High Class Americans

It is not a new phenomenon that middle class people do whatever they can to look like high class folks. It might be said that the goal of most middle class white people is to live in the suburbs, where every house down the street has the same shape, the same number of garage stalls, similar colors and trims, except for the banker’s house, who has a triple-peaked roof, which does stand out from the others because he is, more than most, high class.

These suburban middle class folks can be found anywhere and everywhere. From the suburbs of Denver, CO, to Los Angeles, CA, to Buffalo, NY, to Fargo, ND. The middle class people build spacious homes, which are really only spacious considering the context in which they are building, get mortgaged to the teeth, and resolve to work hard for the rest of their lives. Many of these people are lower middle class people, to begin with, and they really can’t afford these homes. This could be backed up by the out of control home loan crisis, and we could take it in that direction, but that’s getting old already.

The lower middle class homes contain nice people, however, and they usually mean well (whatever that means, anyway). They tend to support George Bush (except for lately, when, in the last couple of years that has proved unpopular), and harbor dreams of being promoted at their jobs, having children, and buying newer, nicer vehicles (and those vehicles are just like the homes, everybody on the block has a similar make and model, each with its “high class” features). These folks aren’t rich but, ostensibly, you could think they are. And that’s exactly what they want.

Myra Stephenson, whose name is not real, but close enough, tells me that she just likes to have nice stuff around. “A nice home is a luxury to come home to,” she says, laughing and patting me on the shoulder. Myra wears a Christmas sweater, with yarn and fabric balls hanging from her chest. It’s festive, I understand, even though it’s January.

“Why don’t I show you around.” I take her up on the offer, and soon we are inside Myra’s home. She’s eager to show me her home, although she has no idea who I am. I only met Myra just a few moments ago, when I happened to knock on her door. I asked her, through the partly opened door, if I could talk to her for a moment about folks living the “good life”, who were prosperous and, by the sheer look of it, teetering on the brink of being high-middle class to actual high class. As if that was the “key to Sesame”, she opened the door with a swoosh of air. A wreath, decked with bells and ribbons, clanged and dinged as it slammed against the door due to the force.

“That there,” she yells from the kitchen, was my father’s old hunting rifle. I look to where she points, and I see, above the couch, a rifle, polished and shining. It looks older than what I would expect her grandfather to be, but I don’t inquire. “It was his daddy’s,” she calls. “Have a seat. Tea will be done in a minute.” A wicker basket, which I had heard a few years ago was the big thing to have, sits underneath the Stephenson’s coffee table. It seems to serve the purpose of holding four round candles, with the faÃ?§ade of marble. Both coffee table and wicker basket I have seen in Target.

“We’re looking to get leather,” she tells me after we are sipping tea. “Do you like tea?” I assure her I do, and ask her if she, indeed, likes tea as well. “Oh, heaven’s yes,” she says. “My favorite drink.” I cannot resist to mention we are drinking Lipton green tea. If you don’t know much about tea, that’s fine, but if you happen to adore tea, you will know Lipton produces one of the skunkiest, least quality teas on the market. But, moving on.

“Do you like the furniture?” she asks. “I guess you couldn’t do your story if we don’t talk about the furniture, right?” And she laughs. She laughs a lot, after everything she says, as if she is tearing down a barrier, or hiding a discomfort. “Betty says we have to get all leather, but my husband, Ron, doesn’t want to do it. I tell him we’d better. I say, ‘Betty’s got leather,’ and he says, ‘So what, that’s good for Betty. I don’t want to be sticky in the summer and cold in the winter.'” Myra throws her eyes at the ceiling. “Can you believe that? I mean, we have climate control,” she practically sings.

“Men just don’t get it,” she tells me after a pause. “Men, just, really don’t get it. Except you. You seem like you get it.” Well, Myra Stephenson has no idea how much I do get it, except I get it in a totally different fashion than she does. “Wanna go downstairs, see our basement?”

The first thing one notices when entering the Stephenson’s basement is the three magazines, Golf Digest, which sit on an end table next to the couch. They are perfectly fanned, Tiger Woods is the magazine most visible. How conditioned are we to what media’s advertising has taught us? I’m realizing, just by the sight of those three, pretentiously placed magazines, that we are Pavlov’s dogs, our mouths watering every single time that bell is even bumped.

I ask Myra if the family is big into golfing. “No,” she says, “not really.” She notices my gaze at the magazines. “Yes, well, not professionally.” We stand silent for a moment. “My son, Greg, goes golfing in the summer. Well, not last summer, maybe two summers ago, we bought him all the equipment, and now he doesn’t use it. Ron says it was a waste of money, but I say, good to have it around. Somebody can always use it.”

My gracious host points to the wall and says, “We’re getting a plasma, put it right up there.” She spreads her arms, including the entire basement. “It’ll be our little movie room. Ron is looking into surround sound.” I ask if the family watches movies much. Myra says, “We plan to.” She feels the need to justify herself, for some reason, because she follows up, “Jennifer, lives down that way,” pointing north, “says they love having a movie room. I says, ‘We’ll do you one better and have a movie basement!'” Myra laughs until she has to wipe the water out of her eyes.

I leave the neighborhood not disconsolate. In fact, I’m kind of comforted after chatting with Myra. For one, the interview–which was as spurious and random as it could ever be, with me closing my eyes (practically), and stopping my little car in front of any house in the neighborhood–went extremely well. Secondly, I made a “high class” friend. And third, I now know just how right Leo Tolstoy was when he said, about 150 years earlier, that the middle class folks, in major Russian towns, built their houses all in the same manner, lined in a row, and filled them with nice things from cheap stores, each with the mindset of creating a “high class” home, and outdoing their neighbor.

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