Sunday, June 05, 2005

More on class

I was turned off by the article in the NY Times on religion and class, so I hadn't checked in in a while to read the series. Today's article, though, struck a chord with me. It's also worth reading the companion shorter article on taxes and how they benefit the extremely wealthy.

The article focuses on Nantucket and the increasing divide between the old money people and the new money people. The old money people are not showy about their wealth and live modestly for the wealthy. Their money and prestige derives mainly from their family. The new money folks are showy; they build huge mansions and buy big yachts and planes and wear showy clothes. They "earned" their money by working hard.

If you've ever lived in the South, this whole old money/new money dichotomy is familiar. I remember my mother talking about it when I was very little. And my mother spoke of the new money people with as much disdain as some of the interviewees in the Times article. Ironically, we were new money people.

Now, we weren't nearly as rich as the people in the article. We did not have a home on Nantucket or a plane. But we went on several vacations a year, including trips to Vail and Aspen. My sister and I wore only name-brand, designer clothes (think Calvin Klein and Jordache). My parents drove nice cars--BMW's, Pugeots, Audis--and they could afford to send us to college--any college. We lived in a sizeable house with a sizeable yard.

But there were ways we weren't showy. We didn't live in a huge house, choosing an older neighborhood over the McMansions being built on the other side of town. We never had more cars than drivers and one of our cars was always something like a Buick or a Subaru. My sister and I did not flaunt our designer clothes and none of us wore much jewelry.

Because we lived in a small town without a lot of truly wealthy people, my dad often socialized with some of these people. I clearly remember going to a wine tasting at 18 and sitting at a table with the wealthiest people in town. We were all wearing jeans and plain shirts. You couldn't tell who was a millionaire from who was a construction worker. When we had to play a guessing game by deciding which of the 3 wines in front of us was the most expensive, the wealthiest man at the table and I picked the same one. We felt for sure we were right. We'd picked the cheapest and had a good laugh about it. Separated from their cars and houses, the rich in the town where I grew up were like you and me.

When I moved here, it was quite a shock to find out that the rich really weren't like me and that I no longer qualified to sip wine with them. My education and my own semi-wealthy background wasn't enough. I could see it in the looks I got at the train station and the grocery store. In my Eddie Bauer pants and Lands End shirts, I passed only for the hired help. I wasn't dripping in jewelry or carrying a coach bag or wearing a fur coat. It felt very much like the scene in Great Expectations where Pip realizes that his dirty shoes mark his class and that he is suddenly ashamed.

One of the issues raised by the article is the isolation of both old and new money people. They are isolated from each other and isolated from the rest of society. And this is what I think is most problematic. If you don't have conversations with people who have less money than you, how can you possibly understand what their needs are, how hard it is to make ends meet, how you can't afford to send your kids to private school or move to a better school district, how you hope your children get a scholarship for college, how you can't afford the surgery you really need? I admit to looking at the very rich around here with a little bit of suspicion and yes, anger. I feel they're getting all the breaks and putting the burden on me. I feel that they just don't care about anyone else. I may be wrong, but until they get out there and vote for more equitable tax policy, I'm not going to believe them.