Friday, April 11, 2014

Relative riches

"[Paul assumed I had had a drycleaner] ... I tell Paul that when I was working with the homeless I didn't have anyone I would refer to as 'my drycleaner'--in fact, I don't think I ever had anything drycleaned at all. ... I don't think I bought any clothes from anywhere but a secondhand store until I was thirty. Most of my friends worked with the homeless, and no one I knew had a drycleaner. Paul grew up in a very different world than I did--his grandfather was John Huston's agent--and he looked at me oddly for a long minute when I told him this.
How'd you get your clothes clean? he finally asked."
--Nick Flynn, The Reenactments

This passage made me think about the assumptions we make about living, and standards of living, and what we think of as rich and poor. To some people, you're rich if you have your own pair of shoes. To others, you're not rich unless you have multiple dwellings and vehicles and investments. I think we all have our own definitions, but rarely compare notes with one another. At some point, I became aware of my own assumptions about what's rich and what's poor, and realized that they were not universal but personal definitions.

My grandparents worked in food service, auto repair, and a print shop. My father made the transition to office work, and then to management. I grew up as a middle-class American, at a time when middle-class families were just beginning to be able to have more than one car, bathroom, and TV set (the TV being the only electronic gadget most such families owned then, other than probably a stereo). We never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from, but luxuries were rare: planned and saved for. Growing up, I assumed a person was rich if he or she hired someone to clean the house or take care of the lawn; had anything that could be called "investments," a "trust," or an "inheritance;" owned a vacation home; or attended a private school. And then there were little details, such as ordering room service, which I thought was the most luxurious thing ever. You saw people do it on TV all the time, but I was never allowed to do it when my family stayed at a hotel. (I got most of my ideas about how rich people lived from TV, books, and movies.)

Since forming these impressions, biases, and assumptions, I've learned a little more about the world, and about how wide the extremes can be between the highest and lowest standards of living. I share my childhood ideas of wealth here not because they're of any use as an objective definition of what's rich--I think they speak more to the opposite point of how relative this can be--but because they probably tell you something about me, my class, and my perceptions, once upon a time. As such, this may be a useful example of what we writers should probably know about our characters. What do you think of as markers of wealth? What do your characters think?


  1. In the apartment where my family lived until I was eight, my brother and I shared the only bedroom, and my parents slept on a fold-out couch in the living room. Then we moved to a two-bedroom apartment. My parents finally had their own bedroom, and the room my brother and I shared had what felt like a luxury: a flimsy wall dividing it in half, with a sliding door between the two halves. To me, any family that had its own house, with an upstairs and downstairs, was wealthy.

    1. Wealthy often seems to be defined as "more than what I have," doesn't it?

      I do remember moving from an apartment to a house, and from a shared room to my own room, as being watershed events.

  2. I grew up in a part of SF that was blanketed by fog and chilly for most of the year, even in the summertime. There might be a rare heat wave day here and there, but for the most part, when I left the house, I was bundled up in a jacket and at least one sweatshirt. As one who loves sunshine and dressing lightly, back then I often envied people who lived in areas where the sun was generous with its light and warmth. I would consider people living in those areas, regardless of their socioeconomic status, privileged in some way.

    1. That's interesting; I never thought of this perspective before.