Page 30 - Autobiography of a Law School
P. 30

Wanting a Seersucker Suit, 1933-1952

         I also got welfare underwear and welfare overalls on the sly,
probably along with the beans and cheese. Welfare underwear came
in three sizes, small, medium, and large. I was too scrawny for even
the small size, but drawstrings sewn onto each side of the white
boxer shorts could be tightened so they fit without falling off. I am
sure many of our rural contemporaries wore their out-of-sight
underwear, but only the very poor wore welfare overalls in public.

         There was nothing wrong with overalls as such. Every male
in East Texas who was not a banker or shopkeeper wore them. But
nobody wanted to be seen in public wearing welfare overalls. Their
design and cheap fabric distinguished welfare overalls from the
store-bought variety and made them a visible badge of poverty.
Over-the-counter overalls came in a popular striped fabric, and they
had bib pockets to hold pencils and tobacco. Welfare overalls came
only in bright blue, and their skimpy bibs had no pockets. After all,
people on welfare had no need for bib pockets to carry expensive
luxuries such as pencils and tobacco.

         Well-meaning charity gave me a precise meaning for the
adage in Acts 20:35 that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
One Christmas when I was four or five years old, Bill Long, the
local pharmacist, drove to our house with the basket of fruit and
candy that the Lions Club distributed to welfare children. My
mother cried at the shame of being so classified, and Mr. Long left
in an uncomfortable hurry. Neither he nor I felt good about the gift.
I knew then, and I know now, it is not blessed to receive.

         A single grocer and one dry-goods merchant extended us
modest store credit, well aware that payment was chancy. I was
grateful, but embarrassed, that we had to charge my school shoes at
Williamson’s Dry Goods store so I wouldn’t be barefoot in winter
as well as summer. I viewed the word credit itself as a badge of
shame until 1958, when American Express turned it into a middle-
class status symbol.

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