Don’t ask me how I’ve moved from luxury train riding to foreclosure. But I’m mesmerized by these photographs of abandoned houses. The grandiose multi-million dollar marble McMansions with their four car garages, designer kitchens, and swimming pools and the far humbler ‘starter homes’ with their tiny two bedrooms, four closets, and pocket park-sized yards. Whether I’m looking at 10,000 sq feet of space or a mere 2,000, I wonder about the dreams that once filled these empty rooms. How long did these people hold on before letting go? Are they still married? Or divorced? Did they have kids? What did it feel like the last time they left and locked their doors? Was there anguish? Arguing? Did they look back over their shoulders as they drove away? And finally, how exactly or why did these dreams of moving up and/or living even just a little bit larger, backfire?
Is there any dream that isn’t reckless; that doesn’t demand risk and incur some kind of debt? I think of all those primal symbols from the dreams we see in sleep. The theater of the mind, someone once called it. The falling and flying, running, climbing, drowning. It’s strange. To realize that the people, all these the strangers, who loved and lost these homes probably share the same dreams/fears I do. But were they just victims or dupes of the unscrupulous and the greedy? I don’t think so.
Which brings me to that book festival last spring in Austin and my argument with a fellow panelist. He was a somewhat down-at-the-heels, oh so cerebral, leftie and serial talker who had written a collection of very fine, angry essays about the predator class. The 1%. Rich People Things, it was called. Now, I love the man who organized the festival; who liked my book and figured I might have something in common with this other panelist/writer. Alas! Not! Even tho The Craigslist Murders features a protagonist/heroine so enraged at the predator class (some of whom are her clients) that she does them in with a fire poker hidden inside a yoga mat, our idea of rich people things were worlds apart. For him, they included the Constitution, Pac, the Tea Party, even the fucking New York Times. All of which he spoke about at great length. For me, those things included $220,000 custom-made beds, $15,000 Toto toilets, and $100,000 platinum threaded living room curtains. None of which I spoke about at any length. (Because I assumed they spoke for themselves.)
“I don’t think we can blame everything on the 1%,” I said, meekly, at one point.
“Well, I do,” he snorted. “And I’m sure everyone in the audience does, too.”
The audience clapped.
“Nobody forced the 99% into thinking they could have it all,” I replied. “There had to be some complicity, collusion.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he replied disdainfully as the audience applauded again.
“I’m just saying that a lot of people went on spending and spending. Way beyond their means. For years,” I whispered.
“Speak for yourself,” he said, huffily.
“I am,” I stuttered. “That’s precisely what I’m doing.”
“I don’t see the relevance,” he added. And that was it. End of discussion.
What I wanted to explain but failed so miserably at articulating with this turbo charged intellectual was the fact that I had somehow fooled myself into thinking I WAS the 1%. I didn’t fly private or pay $1,000 for stilettos, or hire separate nannies for my children and rent $100,000 cottages in Mustique for Christmas. I had neither the money nor any interest in these predator perks. But we did travel incessantly. Our children were privately educated. We even owned a country home. (Now disowned.) The only difference between me and the 1% was that I never envied or longed for more than I had. Because I always had just enough.
The great British adventuress/writer, Freya Stark, says in her book, Journey’s Echo, that “the summit of civilization is touched by the middle class. It produces civilization because it is constantly trained to come to a conclusion, poised as it is between the depth and the height. It is not rich enough to have everything nor poor enough to have nothing and has to CHOOSE; to choose between travel or a flat in the country, between a new car or a baby. Its life therefore is one long training of judgement and will. And for this reason, when the rich get richer and the poor too poor and fewer people live under the discipline of their decisions, the age of greatness withers…”
Hello! That would me, frittering away (vs saving) my profit sharing pay off on yet another luxury train ride while the age of greatness began to wither. A woman who lived a life surrounded by so many fucking options, she never learned to choose. I mean, why not have the car and the baby? The travel and the country house? Oh. And then there’s this…. The greatest luxury of all. Namely, my reckless decision to write; to spend/invest years propelled by a dream that I don’t regret for a single moment but that I certainly wish had left me less in debt. I’m scrambling now to find a new direction, another professional ‘calling.’ It’s exhausting, sometimes, terrifying. I have nightmares of crashing and burning in airplanes. And I bet the people who owned those foreclosed homes do, too. But despite the debt and the fears, I also know that I am rich in ways the 1% can’t even…. Well, dream of.