Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreamsby Alfred Lubrano
A groundbreaking work of narrative nonfiction
This powerful book uncovers a cultural phenomenonthe limbo existence of people raised in blue-collar families, living white-collar lives. Limbo presents a thoughtful look at this phenomenon through the author's personal story, and those of 100 interviewees, all struggling with the duality that exists in their… See more details below
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A groundbreaking work of narrative nonfiction
This powerful book uncovers a cultural phenomenonthe limbo existence of people raised in blue-collar families, living white-collar lives. Limbo presents a thoughtful look at this phenomenon through the author's personal story, and those of 100 interviewees, all struggling with the duality that exists in their workplaces, their hearts, and their minds.
"In Limbo, people straddle two social zones . . . The future is never assured when you come from a house of rough hands. There are many profound opinions in this major newspaperman's reporting."
Jimmy Breslin Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez
"If you have any bloodlines at all to the working class, you will recognizeand newly discoveryourself in Alfred Lubrano's inspired book. Limbo brings to life the minefield crossover from the blue-collar world to the white-collar one in prose that is at once trout-stream clear and luminous. It's the very American, real-as-a-streetfight story of a bricklayer's son's own uneasy journey out of Bensonhurst woven movingly with the journeys of a legion of other 'Straddlers.' Don't pass this gem by."
Sydney Schanberg Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of The Death and Life of Dith Pran
"Al Lubrano is a great reporter and the kind of writer whose work is infused with both thought and feeling. He has chosen here a great and often overlooked subject, the role of class in modern American society, and has produced a book rich with insight into both his own life and all our lives. If you are like me, you will nod your head with recognition throughout."
Mark Bowden author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo
Forecast: A national advertising and publicity campaign and co-promotions with the Philadelphia Inquirer and NPR should attract readers who've experienced the duality Lubrano describes. (Publishers Weekly, July 28, 2003)
An award-winning reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and commentator for National Public Radio, he owns 11 backyard-bred horses on a farm in South Jersey: "I hold our chestnut yearling Beau Soleil as a friend French braids his blond mane in preparation for his Devon debut," he reports. Life is good-but that's the problem: Lubrano cannot reconcile his father's being a construction worker with his becoming an aflluent professional. The result is Limbo, a stringing together of Lubrano's and others' thoughts on the pain of straddling two different worlds. Lubrano's journalism background apparently precludes any sociological methodology: the narrative is full of broad generalizations with little substantiation. One may wonder what country Lubrano was born in: aren't most Americans of a "hybrid class"? Don't most parents aspire to have their children exceed their own station in life? And what about the current glut of unemployed graduates? Now there's a problem. My advice: Lubrano should stop kvetching, and librarians should save their money for Sherry B. Ortner's New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58, which explores the forces that influenced the author's classmates' lives after graduation. Many of them went from blue-collar families to the middle class, but Ortner analyzes the phenomenon with scholarly expertise rather than bemoaning it. —Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ (Library Journal, October 1, 2003)
One of the lies we tell ourselves, as a nation, is that there are no real class boundaries here - or, at least, none that can't be overcome by determination and hard work. Anyone can be president, right? That's why we've had so many working-class presidents over the years, so many vice presidents from the ghetto, so many cabinet secretaries from the barrio and the hollow, so many Supreme Court justices whose fathers were plumbers.
With another presidential election clicking into gear, the issue of class is sure to be raised, but it will be quickly doused by one millionaire candidate or another saying something like: "Now, now, no one wants a class war in America." True, no one wants a class war. In fact, we want so badly to avoid a class war that we're afraid even to initiate the kinds of national discussions we've managed to have about race, gender and sexuality. Part of this comes from the fact that the poor and working classes have no voice in the American media elite. Part of it is more subtle: Though the law offers equal opportunity to members of the lower classes, there are enormous psychological barriers to upward mobility, and, often, an enormous price to be paid by those who overcome them.
In Limbo, his brilliant examination of people who have climbed from the poor or working classes into the middle and upper classes, Alfred Lubrano knocks down one of the walls that keep the class issue out of sight and earshot, and floods the subject with light. Born to a tough, kind Brooklyn bricklayer and a knowledge-hungry housewife, Lubrano now lives on a horse farm, is a reporter for The Inquirer, and does commentary for National Public Radio, so he knows the joys and perils of this climb, and writes about them with an authority unavailable to someone merely making an academic study.
Limbo is a pitch-perfect interweaving of his own story - as neighborhood kid, Columbia scholarship student, newspaper reporter - with the stories of others who have made a similar journey. Some of the others, such as writers Richard Rodriguez and Dana Gioia, are well known. All are successful - surgeons, professors, executives, lawyers, teachers. And, beneath the business suits and degrees, all of them carry histories that reach back to the mean streets, the factories and farms, the dinner tables and bars at which their unschooled parents and less talented, less ambitious, or simply more frightened peers talked to them about the snobbery of the well-educated and well-off. "This book," Lubrano writes, "is a step toward understanding what people gain and what they leave behind as they move from the working class to the middle class."
We already have an idea what they gain - nicer homes, cars and vacations, safer schools for their kids, safer jobs for themselves. But Lubrano wisely gives equal time to what they leave behind - the directness and authenticity of their hardworking relatives; the rough, honest humor of their peers; a humility and a courage born of daily discomfort.
"Much about working-class life is admirable and fine," Lubrano writes. "The trick is to avoid glorifying it without painting life in it too darkly." So he gives us the racism, sexism and small-mindedness, too, the crippling envy and pettiness, all the things that pushed his aptly named "Straddlers" out of the old neighborhood in the first place.
After the Straddlers have earned their degrees, moved away from the familiar streets, and embarked on the types of careers their parents once spoke about with envy or disdain, they face challenges parallel to those faced by immigrants to the land of plenty. Lubrano details those challenges in chapters on the workplace, dating, marriage and child-rearing. His research is extensive, and the stories he elicits from interviewees are touching and raw.
There is the woman who loses on purpose while playing Scrabble with her less-well-educated mother; a young man who spends months carefully talking his closed-minded father into letting him go to college. Lubrano presents their stories sympathetically, linked to them as he is by his own uncomfortable adjustment to the bright new world of American success: "I often feel inhabited by two people who don't speak to each other."
That duality will be intimately familiar to readers who have moved from humble backgrounds well up into the middle class, from Campbell's soup to sushi, from stifling apartments to summer homes, from a sweaty tribal comfort to an anxious open-mindedness. But this book is too good and too important to be limited to a narrow audience. In Limbo, Alfred Lubrano has said something fresh and true about our simplistic myth of upward mobility, and in doing so he has illuminated the panoply of fear, hope, envy, courage and sacrifice that lies at the very heart of the American dream. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 2003)
"Hopefully, this superbly written book will give voice to the millions who have to make this transition...." (San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 2003)
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Read an Excerpt
Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
By Alfred Lubrano
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
THE BIRTH AND CLASH
My father and I were college buddies back in the late 1970s.
While I was in class at Columbia, struggling with the esoterica
du jour, he was on a bricklayer's scaffold not far up the
street, working on a campus building. Once, we met up on
the subway going home-he with his tools, I with my books. We didn't
chat much about what went on during the day. My father wasn't interested
in Thucydides, and I wasn't up on arches. We shared a New York
Post and talked about the Mets.
My dad has built lots of places in New York City he can't get into:
colleges, condos, office towers. He made his living on the outside. Once
the walls were up, a place took on a different feel for him, as though he
wasn't welcome anymore. It never bothered my dad, though. For him,
earning the dough that helped pay for my entree into a fancy, bricked-in
institution was satisfaction enough, a vicarious access.
We didn't know it then, but those days were the start of a branching
off-a redefining of what it means to be aworkingman in our
Italian-American family. Related by blood, we're separated by class, my
father and I. Being the white-collar child of a blue-collar parent means
being the hinge on the door between two ways of life. With one foot in
the working class, the other in the middle class, people like me are
Straddlers, at home in neither world, living a limbo life. It's the part of
the American Dream you may have never heard about: the costs of
social mobility. People pay with their anxiety about their place in life.
It's a discomfort many never overcome.
What drove me to leave what I knew? Born blue-collar, I still never
felt completely comfortable among the tough guys and anti-intellectual
crowd who populated much of my neighborhood in deepest Brooklyn,
part of a populous, insular working-class sector of commercial strips,
small apartment buildings, and two-family homes. I never did completely
fit in among the preppies and suburban royalty of Columbia,
either. It's like that for Straddlers, who live with an uneasiness about
their dual identity that can be hard to reconcile, no matter how far from
the old neighborhood they eventually get. Ultimately, "it is very difficult
to escape culturally from the class into which you are born," Paul
Fussell's influential book Class: A Guide through the American Status
System quotes George Orwell as saying. The grip is that tight. That's
something Straddlers like me understand. There are parts of me that
are proudly, stubbornly working class, despite my love of high tea, raspberry
vinaigrette, and National Public Radio. Born with a street
brawler's temperament, I possess an Ivy League circuit breaker to keep
things in check. Still, I've been accused of having an edge, a chip I've
balanced on my shoulder since my days in the old neighborhood.
It was not so smooth jumping from Italian old-world style to U.S.
professional in a single generation. Others who were the first in their
families to go to college will tell you the same thing: The academy can
render you unrecognizable to the very people who launched you into the
world. The ideas and values absorbed in college challenge the mom-and-pop
orthodoxy that passed for truth for 18 years. Limbo folk may
eschew polyester blends for sea-isle cotton, prefer Brie to Kraft slices.
They marry outside the neighborhood and raise their kids differently.
They might not be in church on Sunday.
When they pick careers (not jobs like their parents had, but
careers), it's often a kind of work their parents never heard of or can't
understand. But for the white-collar kids of blue-collar parents, the
office is not necessarily a sanctuary. In corporate America, where the
rules are based on notions foreign to working-class people, a Straddler
can get lost.
Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit
it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle- and upper-class
values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn
how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what
they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a
manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read.
People born into the middle class to parents with college degrees
have lived lives filled with what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls
"cultural capital." Growing up in an educated, advantaged environment,
they learn about Picasso and Mozart, stock portfolios and creme
brulee. In a home with cultural capital, there are networks: Someone
always has an aunt or golfing buddy with the inside track for an internship
or some entry-level job. Dinner-table talk could involve what happened
that day to Mom and Dad at the law firm, the doctor's office, or
the executive suite.
Middle-class kids can grow up with what sociologists describe as a
sense of entitlement that will carry them through their lives. This
"belongingness" is not just related to having material means; it has to
do with learning and possessing confidence in your place in the world.
The bourgeois, Bourdieu says, pass on self-certainty like a treasured
heirloom, from generation to generation. Such early access and direct
exposure to culture in the home is the more organic, "legitimate" means
of appropriating cultural capital, Bourdieu tells us.4 Those of us possessing
"ill-gotten culture"-the ones who did not hear Schubert or see
a Breughel until freshman year in college, the ones who grew up without
knowing a friend whose parents attended college-can learn it, but
never as well. Something is always a little off about us, like an engine
with imprecise timing.
There's a greater match between middle-class lives and the institutions
in which the middle class works and operates-whether they are
universities or corporations. Children of the middle and upper classes
have been speaking the language of the bosses and supervisors forever.
An interesting fact: The number of words spoken in a white-collar
household in a day is, on average, three times greater than the number
spoken in a blue-collar home (especially the talk between parents and
kids), says pioneering working-class studies economist Charles Sackrey,
formerly of Bucknell University.
Blue-collar kids are taught by their parents and communities to
work hard to achieve, and that merit is rewarded. But no blue-collar
parent knows whether such things are true in the middle-class world.
Many professionals born to the working class report feeling out of place
and outmaneuvered in the office. Soon enough, Straddlers learn that
straight talk won't always cut it in shirt-and-tie America, where people
rarely say what they mean. Resolving conflicts head-on and speaking
your mind don't always work, no matter how educated the Straddler is.
In the working class, people perform jobs in which they are closely
supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. That in
turn affects how they socialize their children, social scientists tell us.
Children of the working class are brought up in a home in which conformity,
obedience, and intolerance for back talk are the norm-the same
characteristics that make for a good factory worker. As Massachusetts
Straddler Nancy Dean says, "We're raised to do what our mother says,
what the teacher says, what the boss says. Just keep your mouth shut. No
one cares what you have to say: Don't ask, don't question, do what
you're told. Our mothers were all versions of Mrs. This Is My House."
People moving from the working class to the middle class need a
strategy, a way to figure out the rules, the food, the language, and the
music. "It's a new neighborhood," Sackrey says, "and it has the danger
of a new neighborhood. It's unfriendly territory. Upper-class people do
look down on us. So in your strategy for living, you have to figure out
how to make it from one day to the next. It's an endless trek. You can fit
in; you can decide to overwhelm and be better than them; you can live
in the middle class but refuse to assimilate; or you can stand aside and
criticize, and never be part of things.
"But central to the whole thing is language. If you don't talk like
them, they won't give you the time of day."
The Uneven Race
Americans have always embraced the notion that this is a land of
opportunity, with rags-to-riches possibilities. It's true that there are
apples to be picked, but one can argue that not everyone has equal
access to the fruit. We begin in different places, with some of us already
two laps ahead when the starter's gun goes bang. The family you're
born into may well have more influence on your future success than any
other single factor, says Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill.
To ensure a rosy future, social scientists who study mobility love to say,
"Pick your parents well."
If someone gets ahead, our national philosophy goes, it's because they
worked harder. Statistics show that there are people who worked just as
hard, but were unfortunate enough to have been born on the 2 yard line
and not the 42. If your parents are in the upper tier of white-collar folks,
there's a 60 percent chance you will be, too, mobility experts say. If, on
the other hand, your parents are manual workers, your chances of getting
into those clean and well-paying jobs are less than 30 percent, no matter
how many hours you put in. Surveys show that two out of three middle-and
upper-class high school graduates attended a four-year college, as
compared to just one of five from the working and lower classes.
Mobility expert Michael Hout, of the University of California at
Berkeley, says that downward mobility has increased 7 percent over the
last 30 years, without much increase in upward mobility. He says that
roughly 50 percent move up, 40 percent move down, and 10 percent
remain immobile. Even if a blue-collar-born person winds up with the
same job as someone originating from the middle class-thanks to college
scholarships-the middle-class person would not know the journey
the working-class person made. That odyssey, some say, makes all the
difference in how one ultimately views the world.
Laying the Groundwork
Although they wanted me to climb out of the working class, my parents
would have picked a different middle-class life for me. They foresaw a
large bank account, a big house down the street from theirs, and a standing
date for Sunday macaroni. My father had a tough time accepting my
decision to become a mere newspaper reporter, a field that pays a little
more than construction does. He long wondered why I hadn't cashed in
on that multibrick education and taken on some lawyer-lucrative job.
After bricklaying for 30 years, my father promised himself I'd never pile
bricks and blocks into walls for a living. He and my mother figured that
an education-genie-like and benevolent-would somehow rocket me
into the rarefied trajectory of the upwardly mobile and load some serious
loot into my pockets. My desire to work at something interesting to me
rather than merely profitable was hard to fathom. Here I was breaking
blue-collar rule number one: Make as much money as you can, to pay for
as good a life as you can get. My father would try to teach me what my
goals should be when I was 19, my collar already fading to white. I was
the college boy who handed him the wrong wrench on help-around-the-house
Saturdays. "You'd better make a lot of money," my dad wryly
warned me as we huddled in front of a disassembled dishwasher I had
neither the inclination nor the aptitude to fix. "You're gonna need to hire
someone to hammer a nail into a wall for you when you get your own
My interests had always lain elsewhere. Like a lot of Straddlers, I
felt dissatisfied with the neighborhood status quo. That sense of being
out of step with the very people you're supposed to be like is the limbo
person's first inkling that he or she is bound for other places. For the
longest time, though, I tried to fit in. I mean, I chased girls and played
ball and lifted weights-the approved pastimes that keep you from getting
beaten up in working-class New York. I even had my high school
record for consecutive sit-ups (801 in 35 minutes), a bizarre but marginally
acceptable athletic accomplishment. It showed toughness, a certain
willingness to absorb punishment, which in turn demonstrated
manliness. In blue-collar society, proving your manly worth is high
achievement. But truly, I never really liked hanging out on the corner,
shooting the bull with the fellas. Weeknights, I studied while the guys
partied. By the weekend, they were too far advanced for me to truly
catch up. I just didn't share their interests-like cars. I never wanted to
hunch over the engine of a Mustang, monkey with the pistons, and
drain the oil. People think New Yorkers don't drive, but that's just in
Manhattan. Car culture was big in Brooklyn, as it is in most of America,
and kids lavished attention on their rides. Chrome had to gleam in
streetlight on the cruise down 86th Street on Saturday night. (That, by
the way, is the very place John Travolta struts at the beginning of
Saturday Night Fever, the movie that told the story of a few of the guys
I went to high school with-people who tried for something better than
the neighborhood.) I knew a young woman whose boyfriend gave her
whitewalls for her eighteenth birthday, and she squealed as if they were
opals. I got my first car when I was 23 and drove it to Ohio to work at
my first white-collar job. It broke down often, but I had no inclination
to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Somehow, growing up, I was
bereft of any curiosity about how things worked-how drywall was put
up or how pipes connected-the very real working-class stuff that pre-occupied
the lives of most of the people around me. I just didn't care. I
read books. That came from my mother, a latchkey child who was never
allowed to grow intellectually. She nevertheless became a book-a-week
reader and had determined that her sons would follow suit, then
advance to the higher education that had been denied her.
My mother was bucking a trend; many working-class people in the
1970s saw little need for college. The guys were encouraged to make
money in construction and similar tough fields, while the women were
expected to find men and breed. As a result, working-class kids from all
ethnic backgrounds reproduce their parents' class standing with an
eerie Xeroxity-often more rags-to-rags than rags-to-riches, working-class
studies guru Jake Ryan says.
Navigating Social Relationships
Straddlers remember how complicated life in the old neighborhood
could get after they realized they weren't really part of the crowd. Their
inability to fully fit in made them uncomfortable and rendered them
Excerpted from Limbo
by Alfred Lubrano
Copyright © 2003 by Alfred Lubrano.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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