Tickets to privilege
A few weeks ago, I got two traffic tickets in one night. Though embarrassing at first (no amount of sleep deprivation gives you an excuse for backing into police cars, which I did), my evening of two successive encounters with the Clayton Police Department has become a good story, and it comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen me operate a car—the fact of the matter is, I am a terrible, terrible driver.
Though the incident has become funny, I still found myself waiting for two hours at the City of Clayton Municipal Court to pay my tickets last night, nervous about the two assignments I had to turn in today. When my name was finally called, the judge informed me that I would be getting four points on my license, and that I could reduce the number to two if I took 20 hours of driving school.
I thought realistically about the next six weeks of my life—Thanksgiving, incessant paper-writing, cramming for finals, Christmas and then a semester abroad—and immediately shook my head. “No time,” I said, “I’m sorry.” The judge raised her eyebrows. “Your insurance will go up, you know.”
I nodded—my parents, I was sure, would understand that I don’t have time for traffic school—and walked over to pay my ticket. As I handed the clerk a credit card, I glanced over at the woman next to me. Clad in the nylon jacket of a low-wage security guard, she was telling the judge, her eyes downcast, that she needed a little more time to be able to pay her ticket—that she was working, but supporting a family, and couldn’t apply for any more loans.
A security guard at a parking garage makes $10 an hour at most, and at a salary of $400 a week, it’s no wonder that this woman couldn’t afford to pay $100 for a traffic ticket. I looked around the room again and realized that almost everyone in the courtroom—in Clayton, easily the wealthiest part of St. Louis—looked similarly destitute. When you have to live off minimum wage, it’s hard to justify paying an extra $200 to get your ticket “fixed,” and you go to your court date.
Describing people as “destitute” implies that I can mark someone’s appearance as a signal of a certain socioeconomic class, and this is perhaps what jolted me about my experience in the courtroom last night. At Wash. U., we live in a world that looks, for all practical purposes, very different from the socioeconomic world around us. We take classes where we learn what poverty looks like in America; we discuss structuring tax policy based on the writings of modern political theorists; we subject welfare programs to cost-benefit analyses. But we do this all under the protective umbrella of an institution that costs $45,000 a year and requires a measure of outside support to attend.
What hit me the most about what happened last night was that seeing that woman struggle to pay her ticket shouldn’t have been strange to me. In high school, I had a series of low-wage jobs, from bagging groceries to waiting tables, and my co-workers were often living evidence of the experiences that accompany American poverty. But I, like almost everyone here, have parents who—though perturbed at my abysmal driving—would bail me out if and when I needed to swipe away my ticket, and it made me realize something. In this environment, we get so used to our shared sets of comforts that we often forget that small privileges, like an extra $100 for a traffic ticket, are not universal.
When I returned to campus, I bought coffee at the library in preparation for a long night of studying, and the girl in front of me in the Whispers line snapped at the woman serving her cappuccino for calling her order loudly after the girl didn’t hear her the first two times. This would have troubled me ordinarily, but as it stood, I was infuriated. No one who stands for hours making coffee deserves to be snapped at.
We need to recognize the miniscule scale of our struggles here—for grades or “leadership” or “success” or whatever—and face the fact that these worries are small compared to those of a single mother supporting a family on $400 a week. And we need to recognize that people who face these struggles are the ones serving our coffee or our dinner, taking out our garbage or planting our much-lauded tulips. We may live in a bubble, but we need to recognize—and seek—a real awareness of the world outside of it.
Kate is a junior in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.