Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Washing Up

A friend of mine once told me that a sign of growing up working class is a father who "washes up" when he gets home from work.  Since class is just as much cultural as it is economic, that's always made sense to me.  When I worked factory jobs during my college summers, I'd come home covered in grime; "showering" could not begin to describe what I had to do when I got off work.

My own father had his own steady post-work ritual built up over years of labor: he would get home, "wash up," change into his casual clothes, and then sit down in his recliner and read the evening edition of the local newspaper.  (My hometown is so old fashioned that we still have an evening edition.)  He always washed up in the spartan basement bathroom, which until insurance money paid for renovation after a flood when I was in high school, consisted of an exposed copper water pipe, toliet, and metal shower spigots and pipes naked without tile or fancy fixtures.  I never used the shower without wearing flip-flops; the shower floor -really just cement with an industrial drain in the middle- was that dirty.

Around the time dad finished the paper after he had washed up, we'd eat supper as a family, and he would finally be ready to socialize.  His need for about forty-five minutes of quiet solitude after getting home subtly let me know that his job took a lot out of him.  My mother, on the other hand, always came home with an indignant story about a treacherous colleague, dumbass administrator, or disobedient student (she's a high school teacher).  She ranted and raved at the indignities of her job, but her anger and frustration reflected a real commitment to her profession.  As much as she complained, I knew she taught because that's what she loved to do.  If there has ever been such a thing as a born teacher in this world, she's it.  My father, on the other hand, seemed not to have any real connection to his work besides that of duty.  The duty to work hard, to not let the company down, and most of all, the duty to support his family.  Perhaps his stoic sacrifice, enacted each and every day for decades, was the reason why he was much more supportive of my decision to go to graduate school than my mother.  He knew full well what it was like to spend a life's energies on something he didn't want to do, and the need to pursue a dream.

Although he worked at a factory for over forty years until his retirement last year, my father had been a manager in the office, rather than working on the floor, since before I was born.  (He worked as a machinist while going to night school, and once he graduated the company promoted him.)  Despite the nature of his work, my father's working class upbringing never left him.  He very rarely wore a suit and tie to his job, usually a pair of cotton slacks and an open-collar patterned button-down shirt instead, both purchased at K-Mart.  Like his plain clothes. washing up might have been a ritual he maintained out of the very powerful force of habit among stubborn small town Midwesterners.

Now that I work at a high school rather than a university my work day has become much more rigid and ritualized.  One of the great perks of academia is flexibility.  I worked over fifty hours a week as a college professor (just like I do now), but I had a lot of freedom over when I worked those hours.  Some days I got up early, on others I woke and worked late.  Nowadays I get up at 5:30 every morning, get dressed, walk the dog, eat breakfast, walk to Penn Station, catch the train to the city, take the subway, walk to work, do my job, take the subway, ride the train, walk home, and walk the dog.  This week, perhaps out of some kind of intergenerational osmosis, I've started washing up after walking the dog.  It's quite invigorating; like a lot of rituals, it marks the transition from one state of being into another.

I guess I understand why my dad kept doing it, even though he no longer had to clean the grit of the factory off of his body.  I must say I also hope that some of my father's virtues rub off on me by imitating his rituals.  (To a point, of course.  I am just as likely as my wife to be the one making dinner.)  The older I get, the more I realize how much bullshit he had to swallow and how many dreams he had to defer each day he did his job, a job that allowed me to have a much more comfortable upbringing than the one he'd had.  That's a debt I can never even hope to repay; my only hope is to be able to sacrifice half as much for my own children someday.


Anonymous said...

Rather moving Jason. I was thinking about this the other day, when I took my public history/memory class to see a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called "The Way We Worked." The message throughout seemed to be that working hard is always its own reward, that work is always fulfilling.


Brian I said...

Great post. That first paragraph sounds familiar. For my own father, who turns 80 this weekend, "washing up" was done with a bar of soap, a washcloth, and a stoppered basin of warm water. We had a shower, but I'm not sure I ever saw him use it. Very old school and very Old World--just what I would expect from him.