Tuesday, February 22, 2011

WELFARE

B was on welfare. We weren't sure, but she and her sister were being raised by their single mom, her clothes looked like Value Village specials, and her greasy hair was begging for bathing, so obviously she was on welfare. She was the punchline of all our jokes, both in and out of her presence. She was synonymous with ugly.

"I wouldn't fuck B in a million years!" we'd say when we began to dare swear. And, more damning, "You're gonna have sex with B!". The only proper response to that curse was a punch to the back and tackle.

She was our ultimate butt for years and it didn't help her case that she was silent, never told us to shut up. We were in school together from Grades 4 to 7 and I recall hearing her voice only a few times. I recall she had one friend, or maybe it was none. Probably it was none, otherwise why else would she get on stage solo for Air Band? It's Band. And what the fuck is this hippie-oldies "I Feel the Earth Move" shit that she's doing? -- it ain't The Bangles or DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince or Salt or Pepa. Every time B mouthed "I feel the earth move under my feet" we snickered because, obviously, she was fat. Elementary school kids might not be able to explain irony, but we knew when it was happening.

We did manage to envy B for one thing: she was among the first in our school to get a Sega Genesis. But our "I wish I had a Genesis like B" was matched by "Shouldn't they buy clothes and food first?". The thing about our neighbourhood in East Van is that you fit in the spectrum between poor and working class. Class is structured by who is less poor. We kids would flaunt whatever objects we could to avoid looking poor; if you wore Brooks instead of Nike, you had welfare shoes. We weren't sure that B was actually on welfare, but we wanted to believe that and she never said otherwise when we told her to her unwashed face.

Around the time of Air Band, Nick and I had a secret. We shopped at Value Village. But just for board games like Master Mind and Clue, not for Bugle Boy and Nike because, god, that's so used and so poor. We refused plastic bags because, god, how could we be seen biking down Victoria Drive toting "Value Village" across our handlebars. Walking into a second-hand store gave us the same taboo titillation that we would experience later when we were fifteen and walking into our first strip joint. "Battleship for only a buck!" Nick shouted. The aisle of knick-knacks, games, and National Geographics was our clandestine budget wonderland. We steered clear of the clothes because, even as East Van almost-teens, we couldn't let ourselves look like poverty and there's nothing cool about wearing someone else's jeans.

Now I'm an adult and 80% of my wardrobe is used. I rely on vintage stores for my cowboy boots and jeans that no one else will be wearing, but even that's a bit easy -- I thrill at the challenge of saving coin and finding sweet André Michel jeans at Sally Ann. I wear sneakers that cost ten dollars. The brand: Sportek. Now I'm an adult and I adore Carole King and am proud that I discovered Rhymes & Reasons at Goodwill for only a buck. Among her other albums, I also own Tapestry, but B beat me to it by decades. I recall her dancing on stage without anyone backing her up, sweating through her shirt stenched by her mom's cigarettes, lip-synching with complete concentration "I feel the sky tumbling down" under the dinky strobe, and I understand that B was cooler than all us kids in the gymnasium. We just didn't know it yet.

3 comments:

cathy said...

omg victoria dr.? air band? did you go to DT? that's where i go right now LOL. we're having another annual airband show next week i think.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. And she is probably still carrying the scars, probably still winces and apologizes for taking up space in all her relationships and friendships, will probably never trust a crowd of people or her right to be near one without being shamed and abused. And all you have to offer for karmic balance is a figurative handwashing of your part in it by gifting the word 'cool' to an imaginary retrospective version of her.

Your build-up was written with enough compassion that I seriously expected a humanizing denouement and I read it wanting to like you - but instead, your final paragraph failed to humanize you or B and just reads as self-involved and self-validating.

Norman Yeung said...

Thanks for reading!