I was about to be sprung from my class status. My father worked in a factory, my parents owned a tiny house and a secondhand car, they were socially awkward and didn’t speak very good English; I didn’t really know what a rise in status would entail. I had no desire to work in finance or to join any clubs. All I knew was that I would be avoiding the sort of life to which my parents had been sentenced. Nevertheless, I referred to myself as working class, and was even more insistent about it in college, when I met kids from fancy backgrounds. This was partly in emulation of my proudly Socialist father, partly because I was an outsider in so many ways that I had no choice but to be defiant about it, and partly because it was 1972. Revolution, the great panacea of a few years earlier, had definitively been scratched, but hopes had not yet crumbled.
Neither had a certain romantic notion of the working class. The United States was famously supposed to be classless, of course, but then almost everybody knew better. In 1972 the working class (along with a few other more or less murky categories, such as ‘street people’ and ‘our brothers and sisters in prison’) was still being floated among middle-class would-be revolutionaries as an edifying model for imitation and as a permanent source of guilt. It was a bit complicated, because ‘hard-hats’, unassailably working class, had beaten up antiwar protesters on the streets of New York City and been hailed as pillars of the Silent Majority by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. But there remained the lingering aura of the Wobblies, of the miners’ strikes and auto-workers’ strikes of the 1930s, as well as a cascade of images from the Paris Commune and the October Revolution and the Long March. We imagined basking in the radiance of that aura when we wore our blue chambray shirts and listened to the MC5, not suspecting that within a decade or two so much of American industry would be exported or terminated. Then the remnants of the working class would either be handed neckties and told they were middle class, or forced into fast-food uniforms and told they didn’t exist.