‘The Edge Becomes Obscure’: Shawn Micallef on Acting Middle Class and The Trouble with Brunch

Photo: Toa Heftiba

The photo on the cover of The Trouble with Brunch — a slim white man in a button-down shirt, elbows on the table, digging into a stack of pancakes — is so forgettable it’s almost invisible, which is exactly the point. Which eggs benedict was that? Did you find out about this place on a Top 10 list from Eater? Or was it Grub Street, Serious Eats, the Village Voice, or some other place? Can you even taste the house-cured pork belly under all that hollandaise? In this narrow book, Toronto-based writer Shawn Micallef asks why creative-class urbanites are so obsessed with a meal that’s just like so many other meals in so many other big cities in the West. Who is brunch for? Is it a relaxing weekend ritual or an elaborate class performance? Over the phone, he suggested that it might be both, and that the best meal is one that doesn’t require you to sit down for at all.

You write in The Trouble with Brunch about class background and perceived class background and the way class and status change with employment. So I have two questions: how do you define the term “class background,” and could you talk a little bit about yours?

That’s the hardest thing to talk about, because the definition is so fluid, it means different things to different people. I just really wanted to write a book about class, and that’s where my own personal background came out, because it was the only way I could start talking about something which is so much a sensibility. I wanted to talk about how I perceived class growing up — or sort of didn’t perceive it, because I didn’t think about it — in Windsor [Ontario], and then here [in Toronto]. Often when people think about class they think about money — that’s maybe the easiest way, because you can say oh, you’re in this box, say $20,000–60,000, you must be middle class. Or actually you’d have to be higher than that — you can’t be middle-class on $20,000 a year.

The more middle-class you get, the more actual dollar amount seems less of a powerful motivator. Money becomes a little more intangible when you’re more comfortable, whereas I think working-class people know the value of everything (those jokes about the president or whoever knows how much a gallon of milk costs). Working-class people certainly do. The higher up you get, people pay less attention to that sort of thing. People just sort of feel it, which makes writing about it difficult, but also fun to explore. Growing up, like so many other people in Canada and the United States, I just kind of assumed I was a middle-class person.

Monetarily I probably was, because both of my parents worked in large, union-based companies. My dad worked in a distillery in Windsor that makes Canadian Club, and so the wages were really high, but it’s that sensibility part that I kind of took for granted and never really analyzed. I realized, when I moved to Toronto, which is a much bigger city, really cosmopolitan, and there’s a much bigger class spectrum here — you know, super-rich people and a lot of people way down the income ladder. I started bumping into people here in Toronto who I found out were actual middle-class people. They made even less money than my parents did, but their approach to life and culture — things like subscribing to the opera or the symphony — were not things that we put a lot of value on, to be members of this cultural institution. Private school and that sort of thing, were never part of my life, or anyone’s life in Windsor that i knew, in that industrial town.

I noticed about two years ago, after 14 years of living in Toronto, that I’ve kind of become a middle-class person in sensibility, and so the book kind of charts that transition. And even now, after writing this stupid thing, it’s still hard to talk about. I mean, I’ve been rambling for, like, five minutes, and I can’t come to a concise, easy definition of it, and I think that’s why we don’t talk about it so much. We hardly talk about class. We avoid it because it’s uncomfortable, and we don’t have the words, the language for it.

You describe trying to pass as middle class in Toronto, after growing up working-class in Windsor — using Wikipedia to learn on the fly about things you were supposed to know already. Can you talk a little bit about that process of passing?

There’s some people who would reject that [work of trying to fit in] and say that’s all bullshit. I’m not gonna. Those of us who are a little more socially aspirational — and I don’t think I’m overly so, but you know — I wanted to fit into whatever scene I was in, and when people made references to stuff, instead of being an intelligent person, an honest person, and saying, “Oh, you know, I’ve never heard of that, what is that?” I would quietly fake it by trying to get myself up to speed on those cultural markers that other people value, that I didn’t know anything about: a conductor of the opera here in Toronto — people would refer to him as if he were the mayor. It helps if you find you like the stuff, and then it’s easier. So it’s not like living a fake life, but it’s like oh, I’ve got to start paying attention to this stuff a little bit more. And I like where the forks go. I was not raised as a heathen. I mean, we had place settings, but I noticed, when I was at more formal dinners, I didn’t precisely know the rules.

You also talked about real estate as a cover for our curiosity about class, that it’s a little easier to talk about. I was wondering if you could describe what your living situation is like these days.

My living situation is all right. I have a very nice, mid-century modern apartment, in an older — 1959 — mid-rise in downtown Toronto. And it has a lot of space. I’m in it now, I’m looking out the windows, it has a wall of glass. It’s not a massive apartment, it’s normal-sized. They built apartments really nicely then. I am a renter, and one day maybe I will buy something, though if I keep being a writer I don’t know about that. But I am a very happy renter. A lot of people are not happy renters — there’s still an incredible draw to own something, to own your own place. It’s a very North American thing. Friends who are my age and even younger have this overwhelming urge — it kind of dominates every other part of their social and economic interactions: I must buy a house, I must get my piece of it.

Some friends who have bought houses kind of disappear from your life, because they’ve dumped all their money into the house. They don’t have any money to live the good life in the city that they had when they were renting. Briefly, I — four or five years ago — went condo shopping with a real estate agent, because I had this kind of thought, maybe I should buy something. But the mortgage I could qualify for would get me a tiny box, and I wasn’t willing to go take a hit on quality of life. And the real estate agent, she had a great term for it, she called it “buyer’s shock.” People who rent in a big city like Toronto can rent a bigger space than you could actually buy, and a lot of people get really disappointed when they find out the kind of space they could actually afford purchasing. If it wasn’t for this drive to purchase, they could be very happy renting.

Could you talk about that good city life, and wanting to be engaged in city life and city culture, in relationship to your ambivalence to or distaste for brunch, which is so often held up as part of that good life?

Yeah. The folks who buy houses sometimes become domestic all of a sudden, and I miss them — I kind of grieve for their presence. Before they led very public lives, and that’s what I really love about the city. Living in the city, your living room is the city. When I go to a smaller town, when I go back to my hometown in the suburbs, I get kind of claustrophobic because I can’t just walk out my front door and be in endless public spaces surrounded by other people. But the thing with brunch, it kind of recreates the regrettable parts of home ownership, in that it takes away some of the quality of life because brunch became such a trendy, cool thing — is such a trendy, cool thing — that there is this thing to chase, just like people chase the idea of owning their own home.

When you’re at the it place, the trendy place everyone is talking about, seeing and being seen, it results in scarcity at these places so you end up waiting in line, you end up paying a lot of money, because they can charge a lot of money, because you’ve got all these people who want this commodity. And I’ve found that — this is where the book came from — that doing the kind of trendy brunch in big cities, would be kind of the bond in your weekend, on your Saturday or Sunday, which is kind of the most valuable real estate of the week, when you could be doing so many more things. And the actual brunch, when you’re sitting there talking to your friends or whoever else, is great. But it’s all the rest of it, all the other kind of crap that goes with it — the lineup, the cost, the kind of crummy little tables and all that stuff — that it kind of, I think, eats away at the quality of life that people live in the city for. Because the reason you live here, apart from the economic opportunities, is for all the cultural and social opportunities. And brunch doesn’t seem like the best way to take advantage of it.

What does your employment look like these days, and where do you find stability and instability in it?

It’s been a 15-year effort to get here, and it’s not perfect. I still worry all the time, but I think I’m actually kind of lucky now, and my stability is that I don’t have one job. I do a bunch of different jobs, like I think — if I have identity buckets — I like to put most of my identity in my writer bucket, and that is the the loneliest, sexiest bucket. And so I do writing. But if I were just focused on writing I would be very broke. It’s a hard gig, as you know, I’m sure, to make a living. I worry about my friends who are writers, in this city and elsewhere, who have kind of no tolerance for doing other stuff, who wanted to be writers, and encountered frustration after frustration, even after having regular freelance gigs not making enough money. So I write.

I’ve been able to teach for the last bunch of years at the University of Toronto — I do that for eight months of the year. And then I work on other kinds of projects as they come up. Sometimes they’re totally unsexy editing projects, writing projects, kind of, not exactly corporate stuff but like industry stuff — publications, which pay nice money, but it doesn’t get shared around the internet and that sort of thing. And it feels really safe. If one of those things ends, and one of them may end at any time, I still feel like it wouldn’t totally topple over my economic situation. Whereas friends who, you know, do have one job for one media employer, they seem a lot more precarious than I do. I work deeply in a precarious economy, but I feel kind of spread out into a bunch of different parts, and like that’s the safest way to exist.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Job fragmentation seems so much safer than cohesion or solidity in employment. I’m thinking about how financial stability, or a little bit more financial stability, comes at the expense of things like benefits. Healthcare, or even the ability to really claim unemployment. I’m wondering how you negotiate that.

You miss out on the benefits of old-fashioned, one-employer work, but I think about the friends and colleagues who do have 9-to-5 jobs, and so many of them are on contracts, don’t have benefits, which is a huge problem. Even if you do have a 9-to-5 job, you don’t necessarily have the pension and everything else that’s usually expected of the 9-to-5. So if that’s not there, it’s not like I’m celebrating that they don’t have it, but it makes me feel a little better about picking this path.

I’m still wracked with anxiety about this. It was maybe 10 years ago, not too long ago. I would wake up on Sunday mornings — there’s something about Sunday morning, as you’re kind of restful in bed and you can kind of think a little bit, maybe slightly hung over — I would think about the week and the stuff I have to do. I would have these occasional little crying fits, going What am I doing? This is madness. I don’t have any kind of benefits, I’m kind of careening through life doing different stuff. I like doing it. I’m making some money so that I can pay rent for the next month. And I’d have the little cry, and then Monday morning would kick in and it would be fine and I would keep going, but that anxiety really expressed itself as I was kind of shifting into this multi-faceted career.

And now I think I’m pretty good at it. I make more money than I used to, and it feels like I’m in kind of a stable direction, and I’ve built up a space as an independent worker, a freelance worker a bunch of different ways. And if something did stop it might not be pleasant immediately, but I kind of have faith that some kind of opportunity will come around the corner. Because it has in the past, or I’ve been able to go out and find it. I don’t know where that faith came from; it certainly wasn’t taught to me. I think I just had a really strong desire to do the stuff I really like doing. I did work a stint in a proper 9-to-5 office job when I first moved to Toronto, and I didn’t like it. It was good to have that in my mind, that I wasn’t made for a 9-to-5 necessarily, to kind of motivate me to persevere through the anxiety of the precarious economy negotiations.

That feels really familiar to me. I appreciate that you talk about all this while being really conscious, as you mention in the book, of “how close the edge is.” Brunch, which has leisure and financial ease built into it as an assumption, is something that people in the creative class are supposed to do, regardless of how much they’re factually earning. How could we bring a consciousness of how close the edge is to a practice like brunch?

I think that’s the attraction of middle-classness: the edge, the fishers, the danger is farther away. It’s a secure place to be. That’s why everyone wants to be middle-class. The creative-class, the precarious economy types who are doing the performing of middle-classness, I worry that that edge becomes obscure. And that’s the great benefit of coming from a working-class town like Windsor, and many others like it, is that you’re always conscious of that edge being there, and I always carry that with me. Somebody growing up in Toronto who might have grown up in more middle class surroundings wouldn’t have the same edge radar, if that’s a thing.

What I hope the book does, in a cheeky way — that’s why brunch was a fun thing to play with — is kind of nudge people into thinking about this more, and thinking about where those edges are, and maybe figuring out ways to pull themselves farther away from the edge. The book certainly doesn’t have any answers, and I hope somebody smarter comes up with an idea, but I’ve found — this is kind of the theory, and it pulls from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class — that social cohesion happens around cultural activities, so something like brunch.

The lightbulb went off: brunch doesn’t have to be about brunch, though it can also just be about brunch. But there’s a possibility that things like it, whether that’s ultimate frisbee or knitting circles or whatever thing you’re into — could be, you’re pulled into a socially cohesive unit between people, and you’re already self-organized, and maybe that’s a way to talk about this stuff and see similar struggles in other people who might do completely different work from you — because a lot of creatives’ work is very individualistic — but you’ll see the conditions being kind of similar. That’s a kind of far-out, theoretical hope that I had in writing the book. But just on a practical level, [I wanted] to nudge people into thinking about class more, instead of not talking about it. It can be hard to articulate for a lot of people, but if the bubbles are kind of percolating in the back of someone’s brain, that might be helpful.

You mention that while you’re traveling you really like to visit bars and malls because they’re kind of homogenous — not “authentic,” which you mention — and yet specific to the places that they’re in. And now that I’m thinking about it, those are places with good Wi-Fi, usually. How do you experience airports and train stations and other places that aren’t even pretending to be rooted in one culture, their whole purpose is to be between?

Authenticity doesn’t mean anything. I think in travel especially there’s this search for the authentic experience, and most places that are advanced economies will have a mall, and malls are where most people go. The mall is the most authentic thing, despite the fact that it looks like the malls we have here or there — that kind of pan-globalness. The reason I like those places is accepting that there is a sameness to a lot of the culture around the world.

And that’s not to dismiss the actual pockets that exist everywhere, which I like too, but what I like about the mall is that, in that sameness, where you see a Starbucks or the local version of the Starbucks, or the local version of the Gap, or the Gap — Gap’s everywhere — you can see little differences. Malls and bars — sports bars, gay bars, genre bars — are the same everywhere. There are sort of elements that they all kind of have. And that makes it easier, I think, to isolate interesting, small, local differences. These are really subtle differences, which I like, rather than grand landscape differences, which exist too.

In saying all that, I’m not a person people want to go traveling with, because I want to go to the mall before I go to some cool neighborhood. I mean, I’ll also go to the cool neighborhood. My partner is an urban planner, and likes going to the mall too. We go see the most banal places on our trips.

You describe having brunch in Buenos Aires on a Sunday, when most things are closed, but then going to this brunch which feels really global and international and English-speaking. Could you talk about the relationship between brunch — this secular, global thing — and the city being shut down on Sunday?

Coming from North America, where — Toronto used to shut down, it was a very Protestant city, but now on Sundays it’s like every other city — everything is basically open. The liquor stores still close at six on Sundays, but otherwise Sunday doesn’t look too much different than Tuesday. So being in a big city that totally shut down felt like a bit of a time warp, like we were back in the ‘50s, or the turn of the century or something. Except for there being cars around, it was like this pre-modernity, where commerce didn’t happen on Sunday.

But of course we find this brunch place, because it was in the guidebook. You could see a block away that it had all the tropes of a North American brunch, with the lineup and the well-dressed hipster-type people. I reluctantly went on that walk that day, because the person I was with really wanted to go, and I was like, okay. And I’m so glad I went because it made a chapter in the book. I think many people would call brunch in that part of Buenos Aires — Palermo I think it was, Palermo Soho, which is the hip neighborhood of Buenos Aires — as being the authentic Buenos Aires. But it was as authentic as the Starbucks in Buenos Aires was. It almost matched — the elements matched North American brunches. And that kind of chase for authenticity so often feels like it’s for naught.

Going to the mall can be just as instructive a view into the local culture. And perhaps even a more wide lens, because brunch is still a pretty elite thing to do, whereas the mall, a big mall that has high-end shops and low-end shops, that attracts such a wide swath of the population who are going there, not because it’s trendy but for utility — those can be interesting places to see the local culture around you, because you get such a mix there. Whereas at the brunch place, all the brunchers kind of look like us.

That’s such a weird thing. Something else you mentioned about global brunch culture is this nostalgia for industry, with exposed wood beams and old factory spaces and tall windows and all that. Of course there is manufacturing happening in North America, but not as much as there was. So I’m thinking a lot about nostalgia and profit and when something has been out of the mainstream for long enough that it becomes profitable.

Yeah, it’s like work became cool again. As we go deeper and deeper into the ephemeral, digital age — I don’t own a printer anymore. My printer broke a few years ago, and I decided not to get a new one, and I’ve been able to live without one. I can sign contracts on my iPhone. Connection to the corporal world comes farther and farther apart, which I don’t necessarily worry about, but other people might worry about, and maybe that’s the attraction to the kind of rougher edges of the past, the working people’s table you can actually eat off of, rather than doing work on it, but a connection to that physical labor which is still in our recent enough cultural past that we refer to it as “when things were real, and you could touch things, and people sweated, and when you made something you could hold it up, not just email it away from you and then you’re on to the next thing.” You could actually see the thing.

I think we don’t have the same kind of — there’s probably a really good Marxist interpretation of this — the recognition of holding the object we worked on. Finishing a thing and holding it. Maybe with book writing — you get to hold the book at the end — which is why the appeal of writing an e-book is not as sexy, because you don’t get to hold the e-book the way you do a book-book.

I wonder if in 50 years, when people have an even more distant connection, it would be your great grandparents who work-worked. A lot of people will lose that connection — will there be as much nostalgia for the corporal world then? Factory workers are certainly alienated from the fruits of their labor in the way digital cultural workers are today. You never get the little feel-good trophy of what you did. You might get paid, but you don’t get to hold the thing and say “look at this thing I made!”

Two more, slightly brunchier questions for you: one is, what would a class-conscious meal look like, brunch or otherwise?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. It would probably be terrible, actually. It would have little flags in each dish saying where it came from, who worked on it, how it was shipped, how much the people made — how much the farmer made collecting the eggs from the hens. Or maybe that’s a little bit of a cartoon version of a class-conscious brunch. Is there a way to make a class-conscious lunch enjoyable, or would it just be this heavy, sad lunch where you think about work and precariousness and all that. Maybe there’s a balance somewhere, just not completely forgetting about the work, your own work and the work of others, and how all that work went into this moment of enjoyment that you get to experience. So maybe you can still balance the enjoyment with the sad class consciousness.

Absolutely. So what does a really good meal look like for you?

My favorite meal by far is when I am in London, England or sometimes New York, but London because it’s where this stuff was invented, and walking around and going to Pret a Mangers, which are those little sandwich stores, which are everywhere. London is where they proliferate, and they have these triangular sandwiches, and sometimes these little wraps, but they’re all hand-held, and they’re the best thing for moving around the city. Because I always find that when I’m in a city, traveling, or moving around, sitting around too much makes me antsy, because I’m missing out on the city. I know some people travel for food, and food is why they go, whereas I feel like my motivation is to see the city, and to walk it. These handheld sandwiches are the perfect thing for that, and I wish wish wish they would come to Toronto. I badgered them on Twitter some time, saying “When are you coming, Pret a Manger?” But they don’t come. So thank god for burritos. Burritos are also good, for food on the go. But that’s also my own personal food fetish, because I’m not a food person.

I want food that’s portable, good, and good for you, but food that you can keep moving through the city and eat at the same time. And a non-leaky burrito is as close as we get in Toronto, until we get the triangular sandwiches from London. It just has such a great London thing — like the mythology of the busy city, it’s like a Morrissey song, you know, “Busy, hairdresser on fire, busy city, you’re so busy, running around the city!” People are so busy in the city they can’t sit down for lunch. They have to eat these triangular sandwiches. I’m going to shut up about the triangular sandwiches now, but I love them.

That’s the best, yes. I read this long article about the rigors about happiness training that Pret a Manger employees get put through. You get weirdly good service when you go there.

You get weirdly good service at Starbucks too. So this article about Prets, it’s okay, it didn’t destroy the myth of the place?

No, I just found myself more interested and the big thing that I learned from the piece was that every store every week gets visited by a mystery shopper, and the employees get promoted or rewarded or raises or something if they’re happy enough, if they’re all baseline happy enough.

Baseline happy. That’s great.

It was very weird but also relieving to have it laid out so explicitly, like, this is why people like us. I mean, in addition to the convenience.

In addition to the perfect sandwich.

Made me think. And it caused me to ramble. You’re the first person I talked to today. It’s a downside to the freelance experience, working from home, is the lack of human contact that’s in normal office life. I mean, the first person I talk to will be a barista at 5:00 pm when I finally go out and about. I almost can’t bring out — like the words won’t form yet.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Diana Clarke is a teacher, critic, and editor at In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @dclarkwithane.

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