My mother, a European immigrant, didn’t hesitate to answer me when I, a curious eight year old, asked why we weren’t family friends with one of the prominent and very wealthy families at our church.
“They are not of our class,” she’d responded in her native language. “We are educated people. They are grocers,” she’d added with a figurative sniff as we passed their gleaming black Cadillac and headed for our lived-in Chevy sedan. I wasn’t certain at that tender age what was so antipathetic about being a grocer, seeing as we frequented grocery stores on a regular basis to fill the refrigerator in our small apartment where my father constantly pored over textbooks to finish his graduate studies. I was just sorry I wasn’t allowed to set up a play date with their likable children.
My parents continued to surround themselves with fellow doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists, diplomats, and academicians. It was not til I had reached adulthood that they had lost the automatic assumptions of the European class distinctions with which they had been raised and opened their upper middle class social doors to successful “uneducated” businessmen, restauranteurs--and grocers. Finally, they too, like Europe itself, had traded rigid perceptions of social class for the American Dream of wealth über alles.
I had long since given up on my parents, and left them to their world. Mine was filled with men and women of all ages, all types of jobs, and all levels of education. What I sought in my friends was open-mindedness, creativity, compassion, and curiosity. Yet, on some level, the opinions my mother had expressed had had an impact on me—the opposite impact. Even as I rebelled against and rejected the trappings of wealth, I could not pass its gates without experiencing envy, bitterness, and exclusion and isolation. I could not keep myself from pressing my nose against the glass of the “candy store”, and fantasize that one day, I too could afford to enter its door and select my spoils.
Still waiting. Only now, years later, I have no expectations. I was either too ethical, too unlucky, or too untalented to do more than come close to the brass ring during my peak professional years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And now, after Bush and Co have finished off the last of the truffles and bon-bons, there is nothing left in the store that I could comfortably desire. The crowd around me pressing against the glass has grown exponentially in the last thirty years, faces that speak of the ambitions and dreams of an entire world. Even if I had the opportunity, I can no longer even imagine sidling inside the candy store and closing the door, leaving their hungry eyes piercing my conscience from outside.
Never happen. The candy store now has a steel portal and impregnable locks. The glass window is protected by titanium bars. I squint and can see no one in the retail area inside. Is there a sliver of light creeping under the door from the back room beyond? Or are all of us out here alone?
I turn my head from side to side and see businessmen, restauranteurs, and grocers by my side. And doctors, lawyers, professors, and academicians. And my parents, in a manner of speaking. We’re all on the outside now—our class distinctions having evolved from “rigid hierarchies” to “upward mobility” to “haves and have nots”. A very few “haves” and a lot of “have nots”. Those of us fortunate enough to have tasted the American Dream may delude ourselves that the store shelves will soon be restocked and kindly old Uncle Sam will welcome us in and hand out freebies to the children.
Never happen. And the weight of the crowd against our backs is growing.
I don’t really want candy any more, though my appetite still challenges me to walk by the trappings of wealth without a pang of hunger or regret. What I would like to really see before me is…a grocery store. A store filled with goods that promote and sustain life and health, managed by a likable grocer and his family, with candy in a back aisle, one per customer please.
Marx correctly predicted that the global conditions of the 19th century would lead to revolution. That is always a risk when the “untouchables” of a society finally comprehend the power of their fists. But revolution demands kamikaze-like sacrifice and exerts a tidal wave of collateral damage. There are no guarantees of a happy ending.
The alternative is to accept that we have once again become a society of class, to accept that, for most of us, the escalator is only going down. All aboard?