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Orleans resident Ethan Perry on being 'lower class' and dreaming of his own pizza joint

A photo of a street with stores along the edge including family dollar and true value hardware. The sky is blue in the background
Erica Heilman
/
Vermont Public
Downtown Orleans.

Ethan Perry is 29. When I asked him what class he is, he said he grew up lower-middle class. His mother was a teacher and his father a carpenter. He said that now he considers himself lower class, but not impoverished. He's worked as an afterschool counselor and a gas station attendant. He worked at Planet Fitness, McDonald's, Cumberland Farms, Walmart and Hannaford's — twice. He's worked at a phone call center, and he's been a cell phone salesman, and for the last four months or so, he's been working at Family Dollar in Orleans.

This story is the final installment of a five-part series called "What class are you?" Follow the series here.

We sat in my car up on the hill that overlooks the Ethan Allen furniture mill and we talked.

Erica: "Is there any inherent value or virtue in upward mobility? Everybody likes a story about somebody who's striving for more, but is that inherently valuable?"

Ethan: "Yeah, I would say it's invaluable. If you're working on one of the many jobs I've had, you don't want to look at the past, because that was mopping floors. You don't want to look at the present, because that's washing toilets. But the future? That could be anything. You want to have a picture of what you want."

Erica: "What's your picture?"

Ethan: "I'm not looking at anything crazy. I'd like to own a small business or something someday, that'd be cool. I'd probably do a pizza shop. That's what I have as my idea for maybe someday."

Erica: "When you have to worry about money, is it hard to think about the future?"

Ethan: "Oh yeah. Absolutely. It's disillusioning. If you're worried about money, there's more pressing matters than what you're going to be doing 10 years from now."

"I think when people have these nice thoughts about like, ‘Well, they should just save money,’ I feel like it's rooted in the assumption that these people don't care about their own socioeconomic future. And that's preposterous. There's this assumption that these people are just throwing away money they don't have because they assume the government will help them or there may be cases where people just assume that they're stupid. And most people are just trying to do what they can with what they have. And that never amounts to enough."
Ethan Perry

Erica: "What class do you assume I am?"

Ethan: "That's tough to say. Middle class?"

Erica: "And is there anything that you sense in my questions that I'm asking, that indicates a blind spot in my understanding of your experience?"

Ethan: "I suppose it's easy to assume that someone who's been in the middle class their entire life has never had to worry about where their next meal is going to come from.

"When you're in that spot, it feels… it feels like you’re stranded on a raft like Tom Hanks in Castaway. And then lots of times there's no one who can help you out, because everyone's having the same problem. Or people who maybe are doing a little better, you might not be close enough to ask them for help like that. I was lucky recently that one of my coworkers just bought me a bunch of groceries. It was a week I was really hurting for hours. And I was lucky enough that she noticed on the schedule that I was hurting for hours. The following week she asked me if everything was OK. And I kind of dug deeper to actually talk about it. And her and her husband took us out and stocked our fridge.

"That kind of thing doesn't happen very often. In a way you do feel very cut off and alone. At the mercy of elements, I suppose be the best way to put it."

Erica: "Is there any anger?"

Ethan: "Yeah, there's anger associated with that. Absolutely. But it's almost always unhealthy. It's something that I have to keep a constant look at. Especially when I'm at work and I'm cashing people out. I'm seeing how much of their food stamps people spend on candy and junk food and soda. I see the difference in how much people with even a kid receive compared to just me. I barely ever have over maybe $200 on my food stamp balance.

"Especially if it's one of those days, like I said, where I don't know where my next meal is necessarily coming from. I'm trying to save change people didn't need so I can grab a Hot Pocket or something. And then someone cashes out buying junk."

More from Vermont Public: Brownington logger and builder Jane Greenwood on being a 'working class' woman who's been to the opera

Erica: "People who have not had to worry about money — what do they maybe not even know that they don't know?"

Ethan: "It seems like there's this assumption that you can just save money. ‘Just don't spend money!’ Well you try not spending money for one single day and see how far you get. Your car's gonna run out of gas. After that you've got to eat. And even just to be happy — like a lot of people spend a lot of money just in the course of keeping themselves happy throughout the day. It's not a lot of money. It's maybe 20 bucks. But to me that's a lot of money. And then beating yourself up, being guilty. Like, ‘I shouldn't have done that.’"

Erica: "Give people some idea what would be an indulgence on your salary."

Ethan: "Honestly anything I don't immediately need that isn't food is an indulgence. Like when I go down to Maplefields and get my couple beers for like, $4 every night. That's an indulgence. That's my nightly indulgence, is that $4.

"I think when people have these nice thoughts about like, ‘Well, they should just save money,’ I feel like it's rooted in the assumption that these people don't care about their own socioeconomic future. And that's preposterous. There's this assumption that these people are just throwing away money they don't have because they assume the government will help them or there may be cases where people just assume that they're stupid. And most people are just trying to do what they can with what they have. And that never amounts to enough."

Erica: "If you could describe your fantasy pizza shop, or if you could have exactly what you want, what would it look like?"

Ethan: "It would be… it would be full of people. I just want it to be a place where people could gather and a place where people look forward to meeting. Having a sense of community… I’m sorry. I’m getting a little emotional."

Erica: "Why?"

Ethan: "I guess because I don't really talk to people about dreams or aspirations or anything like that very often. I don't even like let it seem real to myself very often."

"I guess because I don't really talk to people about dreams or aspirations or anything like that very often. I don't even like let it seem real to myself very often."
Ethan Perry

Erica: "Your vision has to do with making a place where people can be together."

Ethan: "There's nothing like that around here. Where do people go to gather? The American Legion bar? Sad.

"I look at the people that are my age in this area. People that come into the store. And the number of them that are not doing well for themselves when it comes to drugs and stuff is really troubling. Like you want to say, ‘I expect better of my peers,’ but at the same time, there's nothing for them to do. And that stuff's easier to obtain than a legitimate good time..."

Erica: "At your pizza place."

Ethan: "Hopefully someday."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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