The Snack Shack Blues

On the illusions of class mobility

Emily Withnall
Mar 31, 2020 · 21 min read
Illustration by Carmen Johns

In 1984, on the edge of Highway 518, my family lived in a bright blue building with neon yellow letters looping across the front to announce its name: Snack Shack. Tourists whipped by, winding up the pass to Taos for skiing, and locals took the low road to Peñasco, a town of roughly one thousand people at the base of 10,000 foot peaks.

My parents paid $15 a month for rent.

The Snack Shack was what remained of an old set for the 1977 motorcycle movie, Sidewinder. The film crew had slapped paint on an old, crumbling structure that was half adobe and half cinder blocks. It hadn’t been lived in for decades. The Snack Shack had one main room with one shared bed and a woodstove. There were two other tiny rooms, but one had partially cratered into a mess of bricks. The usable side room was our kitchen. My dad ran a gas line out of the wall and connected it to a small propane tank which fueled our two burner stove. He hauled water from neighbors’ houses and stored it in jugs. We had an outhouse down by the acequia, but no way to bathe. Sometimes we took bucket baths, but mostly we relied on once-a-week trips to our neighbor Richard’s house. He lived two miles down a dirt road on the edge of a forest. My earliest memory is of the colorful imitation wicker basket filled with clean towels. Bath day.

Richard’s one-bedroom house was a work in progress: exposed sheetrock walls and particle board floors. The house was insulated, though, with double pane windows. His wood stove outsized ours, too. But best of all, Richard had a tub. My sister and I bathed together, staying in the water even as it got cold and our fingers puckered. We protested when my dad pulled us from the dirty water and bundled us up in towels.

We lived in the Snack Shack for three years. We might have lived there for many years more, but Richard, wild on days of insomnia and a mix of prescription medication and psychedelics, mistook a fisherman for a bear and killed him. When he went to prison, my family moved into his house, rent free. My sister and I, too young to know why we moved into his house, were ecstatic. We had a bedroom! (My parents slept in the living room) We got bunk beds! We had ninety-nine acres of land to explore. And best of all, we got to take baths whenever we wanted. My parents covered the sheetrock walls with colorful abstract paintings friends had made, and my dad built a wooden countertop for the kitchen.

A vast forest spread out behind our house and rippled into the Pecos Wilderness. Black bears wandered out of the trees and onto our lawns. Some days, we watched raccoons outside the sliding glass doors, eating our cats’ food and washing their faces in the water bowl. Hummingbirds crashed into these doors and we ran to get them before the cats could, placing them gently on the shed roof so they could fly away safely when they woke. In the summertime we picked chokecherries and rosehips on the side of our long dirt road. I ate chokecherries until my fingers looked bruised with purple and my mouth puckered.

In those days my mom worked as an EMT earning a dollar an hour when she was on-call, and 20 dollars each time she was called to an emergency. She also drove over the mountains to Taos almost every day where she was training to be a midwife. My dad worked as a bartender at the ski lodge ten miles in the opposite direction. He is legally blind so he taught me and my sister how to hitchhike. We’d stand on the road’s shoulder facing the right lane, our feet planted in a wide stance and our right hands out, thumbs up. My dad said he got rides faster when we were with him — and we often were. I liked riding in truck beds the best. We had to shout to be heard, our backs against the cab, as the trees rushed by. At the ski lodge we sometimes got to eat hamburgers and drink Sprite. But at home, we ate beans and rice and a dish my dad invented called Complementary Pie. It was a casserole that consisted of beans, rice, cheese, and onions. The top was covered with wheat germ. My friends thought my house and food were weird. I envied the Jell-o and Pop Tarts their parents bought them. Their walls were different, too. They had paintings and carvings of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe on their walls. Despite these differences, I didn’t know we were poor. Everyone else was poor, too.

We moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1991 when I was ten. It was the first time we had lived in a town and it was the first time I understood that some people had more money than others. Las Vegas had 15,000 people and felt enormous. It did not resemble Las Vegas, Nevada in any way. The town was comprised of old Victorian houses, adobe houses, and trailer parks. My mom, who had her midwifery license by then, got a job working for a local obstetrician-gynecologist. My dad got a job at the Plaza Hotel — an old hotel that was rumored to have ghosts and a tie to Billy the Kid. Suddenly, we were not as poor as we’d been.

We moved into a two-story Victorian brick house with splintering wood floors and walls with plaster coming off in chunks. To us, it was a palace. We had two floors and our own rooms. There was a secret door to a hiding place in the upstairs bathroom. The public library, with its selection of books from the 1960s, was only two blocks away. My dad taped a sheet over the worst of the crumbling walls in my room and helped me paint it a dark purple. I covered the walls with old wooden street signs. We still ate beans and rice mostly. But Dairy Queen was just down the street. When we got to go after dinner sometimes, I ordered Peanut Buster Parfaits and ate them in tiny bites from the long, red spoon. Most of the friends I made seemed to come from families just like mine. In fifth grade though, I had a friend with a pool. When people whispered about it on the playground, they said she was the only one with a pool in town. I still don’t know if that is true. She lived just one block down from Walgreens and Blockbuster and sometimes I got to go to her house. She never came to mine.

Las Vegas raised me. I played kickball until after dark at Carnegie Park. I took art classes in the summer at the Immaculate Conception Church School. I acted in productions of The Hobbit and Brave New World with college students at the local university and got chased by security guards when I climbed on top of university buildings with my friends. My friends’ parents talked of a bowling alley that had been in the old Safeway building when they were teens. It was hard to imagine. We piled into cars on weekend nights and cruised around the Plaza and then headed out past the hot springs to the dirt lot by the skating pond. We parked and gossiped and shouted out the windows at each other and then drove back, circling the Plaza again, and again, like the moths that circled the dim street lamps.

Later, pregnant with my first child at 21, I waitressed at Estella’s Cafe where everyone went to get the most flavorful salsa, homemade chips, and chiles rellenos. I’d been hired only because I could understand Spanish. In my first trimester, the smells of menudo made me queasy but I still carried the bowls, thick with green chile, to the abuelitos who were among our most loyal regulars. And although I had kept my husband’s abuse secret, my friends were still there when I emerged from my marriage and began the hard work of healing. After my divorce, Las Vegas was also where I came out after confiding in the handful of other gay women in town. One woman was my doctor and another had taught me creative writing in high school, and later, speech in college. These women had known me since childhood and sat at my tiled kitchen table while I recounted dreams, spoke of desires and fears, and fed them coffee cake and tea.

I lived in several houses in Las Vegas as an adult, but my favorite was the house I lived in with my kids after my divorce. Alex was four and Talia was one when we moved into the mint-green adobe by the railroad tracks. It had a big kitchen, a big living room with a woodstove, and lots of light. A reporter for the local newspaper had been born in the kitchen. I shared the carport with a family of swallows that nested on the light. They dive-bombed me every time I parked, but I couldn’t bear to dislodge their nest. The large rooms inside the house allowed us space to spread out and breathe. I put a play-set in the backyard and a friend gave me her trampoline. The kids would wave and wave as the Amtrak train rolled past, once at noon and again at four.

Another single mom lived next door in a Habitat house. I didn’t know my neighbors on the other side, but their front yard was littered with needles and they kept three pit bulls on chains. The dogs were sweet, but neglected. We petted them and gave them food through the fence when our neighbors weren’t looking. Like many towns in New Mexico, crack was prevalent, and later, meth. And like many small, northern New Mexico towns, the services in Las Vegas were not sufficient to meet the need. But it wasn’t the lack of services in Las Vegas that fueled outsiders’ opinions of it.

“Aren’t you afraid to live there?” people in Santa Fe would ask. Santa Fe was just an hour away. “Aren’t there gangs there?” It was always white people asking in low voices, almost conspiratorial. Most people in Las Vegas identify as Hispanic, but since I am white they were certain I would understand the question.

I didn’t like what their questions implied. Simply, the answers were “no” and “yes” and I said as much. Everyone in my town got the same questions when they visited other places in New Mexico, but even within Las Vegas, some people called my neighborhood a “bad” one. The houses were in greater disrepair. There were more abandoned buildings with gaping holes in the roofs. Pigeons converged on porches. Once, a man on my block was shot by his brother and for a week I parked by the carwash a block away and ducked under the yellow caution tape to get to my house.

Still, I was never afraid. Las Vegas was my home. The tiny health food store was six blocks away and so was the equally tiny farmers market. The Plaza and my favorite coffee shop were a mile away and I walked there regularly. And the hiking trails in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a short drive from town, offered cool streams, woodpeckers, and wild raspberries. Best of all, I had community. My friends and family were available for dinner, childcare, group camping trips, emergencies, and parties. We had tamaladas, and anti-Valentine’s Day parties. A small group of friends and I had a monthly lesbian wine gathering at one of the few restaurants in town that took reservations. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. It was stifling at times, but mostly I felt known and seen. How could I be afraid to be where I belonged?

I understood the dynamics of poverty in Las Vegas — although I rarely called it poverty. Everyone did their best to scrape by. There was no shame in food stamps or Medicaid — almost everyone relied on them. Half of my group of friends consisted of other single moms. But as in any place, people tried to get ahead. I had friends who were judged for living in trailer parks but drove new SUVs and wore clothes from Bealls or Popular Dry Goods. I paid attention to these choices. I learned that presenting myself in a particular way could help me get the job I needed.

When I landed my first full-time job in Las Vegas, I wore the nicest shoes I had, a beat-up pair of black leather Oxfords. On my way to the interview, the sides of one shoe came unglued, exposing my toes. I tucked the material back in place and pressed my toes hard onto the edge of leather to keep it there. I hoped the women interviewing me wouldn’t notice. I had learned that appearing poor could work against me. It felt more possible to rise out of poverty if you acted as if you already had.

After five years, my job was eliminated due to budget cuts. The options were scant in Las Vegas, and most jobs in Santa Fe required a graduate degree, which I did not possess. I applied to the University of Montana, with little understanding of how to apply or what to expect from graduate school. Miraculously, I got in. When I moved to Missoula, I filled out over twenty housing applications at various property management companies. I quickly discovered that a single parent going to school was not the ideal applicant. To make it worse, I had two cats. I arrived at each rental showing to discover ten other people there already. We crammed into tiny apartments and walked single file down narrow hallways. Most of the houses were dingy, with peeling linoleum floors and old brown and yellow appliances. The current tenants watched us parade through their houses in silence. I wondered why they were leaving. I wondered if they too felt that $900 was too much to pay for a house in disrepair with no light. I called the property companies daily.

“Sorry,” they told me. “There were more qualified applicants.”

Or they’d say, “Your credit isn’t good enough.”

I kept looking. I found one old brick house on the Northside of Missoula, just across from the Skyview trailer park. The neighborhood reminded me of Las Vegas. Unlike many of the other houses I’d looked at, it had wood floors in the main rooms.

“Sorry,” the company said. “No cats.”

Later, new neighbors told me I’d dodged a bullet.

“You don’t want to live on the Northside,” they said. “The school isn’t good.”

I said nothing. My stomach smoldered with shame and rage. The comments were code for “That’s where the poor people live.” The comments told me I wasn’t one of “them.” I struggled to say, “Yes, I am one of them.” I struggled to tell them I belonged on the Northside. It felt more like home than the neighborhood I’d landed in. Despite living in a tiny duplex, most of the homes in my neighborhood were expansive, with large windows, double or triple car garages, and thick ,neatly trimmed lawns. This is how America looked in movies — I hadn’t known there were real neighborhoods that looked like this. I was soon informed that I’d more than “dodged a bullet;” I’d landed in one of the “best” elementary school zones. “Best,” I learned, meant wealth. “Best” meant two-parent homes. “Best” meant moms who could afford to stay home and volunteer for the PTA and school play and bring homemade granola bars and strawberries to the classroom. “Best” meant I didn’t belong. I was a queer single parent feeding my kids beans and letting them watch “Frozen” on repeat for hours so I could grade papers and complete my own assignments.

Our tiny, two-bedroom duplex stuck out in our neighborhood. It was carpeted, dark, and had fake wood paneling on one wall. The stove in the kitchen only had one setting — high. The bathroom was postage stamp-sized. Even so, it cost $925 a month without utilities. Although I’d received funding for my graduate program at the university, I had to take out student loans to cover our costs of living. My kids’ friends’ parents were generally polite when they brought their kids over. The apartment was so small that we had struggled to find a good place to put the litter boxes and no matter how often I cleaned them, the house smelled like litter and cat pee. One day, Talia invited her friend Kate over to work on a school project. When Kate arrived with her mom, I invited them both in. Kate’s mom craned her neck to peer inside. It was little and dark and smelly. She clutched Kate’s shoulders, drawing her back from the doorstep a little.

“No thank you,” she said. She stood fixed to my doorstep. Stalling for time. Maybe trying to figure out if she could reasonably make a run for it. I smiled broadly.

“I’m so glad Kate could come over!” I sounded a little too enthusiastic. “I know their project is due in a couple days!” I kept grinning.

Kate’s mom hesitated. “Have fun, Kate,” she said. “I’ll be back in an hour!”

The next day, the girls finished their project at Kate’s house. It was Kate’s mom’s idea. It was raining and my car was in the shop, so I walked Talia the four blocks to Kate’s house. Having come to Missoula from New Mexico, we had no umbrella but we relished the feeling of raindrops on our skin. We were soaked by the time we got there. It was one of the giant houses in the neighborhood with a beautifully carved wooden door. Kate’s mom, upon seeing me and Talia drenched, gave me a forced smile.

“Come in!” she said to Talia, ushering her inside with a sweep of her arm that indicated I was not included in the invitation.

I walked home in the rain knowing Kate would never be allowed over again. I was right. Talia was never invited to Kate’s house again, either. I was happy enough to not have to encounter Kate’s mom, but I felt sad for Talia.

We lived for three years with old brown carpet, a lack of light, and the perpetual smell of litter boxes. As the kids grew, our space seemed to shrink exponentially. In the duplex, none of us had privacy or space to spread out. Still, I had no intention of moving. Everything else in Missoula was far out of my price range. As it was, the duplex was more than I felt I could comfortably afford.

My priorities changed one day when the kids and I witnessed our neighbor being assaulted. We saw her boyfriend punch her across the face ten feet from our open door. It was the middle of the day. After that, Alex called me every day to pick them up from school. They had stomachaches and headaches and couldn’t focus in school. I began having nightmares. One day, our neighbor’s boyfriend walked up to me in the driveway. The next week he knocked at my door. He knew I’d called the police and he wanted to put me on notice. When the shooting happened at Pulse, in Orlando, I dreamed that he entered our house in the middle of the night. He had a gun and I tried to shield my kids with my body. He shot all three of us. As a survivor of domestic violence, I was living in a perpetual state of trauma. Alex, four at the time of my divorce, was suffering, too.

I began looking for other housing. My boss at a nonprofit said her mother had a rental. I took the kids to look at it and as we walked from room to room they could barely contain their joy. It had two floors! Plus a basement, so didn’t that count as three stories?! They could have their own rooms! We were right next to a park! When I learned what the rent was, I gulped. I did the math over and over in my head. It was $350 more a month than the duplex. It was, apparently, a great deal for the area of town it was in — the university district. Could I do it? I could add another job. It was worth it, right? I jumped, hoping it would all work out. Hoping that with graduate school behind me I would soon find steady, full-time employment.

It’s been over three years now, and we are still in this house. I have not found full-time employment. Instead, I piece together an income, juggling four or five jobs at a time. My combined income still falls well below the area median for a family of three. We are all on Medicaid. Without food stamps, and without Medicaid, there’s no way we would be able to afford rent for this house. I’m not certain I’d be able to afford any house in Missoula without these safety nets. Most people seem to have two incomes to rely on. And young people without families often have several roommates. It’s the only way to get by in a town where jobs pay far below the cost of living.

As is typical of many families in the U.S. right now, I do the math in my head all the time. I check my bank account daily. I don’t have a budget for family vacations beyond a couple of camping trips a year. We eat out a few times a year. We buy used clothing. We don’t have TV. We subsist largely on beans and rice. Thankfully, I have no credit card debt. I bought a used Saab last year when my 1983 Camry died with the entirety of my 2017 tax return, so I have no car payments either. But my student loan debt is over $80,000 and climbs every year. Like so many people, my family is one accident or emergency away from homelessness. Because of this, I can’t seem to shake the guilt I feel at spending so much of my income on rent. A voice in my head whispers: you could start paying off your student loans. You could save money for the kids’ college. You could go on a nice family vacation. And even in writing out the details of all the things I don’t spend money on I recognize a mix of self-righteousness and defensiveness: See how good I am?

A month ago, Alex texted me a few hours after dark. They were at their new friend’s house for a birthday sleepover and they needed me to bring them a sleeping bag and their favorite navy blue hoodie. Items in hand, I drove two miles west, to the neighborhoods near the alternative high school where Alex recently transferred. It was hard to see the addresses in the dark. I parked and aimed my phone’s flashlight at houses, hoping I wouldn’t disturb anyone. Finally, I saw it, a basement apartment in a four-plex. I descended concrete stairs littered with cigarette butts to the front door and knocked. Alex’s friend, Robin, came to the door and I saw Alex seated cross legged on the floor with ten other 16-year-olds in the tiny, carpeted living room. They were playing Cards Against Humanity. Robin smiled and Alex leaped up to take the items I’d brought. Robin’s dad emerged from a back room and navigated his way through the knees and cards to shake my hand.

Standing there on Robin’s doorstep making small talk as the group of teens all looked on, I was acutely aware of what I was wearing: a button-up shirt and blazer, skinny jeans, ankle boots, and dangly shiny earrings. I felt simultaneously too visible, and invisible. This house was where I came from. This is the kind of house my family belonged in. But I felt overdressed and disguised. I wanted Robin’s dad to see that I was like him. I felt like I was passing as something I was not. As a queer woman, I’ve often passed as straight, so I’m familiar with the feeling of not being seen. But this was different. I come out weekly as a way of claiming space in the queer community. In disguising myself as middle class, I was doing the opposite — I was hiding myself from the community I belong to. How could I “come out” as poor? I didn’t know, but I felt like a traitor.

A week after Alex’s sleepover with their friends, I suggest that they invite one of their new friends over. It’s late afternoon and the trees outside the kitchen window look like fireworks caught in mid-explosion. A tree across the street is crimson, and bright yellow and orange trees line the streets. Stripes of sunlight are stacked across the kitchen table. The table’s legs wobble. It was a thrift store find fifteen years ago and I have to flip it over every so often to tighten the screws. At my suggestion, Alex’s face falls and they slump in their chair.

“I can’t invite friends over,” they say.

“Why not?”

Alex hesitates and looks at my face as though searching for a clue that might help them decide whether to answer. “Well… I know we don’t have money, but my friends might think we’re rich if I bring them here.”

Until last year, the only furniture in the living room was a futon couch I’d owned for fifteen years and a recliner with exposed wood at the base where the cats had scratched all the upholstery off. On the outside, my house looked like a fairytale cottage, with an arched entrance on one side. Afraid of guests’ surprise at seeing what was on the inside, I’d refrained from inviting people over. I recall the way Kate’s mom had recoiled when we lived in the duplex. How our poverty showed. Now we looked like we might have money. No matter what house we lived in, it felt like we were trying on affluent neighborhoods as if we could be transformed. But it feels less like transformation and more like a costume that doesn’t quite fit.

“Maybe it’s OK,” I finally say to Alex. “They can think what they want.”

I realize it’s easier said than done. Alex and Talia are having to navigate class differences in ways I never had to in my own childhood. For the most part, my friends and classmates came from homes much like mine. The people I knew of who had money were largely white and from places like California and Texas. They bypassed Las Vegas, opting to settle in the wealthy neighborhoods of Santa Fe. Wealth and whiteness were intertwined in my mind.

Moving to Missoula, Montana, put my family in the biggest city we’ve lived in so far. It also put us in a majority white community for the first time. I was raised in a place that viewed white people as gentrifiers, and people who hogged resources. I know that there are plenty of white people living in poverty. I am one. But moving to a town that is 89.4 percent white and has a lot of resources has brought me face to face with my discomfort with wealth. It has brought me face to face with the ways already possessing wealth is the only key for the door to the American Dream. I associate living in a big house in a coveted neighborhood as joining people I have long criticized. Worst of all, I blend in.

In the past few years I’ve come close several times to getting the kind of full-time job that would have launched me into the lower middle class. After interviews that went well, I’d daydream about vacations we could take. Savings I could start. College loan debt I could pay off. I’ve become so skilled at making my income stretch to cover everything that I’ve fantasized about how much I could save if I put my magic to work on a real, livable income. But I haven’t landed those jobs.

I am wrestling with two flavors of shame. The shame of passing as a particular version of success, and the shame of not being able to save for college for my kids. I’m not the poverty of my childhood, and I’m not middle class.

In one of my favorite photos of the Snack Shack, I’m seated on the one bed we shared. A brown woven rug hangs behind me on the wall, and a line of pant legs dangle from the ceiling where they are hanging from a make-shift clothesline out of the frame. A scraggly potted succulent is wedged between the bed and a small dresser. In the foreground, the edge of our table and one chair are just visible. I’m dressed in forest green footed pajamas and my eyes are shut as I laugh with full bodied glee. My open mouth reveals baby teeth. I do not romanticize poverty, or wish to struggle the way my parents did in those days, but when I look at this picture, I see where I come from. Most importantly, I see me. I don’t want class mobility — or the illusion of class mobility — to leave me lodged in a liminal place of non-belonging.

My kids will likely never know Snack Shack poverty. I’m mostly glad they have more opportunities. Ultimately, like any parent, I want to be able to make the best decisions I can for my kids. But I worry that in passing I am trading belonging for opportunity that might never come. Some days I’m not sure I made the right choice.

This story was supported by Community Change.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Emily Withnall

Written by

I teach and write in Missoula, Montana. I am working on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Find more of my writing at emilywithnall.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Emily Withnall

Written by

I teach and write in Missoula, Montana. I am working on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Find more of my writing at emilywithnall.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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