(ed. Originally published December 10, 2013 – here!)
[An Origins Story]
I grew up in bucolic, Great Falls, Virginia – a sleepy, suburban village that transformed before my young eyes from a community of rolling horse farms and their attendant, country homes to one of increasingly ostentatious McMansions and the nouveau riche who populate them. By 2011 that “transformation” was complete: my hometown is now being heralded as the 12th richest zip code in the United States.
Situated in Fairfax County – across the winding Potomac River from Washington, DC – Great Falls increasingly made itself home to the executives and entrepreneurs of “a private sector that feasts on government contracting” who feted on largesse during the booming 1990s. In fact, Fairfax County itself now reigns as the third wealthiest County in the country, bested only by its two immediate neighbors, Falls Church and Loudoun Counties.
Boasting seven out of the country’s top ten “wealthiest” counties, the entire region has itself developed an insulated, out-of-touch, and recession-proof wealth bubble that people outside of it – in “real America” – just can’t relate to. This insular community, however – the lobbyists, access journalists, think tank fellows and pork-subsidized corporate opportunists – further isolate themselves even in “the DMV” in exclusive, gated communities and country clubs. South East DC and Prince George’s County in Maryland, on the other hand, have become final holdouts for the working class and otherwise-disregarded, as the city itself has been increasingly gentrified.
The “inside the Beltway” stigma, thus, is itself a gross oversimplification. The well-compensated technocrats of the ruling elite who proliferate the region aren’t actually constrained by the highway that rings the city. In fact, they seem to prefer the exurbs, relying now on “Lexus Lanes” to zip around the region while those who survive precariously by serving them languish in ever-increasing traffic jams. DC itself, with its proud minority-majority, has been singled out for an even more unique indignity – denied the very voting representation the wealthy merchants who founded this Republic mythologically revolted in order to secure.
Growing up there in the exurbs as the Washington Consensus asserted itself with “TINA,” I was surrounded by political powerbrokers. I went to elementary school with Casper Weinberger’s grand-daughter and Oliver North’s children. After failing Freshman year of high school, I joined the “graduating” class of one of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s daughters. Scalia himself gave my sister’s high school commencement speech. As I grew up, the political surnames that echoed during class roll calls were increasingly joined by the surnames of wealthy lobbyists and entrepreneurs. Of course, I never related easily to the children of these insidious insiders who became my soccer teammates and classmates. I related more to those who resisted.
My dad came from Jersey City, working-class stock. In nearly a century, our German ancestors had never made it far from the docks where they arrived. His father, my grandfather, had worked at a Firestone Tire store in Hoboken and died of a massive heart attack while at work one day. My father was still sixteen at the time. Instead of focusing on school, he did his best to take care of his mother and younger sister instead. So while Dad had attained some considerable financial success in his own life, notably (and to his perpetual shame) without a college degree, he always maintained the stinginess of someone who knew his money hadn’t come easily and could quickly disappear again.
Despite living amid plenty, surrounded by kids who were gifted sparkling imported cars for their birthdays, my experience didn’t exactly correspond to what I saw around me. The dearth of food in our family’s fridge and the cunning my Mom employed just to buy essentials, always keeping purchases secret from Dad to avoid his scarcity-plagued wrath, seemed to imply we were always on the verge of financial ruin. When we occasionally had a well-stocked refrigerator, my father would joke that it was “only for viewing.” I actually made and consumed condiment sandwiches. I drank pickle juice sometimes. Asking for money from my Dad for anything was an agonizing ritual that involved writing contracts – even in crayon – in order to demonstrate that the money would be accounted for.
We weren’t destitute, of course. Far from it. While my parents assuredly over-extended themselves living amid such privileged environs – they never came anywhere near reaching the area’s stratospheric, $194,000 annual, median income – my siblings and I attended top public schools and never wanted for anything, really. We may have seemed destitute in comparison to our peers – but it’d be dishonest to sing sad dirges about a hardscrabble upbringing I didn’t have. The reality is: if my family ever needed anything, or wanted it, we probably could’ve had it. It just took convincing my dad (or leaving him, as my Mom eventually would). After all, there was always credit, home equity or otherwise.
I did make friends growing up – I don’t want you to think I was a total outcast. However, I was a determined iconoclast from my earliest days – compelled to resist conformity on every front. If nothing else, my scarlet hair – always a subject of ridicule on the playground at Great Falls Elementary – distinguished me from my pasty peers and set me physically apart, because in Great Falls, being a “ginger” was about as exotic as it got. In this country, othering is such an entrenched practice it apparently can be applied even within an almost monolithically white community.
In time, I came to embrace the role of the mythical outsider – turning my early social stigma into an asset, internalizing it, and becoming that obnoxious, adolescent champion of “being different” who just wouldn’t shut up about it. I was so “different,” I intentionally dressed “preppy” when I hung out with skaters, taggers and punk-types. Non-conformity was my mantra, even amongst non-conformists.
From that foundation, I went off to find out what that meant to other marginalized people – and I quickly found out the consequences for it, for being different, were far more real and more substantial for others than the comparably mild playground taunts a “carrot-top” kid had endured. Being a redhead quickly became laughable as I started to become aware of white supremacy, particularly as it exists beyond a few knuckleheads on Geraldo. It was even more laughable when I learned about other forms of oppression – most of which I personally benefited from.
Eventually, that sense of total alienation that comes with being set apart got the better of me, though. I dropped out of one of the best public high schools in the country, condemning the student body there as vapid materialists every day from a booth at a nearby diner – where instead of attending classes, I chain-smoked cigarettes, read Sartre and Camus, drank endless cups of coffee, and insisted, “I’m a writer!”
No, I had seen wealth and privilege – and everyone around me was miserable. At least their kids were. So, my first revolt was against a life directed towards accumulation. It was what made the most sense to me. I could see how it solved nothing, especially for an adolescent in the grips of existentialists.
I’d show everyone, I imagined. I wasn’t fooled by the vapid trappings of wealth – I wouldn’t suckle at Mammon’s teat for his temporal lucre! (I actually wrote like that! I still do!) I was going to be the honest guy who made an honest living; John Lennon’s real, “Working Class Hero.” And then I’d write about it. Or I’d sell weed and fake id’s and write about that.
It didn’t really work out that way, of course. Things rarely go according to adolescent plans. Instead, I floundered in odd job after odd job, flopping around various cities chasing myriad pipedreams – losing parents to age, losing teeth to poverty and neglect, and losing friends, girlfriends, and siblings to their sinking suspicion that maybe I had no future worth sharing after all. I quickly went from “having so much potential” to being everyone’s perennial “disappointment.” It was becoming obvious that the life of a self-described “luftmensch” was not one that could easily be shared – and people started to smell the stench of failure on me. The kind of people I grew up with avoid that particular smell, I guess.
When I finally landed in Los Angeles in 2007, I was still pretending to be a writer – but I had found myself increasingly annoyed at having to explain why I was a writer who didn’t write anything; the scribe who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – scribble. It turned out I wouldn’t have to do that anymore in LA; everyone there that I met was trying to be something other than what they were. As Mike Davis observed in City of Quartz, to go to Los Angeles was “to submerge oneself in spectacle and fraud.” As broken and battered as I was when I got there, I knew I was finally home.