After my recent post on the casual cruelty of class hatred, I thought it only fair to counterbalance with an example of a person from the upper classes behaving well. Because, honestly, I have met and loved a lot of really terrific people from the upper classes. It’s not their fault they’re wealthy, after all, that they’ve inherited a family wealth built on the suffering of the lower classes and secured within a framework of oppression and capitalism.
This story is about my friend M, who once patiently allowed me to “teach” him how to play tennis despite the fact that he, uhm, already knew how to play tennis and was, in fact, an excellent tennis player who probably won awards and things like that. Because he was too polite not to embarrass me. He’s a classy guy.
But this story is not about the day we played tennis.
It’s about the summer after I graduated from college, when I was extremely poor. I thought I was going to graduate school, so I quit my crappy service job and packed up my house and spent a lot of time frantically trying to arrange housing. Which fell through, so I couldn’t go to graduate school, but I was still stuck effectively penniless for several months while I looked for a job and then waited for my first paycheque. Dumpster diving went from a way I saved money and found neat things to the way I survived. Good thing I lived near several restaurants with kindly staff and had terrific landlords who let me trade painting for rent. (Seriously, do not paint your rooms in August. It is hot, and sweaty, and if you are a crappy painter like me you will end up infuriated and covered in paint.)
At which point, my friend M came up for the weekend to visit his family and various friends. And he asked me if I wanted to meet at the Coffeehouse, and I admitted that I was too poor to meet him there, but he could come hang out at my house, if he wanted. “That’s ok,” he said, “I’ll take you out, my treat,” and so we went to the Coffeehouse and I ordered a tea or something because I didn’t want to seem like I was taking advantage of his generosity, and we talked for a while about this and that and school and so on and so forth. You know, catching up, as people do.
And then things were wrapping up, so I said it was nice to see him and made to head home, when he said “hang on a sec, there’s somewhere we need to go.”
And thus it was that we ended up at Safeway, where he ended up buying me a lot of food. Staple food, as well. Not food that a rich person might think was appropriate like fresh produce and perishables, but things like potatoes and oil and beans and rice and whole grains. And he did it in a way which made it clear that it would deeply offend him if I didn’t accept, and in a way which didn’t make me feel ashamed or weird. I can’t even quite articulate how he did it, because I am not the kind of person to accept charity, but he somehow bamboozled me into accepting a substantial amount of groceries.
And I ate well until I found a job because of M. Because he took the time to recognize that he had a friend in need, and that he could help, if he approached it in the right way. And while M may have forgotten this incident, I have not, and I have paid it forward several times over to people I know when they needed a little help.
Because that’s what being classy is about, for me. If you can use your class status for good, I think that you have an obligation to do so, whether it’s helping a friend or lending your voice to a cause or doing whatever you can do to make the world a better place. I’m not saying that anyone owes anyone anything, but I’m saying that a small act can have a big consequence. I was beaten down and unhappy and frustrated, and, yes, I would have gotten by if M hadn’t done a kind thing for me, but because of his generosity, I had to struggle a little less.
The ability to recognize that someone needs help and to provide that help without making someone feel awkward about taking a handout? It’s an art form. And I have very rarely encountered people who can do it well. Many of those people, curiously, came from the entrenched Old Money upper classes, the last sorts of people you would expect to have that level of sensitivity and compassion, while some of the worst oppression I have encountered from the upper and upper middle classes has come from new money.
I think that says something about our society. Old Money are secure in their wealth, indeed some appear almost embarrassed by it. New Money, though, need to assert their class status, to remind people that they have worked their way out of the lower classes. And the only way they see to do that is to oppress the lower classes. To remind themselves that they are “better” than someone else.