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The Upside of the Downside

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I’m not sure, really. I’ll admit to possessing plenty of homegrown neuroses around money that I nursed for years in depressed and depressing upstate New York, and which I managed to preserve more or less intact through college and graduate school and then eventually packed up and carted to the city along with my books and cats and milk crates full of southern-fried rock albums. But there’s something else that’s been going on, too. Something that has to do, I think, with the low-level but persistent psychic effect of living in a place that is so in thrall to money, so dominated by the monoculture of luxury that even if you’re not on the front lines, working for a hedge fund or whatever, the values encroach on your life.

Kate and I have three daughters and we rent a decent-to-crappy apartment in the south end of Park Slope. We moved out to this neighborhood in the mid-nineties, and while the decision was largely one of financial necessity, we also did it because it felt like an alternative not just to Manhattan prices but to a Manhattan state of mind. It seemed like the kind of place where if you had more or less reasonable expectations of how to live, even if you didn’t have a ton of money, those expectations would be met.

I’m amazed at how poor we feel in relation to our surroundings. When did we move to Beverly Hills?

And for a while, they were. Our combined income when we arrived here was about $45,000, and yet we didn’t sit around our table at night wondering, when the time came, which of the cats we would eat first. We bought our falafel from Mr. Falafel and our pasta from Russo’s and our meat from a pork store around the corner on Fifth Avenue and our bread from the little bakery at the end of our block, Lopez Bakery, which was open 24 hours and where, in addition to delicious and cheap bread and rolls, Señora Lopez would sell these tamales on Fridays for a dollar apiece that were so good Kate and I would bring them home and sit on our living-room floor eating them like wild animals.

Things were good, is what I’m trying to say, and not just because we liked to eat so much. They were good in that way that the uncomplicated cheap life lived in the midst of a thriving city is good. We went to free concerts in the park and we found a couple of warm bars that we liked and occasionally we splurged on a play in the city or gorged ourselves at New York Noodletown and then headed back across the Brooklyn Bridge. After our first daughter was born, I’d often walk with her late at night through our neighborhood, trying to get her to fall asleep. I’d look into the windows of other people’s homes and see what there was to see, who was arguing and who was making out and who was sitting in their underwear bathed in the glow of their TV. I occasionally felt something approaching giddiness during those walks. No doubt, I was out of my mind with sleep deprivation and drunk on being a parent for the first time, but there was something else, too, that had to do with the place itself, the nice racial and economic mix that existed on block after block, this connection I felt to my neighbors.

What I’m mostly struck by now is how much poorer we feel in relation to our surroundings than we did then, though we make about five times as much money. We have another baby, and when I walk with her at night, I still feel the wonders of parenthood, sure, but I don’t experience nearly the same connection to the people around me. The neighborhood now seems like a colonial outgrowth of Manhattan money culture, and I tend to feel envious and critical and, if I’m really being honest, even fairly hostile toward many of my neighbors. (And then, of course, I’m soon full of self-loathing for comparing my life—my things, really—with theirs, and for thinking I’m anything but absurdly lucky and comfortable.)

Kate came home after picking our daughter up from a classmate’s house recently and said, “Do you realize that almost every one of Addie’s friends owns a house or apartment that costs more than a million dollars? When did we move to Beverly Hills?” These aren’t classmates at St. Ann’s, either; they’re classmates at dinky little P.S. 107. The next evening, she said, “I do this thing now where I’ll go into a coffee shop and order two coffees and two cookies, for me and Hazel [our babysitter], and an Orangina or something for one of the girls, and I’ll hand over a $20 bill and not even expect change. How weird is that? I think of money like we’re rich. We’re still not rich, right?”


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