.

I mean, have you read what they write, when they’re being witty? Of course you have. It can’t be avoided.

It’s pages and pages of mid-life uncertainties. Endless neuroses and confessions of domestic haplessness. The tribulations of being unable to fix a faucet at one’s summer home on Cape Cod. Masculinity, as befuddled as it is fragile.

Supposedly we all flounder in unease, wracked with racial guilt, flummoxed by the contents of a toolbox. I should be in my second home by now, yellow cardigan draped over my shoulders, tapping with two fingers at an antique typewriter — a gift, no doubt, from a supportive parent — and daydreaming of the Great American Novel that I shall never write, set in some coastal town with deep, dark secrets.

And I should be sending short stories in stiff, yellow envelopes to The NewYorker, where editors pee with delight at such scintillating drollery.

If I could, I would drown that genre in a lake.

And here’s another thought — Harvard University existed for 383 years before anybody published a satire about it. And the person who wrote it was me. So here’s my question: why didn’t they do it? I mean, Harvard was right there in front of them for almost four centuries – a big juicy target – and it’s not like the place was unfamiliar territory to them. So why not?

Well, the answer to the question, I suspect, might be found in the following story.

Once upon a time I was a software engineer in the Center of Biomedical Informatics – Fourth Floor, Countway Library, Harvard Medical School, 10 Shattuck Street, Boston.

Picture me there, attired not in a polo shirt but a tee shirt, woolen beanie and a hoodie, looking dutifully scruffy.

I have just received an email from my wayward boss, asking me to interview a prospective intern. “Why, man?” I message him in response. “Because I’m in San Francisco,” he replies. I type: “Goddamn it alright, but as usual you owe me.”

The candidate turns up eight minutes late. He wears boat shoes and no socks. And under a sports jacket, a pink polo shirt.

He’s relaxed. Actually, no — he’s bored. Bored to be there, bored to endure this interview. He yawned at me a few times and eventually asked if I could speed the process along.

I asked if he was in a hurry. He said he had to meet his grandmother; they were flying to The Vineyard, you see. Martha’s? Yes.

I asked him about his hobbies and he confided that he was a remarkably talented artist. Excellent. So, I fetched him paper and a pencil and requested he draw me a picture. He asked me why. I replied, “I would like to assess your ability to self-assess.” He sort of rolled his eyes at that and proceeded, inexpertly, to draw me a picture of what he assured me was a werewolf.

I sent him on his way.

The following week, I hired a cool, middle class kid from the suburbs of New Jersey. Not two years later, that kid was working at CERN in Switzerland. Nowadays, he builds particle colliders. You see, I am very good at interviewing people. I also self-assess brilliantly, and I can draw werewolves like it’s my job.

Werewolves really do exaggerate

Werewolves really do exaggerate

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