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When $300,000 a Year Just Isn't Enough. Welcome to Westchester, NY

In culture, women on August 18, 2009 at 7:49 am
The Breakers, built 1892–1895 for Cornelius Va...

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This is what the recession looks like to some Americans in my neck of the woods — an annual income of $300,000 a year deemed insufficient in parts of Westchester, a suburban county north of New York City stretching from the Hudson River, and its small, charming rivertowns to the palatial demesnes of Rye, Mamaroneck and Larchmont facing Long Island Sound. This bizarre but widespread worldview is ruthlessly anatomized by Anne Hull of the Washington Post; (I named her a Jedi Knight of Journalism in a recent J-Day.)

Fascinating, and not the least bit surprising, that she interviewed 36 people for the story — and none would allow the use of their name or identifying details. In the land of the rich, falling even a quarter-rung on that ladder is unconscionable and embarrassing. I moved to Westchester in 1989, into an apartment where I still live, allowing me a birds-eye view of the folkways of the wealthy: their tight-cheeked, whippet-thin ropy-armed wives, their gleaming yachts and Range Rovers and charity balls. Their obsessive and unquestioned assumptions about what one must have and what one must never give up or let slip feel as exotic and unlikely to me as some jungle tribe in loincloths and feathers. I watch how rigidly their rules apply, but remain blessedly free of them. My less-conventional mom, who lived in the uber-wealthy WASP enclave of Bedford as a girl, (now home, allegedly, to Glenn Close, George Soros and Ralph Lauren, among others) fled north to Canada at the first opportunity, marrying my Canadian father to flee it all.

I once suggested to the 28-year-old son of a Westchester friend, someone who had finally graduated from Cornell to the palpable relief of his corporate attorney father and sister, that he consider journalism as a career. He’s bright, curious, loves to write and travel and try new adventures. “Writing? You can’t make a living as a writer!” sputtered someone who overheard my preposterous suggestion. It became clear to me that day just how pitiably, amusingly bohemian my career choice really was to some of these people. In some precincts here, if you’re not making a lot of money, securely married to it and making sure others know you’re doing so, you’re obviously dim or a failure. (Luckily, and thanks to my not making $$$$$$$$, I landed in a lovely town immune to this madness.)

I do attend a church like the one mentioned in Hull’s piece, many of whose members live in enormous mansions. A former minsiter once told, me, with a sigh, “They treat me like an employee.” Why was I surprised?

This story is worth a read, if only as a piece of cultural anthropology in our worst recession in decades.

  1. So you basically don’t like rich people who live near New York City because you don’t share their values. That’s original.

    • Thanks Caitlin. I appreciate the merit of pointing out and adding op-ed to Ann Hull’s interesting article. I think anyone who’s ever had to really struggle in life, and whose Stuart Smalley-like head is not firmly implanted in rectum, could see that.

    • What “values” are you talking about? The values that would lead someone to have a “recession party,” where people gather to amuse themselves by dresing down in clothes most people can’t afford – and eating down on food most people survive on? Those values?

  2. Well, Mark, thanks for the compliment. Sorry you couldn’t find any more value in it than that.
    I dislike rich people anywhere who are spoiled, entitled and whine when they outearn most of the rest of this country and still can’t have all the goodies they think they deserve. Hardly unique to suburban NYC, but stifling at times nonetheless. In a recession, people moaning about having to reduce the hours of their gardener is worth a mention, if only for a good laugh.

    • You’re welcome, Caitlin. I’m with you all the way. I just HAD to ask Mr. Drapeau what he meant by “values”.

  3. This is not surprising. Once you start on the road of wanting more then you are constantly fighting for more more, and so on and so on. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill” and rightly point out that once basic security needs are met (food, shelter, healthcare), there’s no correlation between subjective happiness and wealth. The rich and the wannabe rich are just as miserable (and as happy) as everyone else. I actually feel bad for previously successful consumers forced to “downsize,” they’re losing what they really valued!

  4. I’ve had plenty of dough in my life and times of much less. If you attach your real “value” in life to your possessions and status, you’re a fool asking for trouble.

  5. I just don’t really see why you care much what someone in Rye, NY or whereever is doing with their gardner’s stipend and their groceries and clothing shopping. Not the best person in the country, but really far from the worst. I worry a lot less about “spoiled, entitled whiners” than I do about rapists, murderers, and other criminals.

    Hey, if you want to write articles picking on divorced moms working full time with three kids, be my guest. I think there are many, many, many, many bigger “problems” around to discuss than that.

    • Well Ms Kelly, I think you offended a native of the tribe, or an aspiring tribesman.

      Jeez, so if it isn’t a big “problem,” it’s not worth writing about? As a middle-class writer, I find the whining of the rich quite fascinating.

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