Perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps it’s my mother’s nosiness, but when I eat at restaurants, I can’t help but observe the diners sitting around me.
On a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, for the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, my husband and I ate dinner at a local vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Merge.
There was nothing pretentious about the place. It was decorated like someone’s living room, with plenty of live house plants, odds and ends with character (nothing so new as to be shiny or squeaky), and festive lights. Even the tables and chairs were charmingly mismatched.
And the food, oh my goddess, the food. I had a beet salad and shrimp risotto. I love beets. But I had no idea beets could be so delicious. They were served on top of a bed of mixed greens, with fennel, candied walnuts, and a vinaigrette. I will definitely try to recreate that at home.
This isn’t a post about good food, though. It’s a post about class. (Not that the two aren’t intimately related, but that’s another post.)
A family—father, mother, grandfather, three kids—sat at the table behind us. I didn’t notice them until I heard the father say, “We’ve got theater tickets for 7:30, so we need to be quick about this.”
It was 6:30. Something about his tone, demanding and so self-assured there wasn’t space for doubt, got my hackles up. I looked over. They were all appropriately dressed for a show, with slacks and dress shirts and sweaters.
Over the course of their meal, I watched this family interact with each other. They chatted about school and the menu, and the father repeatedly exercised his fatherly authority over his children. I hardly heard a peep from the mother. And it was this—the constant insistence of “I’m your father, and I’m in charge”—as much as the impression of easy money that had me gritting my teeth.
But I did get an impression that they had enough money that the didn’t have to worry about their finances beyond whether their retirement investments were simply doing well or outperforming the market by 10 percentage points.
Of course, that’s where my own biases come in. I grew up directly across the street from a steel mill. We never had to worry about enough food, but we had to worry about union strikes and debt, about growing gang violence in our town, about my dad being called up from the reserves to fight in Iraq, about the car breaking down (again).
Things were secure, but they weren’t that secure. I remember sitting in my parents’ bedroom while my dad packed his Navy duffel bag, and the air was so tense with anxiety and excitement I didn’t know how to feel.
Thankfully, my dad didn’t wind up going to Iraq. And I know no family, no childhood, no life, is perfect. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having enough of it can surely make you miserable. Even as a (mostly happy) child, I was acutely aware of this fact.
The kids sitting at that table in Merge? I’d bet they had no idea. In a way, that’s good. Kids should have the freedom to be kids without worrying about their next meal. But in other ways, it’s not so good. It creates a false sense of security, a sense that everything will work out for you no matter what, a sense that you have some power and control over your life, or the expectation that your parents will always fix your problems for you.
A bit of stress and worry is good for you. It creates resilience. Without it, sometimes you start thinking you’re better than the people who have to worry about the next meal, or, in this case, that you’re better than the people serving you the next meal.
I don’t really know anything about that family. Dad could have been having a bad day, or they could have planned to be at the restaurant at 5:30 and gotten held up by something out of their control.
Ultimately, that’s irrelevant. My point is that class is a huge issue, even divorced from the issue of race. The media and politicians reinforce the ideas that the rich have somehow earned the right to be rich and the working class and the poor should just try harder if they want to get ahead.
And clueless upper middle class people help perpetuate the problem by ignoring what’s going on around them and breezing through life and climbing the corporate ladder and sending their kids to excellent, expensive colleges as if all these things were a given.
For most of the population in the United States, none of those things are a given.
If someone gave me a large sum of money and told me they had the power to send me back in time so that I could grow up in a 100% financially secure household where my parents worked because otherwise they’d be bored and not because they needed the money, I’d say, “No thanks.”
I’m grateful for the uncertainty I experienced growing up. Yes, I’m also grateful that the uncertainty didn’t extend so far as to affect my ability to eat, but I am glad that I learned early on that nothing is a given, and getting what you want requires a lot of hard work and dedication—and that achievement for the sake of achievement or for impressing other people isn’t valuable.
Basic kindness is what’s truly valuable in our interactions with each other. I can’t solve class issues in America, but I can be kind to everyone I meet, regardless of what they look like, how much money they make, or what they believe (unless they believe in genocide or denying basic human rights, in which case I might not be kind, but I’m not going to be mean, either, because that doesn’t solve any problems)*.
And yes, that extends even to the family of yuppies who inspired this post.
*This is, obviously, a work in progress.