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Monday, May 27

Gapers Block

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An acquaintance recently introduced to me, slumped at my local tap on Division, in broken English: "It's harder when you're from nobody."

I was a couple whiskeys in, natch, so I thought I was hearing things. I asked him what he meant, and Arabic words dribbled in through his own drunk, he tried to explain about his nephew, who lived with him on the far Southwest Side, in a nice townhouse, shared by two families. The kid went to high school and graduated with above average grades, but couldn't get a good job, and now the parents were very old, and the kid was in a race to get his, before he'd have to assume his parents' care.

Half the family worked at a gas station they owned. It wasn't quite enough, and although the kid was in college to get his B.S., there probably wouldn't be a "real job," waiting. IT, making $10.50 an hour.



In his neighborhood, he said, he saw kids with half his nephew's ability going to better colleges, getting hooked up with good jobs, taking all the time in the world to get advanced degrees because the family could afford it. These kids, they came from somebody.

"He worries a lot for his parents, because they're old and he wants to see them be happy finally, you know."

He slumped in pity for his nephew, but shrugged, too.

"When you come from nobody, it's a lot harder, but anyway."

He shrugged again, as if to say, "We own a gas station and we feed ourselves, so it can't be that bad."

But I knew what that slump-before-the-shrug meant, I could read it. That slump meant the hollow in the chest, the churning fear in the pit of the stomach. Everything is so much different when you come from nobody, dreading every turn, terrified of fate. The children of immigrants, usually, come from nobody. Kids of the working poor come from nobody. Broken homes, thrown out, raised in shelters and cars—following jobs from town to town, army brats, they come from nobody.

And all around, those who come from somebody sail right through. Well, maybe not sail, but there is peace of mind there that the rest of us envy — or worse, don't even realize exists.

There's been a shift, a shift the last 60 years — blink of an eye — and now you can't come from nobody and expect to go anywhere. It's shocking how the shift has seeped into every part of our national fabric. Today on Capitol Hill, be-joweled, over-fed pols are debating whether to cut even further the taxes on idle wealth — capital gains and dividend — and eliminate the estate tax, which was central to the spirit of the original progressive income tax. There was a time — and we have a right to remember — when a single job and homeownership was not only just-barely, but true security and peace-of-mind.

Today in Washington they've so degraded homeownership that they're considering repealing our ability to deduct mortgage interest payments, possibly one of the most essential elements of the decision to buy a home. There's no place low enough for regular guys, gas station attendants, enlisted men, childcare workers.

Jobs are worth less. Hard work is worth less. The family is worth less. We are worthless, who come from nobody.

I think, probably, we'd all do well to remember that in fact democracy is all about class.

But it isn't just about wealth, and we know that well in the city where they "don't want nobody nobody sent." These classes are the have-nots, and the haves have a legacy, have letters of recommendation, have a Rolodex.

You're from nobody, we're told, so everything must be harder. Bills scarier. Options scarce. Comfort, peace, non-existent.

Of course, we don't cry and mewl and puke. That comes with not being bored entitled. And as I've said, that's America, that's Chicago: it can be combative.

What is great, what survives, is the tap on Division Street.

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brian / November 16, 2005 3:21 PM

Amazing column Ramsin. Really really good work.

I remember the subtle advantages afforded to people who came "from somebody" being described as having the wind at your back. You rarely know it's there, yet it helps push you along.

waleeta / November 16, 2005 7:18 PM

I live in DC. I am always impressed with how hard people work in school and work...and then I find out they have never worried about money or their future. I am surrounded by people who have the upper hand because they did free internships for this or that senator because dad pays the rent. Sux.

Thurston / November 17, 2005 8:10 PM

I don't think you've picked up on anything new here. Having well off parents helps one be more well off... what's new? Further, do you really think the US is less egalitarian now than it was 60 years ago? Even with the advent of no/low-interest student loans? A plethora of scholarships? Affirmative action? All these programs are very far from perfect, but surely the unpriveleged are better off now with them than before without them.

Also, your friend at the bar, from nobody, seems to be a contradictory example. I'm guessing this fellow was himself an immigrant, and in only one generation's time the family already owns real estate, a business, and has produced a college educated son? There are many immigrant families not doing nearly so well. crowded house notwithstanding. Also, I don't understand why his nephew's chances of getting a good job with a BS are any worse than anyone else's. Every office building is loaded with BS-having IT folks making more than $10.50 an hour. And being white and not a recent immigrant are definitely not prerequisites for these jobs.

I think you have the right idea in this article, but your evidence and reasoning leave much to be desired.

Rick / November 17, 2005 11:41 PM

It's articles like this that make me proud to call you my friend. Well done.

Tim / November 18, 2005 9:10 AM

I found myself nodding as I read this. It really struck a chord with me because my story is similar. Both my parents were alligators.

Kenzo / November 18, 2005 2:47 PM


I want to begin by dissecting your initial argument, which is muddy at best. Thurston, undoubtedly of the Kennilworth Moores, there is a huge difference between a low-interest loan and having Daddy pay for college.

The average student loan balance upon graduation is $20,000. The average entry-level position with a BS is not much more than that. For a person who "came from nobody" the concept of debt is quite concrete. Debt is not paying rent, debt is going hungry. Debt is an all-night screaming match with your spouse. Debt is not a "justifiable expense." $20,000 is a car, a downpayment on a house, rent for two to three years.

Secondly, I personally do not think that immigrants have it any easier today. At the turn of the century, a skilled immigrant with a few bucks in his pocket and the mettle to endure the harships of small business ownership could build an empire. Currently, with mass-retailers and big-business breaks, this is not as possible.

There is also a fatal flaw in your logic in your argument on "BS-having IT folks." I agree that each of these buildings are filled with "BS-having IT folks," but not all "BS-having IT folks"are in these buildings. Many are working jobs in which they are overqualified, many cannot find work at all. It's like peeking your head into a Chuck E. Cheese's and making the claim that "all childen are happy" because all of the children who are in a place that is made to make children happy are happy.

Thurston, I advise you to make some graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams before you attempt to write. You seem to like to argue when you have no frame of reference and it gives me a headache.

Ramsin, great article!


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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