3 weeks in the new town/rich people scare me
Well, three weeks ago I moved north to live at the other end of town from Divinity School (which shall remain nameless in order to protect its dignity). Internet connection just became vaguely reliable on Friday. On the same day, I had just pulled out of my driveway and turned onto the street when a van came speeding toward me. The
douchebag was going so fast that he forced me onto the side of the road. The vent I put in my landlady’s van door is covered by my insurance. The passenger side mirror now dangling from a cord along the side of my car is not. The cumpustule in question was going too fast for a plate number. I’ve tried to be positive. I’ve tried to be ministerial. I’ve tried exercises like “maybe he was speeding to the hospital for a death bed emergency,” or “Maybe he was an illegal immigrant working for one of these rich flots and terrified of deportation.” Well, the hospital is in the opposite direction from where this spawn of an HR rep’s disease-raddled rectum was coming from and the injustices of our immigration crisis aside, I have to pay for the damage he did to my car.
Now this is my excuse for a segue but in actuality a rant that leads to my point. I’m already feeling a bit out of place here. My workout clothes are ragged tee-shirts and wrinkled cropped pants. I don’t wear any jewelry. My car was already not a gleaming, daily waxed luxury SUV or Lexus; now it would look shabby in the small town I moved from in rural CT/RI. I’ve seen children walking around in outfits that would pay for my entire winter wardrobe. An old friend of mine lives down the street (which is really great; first time I’ve lived in the same neighborhood as a friend since College). She’s lived in the area since the pregentrification days. Recently, as her father was dying, neighbors called to report her to town officials for 1) not mowing her lawn sufficiently, 2)building a wheelchair accessible ramp to her house for her dying father and 3) the broken back window which must be a sign of rats. This is the area I live in now: where my fairly boring car suddenly looks like an exile from northern Maine, where longtime community members get harassed and where people spend more on their dogs than I do on rent.
So thus Sunday I began the process of finding a UU church I can attend that isn’t too insane a distance away, one I like, one where nobody seems too interested in burning me at the stake or making me join choir (worse than the stake). As I scrolled through church websites I realized I kept saying to myself “Oh this one’s gonna be too rich” or “too many rich people.”
Now here’s the thing. Unitarian Universalists are not always wealthy. And they are amazing. They will give you the shirt off their back, even if it’s
expensive all-natural cruelty-free cotton, the sheets from their organically lavender-watered wash, half the contents of their CSA farmer’s market box of produce or a ride in their Prius. But I’m coming to realize that even if I can’t afford any of the stuff I just alluded to, and haven’t been able to since I was a dependant on people who could, a lot of us can. A lot of us are middle class. A lot of us are comfortable middle class. And in MA, a lot of us attend service in beautiful picturesque historic churches.
So where am I in all this? I’ve lived below the middle class line of financial well-being for more than ten years. I’ve worked jobs with terrible hourly wages; in all my employment history the one yearly salary I had was as a History TA at Northern Grad Program–and as it was in the humanities, where bio-chem TA’s made 18,000 a year I made 9,000. And yet both my parents are on the upper end of the middle class. I have cousins who are out and out rich. If I really ever found myself on the curb with the cat there are people who would help me. So does this make me a member of the 99%, does it justify my chariness toward the wealthy (and my frustration with them) or does it make me a hypocrite? I only have an incomplete answer to that now, which is: Considering that I would lose all independence if I had to throw myself on a relative’s mercy, and presumably have the same potential serious obstacles between me and proper health care, education or job training then I believe I am free of hypocrisy in identifying with the 99%.
But it’s more than the question of justifying my personal identity as wealthy or impoverished. I don’t know how to talk to wealthy people (who aren’t my cousins). I don’t know how to relate to a world where everyone goes to private school, where it’s considered nothing worse than unfortunate that a tee shirt costs forty dollars, where the only debate in buying a hybrid car or an energy star dryer is what color it should be, and where home and lawn are kept, cleaned, maintained, decorated and landscaped exquisitely by a small army of staff. Some of this is simply because I do not live in that world, so like any foreign country would be, there is a culture divide. Some of my confusion or, fine, fear, comes from the experiences I’ve had where frequently, wealthy and upper middle class people have made my working environment hell, tormented people I respect and destroyed institutions I’ve valued and respected all my life. I feel as though their money and connections and my lack thereof give me and those I care for in the same boat very little protection against the vagaries and depredations of people advancing egos and careers through power and financial clout.
Of course, if I want to be a minister I have to ask myself if I believe its important to maintain and grow my empathy toward everyone. And I do. So am I suggesting that the wealthy or comfortable don’t deserve spiritual community, compassion or service? After all, I was verbally and emotionally abused in a middle class home and school district, or by white-collar parents for a good twenty years, give or take. After all, my sister has faced her own demons living in an even more affluent environment. Further, ironically, as I’ve debated this I’ve also been watching a small horde of Masterpiece Theatre DVD’s, films based on works by Dickens and Trollope primarily. And what I find so wonderful about their books, so poignant is that their characters come from every walk of life and none of them are free from the ravages of injustice or misery. Emily Trevalion is just as much a prisoner or just as powerless as a TB ridden crossing sweeper when her husband maligns and abuses her and finally takes her child away–with all the protection of Victorian Error law. Wegg the impoverished ballad singer is just as mendacious and cruel as Mr. Murdstone.
So I don’t have a quick-pat answer for this but I suspect I’ve found one of the set opinions I have that will need to evolve over the next several years.