November 2010

James Warner

features

An Interview With Frances Lefkowitz

Frances Lefkowitz's To Have Not, just out from MacAdam/Cage Publishing, is a wry memoir in which Frances tries to come to terms with a lifetime of feeling poor. Born in San Francisco and educated at Brown University, Frances is a freelance essayist and the book reviewer for Good Housekeeping magazine. She's been a nominee for two Pushcart Prizes and the James Beard award for food writing.

I've seen her read from the book several times, while it was still a work in progress, and her readings have never failed to spark a discussion -- not least because everyone has emotions about money, and because we know we're not supposed to talk about them.

I e-mailed some questions to Frances while she was on a surfing holiday in Martha's Vineyard -- waiting for a hurricane that never showed up -- and she talked to me about social codes, changing San Francisco neighborhoods, and the downside of upward mobility.

You've written a memoir that forces readers to think about their own emotions relating to money. It is often observed nowadays that money is a more taboo subject than sex -- why do you think that is?

I agree: money is indeed the final taboo. We avoid talking about it at all costs, and squirm when forced to broach the subject. And by "we," I mean all of us, rich, poor, and all points in between. I don't have a great explanation for why we are so uncomfortable thinking and talking about money, but I think it's partly tied up with shame: shame of not having the right house or clothes or manners; shame of the kind of work we do or do not do; shame of having money that we did not earn... What fascinates me is how, since we can't talk about money and class directly, we end up doing it in code, communicating through our clothes, cars, language, the bars where we hang out, which seats we buy at the ballgame.

You identify many such codes in your book. For example, you say why the lard tub at 826 Valencia in San Francisco makes you feel excluded: “It acts as a litmus test for distinguishing the people who 'get' the lard -- or act as if they do -- from the people who don't. For the Spanish-speaking moms and kids who live in the neighborhood and walk past the keg to get to their tutoring sessions, lard is not an ironic joke; it's food.” Pondering this, I wonder -- is a classless humor even a possibility? As in, a humor that does not betray the social origins of its perpetrators?

I think you're onto something here. Humor does indeed seem to require a shared sense of belonging, shared references, shared ideas of what's normal and expected, and what's unusual, inappropriate, or absurd. And all of these values are certainly informed mightily by our class. Of course, I'm so tuned into the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that class operates on our psyche, our behavior, our clothing, etc; so naturally I'm going to agree that social class plays a role in our humor. That said, I also think anything that unites us as a group and provides shared references can also be a basis for making jokes: that we're urban, or San Franciscans, or 40-year-olds, for instance. I'm no comedian, but isn't an us-versus-them attitude a key part of making people laugh?

You might as well ask -- isn't all solidarity at someone else's expense? I know someone who moved to the Mission district of San Francisco back in the 1970s, and remembers it back then as a pre-gentrification paradise. So it's quite a contrast for me to get your childhood perspective on the transformations of the city in the 1970s, to read about your being evicted from your house in the Mission, and your account of the San Francisco State University Family Student Housing projects being replaced by a giant lawn... I guess gentrification is relative. Your book leaves me wondering if it might have been the unsettled nature of your childhood, rather than impecuniousness per se, that lies at the root of your pervasive sense of disempowerment?

Had to look up impecunious. Didn't learn that word for “poor” in the San Francisco public schools; didn't even learn it at the private New England Ivy League college I attended. My most obvious impecuniousness was financial, but money was by no means my only poverty. I also lacked a stable home life, parental supervision, an extended family network, and the sense of safety, confidence, and possibility that those things can provide. One of the points of the book -- and the reason so many different kinds of people relate to it -- is that poverty comes in many forms, and most of us have something that we yearn for, that we lack, that we feel is out of our reach. You may grow up with with lots of money but little affection or encouragement, for instance. That is its own kind of poverty. The way I see it, you don't have to be poor to live in poverty, but it helps.

As for gentrification, it is kind of funny to see the tattooed/ pierced Mission hipsters sneering at the clean-cut dot-commers moving into “their” neighborhood, when just a couple decades ago, those hipsters, who I like to call the grungerati, were moving in on the Mexican families who'd lived there for decades. In the early '80s, when SUVs equaled yuppies, these posters went up on Valencia encouraging locals to smash the windows of any SUV that dared park in the area -- a kind of guerilla anti-gentrification movement. I also remember, as a teenager, walking around my 16th and Sanchez neighborhood, “mine” in the sense that I had grown up there, and getting sneered at by gay guys from the Midwest who had recently moved there and seemed to feel it was their place, and a straight girl didn't belong.

So yes, gentrification, like poverty, is relative and comes in waves. And localism is probably one of the oldest human social instincts. Don't even get me started on localism in surfing...

Are you finding that To Have Not strikes more of a chord with readers who come from a similar background to your own? Or do the grungerati get it too?

One of the most astounding things to me is how many people from very different backgrounds have approached me and told me I was telling their story. A woman my age from upper-middle-class suburbia; an elderly man from rural Kentucky; a couple of traveling Australians; and many young people with tattoos. At first I didn't understand how they could feel such kinship with my story. But then I realized that the feelings of being excluded, of yearning for something that feels impossible, are universal. As I said, we each have our own form of poverty -- and wealth.

The other lesson from this is an old but true one about literature and writing: the universal is conveyed through the specific. So when I describe my mother oversmiling as she takes the crumpled green bills out of her fabric wallet and hands them to the department store clerk to pay for something she can't really afford, the specific details of that image make readers remember their own mothers, wallets, store clerks. I've never thought that my story was any more extraordinary that anyone else's -- for a long time the working title of the book was Every Girl Has Her Story -- but that I had observed it more closely than many people do their own lives. And I believe that one of the purposes of writing memoir is to spark readers to remember -- and reevaluate, and perhaps reinterpret -- their own pasts.

I like this line of yours: “I imagined a chain of mothers and daughters, going back to tenements in Queens and towns in Poland, each demeaning the next generation and trying so hard to keep her in her place.” As a parent, I wonder if it is possible for parents to raise their children to have more self-esteem than they themselves have?

That is the miracle, isn't it? My mother, for all her acquiescence, was able to put her hand up in a stop position, halting who knows how many years of dysfunction. She gave me my fierceness, perhaps inadvertently, but she gave it to me somehow.

At one point you raise the possibility that what always kept you feeling you “could never fully participate in the abundance of the universe, had been not poverty or solitude, not economics or geography, but biochemistry.” I recently encountered the theory that depression rates have risen in the last half-century or so precisely because we are now so constantly bombarded by the media with images of inexplicable affluence, constant reminders of our own relatively low status.

We do seem to be living in a time of severe overdiagnosis, and I fear that the pharmaceutical companies are coming up with more diagnoses -- and more medications to treat them -- all the time. So is depression on the rise, or have we just widened our definition of it and raised our expectation for happiness to such an extreme that everyone feels inadequate? I bet a lot of us walk around with a chronic low-level feeling that we're not having as good a time as we could or should. And that of course, is one more form of poverty. Is it culturally induced, by the television-magazine complex which corrupts us with images of excessively joyful (and excessively beautiful) people having orgasms over the mere coldness of their beer? Or is it biologically-induced, with varying levels of biochemicals preventing some of us from living to our full potential? In my case, I believe it's some of each.

Define success.

Fulfilling your potential? Or is that too New-Agey? Try as I might, I'm still a child of the flower children, and even my urban cynicism can't keep that stuff at bay.

You write about being both a surfer and a somewhat reluctant Sufi -- how are these working out as paths to fuller participation in abundance?

Sufi: not so much. I just had the one experience, and it may have been a kind of hypnosis, though it did remind me of how much I HAD as a child and HAVE now, as opposed to all the Having Not that I 'd focused on.

Surfing: best way ever for me to participate in abundance. Better than Prozac for improving mood. Also good for the pecs. One of the few things I've discovered that makes me feel fully alive and connected. And it's free. Only one downside: broken necks. But I'll save that story for the next book.

Comparing your San Francisco childhood with that of my daughter and her friends, I notice you had a lot more freedom to roam the streets unsupervised. And also that in those days you could learn film editing in the public schools. But for you San Francisco remains “a city of sadness and divorce and impossible dreams; a city drenched in cold, damp fog, while just over the bridge -- any bridge -- the sun is shining and anything is possible.” Supposing you had a daughter, where do you think you would ideally want to raise her?”

You know better than I do -- I'm an aunt, not a mom -- but one of the most agonizing dilemmas for parents must be over how much freedom vs how much supervision to provide. My parents, and my era, may have erred slightly on the side of too much freedom. On the one hand, there was nothing more wonderful than shouting, “I'm going out to play” over your shoulder and wandering down the block or into the schoolyard to see what kind of fun you could get into. We developed independence and inventiveness, making up games with whoever and whatever we found. On the other hand, it is almost inevitable for children, especially girls, wandering around a big city to run into trouble, including men who leer, touch, and worse. My childhood included both the joys and the dangers of freedom, but it made me who I am, for better or worse, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I think San Francisco would still be a fine place to bring up children if not for the high cost of living. It's just so damn expensive nowadays that a lot of the cool people -- like artists who might teach filmmaking in the schools -- can't afford to live here, so the whole complexion of the city has changed.

In your epilogue you describe tutoring San Francisco public school kids and wanting to teach them “the language of school, jobs, money, and power.” You make me wonder about how much of success is really about language, social codes, and so on.

I'm fascinated by all the stratigraphies dividing and uniting us, and by how much we communicate -- and miscommunicate -- about our status through what we wear, how we talk, how we eat, etc. To give those kids access to success, we need to help them crack the code of power. By success here I mean not just my New-Agey definition, but also the simple material success that eludes so many people who don't grow up speaking the dominant language.

But here's the rub: it can be emotionally disconcerting to drop your native tongue altogether. I crossed so many boundaries I ended up not knowing where I belonged. So, as I go on to say in the book's epilogue, you've got to learn at least two languages: one to make it out of the neighborhood and one to keep a foothold in it. That's why I say my story is about the downside of upward mobility. It's really a book about getting ahead without losing your roots -- or your mind.