On Growing Up White Trash

A writer comes to terms with the culture of her birth

Photograph by Lorraine Gilbert
Lorraine Gilbert's Untitled (Door on William), 1979, from the Vancouver Nights series.

Iam not white trash. I grew up white trash, though. When I was brought home from the hospital, I looked around the tiny lobby of our building and saw the dirty walls, the broken mailboxes, and the missing tiles on the floor. German shepherds wandered on the landings, and a beautiful girl wailed at a locked door to be taken back. I heard the radios blaring rock ballads from open apartment doors and the men standing in the doorways in their underwear, and I thought, great, I’ve been born into a poor family. But it didn’t seem so bad.

Growing up, all our furniture came from the garbage. We never threw anything out. How could you know what was garbage when our whole building looked like it was made from trash? The clock on the wall was a gangster that shot out machine gun noises on the hour. We had fake stained glass unicorns hanging from little suction cup hooks on the living-room window. We had stacks of old telephone books and a fish tank with no fish in it. It was typical white trash decor, shocking to no one. We weren’t exactly entertaining guests from other neighbourhoods.

By the time I was eleven, many of my friends were always being taken off to foster care when their moms had breakdowns or got arrested or had particularly shitty new boyfriends. Everybody had regular visits with social workers. In the summer, they gave us free passes to the amusement park. The Ferris wheel would turn around and around, filled with scared white trash children with their eyes closed—a little white trash solar system.

The white trash girls wore cut-off jean shorts and high heels over gym socks, and tied shoelaces around their wrists. The boys wore T-shirts with heavy metal bands, and jean jackets with silver-studded sleeves. All of the kids had bangs down to their noses. We never saw each other’s eyes. This was good for looking tough, and for hiding when you were crying. All of the kids had potty mouths. The only word not spoken out loud was “welfare.” A person could get stuck on it for years. You could be three generations on welfare.

When I turned thirteen and started noticing boys, I decided that my type was Judd Nelson as the teenage delinquent in The Breakfast Club. There weren’t any jocks or nerds around. I had a boyfriend named Shaun who wore a porkpie hat he had stolen off a snowman. He wrote the worst poetry on earth. He was in grade seven math for three years straight. He tried to sell photocopies of his drawings of ninjas on the street corner. Afterward, I dated Derek, who had a pet pigeon named Homer. He lived with his dad and slept on the couch. His dad kicked both of them out one day. Derek was sent to live in a foster home. I don’t know what happened to the pigeon.

When I was fifteen, I had a crush on a boy named Lionel who had a long scar on his arm where his dad had stabbed him when he was nine. He was known for having the high score on the Donkey Kong machine at the back of the corner store. He held up a gas station one night with his older brother. He came over with a suitcase full of stolen cigarettes and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

I went on a date with a boy named Paul. His grandmother was raising him. She wore a winter coat all year long, even in the house. The peeling wallpaper of their apartment was covered in cherry trees. There were cockroaches in the teacups that you had to shake out into the sink.

We didn’t judge each other because we were poor. It would be like yelling at someone because it was raining. I just felt pretty and light headed when those boys were around. They thought I was a genius because I was the only kid from our circle who did really well at school.

When you’re a child, you become best friends with whoever lives across the street. But when I started high school, I was placed in all the advanced classes, and I joined extracurricular activities like the chess club. I started to make friends from different backgrounds. We had more in common, like books and alternative movies, and they opened up different worlds to me.

When I was fifteen, I was walking down the street with a boy I had recently made friends with and sort of liked. He was middle class and very nerdy. I had always wanted to be friends with a nerd. According to all the movies, they liked and accepted everyone. Out of nowhere, he said, “My mother says you’re not going to do anything with your life.”

“What, is the woman a fortune teller? How could she possibly know something like that?”

“She says you’re white trash, like the rest of your family.”

The boy said it as if it shouldn’t even bother me. He said it in the way that you tell a dog it can’t sit at the table because it is a dog. He said it as if everyone knew my place in the world, so I must know it, too. I just stood there on the sidewalk, not making eye contact. I suddenly realized that my new friends had been looking down on me.

I changed the way I dressed. I started making new friends who hadn’t known me when I was little. If they asked about my family, I would tell them things I had read in Edwardian novels about aristocrats. My father was a barrister. My mother played the clarinet for Prague’s People’s Community Orchestra. I would even lie about my dog. It was from Paris. Its mother was killed by a gendarme’s car.

I tried really, really hard. I went to university. I wanted to be a writer. I lost touch with everyone I knew from childhood. But I always felt as if I didn’t fit in and dreaded people finding out my history. Finally, I started dating someone with a different background. He hailed from the suburbs, from a two-storey house with wall-to-wall carpeting, prints of Renoir on the wall, and a plastic cover on the sofa. I thought dating him would mean that I was from another class, too.

We stayed together for years, but he had a nasty streak. He had a way of saying the meanest things possible out of the blue when we were alone. One day, I was flipping through a magazine, and I saw a photograph of children in a field filled with daisies. I asked him whether he saw us having a baby one day. He went quiet for a moment, and then he started looking angry. He said he couldn’t see himself having a child with someone from a white trash background.

I was startled. It didn’t matter to him that I was educated and had a respectable career. He seemed to believe white trash was in my blood. It was something I would pass on to my children. And who wants a baby with a mullet in a little acid-washed jumper?

By then, I had started writing the truth about my background. I wrote about how the basement walls of my building were covered in licence plates and hubcaps. I thought it was beautiful, like Aladdin’s cave. I wrote about eating pork chops while sitting on the sidewalk and watching a television plugged into an extension cord that ran through a window. I wrote how we collected bottles in a suitcase after festivals in the park. As I started telling the truth, beautiful things began to emerge. And I began to be proud of my heritage.

So my reaction was different this time. His insult changed how I regarded him. While he had once seemed educated and clever, he now looked unattractive, ignorant, and small minded. For all his supposed refinements, he didn’t understand that being white trash wasn’t a genetic disorder. It was a culture, just like his.

This appeared in the May 2012 issue.

Heather O'Neill
Heather O’Neill published her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, in April 2014.