This is a good day, with the snow starting to come down heavy in storm-braced New York, to look at the only memorable image to come from the State of the Union address. That image came from the response, by Joni Ernst, Iowa’s new U.S. senator.
She spoke, at the top of the speech, of her childhood in Red Oak, the town in southwestern Iowa where she grew up: “As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardee’s. We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning. You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet. Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.”
Ernst had referred to the bread bags before, most notably on the campaign trail last summer when she was running against a wealthy Democratic trial lawyer. What she was saying was: I live in the real world, I came from modest circumstances like most of you, I’m not fancy. Nothing new in this approach, it’s as old as Pat Nixon and her Republican cloth coat. Also, to a Republican Party increasingly interested in class tropes, Ernst was saying: I’m not some scared secret liberal from the suburbs who’ll throw you over once I get to Washington, I’m a real conservative.
Leftism too has its class tropes, only they come from the opposite angle. Response on the left to Ernst and the bread bags was snobbish, superior and dumb to the point of embarrassing. First, they couldn’t believe it—no one wears bread bags on their shoes in a storm, how absurd, she must be developmentally challenged. Then they denigrated what she said, putting pictures on Twitter of themselves wearing bread bags on their feet, accompanied by comments that had all the whiff of the upper class speaking of the quaint ways of the help. Andy Borowitz, surprisingly, wrote a dumb, leaden spoof in the New Yorker that seemed a companion piece to Politico’s earlier use of a photo of Ernst that gave her crazy eyes.
I liked what Ernst said because it was real. And it reminded me of the old days.
There are a lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be on social media, who do not know some essentials about their country, but this is the way it was in America once, only 40 and 50 years ago:
America had less then. Americans had less.
If you were from a family that was barely or not quite getting by, you really had one pair of shoes. If your family was doing OK you had one pair of shoes for school and also a pair of what were called Sunday shoes—black leather or patent leather shoes. If you were really comfortable you had a pair of shoes for school, Sunday shoes, a pair of play shoes and even boots, which where I spent my childhood (Brooklyn, and Massapequa, Long Island) were called galoshes or rubbers. At a certain point everyone had to have sneakers for gym, but if you didn’t have sneakers you could share a pair with a friend, trading them in the hall before class.
If you had just one pair of shoes, which was the case in my family, you had trouble when it rained or snowed. How to deal with it?
You used the plastic bags that bread came in. Or you used plastic bags that other items came in. Or you used Saran Wrap if you had it, wrapping your shoes and socks in it. Or you let your shoes and socks get all wet, which we also did.
I remember using string, rubber bands or tape to fasten the plastic over my shoes. So does one of my sisters. Another sister remembered wrapping her socks in plastic bags and then putting on her shoes—she’d let the shoes get wet but protect her feet. The other night, at a swank Manhattan restaurant, my friend Vin remembered putting bread bags over his shoes to get them into his boots. This allowed me to tease him as a Rockefeller.
But America then had less in terms of things—shoes, coats, gloves. I can’t say, “And no one was ashamed.” At a certain point it was embarrassing to for whatever reasons not have the right things, or to come across as haphazard or not taken care of. Kids want to fit in. But there were enough kids in difficult circumstances that you weren’t alone.
In Joni Ernst’s case there was no embarrassment: all the other kids on the bus were wearing bread bags on their shoes, too.
I liked imagining that. I liked her reminding me of not so long ago, before America got rich.