In the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” hit the radio waves. I was 14 and didn’t know how to help, but I had some money saved so I sent it along. There was a collection box in the school cafeteria the week I started ninth grade, and a big poster board chart on the wall tracked how much the school had raised using columns made of crepe paper. Soon I learned on the national news that the Red Cross wasn’t doing much with the money. Nobody had planned for that kind of disaster.
“Gold Digger” was a chart-topper, spending 10 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. I heard it on the radio, in the hallways, and it was still playing at prom four years later, by which time Katrina and the City of New Orleans had disappeared from the conversation in Worcester, Mass., the city where I grew up. Worcester still believes itself to be very far from the Deep South. Summer is not so hard on us.
Winters are worse, or were then. At school, the classroom windows never seemed to close, and every now and then a ceiling tile would come crashing down in the middle of a lesson. All the girls wore tights under their jeans on the days the temperature dropped below 10 degrees, and I once got frostbite on the mile-long walk to school.
On December 9, 2008, the sky spit rain. I remember because it got dark so early, and I went for a walk anyway. I came home with my collar wet, my neck freezing. The next morning the trees were glazed with ice, and school closed for three weeks. A million people were without power in the Northeast, hundreds were sleeping in temporary Red Cross shelters, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, as if it weren’t already evident.
I didn’t donate anything. The power at my house still worked, and I didn’t even have the mundane, low-grade worry of my friends with heated homes who were trying to apply to colleges before the Jan. 1 deadline. They couldn’t get ahold of guidance counselors, didn’t have copies of their transcripts, hadn’t received grades for projects they hadn’t been able to turn in. Here’s why I remember December 9, 2008: I got into college. The notification came in an email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and it was from the only school I had applied to—the only one I really wanted. I was bracing for a rejection, followed by frazzled weeks spinning bullshit for the Common App, that never came.
Of course I was lucky. The stock market had collapsed that September. The banks went under. Teachers encouraged us to apply to community colleges. For years I had gone running to the refrain in my head: I am waiting for my life to start. Because I believed it, and because I wanted, needed it to be so. Like a lot of people who grow up to be writers, I was good at school, but not so good at being a high schooler, and it was much to my advantage to accept what I was told, that college was the key to getting out, and to what came after, which was real life, unlike this.
Of course I hated the banks, in part because my parents were ex-hippies who had been been active in Students for a Democratic Society, but that was actually a pretty popular opinion at my high school. Worcester is a blue-collar city that’s been in economic decline since the late 1970s, and it has a strong, diverse immigrant and religious heritage. It’s not a place where most kids imagine opening IRAs when they grow up. It’s a place with a lot of local pride, a lot of people willing to share what they have, and lunch car diners where breakfast with tip doesn’t even cost five bucks. It’s also a place with a lot of poverty, a lot of drugs, and a lot of college students. Last spring David O. Russell filmed American Hustle there because Worcester’s downtown still looks like New Jersey did at the height of the polyester decade.
My dad who quit SDS always blasted NPR in the afternoons when he made dinner. Marketplace, the news show about money, came on at 6:30 and he never missed it. It either makes a great deal of sense or none at all. Money was important, but not for us. My parents were finally stable after scraping by for a lot of years when I was little and before then, so I imagined I could do the same. My future didn’t need to be about stability, which would come in its own time.
In my three weeks of winter freedom I watched a lot of movies. It was too nasty outside to do much else. I recognized the Marketplace theme song playing over the opening credits of Gold Diggers of 1933, the pre-code, Depression-era musical about showgirls and the rich men who want and despise them, about how money can mess up love. On film, Ginger Rogers’ red lips look almost black. The camera zooms in on her singing:
We’re in the money, we’re in the money
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along
We’re in the money, the skies are sunny
Old man Depression, you are through
You’ve done us wrong
The song is wishful and wry, it’s clear. Ginger Rogers’ character, Fay Fortune, is a gorgeous crooner past her prime who ends the film alone (in 1933, could a movie imagine a worse fate for a woman?). But Busby Berkeley’s opening dance number can’t admit such tragedy. Chorus girls high-kicking and wearing little but oversized quarters dance across the multi-tiered set like a slot machine hitting the jackpot again and again. Only Rogers singing the chorus in Pig Latin is a sign of something darker, more confusing at work.
When the wealthy J. Lawrence Bradford travels from tony Boston to gauche New York to convince his brother Brad not to marry Polly, a moon-eyed young actress, he and his lawyer are waylaid at Polly’s apartment by her roommates. Carol and Trixie are also showgirls, but hardly so innocent. They keep the men waiting, extort them for $70 hats, and generally revel in the ease with which they manipulate the wealthy men using the carefully staged and highly profitable femininity and sexuality that the men scorn. I couldn’t have articulated the significance of the film’s symbology at the time, but because I was sentient and female and 17, I was beginning to understand that my body would be looked at whether I liked it or not, so I might as well put it to use.
I went to the college I wanted to attend, with a financial aid package that prevented it from being unaffordable, and I worked service jobs most of the way. For the first year or so, in addition to a work study position at school, I picked up shifts at the sandwich shop where I’d worked in high school whenever I was back in Worcester. In New York I spent a summer scooping ice cream in the sun and a year pulling shots of espresso. I got sick of sandwiches, and sick of ice cream, but I never got sick of coffee. Not that the product mattered all that much. What mattered was how well I knew how to flirt, which was measurable in tips and in the number of email addresses and phone numbers acquired from customers, all of which accrued steadily over my years of work. I learned where the border lies between interested banter and invasive questioning, and that you can go a lot further from the far side of a counter. One Sunday, as an experiment, my coworkers at the coffee shop and I all dressed in jean cutoffs and tight white T-shirts, and instead of the usual $30, we took home around $50 each from the tip jar. A counter is nothing but a stage.
A few weeks after I started working at the café, a guy who worked at the cell phone store down the block was followed after he closed up for the night. On his way to drop the store’s deposit at the bank, he was strangled on the street with a plastic bag. They took the money.
I started double-checking the lock when I closed alone, counting out the register first thing and bundling it into the safe in the back. I changed the dollars in my tip jar for big bills that would sit flat and untempting in the tight pockets of my jeans. I was not proud of being so jumpy, but I didn’t like that passers-by on the street could see the piles of twenties laid out on the counter if they cared to look. In the empty shop, every chink of ceramic mug against the pastry case shot through the backs of my hands. The only way to calm my nervous listening was to blast music that was louder and cockier than I could muster alone. I rotated through Jay-Z’s Black Album, Kanye’s College Dropout, and Spotify radio stations based on both, which inevitably cycled back to “Gold Digger.” Was I? The film producer who called ahead to order a four-shot soy latte because she was running late tipped me five dollars for having it ready when she got there. The music Ph.D. who flirted with me when he wasn’t with his girlfriend, the regular who made all the baristas 3D-printed bottle openers as thanks. The unemployed French woman who spent all day sending out resumes, and let me crash with her when I was between apartments. She had a big bed that we shared, and we would take a long time waking up in the morning, chatting and planning days that didn’t have much structure of their own.
One night recently I came home late from my 9-to-5 grownup job with Ginger Rogers’ voice in my head and I didn’t know why, but I had to watch Gold Diggers, so I did. Once Rogers is done singing, the scene shifts to an apartment where Polly, Trixie, and Carol are lying in bed:
Trixie: I can remember when that alarm clock used to ring. Those good old days when we had to get up.
Carol: What a memory! Didn’t there used to be something called a job—or am I wrong again?
Polly: You’re right for once. Let’s get up and look for work. I hate starving in bed.
Trixie: Name a better place to starve.
Carol: In your stomach.
It was like watching an episode of Girls, but in black and white, with dancing. In the pilot episode of the HBO series, Hannah asks, “Do you know that part on your resume where they ask if you have any special skills? Well, it’s the thing where they ask you to list like, ‘yoga, Spanish, water skiing, Photoshop.’ I feel like I don’t I have any special skills.” I apologize for bringing up Girls, even though I think it’s great. Getting by isn’t easy. West admits it, flipping the song’s story towards the end. Robert Christgau put it well in a 2005 Village Voice review of the album: “Gold Diggers,” marked by cognitively dissonant Jamie Foxx–as–Ray Charles backup, lays on misogynistic clichés until all of a sudden the oppressed black male West is defending leaves a non–gold digger for a white girl.”
In its simplest terms, gold-digging is trying to use someone else’s privilege for a leg up. Privilege is not always money of course. I should have understood that Worcester winter that it was on me to help, since I didn’t have other worries.
Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with this platform I’ve been given, this space at The Billfold, where I’ll be writing about privilege, work, and symbols of class. Not all privileges (or struggles) are of equal weight and difficulty, of course, and I can only speak with any authority on the ones that have been mine. I don’t mean to conflate or equate experiences in what I’ve written, only to highlight how complicated and intertwined our struggles must be. If we believe otherwise, we’re ignoring something. I hope I can help expose some of those gaps.
 The fourth-generation Worcesterite in me feels obligated to inform you that Worcester people invented the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, and the smiley face; and that it’s the only place in America where Freud ever gave a lecture. We also have a park designed by Olmstead, and anarchist Emma Goldman ran an ice cream parlor downtown before returning to New York to organize unions.
 In addition to being a former member of the SDS, my dad used to run a used bookstore and still sells antique paper (mostly old movie memorabilia) on eBay; he still watched BETA tapes into the 21st century, and there were always old black & white movies around.
 At Aeon, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett writes, “It’s in the interest of all of us to help young people make a successful transition to adulthood, because when they do, everybody benefits. Emerging adults want to contribute to their societies, not be passive dependents. Nearly all of them are striving hard to make their way in the world, and they aspire to find a form of work that does some good in the world. But their societies are not doing a very good job in reforming educational and employment systems for the modern world, in order to make it possible for young people to make the most of their talents, abilities and energies.”
Diana Clarke would also like to note that Gold Diggers of 1933 features a roller skating police squad. All her internet can be found at @dclarkwithane.