There is very little variation in doorman fashion: short sleeves/long sleeves, black pants/gray pants, full-windsor /half-windsor knot for the tie. Always go full windsor. We have our pride.
I was thus surprised when I found myself in a conversation about clothing with one of the other doormen. We were not debating the merits of various shoe polishes. No, no we were debating price. Like narcissistic merchants hell-bent on only interesting you in the price of the clothes we ourselves were wearing, we each approvingly fingered our garments and named prices.
“Three dollars” he said, rubbing his collar affectionately.
“Borrowed it,” I trumped, pointing to my tie.
“10 dollars,” brushing an imaginary dust off his pants.
“6 bucks, ebay”
“shoes on sale”
“Shoes from my brother.”
I won, by virtue of being a borrower, an ebay navigator, and the brother of a similarly-sized individual.
Albert eyed me suspiciously as I prepared for the traditional doorman victory dance (shoes off, tie on the head, hanging two-handed from the door frame, going “woop woop!”)
“But you look rich”, he said, in Spanish. Our conversations tended to drift unexpectedly between Spanish and English depending on a convenient word or a better turn of phrase, our dialogue a little boat erratically tacking about in the linguistic ocean, searching for efficiency and eloquence both.
I stopped, one shoe off. What did he mean, I looked rich? I evaluated myself: white. shaggy haircut, shakily trimmed beard. Bohemian, maybe, but rich?
Of course this was an absurd competition to begin with. According to this New York Times graph, I am in the top fifth for education, but my own income ($14/hr=26,880 a year, pre-tax) puts me on the line between lower middle class, and the “bottom fifth”. With his higher wage, he was firmly in the lower middle class, while from what I knew he was either middle or lower middle class in regards to his education.
Mess around with the graph, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised where you actually land, and that you underestimated your family.
Neither of us, despite our competitively frugal experiences were poor (include my parent’s income, and I’m maybe pushing the limits off the upper middle class, and I bet you fit the same). Neither of us were really poor. I lived comfortably, my groceries were often organic. Albert was headed off on a month-long vacation to his home country in a few weeks. I’ve never gone hungry. We weren’t poor.
What bothered me was that he said, “you talk rich”, but “you look rich” as if my socio-economic class seeped out my pores and ran down my chin and neck like sweat.
The underlying insinuation bothered me because 1) it reminded me of all my unearned privileges that chance of birth that still make me uncomfortable even though I recognize that silliness and 2) it implied a certain amount of frivolity, or wastefulness. To him, I was this trustfund adventurer, seeing how the other half lives for the summer before returning to be one of our tenants. Wealthy, spoiled, spending their money on pointless things. I didn’t like being written that way.
My unearned privilege is something that I have to accept and embrace, to some degree. It would be silly of me to have rejected the benefits of not having to work in order to go to school, coming out of college relatively debt free. There are more constructive ways to deal with privilege.
As for frivolity, I am living as frugally as possible, consciously pulling away from consumerism and didn’t like the insinuation, simple as that.
I took this job because this was the job available and the one that enabled that me to live in NYC. I think a long time ago (at least when I made unpaid internships my college career of choice), I recognized that material wealth was not number one in my book, that helping people was more important. There are number of ways to do it, but for me, I didn’t want to make money first, donate it later. I wanted to be a bit more hands-on.
That doesn’t make me poor.
Most interesting is the knee-jerk reaction, that we were both accusing the other of being rich as if that was a bad thing. Albert and I, we are both well off, of different classes, perhaps, but comfortable relative to both American and global poverty. I think part of it is American culture, which has always been a bit moonstruck with rags-to-riches stories and the pride of the working class. We are not ones to suffer rich ponces.
A really strange encounter, but being uncomfortably in both worlds (ignored by upper middle class tenants, feeling in disguise amongst my working class co-workers) has made me really conscious of socio-economic status. Navigating it can be difficult, and here’s one place where I miss-stepped a bit, and deluded myself with being close to poverty, and confused lower economic status with some liberal ideal of status. Poor=better=moral, something like that. A silly way to look at things, and as I thought about it more honestly, I recognize and embrace my upper class upbringing, life, and and that what makes me uncomfortable with wealth is the associations with consumerism and waste and condescending superiority, not wealth for wealth’s sake.
A huge thank you to Randy for keeping me honest on this…this is what this blog is meant to be about, throwing ideas out there, and being told when it doesn’t hold water and I’ve missed the mark.