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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Friends with money keep the $30 entrees flying

A recent NY Times article by Jennie Yabroff uses a review of the new film "Friends with Money" to discuss the awkward ways that differences of wealth divide friends and acquaintances:
In an early scene the friends are gathered for dinner when Olivia, a former schoolteacher played by Jennifer Aniston, announces that she has started working as a maid. A few moments later Franny, played by Joan Cusack, says she and her husband will be making a $2 million donation to their child's elementary school. When another friend asks why Franny doesn't just give the money to Olivia, everyone laughs uncomfortably and the subject is changed.
When I was about eight, my best friend had parents who struggled with money in a way mine didn't. My parents certainly emphasized thrift (I still can't stand to see anyone leave the refrigerator door open for a single unnecessary second) and I don't think they were able to build up much savings around this time, but they just didn't communicate any anxiety over money. Not so with my friend's parents, who were extremely conscious of money, constantly worried about it, and always quick to point out any tiny excess--I was ridiculed by my friend's father when I slept over once because I used too much toothpaste on my toothbrush.

Looking back, the surprising thing is how close our families' incomes actually were--my friend's parents were lecturers at Harvard with two children, and mine were psychologists with five children paying an enormous mortgage, with no extra support from their own parents or other wealth. But a few thousand dollars per year can mean the difference between constant budgeting and a relaxed but careful attitude towards money.

(Is this a good time to mention that I have made exactly $1500 so far this year? It's May right now. I guess that's a story for another time.)

As the Times article points out, anxiety between friends over money is often not a matter of traditional class differences, but rather that within the middle class, professionals who live and work side by side and share similar cultural backgrounds can have very different incomes:

Perhaps the most fraught social ritual of all when it comes to money and friendship is the settling of a restaurant bill. "I know wealthy people who are extremely troubled by the whole idea of who's going to pay the bill," Mr. Johnson said. "They're terrified for hours before it happens."

He said he has found himself arguing over the check with a dining companion who was not as wealthy. "Sometimes people feel obligated to buy me dinner because they don't want me to think I'm expected to pay for the meal," he said. "I don't really appreciate it. If anything, I think it's unfortunate that people feel that uncertainty."

This topic reminds me of one of my favorite books, George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which has a wikipedia summary, was made into a movie with Helena Bonham-Carter, and whose text you can read in its entirety online. (An aspidistra is a hardy plant related to the rubber tree that Orwell's main character, Gordon, sees as a symbol of quaint middle-class life, and which he alternately loathes and longs for.)

Orwell opens Aspidistra with an adapted version of I Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.
The few times I have been out in New York City with very wealthy friends, I have experienced the sort of grace that money allows, which Orwell finds described in Corinthians; luxury is not merely about getting such nice things, it is about the joy of being able to do something exceptional, to drive in an extraordinary vehicle, to make decisions spontaneously that might have seemed out of reach, to make the impossible possible. When plentiful money is at work it can slip out of sight, making the world into what we fantasize that it can be--a place where wonderful things happen, where there are pleasant coincidences and surprises.

When money is not plentiful, it can rise up and introduce shame at any moment, because so many tiny decisions involve balancing desire with the anticipated need to pay money, the amounts of which are often uncertain. This happens, torturously, throughout Aspidistra:

Gordon and Rosemary had halted in the doorway. The people at the table were already eyeing them with offensive upper-middle-class eyes. Gordon and Rosemary looked tired and dirty, and they knew it. The notion of ordering bread and cheese and beer had almost vanished from their minds. In such a place as this you couldn't possibly say 'Bread and cheese and beer'; 'Lunch' was the only thing you could say. There was nothing for it but 'Lunch' or flight. The waiter was almost openly contemptuous. He had summed them up at a glance as having no money; but also he had divined that it was in their minds to fly and was determined to stop them before they could escape.

'[Sir]?' he demanded, lifting his tray off the table.

Now for it! Say 'Bread and cheese and beer', and damn the consequences! Alas! his courage was gone. 'Lunch' it would have to be. With a seeming-careless gesture he thrust his hand into his pocket. He was feeling his money to make sure that it was still there. Seven and elevenpence left, he knew. The waiter's eye followed the movement; Gordon had a hateful feeling that the man could actually see through the cloth and count the money in his pocket. In a tone as lordly as he could make it, he remarked:

'Can we have some lunch, please?'

Things go badly from there:
The waiter retired and came back with a folded slip on a salver. Gordon opened it. Six and threepence--and he had exactly seven and elevenpence in the world! Of course he had known approximately what the bill must be, and yet it was a shock now that it came. He stood up, felt in his pocket, and took out all his money. The sallow young waiter, his salver on his arm, eyed the handful of money; plainly he divined that it was all Gordon had. Rosemary also had got up and come round the table. She pinched Gordon's elbow; this was a signal that she would like to pay her share. Gordon pretended not to notice. He paid the six and threepence, and, as he turned away, dropped another shilling on to the salver. The waiter balanced it for a moment on his hand, flicked it over, and then slipped it into his waistcoat pocket with the air of covering up something unmentionable.
Gordon and Rosemary later start making out on a secluded hillside, and begin to have sex, but then Rosemary pulls away, and they begin to argue:
'But what else can we do? I can't have a baby, can I?'

'You must take your chance.'

'Oh, Gordon, how impossible you are!'

She lay looking up at him, her face full of distress, too overcome for the moment even to remember that she was naked. His disappointment had turned to anger. There you are, you see! Money again! Even the most secret action of your life you don't escape it; you've still got to spoil everything with filthy cold-blooded precautions for money's sake. Money, money, always money! Even in the bridal bed, the finger of the money-god intruding! In the heights or in the depths, he is there. He walked a pace or two up and down, his hands in his pockets.

All through the first half of the book, Gordon, who is a writer, thinks up various lines for a poem that is slowly coming to him. After the experience of money getting in the way of his having sex with Rosemary, the end of the poem comes to him, and Orwell provides it to the reader in full:
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys
Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trains and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern rooves,

Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.

For if in careless summer days
In groves of Ashtaroth we whored,
Repentant now, when winds blow cold,
We kneel before our rightful lord;

The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again;

Who spies with jealous, watchful care,
Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways,
Who picks our words and cuts our clothes,
And maps the pattern of our days;

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

I love this poem. Orwell, who struggled to write good poems much of his early career and never thought himself any good at it, writes his best poem through the voice of one of his agonized characters, and it's chilling.

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