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Class Struggle on Park Avenue


"You walk into ABC Carpet, and some little thing that doesn't even have a name costs $45," she goes on. "You can spend thousands of dollars outfitting your bed. You go in there and think, I can buy a nice pair of sheets, and you realize you're $2,400 short.

"And you go into other people's homes and they have twenty extra pillows, and you feel really depressed. I have a friend who said to me, 'I've already done three Ralph beds.' I'm thinking, 'I have so much catch-up here.' "

Paul Spector, a psychiatrist, says that in the last couple of years he's seen increasing numbers of patients complaining of amorphous aches and pains, feeling older than their chronological age, and faltering sexual potency.

"Somebody can feel quite good about themselves, and all of a sudden what's become their marker of success has changed," he observes, referring to those new young e-millionaires. It's something like the queasy feeling you get reading the annual giving report from your child's school and spotting the name of someone you dismissed as ordinary perched atop the $1 million-plus category while you're lost in the $250-to-$500 group. "There's not necessarily a decrease in lifestyle," says Spector. "There's a decrease in where they are in the hierarchy."

"There's a couple of parents who don't speak to me because we don't have enough money," Ann says flatly. Most of her good friends are people like David and her -- they went to the best prep schools and colleges and managed to preserve their self-esteem, at least until recently, with the help of family money. "The sophisticated rich recognize people who are interesting. But the people who are just rich have no interest in us."

Those jerks are easy enough to identify and snub before they snub you. It's the very rich without blatant spiritual flaws, those who manage their wealth with understated grace and whose kids somehow remain unspoiled even though they haven't flown commercial since Dad's IPO, who cause the real agita. The problem isn't competing, which is obviously out of the question; it's reciprocating.

"We would like to invite the parents of one of our daughter's friends to dinner," Ann confides. After all, the family has invited them several times -- to the Bahamas. "We're not really embarrassed about the apartment. But there are holes in the fabric of the couch. We can't afford to get it reupholstered right now. I'm probably not giving them enough credit."

At least Ann has a thriving psychology practice to distract her from her predicament. Her friend Wendy, a stay-at-home mom who grew up in a rambling Park Avenue apartment but now lives at a less-fashionable address on the fringes of the Upper East Side, appears to be doing somewhat less well. At one point, Wendy even started creating conspiracy theories about her daughter's class.

"She felt the power structure of the class was divided along money lines," Ann explains, meaning that those children who could afford to fly the whole class to Disney World for their birthday enjoyed greater popularity than those who could only afford a sleepover. "The heads of cliques, the kids in control, were backed by money. She felt the kids were getting personal power by how rich they felt they were."

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