As a kid, I didn't really notice how poor we were. There were three years of relative prosperity when my parents owned their own home with a rental property in the basement (my grandparents gave them the down payment), but mostly we lived in duplexes or fourplexes (never apartment buildings).
We moved around a lot as my father looked for work, so we didn't have much furniture. One constant was a big round mahogany table with a set of matching chairs with woven bottoms. One of the chairs had arms; the king chair was my father's. I imagine that the bottoms of the chairs were once tightly woven, but in my memory there are always holes in the centres where the caning was worn through.
When I was old enough to be conscious of our poverty and my mother and I would take notice of our surroundings, we would point out the holes in the bottoms of the chairs to each other, and laugh. We would comment on the shelves and tables made of squares of plywood on top of red and blue plastic milk crates, the worn carpeting that we cleaned with a carpet sweeper, the foam mattress on the floor that served as my parents' bed. We would laugh and laugh, laugh until tears streamed down our faces and we weren't sure if we were still laughing.
Sometimes when I was a kid, we would dig through the milk crates filled with records and sit around on the floor listening to music. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, Queen's The Game, Harry Chapin's Greatest Stories Live ("30 000 Pounds of Bananas" was a favourite), and Janis Joplin's Pearl.
My mother loved "Mercedes Benz." Joplin's rusty voice, that lilting chuckle at the end to suggest that she was just kidding, possibly. (Or not.) The longing for a new car, a colour TV, an escape from the drudgery of life. My mother could identify.
The cars my parents owned were always used, always rusty. We called one the Grey Ghost, because there was no longer any visible paint, just grey primer. We had to keep a jug of water in the trunk for another car, because it overheated every few blocks and we had to fill the radiator up to keep on going. The nicest car we owned was a pale green Ford Granada that my maternal grandfather gave them when he finally bought himself a new car (with cash he had saved in Mason jars).
People with nice cars were assholes. We judged them when they cut us off or took our parking spot or tailgated, in a way we didn't judge people driving cars with dents in the doors or rusty fenders who did the same things.
I am now an adult, and we have two cars in this two-person family. One of the cars is a Mercedes-Benz C400, which my dude's company pays the lease on. The other is a 14-year-old Honda Civic, a car that I have reached a tentative truce with.
The Honda's air conditioning doesn't work, I have to keep the door open with my foot or it slams shut on me, we had to buy a battery charger because the battery is unreliable, I can't set the time or listen to the radio or play a CD because there's something wrong with the stereo, the air bags are faulty, and there is an alarming knocking sound when I go around corners that I used to ignore but can no longer due to the stereo issue (I would just turn the volume up and pretend everything was cool). The brakes and starter were both replaced in the last couple of years.
The Mercedes has heated seats, a smooth ride, and pickup like you wouldn't believe. There is a GPS, a rear-view camera, Bluetooth capablity, a sun-roof, and a killer stereo. The doors lock with the touch of a finger, automatically unlock when you approach, and you don't need to put the key in the ignition to turn the car on.
As an aside, the Mercedes does not have a spare tire, because rich people don't get flat tires, I guess. The Mercedes also has some strange feature that prevents you from being able to hook jumper cables up to the battery to help a fellow motorist in need. (So that whole asshole thing has some basis in reality, I suppose.) I hate it for its lack of spare tire and boosting ability, yet I cannot deny its many charms. It's fucking fun to drive around in that car.
I am the same person regardless of which car I am driving, but I feel vaguely uncomfortable when I am in the Mercedes. I feel like an impostor, a fraud. I can zip ahead in a merge lane in the Honda with impunity, but when I do it in the Mercedes, I can feel the animosity from the other drivers. I know what they're thinking, because I still think it, too. It's ridiculous, of course, and I know better, but there it is.
Although I would not wish a life of poverty on anyone, I am grateful for mine. It taught me to look past the car people drive (or the public transportation they take), where they live, and what they do to earn money, and recognize that we are all just toiling along down this highway of life. Some of us are driving fancy foreign cars, some of us are in the carpool lane in a leased sedan, some of us are on a Greyhound bus, and some of us are stranded by the side of the road.
I am no millionaire, and that Mercedes is just a lease paid for by someone else, but I do not have to cut coupons or worry about making rent. I am financially secure, and there is such comfort in that knowledge. I have worked hard to get here. But there is, and will always be, a part of me that feels like that piece of shit Honda is the car I deserve. You can't outrun your past, even if the vehicle you're driving goes from 0-60 in under 5 seconds.