I first talked to Ernie Major a few years ago, for our episode about living alone. When we put out our call for class stories, Ernie got in touch again. "I’m retired now, by myself in a single wide trailer," he wrote us, "but I still don’t feel inferior to other people of higher class. In fact, sometimes I feel kind of sorry for them, trapped their web of expectations."
Ernie is 73, and over the course of his life he's been in a lot of different class brackets. He grew up "dirt poor" as a homesteader, but he had relatives who were quite well off. After serving in Vietnam, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, and worked as a photojournalist before starting a new career in his fifties at an oil refinery. And now, he's on long term disability after a motorcycle accident last year. Those experiences exposed him to a lot of class diversity, but he says as an adult, he's identified as "socially lower middle class, economically a bit better than that," without aspirations to move up. "I look down on people who invest a lot of time and energy into status symbols that can just go away in a second."
Yet Ernie also recognizes that being white has allowed him a level of class fluidity--which has fueled some of that emotional detachment from where he fits in the class hierarchy. "I understood early on that [being white] gave you a a a step up even though we were dirt poor," he told me. "And I had my mom’s [upper-middle class] family, so I had a connection with people who were not definitely not the same as us."
Anna took this picture of Ernie after their conversation, with his new Death, Sex & Money "should-less day" mug. Afterward, when we asked Ernie to send us a picture of something that represents his class status, he sent along a picture of his Royal Enfield motorcycle on a wheelchair ramp next to the trailer where he lives. He wrote, "My friends made this ramp after I crushed my foot in an accident. It's the kind of thing that people would do when I was a kid and we lived on a homestead."
This episode is part of our collaborative series with BuzzFeed called Opportunity Costs: Money and Class in America. To hear more, go to deathsexmoney.org/class.