Growing up in suburban and rural New Jersey, I had encountered the signs of it regularly.
In the spare room closet, a framed photographic portrait of John F. Kennedy, the likes of which my mother told me had been sold “everywhere” in Camelot’s wake. A copy of Arthur M. Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days,” an elegiac tome of the era. My father’s blue cotton shirts with the Buick logo embroidered on the breast pocket, part of his uniform from when he worked as an auto body repairman at a dealership in Englewood, N.J. And the fixer-upper Cape Cod, which my parents had purchased with an FHA loan, and which my father labored over nights and weekends, filling holes in the walls because my mother insisted on a house for their daughters.
We were a blue-collar family, members of what I now call the upper working class. My parents were Democrats. When I registered to vote at 18, I declared myself a Democrat, at beginning of President Ronald Reagan’s second term.
When I was eight years old, my family moved to Vernon, N.J., a township in an exurban region that was mostly working class as well. Almost every child I knew was from up in a blue-collar family. Their dads often worked in union shops. The breadwinner across the street was a bricklayer. A father up the street worked at the now-defunct Ford plant in Mahwah. Another dad was a mail carrier. The moms stayed at home, cooking, doing thorough house cleanings hanging laundry out on clotheslines. They met afternoons at kitchen tables for coffee, while we, their offspring, played outside, in attics, basements, in the woods.
When my father shopped for groceries, he roamed the aisles for dented canned goods that were marked down. He studied the offerings in the meat department, selecting roasts, all beef, because he had learned from his father that a good working man provides his family with lean meat.
Our bi-level house overlooked a pond which we caught and released each summer. A vacant lot next door was grown over with grasses and new quaking aspen. And within a stone’s throw, there were woods, and in the depths of the woods large vines descended from the trees, from which we swung, laughing crazily.
In our new home, I was given my own room. My parents bought me a desk and desk lamp, with a lampshade from which amber-colored glass baubles dangled. I was studious, and my parents believed I had a grand future.
When I was 10, my father no longer wanted to work in dealerships. By that time, he was a body shop manager, and the demands were too stressful for him. So he worked out of the garage in our house. By word of mouth, he acquired a loyal customer base, and we continued to eat lean red meat and fresh potatoes, and drink copious amounts of milk.
So we went to school, and to church, and to play, some to college, and we all went to work, trusting the future held wonderful things, because that was how life in America was. If you gave everything you had, certainly your dearest dreams would appear on the horizon, and move ever closer, you slogging toward them, and eventually both would meet in the middle.
That was what we in the working class of the 1970s and early 1980s believed. We had few if any luxuries, but we had the future. We had a sense of inevitable justice.
What I remember most fondly of those days is the absence of envy. Some families had a bit more money and a few more luxuries than others, but it was nothing to fret over unduly. Someday, the world would open up and we would be free to make our own lives. If we were content to remain in the upper working class, we could. If we sought another life, it was within reach. What we sought and needed most, we could obtain through consistent hard work, intelligence and decent living. At least, that is what I believed.
But then the effects of trickle-down economic theory grew stronger, another Republican president followed Reagan, and then a third-way Democrat was elected who presided over a massive economic bubble. The public came to believe in the absolute natural rightness of private corporations, indeed, their very personhood. Loud voices have clamored for constant deregulation and tax-cutting, the undoing of decades of laws and programs intended to ensure an upper working class.
In the 30 years between childhood and middle age, I have seen a way of life, a world and consciousness disappear. A sense of displacement has taken over me; I am a sort of economic refugee.
I miss the modest prosperity of my youth. I wonder if it can ever return.
Shirley O’Shea is a contributing writer for The Daily Star.