I’ve been thinking about signifiers of wealth and what they afford us. I’m going to a movie premier with celebrities tonight, for example, and so I put on my good jewelry. None of this jewelry belongs to me in the sense that all of it was given to me – my mother’s moonstone ring, my mother’s David Yurman bracelet, the gold chains and earrings Billy gave me as birthday gifts. I put them on and my limbs sparkle. I hold my hands in my lap on the subway and there are glints of gold.
My family has money and I do not, but growing up I shared it with them. I attended a ballroom dance academy, I think they also call it cotillion, where we wore velvet dresses and learned manners: how to move through a receiving line, how to accept a dance, how to dance (of course). We clomped around doing waltzes, foxtrots, cha-chas. Afterwards we spilled out of the building with our wool coats on and bundled into our parents’ cars, driven home through cold winter nights.
It was an outdated tradition even then – we never attended coming out parties and I’ve since seen waltzes only on tacky television dance competitions and a handful of stuffy weddings. No, the biggest lesson we learned at Mrs. Simpson’s Dance Academy was that class is a construct. You are taught to hold yourself with regard and to see the world as a system of exchanges, to learn to navigate those exchanges – nothing about that comes naturally. You are taught to give with the expectation of receiving, to receive with the expectation that things be given.
I straddle the line now. I sit on the deck of an unimaginably expensive yacht and accept a stranger’s fine wine in my glass, saying please and thank you with every interaction. I’ve been served but also done the serving, in high school and college with ketchup stains on my button-down and a sweaty ponytail. I probably made it weird for the server last night with my too-polite smile and my stiff shoulders. Thanks, sorry, thanks, sorry, is what I was really saying. Sorry for what? I can’t decide if guilt is condescension or a healthy reaction to arbitrary demarcations.
Afterwards we relaxed in a grand sitting room, the yacht bobbing up and down on the water and the Jersey skyline looming and disappearing with each swell. The staff introduced themselves and plopped down on the far couch, all together, all on the same couch. Billy and I shared the other couch, and Megan sat in her own chair. We watched Megan’s pilot episode and she hid her face under her wool scarf, laughing at the corniest scenes. Last night I wrote that they were all friends, Megan and the staff, but now that seems naïve. I keep thinking about her silk tunic and their cotton work shirts. It’s not a sign of worth, only an idiot would think that, but it’s a sign of difference.
The problem with being on unequal footing with people is that you can never really know what’s choice and what’s obligation. Servers are adept, after all, at pretending. I’m not saying that Megan’s not likeable or that they’re not fond of her, but I am saying that lines exist.
But people are people are people – children know this. Children are given books with titles like Everybody Poops to help them understand their bodies and their place in the world. I guess that’s the discomfort – we’re the same, we’re the same, we’re the same. Still, most jobs depend on being nice.