Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Work (or lack thereof), social strata of New York

First things first: there will be a new issue of Air in the Paragraph Line soon, and I’m looking for contributors. The theme of the next issue will be Work (or lack thereof.) So if you have any fucked up tales of corrupt employers or savage burns you’ve pulled on The Man while at a place of business, send them my way. Click on the link above for more info.

I read Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People yesterday. There were several forces that prevented this from happening earlier; the biggest was that when I started working on an anti-self-help book in the fall of 2001, I decided that this would be the perfect title. I worked on the book for a couple of weeks, then sort of wandered writing-wise, and then this smart-ass writes a book with the same fucking title! So that pissed me off for several years. Then, for some reason, I read half of a blurb on a subway over someone’s shoulder or something, and somehow got the idea that Young was working in the fashion industry. I assumed that his memoir was some sort of Devil Wears Prada thing, and wrote it off. But a few people told me I should read it, and I also found a used copy on Amazon for ONE CENT, plus shipping. And no, the shipping wasn’t $28, it was like $2.

Anyway, I liked the book very much. His writing reminds me of Chuck Klosterman in some ways, although where Chuck might go off on obscure KISS trivia, Young goes off on obscure pseudo-academic history, which had the eyes glazing over. But the other stuff was great, because there’s something that I have in common with him, and it’s not as obvious to most people, which is that we’re both outsiders to New York, and the ludicrosness of the situation in Manhattan that would normally be endured by the fashionistas and aristocrats is something that we both notice, in an Emperor Wears No Clothes sort of way.

You’re probably wondering what the fuck I mean, so I’ll break it down for you. I grew up in an essentially classless environment in Indiana. Yes, there were cliques, and maybe some legitimate racial segregation, but the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor shopped at the same mall. The best golf course in Elkhart in 1987 was only marginally better than playing in a gravel driveway. People didn’t ‘summer’ or spend time in Europe. I don’t know who the richest kid in my graduating class was, but there’s a pretty good chance his or her house had aluminum siding just like mine. I’m not saying that the cruelness of children didn’t create great social divides among us; but I’m saying the income of the rich and the income of the poor was probably close to the amount I currently have in my checking account.

I showed up in New York in 1999, and it was a totally different world. The richest of the poor and the poorest of the rich were set apart by seven or eight digits of salary per year. Something that Young explained was that he came from this strict social class system in England, where you never moved above or below a certain level, based pretty much on who your parents were. And if you were stuck in the middle, why should you work hard to become the next Bill Gates? You never could, so keep slumming. Contrast that with New York, where everyone says there are no social classes, and the poorest guy can become the richest person in the world if he just pulls himself together and gets out there. Americans love to think this country is a meritocracy, and in some ways it is, but in New York, there’s this artifical aristrocracy, and it’s something I never really could digest properly.

A lot of people in New York do stuff not to do stuff, but because they think if they do it, that moves them a little closer to the top. The biggest example I can think of is summering in the Hamptons. The other example is how people don’t actually process movies or books, but usually only memorize that one catch phrase that coincidentally is also the first sentence of the New Yorker’s review. (Cases in point: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – every single person who said they read that book and didn’t said it was “the don’t eat fish on Monday” book, and that has so little to do with the actually the book, it’s stupid. It’s like saying the bible was the “how to build an ark” book. The other example is Bowling for Columbine, where EVERYONE I knew said “oh yeah, that movie’s about how horrible guns are,” even though it was about how horrible the news media is. Same goes for Fast Food Nation and the fact that everyone says the book talks about how horrible McDonald’s was, when it was actually pretty neutral about MCD and spent a lot more time picking at Jack in the Box and the cattle industry.)

There is such a strong groupthink in this city, it’s impossible to deal with. And the reason this makes this faux-meritocracy so hard to deal with is that the upper-upper-class believe both that “anyone can make it to the top,” even though they are probably at the top because of their parents’ money and influence, but they also simultaneously think that because they are at the top, they are there to stay and they can piss on everyone below them. That’s what makes Enrons happen, not Republicans or Democrats; it’s people so out of touch with reality that doing such horrible things seems normal. And that thought pattern trickles down through the tree until you have people in the upper-middle-class that think it’s okay to spend $800 on a purse because Carrie Bradshaw had one.

Toby Young also really had his finger on the dating situation here in New York. He said most women, knowingly or unknowingly, are just looking for the proper attributes that will produce a man that is marriage material, much like how you shop for a new car or hire someone for an office position. In the people that I met here during the fivish years I was single, almost all of them were looking at what I was, not who I was. And that sort of feeds into the above, in that a woman would rather date a bland guy who had a nice summer house than an interesting guy that her coworkers might think isn’t a good long-term investment. I’m just glad I somehow beat the million-in-one odds and found someone who wasn’t like that.

Anyway, book was good. I’ll pick up his next one now, although it just came out, so I’m sure it will cost more than a penny…