Jeannette Walls opens her memoir of her childhood with a scene of herself as an adult taking a cab to a party in New York City. During her cab ride she sees her mother picking through a Dumpster. Mom analyzes various items she finds, and smiles when something strikes her fancy. After watching for a few moments, Jeannette directs the driver to take her back to her apartment.
Jeannette's husband is at work, so she is alone in the apartment. She sits down and feels guilty about her mother's life, especially as she looks around her comfortable home. After contemplating her parents' homeless lifestyle for a few moments, she decides to call Mom's friend to leave her mother a message. A few days later, Jeannette talks to her Mom on the phone and they decide to meet for lunch at Mom's favorite Chinese restaurant.
During lunch, Jeannette asks Mom if there's anything she can do to help. Mom is instantly shocked and disapproving of Jeannette's attempt at charity. Jeannette admits that she is ashamed of her parents. Mom suggests shame is foolish and a learned behavior, and instructs her daughter to just be honest about her parents' lifestyle.
The first section of Jeannette Walls' memoir establishes the theme of class differences and introduces two key characters, her parents Rose Mary and Rex Walls. First, in the opening scene in which the author spots her mother digging through a Dumpster, the class distinctions between them are immediately apparent. Jeannette is sitting in a taxi, worrying about being overdressed for a party; outside the cab, Mom wears ragged clothes while digging through trash. Thus, this scene introduces the quandary Jeannette finds herself in when she skips the party and goes home: She has wealth and social privilege, which her mother does not, and Jeannette must come to terms with this disparity.
Mom, when they meet for lunch, discusses the issue of their class difference openly: When Jeannette admits she is ashamed about how her parents live, her mother dismisses that feeling as one of the "confused" values that belong to the middle and upper classes of society. Mom's discussion of class difference reveals how she sees their situations very differently: She and her daughter have made choices about how to live, and both of them should accept the other's choice. Thus, through Jeannette and Mom's meeting, Walls foreshadows the story she is about to tell — about her parents' lives; her childhood; the repercussions of growing away from the lifestyle in which she grew up; and her attempt to reconcile with the differences between herself and her parents.
Finally, through this opening section, Mom's character is revealed through her actions and dialogue: She is an independent, quirky individual with little concern for social norms. For example, while Mom is digging through the trash, Jeannette notes that her mother takes joy in the task, her face lighting up when she finds something she likes. Mom is not afraid to speak her mind in her discussion with her daughter; and, by advising Jeannette to accept her parents' lifestyle, Mom shows that she is aware of her own circumstances and accepts them — even if it means a difficult life living on the streets.