Sometimes I drive my husbandâ€™s beater to school. Itâ€™s a maroon 1990 Nissan Stanza with 300,000 miles on it. Its clear coat is peeling. Gasoline leaks from somewhere, and although my local mechanic says itâ€™s still safe to drive, the smell makes me nervous. Sometimes the driverâ€™s side door wonâ€™t open, and you need to roll down the window and open it from the outside. Also, my husband seems to be storing every receipt heâ€™s ever been given in the map pocket â€” I have no idea why.
You may have seen my husbandâ€™s clunker on campus. Students always turn around as I drive into the faculty lot because theyâ€™re understandably worried about the racket behind them. It sounds like the death rattle on a Spitfire, but itâ€™s really just the Nissan emblem vibrating on the front grill. I should ask the Chevron guys about that.
Notice how I distance myself from the car by referring to it as my husbandâ€™s? He owned it when we started dating and weâ€™ve been together for 16 years. Itâ€™s definitely community property by now, but I still refer to it as his car because I am ashamed to be seen in it. Although, when I think about it, I only started being embarrassed when I began at Trinity. I used to love that car; it was reliable, sturdy. I was proud that weâ€™d made it last so long.
Perhaps Iâ€™m embarrassed now because every car at Trinity seems nicer than mine, even the studentsâ€™. Iâ€™m embarrassed because I think a professor is supposed to drive a better car. But my husband and I are only a few years out of grad school. Weâ€™ve been paying off debts and saving up for a house. Weâ€™re not poor; weâ€™ve just got better things to spend money on.
The real reason Iâ€™m embarrassed is this: Iâ€™m afraid someone will judge me the way I myself might judge someone driving a similar car: as poor, uneducated, shiftless and possibly uninsured. If you think Iâ€™m unusual in my snobbery, listen to the political discourse these days â€” thatâ€™s the way our culture judges poor people now. If someone drives a junker, she must be a slacker, a loser, a nutcase, a mooch.
Iâ€™m none of those things, but, of course, neither is the person who drives a car like mine because he canâ€™t afford anything else. That person probably works harder than I do and heâ€™s probably just as intelligent. He may not have had the privileges I have had â€” a supportive and financially stable family, good health, decent schools.
What upset me most about Governor Romneyâ€™s remarks about the 47 percent was that they made me realize how I had already internalized the same ridiculous, classist belief that income indicates character â€” that a car means anything more about a person than a means of transport.
Thanks to Mitt, Iâ€™ll be sitting a little prouder in my clunker from now on. Wave at me as I go by.
Kelly Carlisle is an associate professor in the department of English.