Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Price of Living the Good Life

To help along my Generation X mindset research, I asked my sister, "What was different when we were kids that doesn't occur now?" One thing that surprised me through the '90s and continues into the '00s is the steadily rising standard of living among my tribe--that being middle-class WASP folk living in the suburbs. I heard it once called "affluenza," which one book describes as "a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

Maybe it's because my sister, mother, and I grew up relatively poor for much of the late '70s and early '80s that we're more sensitive to such things. My sister told me a few years ago that she "couldn't look rich people in the eye," as if she was somehow subservient or ashamed of who she was. I laughed at her (perhaps cruelly), and said, "Sweetie, have you looked at your house lately? You are among the rich!" Three bedrooms, 3,000-odd square feet? That's a big 'un!

Anyhow, either by choice or circumstance, I've lived below my potential standard of living by concentrating my expenditures on books, beer, and travel. My one foray in property owning lasted nine months, after which I found a dream job in Huntsville and sold the place at a loss. The place seemed a bit extravagant for me: a condo with enough room for a bedroom, living room, dining room, and office. Now I'm back to a one-bedroom hovel as I pay off my debts from the condo loss, car, and student loans. 2009 is looking better, good enough that I can contemplate a trip to Europe without freaking out.

But I don't have a lot of "toys" or consumer debt. In this I might be an exception. No stereo, no big-screen TV, no video games, and (perhaps as a saving grace) no interest in any of the above. I make a weekly visit to Barnes & Noble. Occasionally I go out for lunch or dinner. My forced fast from adult beverages has reduced those expenses, which is just as well. I like living in a dive apartment in the middle of an affluent neighborhood, mind you. Nice place to walk around. But I don't have a lot of material demands.

Which finally brings me to my subscription to Wine Spectator, a semi-weekly magazine dedicated to discussing and rating fine wines from around the world. I picked up WS in an effort to blend in with the highfalutin' set inside the Beltway. If I couldn't afford the lifestyle, I could at least learn to speak the lingo. It didn't help, of course. My middle-class palette preferred flavors that came with a price tag below $25 a bottle. Some of the high-powered vinos had flavors that I can vaguely describe as peat bog and horse apples. I did visit the local snooty wine shop once a week to try stuff for free and futilely educate my palette, though more often than not I ended up buying a single bottle of something under $15 or a six-pack of beer. As an extravagance one Christmas, I brought in a coupon for 10% off a case. I dutifully presented the coupon to the clerk, who knew me, and warned her I was off to shop. Knowing my buying habits, she said, "You do realize that this coupon is for a case, right?" Her tone indicated that she thought I couldn't afford it, which almost caused me to turn around and give her the finger on the way out the door. (And people wonder why I left DC so gleefully.)

Anyhow, the latest issue of Wine Spectator rates the 2005 Bordeaux, which apparently are the best vintage to hit the shelves since 2000. One handy tool the Spectator offers is a tear-out shopping guide that summarizes its best picks for that issue. The "Bordeaux Report" features wines rated from 95 to 100 points, which makes sense: why read a magazine that's rating Night Train or MD 20/20? The kicker is, these wines start at $75 a bottle and quickly slide up the scale to $2,000 a bottle for a Chateau Ausone St. Emillion! Who the hell has the money for this? What in God's name do you do with a $2,000 bottle of wine? What's a suitable occasion? What do you eat with it?

Okay, my remedially educated palette can appreciate the difference between, say, a $35 bottle of Mulderbosch Cabernet and a $7.99 bottle of Concha y Toro Cabernet/Merlot blend, but my current budget horizons and middle-class prejudices balk at a bottle wine rising to such heights. But then I have friends who refuse to drink any wine with a retail value higher than $10 or with a temperature warmer than 65 degrees. In their world, I'm a wine snob. In the world of wine snobs, I'm a piker, a peasant. It does stop the tongue to consider that there are folks out there willing and able to shell out two grand for 750 mL of fermented grape juice.

Do I even want to aspire to such riches? Sure, I guess. But if I'm so careless as to part with my money in such a way, what else would I be careless about? It's the Great Gatsby attitude, of course. In that book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's protagonist took a couple of rich snobs to task for being "careless with people." It's an attitude born to someone who has never had a maid or a driver or valet. In some ways, I guess, I understand my sister's attitude about not being willing to look "rich people" in the eye. The service industry (which, as I learned from years of working in it, is slowly devolving into a servant industry) slowly beats subservience into you and can leave you with a distaste for serving your fellow human beings. The American democrat (lower-case "d") in me has a mental block about treating someone better than I'd treat myself just because they have more money than I do. That is the nature of the hospitality business, and I understand, believe me. That's why I don't work in hotels anymore. It's not for everyone. It drove me nuts after awhile. It's also why I don't abuse service-industry staff. Been there, done that, hated it. They're still people, dammit, and they don't deserve to be treated as if they were invisible just because I'm paying for the service they provide.

Does this mean I'm ready to upend the whole system and overthrow The Man? Hardly. My home country has become richer, and me along with it. I've gone from service provider to service consumer. All these attitudes have probably warped me a tad. I'm a soft touch when it comes to tipping service industry personnel. I don't date above my station. (Back in college, I once told a female friend that I felt uncomfortable in her parents' home because I wasn't used to hanging around rich people.) I nearly flipped when I went to a party at a friend of a friend and they had an honest-to-Deus housekeeper on staff to clean up after the party. The rules of my tribe are not laws of nature, as Shakespeare noted well, but dammit, my tribe has had a certain kind of rough justice to it.

What happens when I get free of my major debts and I'm able to afford some of these finer things that give me such pause now? Well, if I am as good as my word, I'll at least increase the amount of money I spend on charitable works. And for gosh sakes, I hope I never forget what it's like to be the guy taking the tip.

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