By Timothy Harper
The central Illinois evening was humid and warm and alive with lightning bugs and crickets when I walked up the gravel driveway past the pickup trucks. Half a dozen relatives and old friends, people I always get together with on visits back home to Peoria, were waiting for me in the dewy back yard, slouching in lawn chairs.
They had left me a chair with torn nylon webbing. “Whoa, you’re going to have to go buy some new chairs pretty soon,” I said to our host, who has been a close friend since we were five years old. For a second or two, he just stared at me, and so did everyone else. Then they guffawed.
“Are you kiddin’ me?” one of the demanded. “Spend ten bucks for a new chair? He can get some new webbing for sixty-nine cents and fix the doggone chair. Good as new.” They looked at me as if I was from another world.
In a way I suppose I am.
It gives colleagues, neighbors and friends on the East Coast great delight to learn than I am from Peoria. “Will it play in Peoria?” they often say. “Where did that phrase come from?” And just where is Peoria, they wonder – near Chicago? Many of them remark that they’ve never met anyone from Peoria before.
For the record, Peoria is in “the heart of Illinois,” roughly 150 miles south of Chicago and 210 miles north of St. Louis. It is a mostly pleasant and ordinary city of 112,000 on the Illinois River; so ordinary, in fact, that it was one of the key American test markets as the consumer society boomed in the 1950s and ’60s. Growing up, it wasn’t unusual for families in our neighborhood to be supplied with free breakfast cereal or ice cream or toothpaste as long as we filled out and mailed in the survey forms that came with the stuff.
Peoria’s salt-of-the-earth reputation gave rise to the “Will it play…” catch-phrase back in the days of vaudeville: if an act was well received in Peoria, entertainers came to learn, it would probably do well anywhere else in the country. Later, the Nixon administration adopted the phrase when campaigning in the Midwest.
Explaining Peoria to the outside world is relatively easy. Explaining the rest of the world to Peoria can be more difficult, especially for someone like me, who had a working-class upbringing but went away to college – out of state, people marveled at the time – and never came back. This summer I’ll be making my more or less annual trip back to Peoria and to my working-class roots. Yes, there is a class system in America – but most Americans don’t fully understand it until they try to change classes themselves
My own revelation came on a hot summer weekend during law school when I brought a group of people home from Wisconsin to water ski, including a young professor I didn’t know very well. One of my relatives overheard the young professor fretting over getting tenure in the English department. The Peoria guy, with absolutely no sense of irony, suggested a job at the post office. “Great job security,” he noted. The professor was offended to the point of sputtering. At first I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. Eventually I realized that he had been raised in a relatively wealthy home, a home where there was never any doubt that he would go to college and become a solid, prosperous member of the middle class. He could not imagine himself in a blue-collar job, and was insulted that anyone else could, either.
When I was growing up in Peoria, my parents had little savings and no college fund for the kids. My friends’ parents didn’t, either. We rarely ate out, and the two big family vacations during my childhood were both camping trips to neighboring states in the old station wagon. I didn’t meet anyone who had ever been to summer camp until I went to college, and my first trip on an airplane wasn’t until I was working as a newspaper reporter in college. Growing up, my friends and I didn’t trust “rich” kids. Of course, we didn’t know any rich kids. Now I live with two of them, and take them back to Peoria with me to visit their grandparents.
But don’t misunderstand; this isn’t about money. Going home doesn’t mean lording it over the poor relations. Many friends and relatives in Peoria – cops, construction workers, master carpenters, workers at the Caterpillar tractor factories with seniority and overtime – can and do earn more than some of the professors at the Ivy League institution where I now teach part-time.
Similarly, education is certainly a factor, but hardly the defining marker between a working-class upbringing and a middle-class life. One boyhood friend who is a Peoria cop has published two books, and during visits home I can always count on several other lawn-chair buddies for insightful political discussions – preferably late at night over cheap cigars and even cheaper beer. Yet conversations are sometimes strained, at least initially, and common ground is narrower nowadays. My old friends will nod politely when I tell them about a trip to Egypt, but when I start to hold forth on the sunsets over the Pyramids they will shift the conversation to recent movies we’ve all seen – and I don’t blame them.
A few years ago I met a couple of filmmakers doing a documentary, “People Like Us: Social Class in America,” for the Public Broadcasting System. Louis Alvarez, one of the filmmakers, said there are costs when people move out and up and away from their working-class backgrounds: “You may be cut off from the people who were nearest and dearest to you – your family and your old friends. People who grew up in the middle class don’t understand that.”
“You go away and you learn about the larger world and change your attitude,” Alvarez added. “When you come home, home looks different. You can’t help but act different, and people definitely pick up on that. You’re different by virtue of the mere fact that you went away.”
Indeed, the biggest difference between me and my people back in Peoria is not money or education or even social class. It is the fact that I moved away and they didn’t. When I go home to Peoria it takes a while, and sometimes more cheap cigars and cheaper beer, to bridge the gaps of time and distance and experience with my relatives and old friends. But we always manage. We relive and laugh at old times. And we share similar everyday concerns, whether over our adolescent children’s schoolwork or our aging parents’ living arrangements or our own falling arches and rising cholesterol levels.
They’ll tease me because I still have never changed the oil in my car or re-grouted a shower stall, and ask in dead seriousness how I dare venture into Central Park without a gun. I’m in awe, in turn, not only at how they seem to be able to build anything and fix anything themselves, but at how they all still seem to be so close, so comfortable with each other. To them, nothing is more important than family. Kids who aren’t related are like cousins, and cousins are like brothers and sisters. I wish my kids could be part of that. I wish people would drop by our house without calling ahead, as some folks do in Peoria, knowing that a pot of coffee will be on and somebody will sit down and talk. I wish that just once, facing a stuck garage door or loose gutter or some other household repair, one of my neighbors in the leafy New Jersey suburbs would say to me what my friends and relatives back in Peoria would say: “You’re gonna pay somebody to do that? Are you crazy? We can do that ourselves. Here, let me help you…”
Once in a while my Peoria friends and I do reflect on the differences in our lives. Surprisingly often, they remember how my parents bought the first set of encyclopedia in the neighborhood, and always seemed to assume that I would be the first person in our sprawling extended family to go to college. My friends wonder whether my parents might have been a little less encouraging if they had known I would spend so much of my life so far away. I asked my parents about this once, and they said no, they wouldn’t change anything. Sure, they wish they could see their grandchildren more often, but they’re pleased with the idea that they instilled the curiosity and confidence that’s taken me so far away.
When it’s time to leave Peoria after this summer’s trip, my friends and relatives will say they wished we lived closer, and I will say it, too. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know what books are on the New York Times bestseller list, or that I don’t know who’s leading the NASCAR standings.
In his 2003 book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (John Wiley & Sons), journalist Alfred Lubrano describes “straddlers,” including himself, who sometimes feel guilty for moving away, and have trouble relating to their working-class backgrounds, including their relatives and old friends. “We straddlers know there are costs and consequences for all the wishes and dreams,” Lubrano concluded. “They are inevitable. Limbo folk can consider themselves fortunate if they can be upwardly mobile but still rooted in the working-class world. Peaceful reconciliation comes to us when we can finally meld the two people we are.”
That’s what I try to do. I play in a larger world now, but never forget that I played in Peoria – and that for a week or so every year or so, I probably always will.
Timothy Harper, based in the New York suburbs and at www.timharper.com, is a journalist, author, editorial/publishing consultant and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
END OF MAIN STORY
For more on the documentary “People Like Us: Social Class in America,” go to http://www.pbs.org/peoplelikeus.
Americans are just about as likely to say they are lower class or working class as they are to say that they are middle class, according to the prestigious annual General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
The most recent results, from 2002:
If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: The lower class, the working class, the middle class or the upper class?
Lower class 6.1 percent
Working class 44.6 percent
Middle class 45.4 percent
Upper class 3.4 percent
Not sure 0.5 percent