SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
It was the summer of 1989, a few weeks prior to my seventeenth birthday, and I was spending the Fourth of July weekend in a small community near Flagstaff that was comprised primarily of vacation homes. I had gone there to visit a friend who was spending the summer working in the community’s country club. My brother and his friend, both of whom were two years older than I was, also drove up for the weekend and gave me a ride. Late in the afternoon on our second day there (Saturday) I went with the two of them to hang out around the country club because my friend had to work for a few hours. The club, which included a golf course, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a teen center, among other things, was swarming with people, mostly families, though many were leaving to prepare for dinner.
While hanging around outside the teen center and playing basketball, we began talking to two girls who had walked down the hill with their dog, a black lab. One of the girls was very pretty and somewhat friendly. The other girl, who had a plain face and was overweight, was quieter and appeared almost angry. I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but for some reason we walked with them and their dog back toward their house up the hill. The girls eventually turned onto a winding street and led us to an especially handsome looking house. By this time dusk had fallen, and I could see lights shining from behind some of the house’s giant glass windows. The house had at least three levels and was perched majestically on the side of a hill, surrounded by equally impressive houses up and down the street.
The girls invited us inside and led us into a living room, from which we could look out the giant windows and see the darkening pine trees. Everything about the house smelled of money, from the chandelier hanging from the ceiling to the abstract art sculpture sitting on the coffee table. Everything seemed to be made out of marble or glass. I remember feeling extremely out of place as I sat there. It was the nicest house I had ever been inside, yet it was merely a vacation home for these people.
After a few minutes of forced conversation with the girls, an older woman in her forties (who was the pretty girl’s mother) wandered into the room carrying a small white dog, which was some kind of toy breed. The woman announced that she and Chauncy (the dog) had been watching television and had not heard us arrive. She gazed at us boys with a look of tired indifference, as though she could hardly muster enough interest to do so, but at the same time it was clear that she was sizing us up. It was obvious by the tone of the woman’s voice that she lived in a different world than we did. She talked in a slow, arrogant, almost moaning kind of manner that indicated a definite “I sit on top of society” attitude.
At the time her tone made me feel uneasy, almost inferior, but looking back it makes me angry that a person could walk around with such arrogance oozing from her. Look at their worn clothes and shoes, I imagined her thinking (we were all decked out in shorts, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, all of which were a bit sweaty and dirty from playing basketball). Definitely not the quality one would expect from a respectable family, although it can be hard to tell these days with all those new skater boys and their ripped pants and ragged shirts.
Small talk ensued for a couple minutes before the woman asked us if our family had a house on this street. My brother’s friend said no and told her what street his family’s house was on, but he did not mention that it was simply a mobile home, like many of the “cabins” in the community.
I’ve never heard of that street. Nobody I know around here has a place there, so I doubt it can be very nice.
The lady then lowered her eyes and said, “You are members of the club, aren’t you?”
For some reason, we all assured her that we were, even though none of us actually was.
I guess it’s possible they really are. Membership at this club is not exclusive and the dues are low, but I’d be shocked if they were members of our club down in the valley.
We stayed for only a few more minutes because, when the woman and Chauncy left the room, the woman told the girls that they needed to get ready to go to dinner down at the club.
I wonder why my daughter even bothered to bring these boys here because she knows I don’t like strange people in the house, especially people like them. I suppose she’s just paying me back for not allowing her to drive the Mercedes into Flagstaff – she knows I hate dirty sofas.
The girls led us back outside and said goodbye. We never saw them again.
This incident, interestingly, took place during the peak of the Savings and Loan Crisis that rocked America in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Although the crisis did not have any major effects on my family, these wealthy people may not have been so lucky. Perhaps the arrogant mother, concerned about her diminishing fortune, was keen to ensure that her family was still recognized as part of the elite class in America, still recognized as “superior” to people like me.
The incident also took place right around the time the Berlin Wall came down, meaning that Capitalism had conquered its last major obstacle and had handed the world over to free market liberalists. The globalization of American business during the Reagan era had already led to a widening gap between the wealthy and the working classes, and this family had possibly ridden high upon that wave of deepening class segregation, which could explain why the mother had no qualms about directly asking us our class status.
I believe this incident has remained in my memory because it was the first time I encountered a person who clearly indicated that if I was not rich, then I was not welcome to interact with her family, at least not as an equal. Coming from a very middle class home, I was not used to witnessing such class prejudice, except perhaps in movies. I did attend a high school that was heavily populated with upper-middle class students so I was already well aware of minor class differences, but I had never felt as looked down upon as I did inside that wealthy woman’s house. The incident definitely opened my eyes and changed my perspective about the way other people in this society, namely rich people, might look at me.
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