just another roadside attraction

We are ensconced at a roadside diner after having been rousted out of bed far too early. When I look back on my visits to Washington, this is what I see in my mind’s eye: a constant stream of television and pizza delivery, eating out at “healthy” fast food places and shopping at big box stores. Waking too early and never ever opening windowshades. Drowning in brown microsuede. Whenever I come home, the textures of my own (decidedly not always healthy) life feel wholesome, grounding, a return to the values of the earth and my place on it.

I don’t own a television, and I cook most of my own food. There is a quiet dignity in this that can get lost among the constant barrage of Papa John’s and reality television, a constant striving and the choking belief of a certain type of American that if we watch enough other people better their lives, it will trickle down to ours and we will never even have to leave the couch. When I get home, there is a vital pleasure in bedding back down on my couch with a glass of water and some pasta or fish or soup or veggies I’ve just prepared, a new and promising recipe I’ve just tried, turning on Pandora and eating everything from fine white plates with dedicated silverware.

There is not much plastic in my home, and I hate eating with it. Everything is decanted onto nice plates (even Chipotle!) I couldn’t get through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but what I took away from that book, and from my own struggles with food, is that it must be grounded in pleasure, in communication, in emotion and in healing. Feeding is not enough because existence is not enough – your food, like your daily life, should nourish.

This is an argument for a different day, though, and right now I am ordering flapjacks. They come, along with my scrambled eggs (almost assuredly from a carton) and my potato pancakes (the less said about these reconstituted potato chips, garnished pathetically with a meager twist of thick sour cream sealed in paper, the better). They are delivered by a cute waiter, who teases me about my vegetarianism (I fail to flirt back; I have my sensors firmly set to off with family), and I start thinking about how it feels to be working class in the District.

This is probably a sign of my own inner snobbery, but no matter what job I was doing, I’ve never fundamentally felt working class as such. I’ve felt more like a dilettante, moonlighting as a restaurant hostess or a call center employee but always looking onward, upward, ahead. I always found myself surrounded by a peculiar feeling of pretense and a slight shame, as if even by being there and doing a job that I didn’t need to pay my bills, I was spitting in the face of someone who might need the money to care for a sick child or make ends meet on a mortgage whose future is in doubt.

Now, though, I live on my own. My salary is paying all of my bills, and enabling me to save (a little bit). My rent is over 60% of my monthly income; living alone is an extravagance at the best of times, and in a city like Boston, it is always my biggest indulgence. Although not flat busted, I am frequently broke, and I joke that the percentage of living expenses puts me below the poverty line with a funny feeling that’s half self-mocking and half a wry admitting of the truth. But for those whose primary jobs are the sort of positions that people (me too?) look down on, I always wonder how they feel about things: their lives, their futures, their prospects, dreams and plans.

I go back and forth as to whether or not this is condescending. After all, our society is much more oriented towards curiosity about the rich. No one will ever successfully market a show entitled Lifestyles of the Lower Middle Class and Nondescript. But at the same time, it’s easy to be fascinated with rich people, especially the sort who splash up on those shows. The extravagance, the luxury, the expense, and most of all the waste: it’s interesting, or at least it makes for good thirty minute exposés.

What I find more fascinating, absolutely compelling, is the idea of living with dignity when titles or money or prestige doesn’t make it easy for you to swan through life never having to trudge through snow (a subject that is sore on my mind of late). I guess I’ve always been curious about the things that don’t get studied, that don’t get seen. While other people stare at male peacocks, I am mesmerized by the million different subtleties in the females’ quiet shades of brown. It is breathtaking, and it is ignored, and it is beautiful in a way that feels richer, deeper, more subtle and honest, inscrutable and true.

So I stare at my waiter. I wonder what he’s doing for the inauguration. I wonder if he’s happy, if he’s sad. I wonder about his accent, and I want to point out that even though my sister’s fiancée is attempting to stiff him on the tip and that makes our entire group seem over-privileged and entitled, we are closer than we seem. We are all immigrants, or first generation Americans. We are all striving, rising upwards or drifting sideways but moving, being ruminated upon by the great thoughtful cow that is our country now. We are working through the stomachs; we are being tried by tiny everyday fires. We are compelled to believe that we will reach the other side washed clean.

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