In Celebration of the Common Riffraff
Updated: Jan 15
Looming from her second-floor balcony, the owner confronted me, twitchy as a highlighted chicken. “You weren’t expecting to come inside, were you?”
I wanted to say, “Why, yes, I’m buying this house and I am coming inside,” but as she stood above me, roosted on her balcony, I said only that I was there for the home inspection. I had arrived a few minutes before the inspector.
“I wasn’t expecting so many people,” the owner said, eyeballing my partner, who was already speed-walking back to our car. “We have valuables inside. The inspector is licensed. If anything went missing, he would be liable.” Her words came out like exclamation points, full of breathless fear.
Lady, I thought, do I look like common riffraff to you?
I made a pointless attempt to smooth my hair, which had grown long and wispy during the pandemic. Gray on top, my hair had lately begun to match the ghostly color of my skin after eight months of self-quarantine amid a global pandemic.
The term “riffraff” sprang from the French phrase “rifle et rafle,” meaning to spoil, strip, or carry off, as sometimes happened on medieval battlefields when thieves plundered loot from dead bodies.
Today, the term is used more casually, encompassing anyone who is on the outside, looking in. “Do you rent or own?” is a frequently asked question at my gated beachfront condo, where a few of my neighbors keep a sharp eye out for any infiltration of modern-day sharecroppers.
I was mentally burping up my sour exchange with the owner – who also pointedly said she had a child inside, as if my partner and I might be child molesters as well as thieves – when my sister called.
Our dad, in hospice for several weeks, had finally let go of life.
Born into the riffraff socioeconomic class of 1928, my father, Garland, was the youngest of twelve children. He remembered being paid to pick cotton, at 13, on a farm owned by another family, growing tobacco in someone else's barn, and the year Georgia Power ran an electrical line into his mother’s small home in Clyattville, Georgia, near the Florida border. There was no father in the picture; my grandmother had kicked him out for bad behavior.
Once the term riffraff entered the English language, its meaning shifted, becoming associated with a dice game called raffler, suggesting anyone who carries off the prize. Imagine Rotary International raffles like the one I used to enter every year, to no avail, because I really wanted that 1965 Mustang convertible.
Dad was named Rotarian of the year once, in Atlanta, many years after he left Clyattville. He relocated from south to north Georgia, after receiving a scholarship. He did a stint with the Army and he coached high school basketball. In 1956, he got his big break at Oglethorpe University, where he took over an unfunded men’s basketball team that had reportedly lost a YMCA game. In 1963, he took his Stormy Petrels to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II tournament. He coached the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team that won a gold medal at the 1963 Pan American Games.
After that, he made off with many more prizes, published five books, earned his doctorate in education, ran a grocery store chain, and served as a state legislator. He shook off the red dust of his mother’s small homestead, but he never quite got over the urge to be something more, to stockpile trophies, to show the world he was no longer paying a percentage of his crops to anyone else.
Fumbling with my phone, I told the owner I would call my real estate agent. “I’m sorry for any confusion,” I said in a feeble voice, moving to join my boyfriend in the car.
Disgusted by my ego and pride, I told myself to get over it. Anyone with black or brown skin risks being treated like riffraff – or police brutality or even murder – on a daily basis. I had only suffered a mild and somewhat comical insult from the owner of my latest real estate investment. My skin felt pricked, my white privilege injured, driving home.
Maybe I had looked sketchy, rolling up to the owner’s house in my vintage Prius with the sea turtle stickers. I had brought my long-time partner, with his ponytail and quirky fashion sense. Perhaps he seemed scary to the owner? She had no way of knowing that Mickey is a top five Hall of Fame online reviewer. My Dad was named to a half-dozen athletic Hall of Fame rosters.
He was cremated, his ashes laid to rest beside my brother. His was a long journey – 92 years. I wish the owners of the world could see how we are all like that skinny boy with bare feet, eating only what he could grow. We are all on the outside, looking in – full of dreams, despair, or some combination. All of us mortal. All of us riffraff.
Ginger Pinholster’s first novel, City in a Forest, focuses on a fictional Atlanta wilderness threatened by eminent-domain seizure. It won a gold award in the 2020 Florida Writers Association Royal Palm Literary Awards competition. Her next novel, Snakes of St. Augustine, will be released in September 2023 by Regal House Publishing. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte M.F.A. program, her essays and short stories have appeared in the Eckerd Review, Northern Virginia Review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She works as a writer for a university in Daytona Beach, Florida and she serves on the Volusia-Flagler Turtle Patrol.