Friday, January 10, 2014

"Don't ever call me a have-not."


So among the things I learned in college is that there is, in fact, an us and a them. I am speaking specifically of the us/them of the moneyed and the non-moneyed.

Growing up, I thought that rich people just ... had more money than my family did. I had rich cousins (oil company); we happily took their hand-me-downs, which since they came from Neiman-Marcus usually and in great quantity, were awesome, and swam in their pool all summer long. There was the "Smith" family, whose daughter was in my class and whom I was pretty tight with, off and on, throughout school; they owned a few dozen fast-food restaurants, and therefore had a huge property north of town with what I now recognize as stupid new-money Texas kind of gewgaws on it like semi-exotic animals (ostriches, emus, a kangaroo), a video game room with full-size game parlor stand-up consoles (I remember Galaga, Q-Bert and a Ms. Pac-Man, but there were at least 8 in there),  fugly gold-plated fixtures in all the bathrooms, etc. This family is responsible for a lot of my Rich Knowledge, e.g. how to ski (they took five of us girls to New Mexico on a private jet in fifth grade, and paid for ski rentals and a week of private lessons) and what the inside of Dallas' Petroleum Club looks like.

But until college -- specifically, Columbia, an Ivy which is in the middle of New York Fucking City -- I didn't really get that there were entire WORLDS of money and family and privilege that I would never ever be a part of. I recall this one party, about two weeks into freshman year, at which things became crystal clear. My friend Tom and I decided to go to a "frat" party at this coed place -- St. Someonescock, I think, which was open to new membership -- for the free booze (rumored to be champagne). Tom is a middle-class Korean-American kid from suburban New Jersey; I am a scholarship hick from Hickburg. We dress up -- him in whatever he wore to, like, bar mitzvahs and such, me in a party dress of some sort from Dillards -- and hit the scene. It's slightly off-campus, like two blocks over, near the river, and once we find it, there is in fact Champagne (real stuff, Franch), which we drink some of, quickly, before someone detects a disturbance in the Force and comes to take it out of our rough, common hands. We never even had to speak the words aloud -- we both just somehow came to know that these were not our people, nor were we theirs. These kids -- Christ, they looked like adults, and had these beautiful well-made understated clothes on, with perfect imperfect hair, and the loveliest teeth and shoes -- they had great manners, they welcomed us warmly, they invited us to look around, asked us what we were studying and where we'd gone to school and so forth, and I can't speak for Tom's internal process, but I was inwardly panicking and feeling like a giant, giant asshole, ever larger, hicky-er and poorer by the moment. You can't say "Cowburg High School, in Cowburg, Texass" in response to "Where did you go to school?" when it comes out of that kind of person's mouth, you know? It was in those moments, that shattering half-hour, that I began to understand what lay behind a question like that, and why someone would ask it, and how an event like this, which was technically "open" because they wanted to maintain good standing with the college, was in reality as closed a circle as ever there could be in human interaction. It was deeply weird and unnerving -- not shaming, I've never been all that shame-able in terms of, like, one's story of origin -- but a real wowzer of an eye-opener, the type we experience maybe a handful of times in life.

If it happened today -- and various loops of my personal social Venn diagrammatics could put me in a place like that again, theoretically -- I'd be fine with it. I understand that our worlds are different, and that's all right, which I think is a great boon of my age and experience. So, long way of saying: Being 40 is not a bad thing.

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Blogger francine said...

i'm relating to so many parts of this right now! just counted up in my head and out of my 4 main college boyfriends, 2 went to famous primo of the primos boarding school, one went to a "lesser" boarding school and the last went to a private school you could board at but he just went to the day school. soooooo many things to which i could not relate. and what i learned is that even if i win the power ball allowing me to cover tuition, i am never sending my kids to boarding school.

11:35 AM  

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