Sometimes I drive my husband’s beater to school. It’s a maroon 1990 Nissan Stanza with 300,000 miles on it. Its clear coat is peeling. Gasoline leaks from somewhere, and although my local mechanic says it’s still safe to drive, the smell makes me nervous. Sometimes the driver’s side door won’t open, and you need to roll down the window and open it from the outside. Also, my husband seems to be storing every receipt he’s ever been given in the map pocket “” I have no idea why.
You may have seen my husband’s clunker on campus. Students always turn around as I drive into the faculty lot because they’re understandably worried about the racket behind them. It sounds like the death rattle on a Spitfire, but it’s really just the Nissan emblem vibrating on the front grill. I should ask the Chevron guys about that.
Notice how I distance myself from the car by referring to it as my husband’s? He owned it when we started dating and we’ve been together for 16 years. It’s definitely community property by now, but I still refer to it as his car because I am ashamed to be seen in it. Although, when I think about it, I only started being embarrassed when I began at Trinity. I used to love that car; it was reliable, sturdy. I was proud that we’d made it last so long.
Perhaps I’m embarrassed now because every car at Trinity seems nicer than mine, even the students’. I’m embarrassed because I think a professor is supposed to drive a better car. But my husband and I are only a few years out of grad school. We’ve been paying off debts and saving up for a house. We’re not poor; we’ve just got better things to spend money on.
The real reason I’m embarrassed is this: I’m afraid someone will judge me the way I myself might judge someone driving a similar car: as poor, uneducated, shiftless and possibly uninsured. If you think I’m unusual in my snobbery, listen to the political discourse these days “” that’s the way our culture judges poor people now. If someone drives a junker, she must be a slacker, a loser, a nutcase, a mooch.
I’m none of those things, but, of course, neither is the person who drives a car like mine because he can’t afford anything else. That person probably works harder than I do and he’s probably just as intelligent. He may not have had the privileges I have had “” a supportive and financially stable family, good health, decent schools.
What upset me most about Governor Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent was that they made me realize how I had already internalized the same ridiculous, classist belief that income indicates character “” that a car means anything more about a person than a means of transport.
Thanks to Mitt, I’ll be sitting a little prouder in my clunker from now on. Wave at me as I go by.
Kelly Carlisle is an associate professor in the department of English.