The first awakening began with a discussion. Well, a drunken argument really. I was 19 years old, sitting in the woods with a circle of friends and acquaintances when Michelle spoke up with a declaration that we were all working class really, not middle class. I have no idea where she came up with a statement like that. She was always trying to impress us with her intellect, and intimidate us with her 6-2 blondness, and she bugged the hell out of me. We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies either. We just happened to run in the same circle of kids that got together to drink and complain about spending another summer stuck in Batavia. So it was no surprise really when I took the bait and argued back that she didn’t know what the hell was she talking about. We were middle class. We were college kids, with parents that had jobs, and houses, and cars, and took vacations. Sure, maybe a generation or so earlier our grand parents had eaten ethnic foods, spoken foreign languages, and worked in factories, but it was the 1980’s now, and we were middle class.
I forget how the argument ended. With more beer probably, and with me losing interest, and instead focusing on whichever unattainable preppy girl happened to be sitting around the fire, and Michelle having a few more beers and becoming aggressively amorous to some poor unsuspecting male, as she was wont to do. But needless to say I did not forget the argument. Her assertion that we were working class bugged me in a way I couldn’t articulate. Mostly because I began to realize, slowly at first, that she might have a point.
It was many more years before I could accept the fact that she was indeed right, and understand why it had upset me. But before I get to that I have to explain the background of who it was seated around the fire that night, drinking in the woods at the end of a dirt road, in the countryside outside of Batavia.
I grew up on Prospect Avenue, the 4th child of a family that had only moved to town a few years before I was born. We were new to Batavia, having moved there from Tonawanda when Dad’s job with Niagara Mohawk gave him a chance to transfer for more money. I grew up as the tag along child, 6 years younger than my nearest sibling, and I was spoiled for it. The family took its first real vacations when I was 5, and began to have the money to spend on extravagances like Color Television, and new cars, when I was so young that I took such things for granted. When I went off to school Mom took a job doing secretarial work, and my ailing Grandmother moved in with us. I went to St. Joe’s, and came to develop a circle of friends that are still with me today, almost 40 years later. We were Catholic, and all came from big families. But even then, I knew that something set us apart from the other kids on the street. They went to public school, and didn’t wear the uniforms that we did, or leave for church on Sunday mornings dressed in their itchiest clothes.
I didn’t know what set us apart, and wouldn’t for a long time still. Our names had funny combination’s of consonants, and vowels at the end that other kids lacked. Still, we got by alright in little league, and on the Pop Warner football teams. I began to be aware of other kids from different parts of town that went to other Catholic schools like St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s and Sacred Heart. We had 4 of them, not bad for a city of only 16,000 souls. But that ethnic stuff didn’t exist at 20 Prospect. We had a German name, and our parish lacked the Irish, or Polish, or Italian identity that those other schools and parishes had. Heck, we used to tease the St. Anthony kids (mostly Italian and Sicilian) by calling them greasers. Still, we knew that we were all marked with an unmistakable sign of being different, our uniforms, that made us all targets for being picked on, or chased by kids from the Junior High. But these were just the accepted facts of life, and seemed incidental. My big brother and big sisters didn’t seem to have any problems with kids from the public schools. They were at Notre Dame H.S. by then, and in my eyes, surely the BHS kids were jealous of them. After all, to go to ND and play football was the pinnacle of my pre-teen aspirations.
When 8th grade ended, we split up. Most of my friends went to BHS for reasons that seemed entirely foreign to me. Arriving at ND, I had to build new friendships with the Irish, Sicilian, and Polish kids from Batavia, Leroy and farther points in WNY. I became exposed to “Pisano’s” for the first time, and oddly began to feel like an outsider within the walls of ND. So I kept close with my St. Joe’s friends at BHS, and became a kid with a foot in both worlds. That was the first step that led to that circle of firelight, and that argument. The second step, of course, was girls.
I was shy, still am really, and talking to girls was something that was excruciatingly painful for me in the boastful Pisano culture at ND. After 2 years of effort I had established a friendship with a girl from St. Mary’s who would go on to become the closest and dearest friend I would ever know, but I still couldn’t find a date. So when the summer before Junior year came around and I met a BHS girl during the summer soccer season, my two worlds began to come together. When my friend from ND also began to strike up a friendship with a girl from BHS, who ran in the circle of BHS soccer players frequented by one of my old St. Joe’s friends, the worlds became closer still. The final knot in rope was the access to beer, and booze, that this BHS crowd brought to the table.
At first these BHS kids seemed to be not much different from us. They weren’t at the center of their high school social scenes either. Just kids with marginal interest in extracurricular activities, who excelled in school and were on the college track like my ND friend and I. In fact, in many ways we felt more like them than our classmates at ND. We fancied ourselves “intellectuals” and went out of the way to act differently than the Pisano’s. But there was something that these BHS kids had in common that we didn’t. And it was clear the first time we went to their houses for a party. It was money. Real money.
They lived at the East end of town, in the Naramore Drive neighborhood, where the houses were newer, and bigger, and far nicer than the hundred year old homes on tiny lots we lived in. Their parents were Doctor’s, or business professionals, and didn’t work in a Union, or carry a lunch box. They didn’t make us feel unwelcome, though as “Damers” it was clear from early on that we would not be invited inside of their clique. It was a friendship of convenience, tied around some internecine hormonal attractions, and access to alcohol. But despite the underlying difference between our backgrounds, we all stood facing a path towards college, and that yellow brick road out of Batavia.
So that was how we came to sit around that campfire in the woods that summer evening, drinking cheap beer, and having pretentious conversations. When Michelle made her comment about being working class, it was like a cold glass of water being thrown in my face. It startled me, and woke me up to a fact that I had spent the previous 4 years trying to deny. There was a difference between us, and it ran deep. Michelle was wrong, most of the kids around that fire were Middle Class. But I wasn’t and neither were my Catholic friends. Try as I might to ignore that fact, it remained. We were different, and that made me question why I tried so hard to deny it. Was I ashamed? Was I jealous?
It pains me to say it, but I was. I knew I didn’t belong around that circle, and I knew that the one I did belong in, I had run from. I felt like St. Peter, and half expected a cock to crow three times. Instead, I just buried it deep inside me as self loathing, and took it out on anyone and anything that reminded me of the truth. I would get out of Batavia, no matter what. I would get a job that paid better than them, and I would live in a better house, and be a bigger success, than they would. I didn’t walk away from them at first. It took time, but walk away I did. I began to despise them almost as much as I despised myself for trying to be like them. So I ran, and I ran. In some ways I am running still. Only now I collect my paycheck from my dark corporate overlords with the same self loathing, and contempt that I had when I drank their beer.
It has been over 20 years since that discussion, and I feel so much differently now. I embrace who I am, and who I was, and I am ashamed of the years I wasted trying to be someone, and something that I wasn’t. Regrets are a part of life, and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s all part of our road to redemption. There was an Eden once, and for reasons we cannot remember, we were kicked out of it. Now we wander, looking for a way back in. Some walk the path of the prodigal, spending their inheritance on things they wrongly assume will restore what they have lost. Others stay behind as the dutiful son, resenting the things they have given up to hang onto a paradise they could never keep. In the end, they both must surrender to the fact that the purgatories they live in were built with their own hands, and their redemption cannot be bought. It can only be given by the one whom we run from. The one who knew us, before we knew ourselves.You’d think I’d know that by now, yet I still return on my knees, again, and again.