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What Plastic Patio Furniture in my Living Room?
By Tiffany Zehnal

"It's not denial. I'm just selective about the reality I accept."
- Bill Watterson, author of Calvin & Hobbes

* * * * *
My childhood was nothing to write home about. It was neither extraordinary like Bobby Fischer's nor bleak like Frank McCourt's. I didn't play chess and never once took on an Irish accent. Not even on St. Patrick's Day when anybody with a mouth did. More or less, my childhood was just your basic, run-of-the-mill, generic kind. Like the ones you'd see on TV. But with less flattering light and an inferior kitchen set.

I remember it fondly.

I was raised in a two-income, one-dog, middle-class home in Houston. We watched the Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night, had a cutting board clock in the shape of Texas on the wall, and, more often than not, found Hamburger Helper had its way with our ground round at dinnertime. Like I said, nothing fancy, but definitely on the right side of the tracks… or so I thought. Come to find out, the map was upside down. Ignorance is not bliss. It's just ignorance. And it's not a good thing to dabble in when you're living on the wrong side of the tracks.

The reality of my childhood evaded me all my life and only accidentally revealed itself last week some thirty-plus years later during a phone call with my mother. A geographic update: we are both living in California at this point. She in the San Fernando Valley and me, not in the San Fernando Valley. As it turns out, my mother, a 64-year-old woman who lives with her boyfriend Phil, in Northridge, had it with his lazy ways and unkempt yard, and was setting out to make a life of her own. Completely Phil-less. In a double-wide.

I couldn't believe my ears. "Mother, you're going to buy a trailer?!" I said over the phone with all the disdain and angst of a thirteen-year-old.

"Yes," she said sharply, preparing herself for battle.

Against my better judgment and ability to self-censor, I lobbed a high one at her: "To live in?"

My mom immediately became defensive, as is our way. "It doesn't have wheels."

"But it's still a trailer," I spat.

And down came the silence. The long, uncomfortable, God-I'm-a-total-bitch silence. She was clearly picking her next words carefully.

"Tiff, could you just do me a favor and see it before you start judging me?"

So one favor later I found myself driving to Canoga Park to look at a double-wide. And somewhere on the 405 North, behind a too-big-for-the-road Suburban and in front of a Tahoe that could hold Goliath and several of his big-boned friends, my fuzzy past came painfully into focus and there was nothing middle class about it. With my crying barefoot baby strapped in the back and me and my unwashed hair and zero job prospects in the front, there was no denying the obvious.

I had white trash in me.

And I could no longer remember my childhood fondly. I was too busy remembering it accurately.

* * * * *

White Trash Red Flag #1: Texas. Self-explanatory.

It's a big white trash state and we lived in it.

White Trash Red Flag #2:
Divorce. A must-have in every white trash family.

My mom and dad divorced when I was six and that's when all our socioeconomic problems began. The middle-class house was sold, we moved out of the middle-class neighborhood and, apparently, turned in our middle-class membership card. We were movin' on down.

White Trash Red Flag #3a:
The live-in boyfriend. I'm assuming you've seen a little program called "Cops."

After the dissolution of my parents' marriage came the introduction of my mom's new boyfriend, Terry, who, as if playing a role in our little play of hard times, was a white man with a red afro. And before I understood what an afro was, he, his hair, and his greasy jar of curl activator moved in with us.

White Trash Red Flag #3b: The new live-in boyfriend. I'm still assuming you've seen a little program called "Cops."

When Terry ultimately revealed he wasn't a fan of people shorter than five feet and younger than his mustache, which would be my two older brothers and me, he moved out. Nobody was sad to see him go. Except the greasy jar of curl activator he left behind. We were a straight-haired people. The stuff would never be used again. Or so I thought. Terry's Change of Address card was still being processed at the post office when Mom met Lorne at a party, dated him for a minute, and then let him move in with us. With his giant afro. Another white man with a black man's lid. The chances were slim yet likely. The greasy jar of left-behind curl activator had a new reason to live. Especially with the middle-of-the-week City Hall wedding right around the corner.

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