After I got my new (used) car last fall, I went online to sign up for State Farm insurance and was assigned to a local agent.
A couple weeks later I got a postcard from that agent asking me to schedule an appointment because he likes to meet all of his new customers.
When I walk into his office I am greeted by a large framed photograph of him and his family.
“That’s a cool picture,” I say.
He tells me the picture was taken during a vacation to Colorado. He then tells me about each of his four daughters—where they go to college or graduate school and what they are studying. All the schools he names are very prestigious. He says that his third daughter just finished college and is taking some time off to travel South America.
“She really loves to hike,” he says with concern (this daughter is clearly the screw-up). “As her dad, I just hope she eventually finds a way to turn her interests into a lucrative career.”
As he talks, I realize that I know this guy; I recognize him completely. He is my dad. And the dad of every friend I had before the age of eighteen. He is everybody I knew in my former life.
I grew up in Chesterfield, a western suburb of St. Louis that makes up part of what locals refer to as west county, the residents of whom are endearingly defined by Urban Dictionary here.
Growing up, I never realized that people in Chesterfield have a reputation for having money. The first I ever heard of it was at my summer waitressing job the summer after my senior year, when another server asked me where I went to high school.
“Oh,” he said after I told him. “You’re the rich kids.”
“No we’re not,” I said, confused.
I really didn’t think we were. I was sheltered enough to assume that everyone in the world took European vacations and paid in full for their kids to go to college out of state to pursue the twenty-year career plans they’d helped them formulate by the age of twelve.
When I moved away and made friends from other backgrounds, I obviously realized this wasn’t so.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my prior socioeconomic status is something best kept tucked away. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’ve seen the way certain people make judgments. The secret has become easier to keep as more and more time comes to fill the space between my past and my present.
But now here I am, sitting in the office of the most Chesterfield-like person I’ve met since leaving Chesterfield nine years ago—my past and present colliding.
And suddenly, weirdly, it becomes very important to me that this man know I am one of him. I want him to recognize me, too. I make sure to mention my Masters degree and that my dad used to teach at one of his daughter’s universities and my own upcoming travels through South America. Why does this matter to me? Is it relief after having been in hiding so long? Is it nostalgia for a life I left?
I’m not rich now, by any means. I haven’t used my parents’ money in years. I work two jobs to afford my modest lifestyle. I shop at thrift stores. I put myself through graduate school with student loans that will be chasing me around for the next couple decades. About once a month I get so stressed out about money that I can’t fall asleep.
But even still, I worry about exuding the air of someone who has always had it a little too easy.
I work as a therapist for clients who come from nothing. I worry that if they know my past, they’ll assume I can’t relate to the difficult emotions in life that we all experience on our own scale.
Someone I know to be less fortunate than me told me a couple months ago, “You seem like someone who had a dad who loved you. Someone who gave you a lot of hugs and stuff.”
I smiled and blushed. “I’ve experienced good things and hard things,” I said honestly. Although in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been.
As the agent goes on to explain the ins and outs of my insurance policy, I find it almost alarming how comfortable I feel in his presence. For as much as I’ve tried to pretend otherwise, I realize that privilege is still my home. I still have the urge to sink back into it like a leather couch and soak it up like sunlight. I kind of want to go home with this man and live in his guest bedroom. I want him to take me on his family vacations and hang a Christmas stocking for me on his mantle and pay my cable bills and come to the band concerts I don’t have anymore. I wonder what he’s doing for Thanksgiving.
As our appointment nears its end, he urges me to consider life insurance. I say I’ll think about it.
“It was really nice talking to you,” he says as I stand to leave.
“It was really nice talking to you too,” I say. And I mean it, more than he knows.