Tag Archives: socioeconomics

Christmas in New Netherland

On Sunday, I had brunch with a friend at a lovely French restaurant on the Upper East Side, where, to both our surprise, a simple bowl of berries cost $14. Just some chopped strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in a bowl. No fancy sauces or drizzled purees. I don’t even think the berries were organic—for all I know, they could have been doused in DDT before being spooned into a pretty white bowl. We ordered them without asking about the price first (we didn’t have menus at the time), assuming “How expensive can berries be?” and were shell-shocked when the tab arrived.

This isn’t how most of America dines on a Sunday morning. As someone who has crossed socioeconomic classes, I am acutely aware of this. After my fancy eggs with fruit and a Bellini, I read this, which is heartbreaking. Thirty-five dollars prices people out of therapy. And I’m sitting on Lexington Avenue eating overpriced berries.

I live in New Netherland, which this article encapsulates perfectly. After nearly 13 years here, I still haven’t grown used to the affluenza. New Netherland, as journalist Colin Woodard explains it, is “materialistic, with a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.”

half-moon

This feels very true. I can tell you that it really doesn’t matter what your skin color or sexual orientation is here in New Netherland, but holy crap, if you grocery shop at Wal-mart, if you earned your degree from a state school, if you think Olive Garden is Italian dining, if you don’t have an advanced degree or multiple advanced degrees, which are very common, if you’re not in a certain income bracket, then you are the gum on someone’s shoe. A decade ago, my own boss told me that “state school was the equivalent of going to community college.” Our daughter has attended bat mitzvahs that I am quite sure cost more than my wedding. She also rolled her eyes at the kid around the corner from us, telling me “he has a thousand pairs of sneakers.” This kid’s house is worth $1.2 million, and stands maybe 300 steps from ours. Our modest abode is worth half that, looks like a beat-up shoebox, and inside our beat-up shoebox, our daughter keeps two pairs of sneakers, one for basketball and an aging pair of Converse that will likely get donated soon. I can go out and buy a new, fully-outfitted Audi (actually, I can’t afford to, but if I did…), and no one in my neighborhood would think anything of it. At school drop off this morning, I was behind a Mercedes Benz that had a vanity plate advertising that the driver was a dentist. I wouldn’t be surprised if people eye our 2010 CRV and wonder why I haven’t upgraded yet. Regarding upgrades, a neighbor told me about her daughter’s book club where the mothers circled about and compared anniversary wedding band upgrades. I have seen diamond rings here that could blind a pilot.

Oh, and no one here is priced out of therapy. I’ve met folks who actually maintain two therapists because they like to hash out different issues with different shrinks. The psychiatrist down the road from me charges $345 for what’s usually less than an hour.

You get the idea.

Which is why at Christmas, one of my favorite activities besides watching my daughter art-direct Christmas tree decorating is buying gifts for Winter Wishes, a program of New York Cares. I’ve been answering Winter Wishes letters for a decade, and almost all of them have come from the Bronx, one of the poorest regions in America. I read the letters aloud to my daughter, who, somehow, isn’t growing up entitled despite the affluenza swirling about her, and maybe that’s because I make a point to read these letters to her, let her hear others’ perspectives during the holidays. It’s so easy to forget what we have.

I don’t fault New York City for being wired the way it is. It was a colonists’ gold mine from the start, surrounded by water, an ideal commercial hub between the Old World and the New. Making money, keeping money, and spending money have been the way of things here since the Half Moon accidentally glided up the Hudson, and started scouting the possibilities. Henry Hudson didn’t find the Pacific Ocean, as he had hoped, but OMG, the shopping opportunities among all that “virgin” land! The Dutch, with their long history of trade, picked up Hudson’s trail. Fast-forward four centuries, and a massive Westfield World Trade Center, which opened in August, stands where the Twin Towers fell; commerce carries us forward.

I avoid malls. Year-round. And, being a freelance writer who makes very little money, I try to keep my commerce to a minimum, though I did just order tacos on #TacoTuesday, so I do contribute to the economy when and where I can, but not on the grand scale that New Netherland needs to stay afloat. Holiday shopping in New Netherland is a competitive sport, and I am not cut out for it. However, New York City is *gorgeous* in December, and you can minimize the overwhelming commercialism by doing two things: (1) don’t look at the price tags on Christmas trees here; you’ll faint, and (2) just walk around and enjoy the lights. They’re everywhere. Look up. It doesn’t cost anything to admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. And there’s an Olive Garden in Times Square (also more lights), if you’re in the mood for Italian. I won’t judge.

On Privilege and Travel

travel

This year, I had the privilege to travel to some fancy places where people live well. I live well now, but I didn’t grow up with money, and when you cross classes, when you weren’t born into the world you currently live in or the ones you occasionally visit, you feel that gulf more acutely. What people with money or born into money might take for granted is that money permits mobility. And sitting still sucks. Feeling left behind sucks. In high school, I was the only student in my French class who did not go on the bus trip to Quebec City because neither one of my divorced parents could afford to send me. There’s immobility for you—I literally sat at home while my classmates walked around Quebec, took in the sites, and practiced their French with very patient waiters at the city’s mid-level restaurants. In college, and during my twenties, there would be more financial troubles to come, including an expensive yearlong family court battle that would take a long time to dig out from. The household was too much of a mess to consider vacations or even weekend getaways. Travel—and really, experiencing the world in general—was not encouraged.

Which might explain why I couldn’t wait to get out on my own. (And how in a three-year period, we visited Quebec City—twice—and you should, too.)

Fast forward twenty-something years, and between March and May, I had a nine-week stretch where I went to four countries, one with my family and three on my own. This isn’t my norm any year. I visited Zurich, Switzerland; Positano, Italy; Exuma, the Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. I came home wanting more. I am currently reading Elisabeth Eaves’ book “Wanderlust”, and early on, she references Thomas Jefferson warning his nephew that “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.” Jefferson seemed to be suggesting that travel triggers insatiability. After four countries in nine weeks, this feels painfully true. I’d like to say that I am enjoying a relaxing summer surrounded by the comforts of home, which I am, that I’m not in any rush, no planes, trains or buses to catch, but the reality is that on quiet, unstructured days, my mind drifts to where I’ve been and where I haven’t been. Sometimes I wonder if this is old wiring, of growing up in a household I didn’t want to be in, of not being able to afford things, and thinking about what to do and where to go next.

Unlike Ms. Eaves, I didn’t wander the world for years, and I applaud and envy those who do. I traveled in fits and spurts when I had some cash, often thinking “I didn’t yet go here” or “I haven’t yet tried that” but maybe my problem is that I’m still thinking like a 23-year-old. Maybe my 43-year-old self should just chill and say “Hey, look, at least you had the foresight to get up and see as much as possible whenever possible even while being discouraged to do so. Go you!” We need to learn to be kinder to our different selves. I am still learning this. I also need to recognize I won’t get to go everywhere, I won’t get to experience everything, but I have gone to many places and I have experienced many things, and there’s more to come. Did I backpack the world? No. Did I ever live without an address? No. But I’ve crossed socioeconomic classes and crossed oceans, and that’s more mobility than I ever could have predicted back when I was sitting at home, sixteen years old, waiting for my classmates to tell me how much they enjoyed Quebec. My daughter is twelve years old now, and, so far, has been to ten countries on four continents. She goes on class trips without issue. When she’s old enough, the world will be hers to backpack while I sit at home biting my nails, waiting for her emails and postcards. It sounds like such a simple middle class rite of passage, but to me, it will be a tremendous achievement.