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Class Struggle on Park Avenue

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When I asked Wendy whether she was suggesting that the bull market had spawned a new and even more chilling phenomenon than Masters of the Universe -- preteen Masters of the Universe -- she confessed she may have been overreacting. She'd shared her fears with her daughter, who, in that unembellished way 12-year-olds have, assured her that she was out of her mind.

One of the class leaders did, indeed, come from a criminally wealthy family. But another one had followed a more traditional path to greatness -- she just happened to be really cool.

"I decided it was my own paranoia and decided to revert to my own idealistic view of things," Wendy says unconvincingly. An Ivy League-educated comp-lit scholar, she finds her advanced degree comes in handy these days mostly as a way to place what she describes as "a massive sense of vulnerability" in a historical and literary context. She sees parallels between herself and Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

"Lily was somebody who had exquisite taste but could no longer afford it," Wendy explains, sitting in Sarabeth's Kitchen on Madison Avenue on a recent morning, nibbling on a scone and staring out the window at passing well-heeled moms.

Wendy actually resembles a character from a Wharton novel. There's the elegant John Singer Sargent profile, the impeccable manners, and, also, a subtle air of defeat. "She had better taste than the people who had the money," Wendy says of Lily. "It's hard to come out and say that, though. Taste and good manners aren't necessarily consistent with the ruthless aggressiveness it takes to succeed in American society."

It's bad enough not to be rich in New York. What's even worse is when people have no idea you once were. Wendy shared the fleeting humiliation she felt when she picked up her daughter at a Park Avenue birthday party and the birthday girl's mother attempted to give Wendy a tutorial in the ways of the rich.

"She said, 'The doorman will get you a cab,' as if I didn't know. What kind of clothes do I have on? I was the one who had to find out most buildings don't have doormen."

Things may not be quite as dire as Wendy makes them sound. Her husband's a businessman, and while they can't afford to live on Fifth Avenue, they recently combined their apartment with the one next door. If things really got desperate, Wendy could always emigrate to the West Side, as her younger brother Mark did.

"I bit the bullet and moved to 116th Street," he says cheerfully. Then again, he's a musician. He's supposed to be living in genteel poverty. He didn't even take it personally when his children's head of school suggested he wait until kindergarten to send his youngest there, saying of the preschool, "That's for rich people."

"I told her she should move to the West Side, where there are millions of people like her," Mark recalls. "Except now you can't afford it anymore."

There are even some displaced native East Siders who contend that parts of the West Side more closely resemble the Carnegie Hill of their youth -- a quiet, unpretentious neighborhood filled with little-old-lady coffee shops and stores where the merchants knew every member of your family -- than does the Rodeo Drive for the toddler set that Madison Avenue in the nineties has become.

"Now it's where rich people can spend $300 for imported Italian Little Lord Fauntleroy blue shorts with the suspenders," snorts Betsy, a costume designer who grew up at Park and 93rd and now lives in Washington Heights. "Who wears that stuff? Up here, everybody dresses in Patagonia. And I have a better super than I did on Park Avenue."


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