A few days ago, I went to McKay’s bookstore. It might be my favorite place in Nashville, with a warehouse stacked to the second story of books, records, comics, and everything in between. I carried my books in to trade and went back outside to get my coffee from the coffee trailer parked outside the sliding doors.
It was a cute, pink trailer all decorated to look vintage, serving coffee to the bibliophiles that came through. I stepped up to order, deciding to treat myself after missing the pannacotta Billy made for our Christmas dessert. Looking over the menu, I couldn’t help but laugh. “White Trash Christmas Mocha” was one of their specials. I ordered, paying six dollars and fifteen cents for a medium mocha with almond milk and marketing. I got my cup, discovering that the trailer was called “Trailer Perk Coffee,” so that was their whole thing.
And you know what? It was fine.
I wasn’t offended. I thought it was funny. There’s only one small reason why that could be, simply because “white trash” and “trailer trash” are classist slurs. The girl working at the counter had a pronounced Southern accent, so maybe her business was pandering. Maybe I was just in a good mood.
The night after I enjoyed my “White Trash Mocha,” I watched a comedy special by someone that I can’t remember and got to roll my eyes when they equated stupid comments to a Southern accent. I was mad. I turned it off. Something about the way outsiders make fun of my people hurts more than anyone else because it isn’t a familial and jocular mode of poking fun at yourself. That’s what I felt about “Trailer Perk Coffee.” No matter how different new-Nashville looks, it’s still Tennessee, where a lot of us have come into the city from rural backgrounds for jobs or the liberal bubble. Regardless, it hurts when someone adopts a pitiful caricature of a Southern accent to emulate stupidity. It disregards the fact that we are not intellectually deprived, while many of our friends and relatives face systemic barriers in their public but rural education.
That wasn’t the point of this post. I do want to make it clear that “white trash” is a classist slur, but I want to share how my family adopted the phrase to poke fun at ourselves. When we say something is “trashy” or “how white trash was that!?” I don’t get offended. On the other hand, when someone makes a rude Facebook comment calling someone trash or a comedian uses an accent to translate when and how what they’re saying is stupid I get hurt. The closest manifestation that non-poor Southerners might understand is when guys throw around the word “bitch” or “pussy” or “like a girl.” It bites. It’s not their word, and it feels different and arguably powerful when women say or reclaim the same words.
I say all of this to clarify what made the Christmas I’m going to tell you about so very “white trash.” I know it isn’t okay to throw the slur around. My family threw it around often and continues to. Because by and large, my family was trash. We were the cash-poor idiots causing scandal, being generally wild, and fending for ourselves when times were tough. We were solidly middle-class regarding opportunity. That’s a distinctive difference; it separates poverty from being cash poor because the latter is either temporary or escapable.
First, we lived in a house with possums roaming the attic.
In 2005 or 2006, our house burned nearly to the ground. The fire started in my bedroom at four in the morning, and I was sleeping in my sister’s bed because she had a window unit air conditioner and it was June in Alabama. She was at the beach with her then boyfriend’s family. I remember waking up supernaturally, which was later confirmed by an Ouija board and my great-grandmother. That’s a later, wilder story.
After the fire, a hurricane came through while the roof was off of the 1890s Victorian Sears & Roebuck. The lower floors were ruined, but me, my parents, and my sweet dog that lived to be extremely elderly all made it out of the house. The fire trucks missed us, and in true redneck fashion we slept naked most of the time, so my dad chased the firetrucks down in his paint-covered work jeans and I covered up in a blanket. I got Old Navy and Aeropostale hand-me-downs from neighbors.
We lived in my grandmother’s house for several weeks while we looked for a place to stay. My parents had attempted to remodel the Victorian house since the 1980s, but the cloth-covered wiring in the walls was never fully upgraded. The fire was electrical, the house my parents were underwater in their mortgage on was completely ruined. We thanked God that we never let the insurance lapse.
So by August, my family had moved into one of my uncle’s properties in town that he had held onto but never really took care of. It was in bad shape, but we knew it was temporary. The roof had issues, window panes were missing, the carpet was probably from the 1970s. The laundry room was outside the kitchen door, where my dad found a baby possum in a laundry basket and lost ten years off his life from screaming. My sister was terrified of the upstairs bedroom because it wasn’t in great shape and she could hear the possums through the walls, so she decided to share a bedroom with me. It was a hell of a year.
All the while, I was going through puberty. It didn’t work well for me. I was an emotional wreck from the fire, consumed by the typical middle-school girl bids for popularity, and gave my parents and 10-years-older sister hell as they tried to raise me. I was annoying, brash, and made weird decisions while acting out with my friends and at school. Short and sweet, I was having a tough time. I smelled smoke in every house I visited, was terrified of leaving things plugged in, and continued to go through those overwhelming teenage mistakes and embarrassments that felt like the end of the world.
That Christmas we had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree from whatever decorations we could salvage. We didn’t have much money, so I remember Christmas being pretty light that year, which my sister and I dealt with pretty well. But a horrible thing happened. With my hand-me-down clothes and rapidly expanding body, I hated the way I looked and looked at what most girls my age did to change myself—Seventeen magazine. In one article, they taught you how to trim your bangs. I decided to trim my bangs. I got my frizzy locks tangled around a comb and cut, and by the end of the afternoon, I had a mullet.
What did my sweet sister, who basically raised me, do to make me feel better? She went to a costume store and bought a mullet wig. She drew a mustache on my lip and put one of the donated T-shirts on me—Barracuda Bob’s, read the logo. She donned the mullet wig, teased out mine, and sat in front of the Christmas tree with one of our cheap cameras. We took a Christmas card photo, called it “Matilda and Barracuda Bob,” and had it developed with a “ho ho ho” digital frame at Walmart. Our collective gives-a-fuck broke, and we milked it for everything we had.
Later that Christmas, my rightfully insane family decided to have formal Christmas card photos made. We went to Walmart with a coupon, sat in front of the blue background, and made one of the most embarrassing sets of photos ever captured. Dad wore a Freddy Krueger sweater. I borrowed one of my mom’s sweaters and blended into the background because I matched the backdrop. My sister’s makeup is too light with her brows to dark, making her accidentally look like she was another race. My mom’s hair is high to Jesus, and her mind is clearly lost from our year of hell. We have hundreds of these photos, some pocket-sized, some with my sister and I posed together à la Stepbrothers. This was our “white trash Christmas,” complete with possums, Walmart Christmas cards, mullets, hand-me-downs, and relatively no money to speak of but a hell of a lot of laughs and love.
Merry late Christmas, y’all. I hope you had a good holiday and got to reminisce about all of your embarrassing Christmas gatherings.