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.