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Class Struggle on Park Avenue


Unfortunately, the West Side isn't an island. One must occasionally return to the East Side, particularly if, despite proletariat leanings, a parent insists on sending his or her kids to a Dalton, Brearley, or Spence.

"I felt I had literally crossed the border from the West Side to the East Side," confides a West Sider, referring to the scene at dismissal time at Diller-Quaile, the East 95th Street music school whose drum-whacking classes for 2-year-olds are considered by some to be essential preparation for admission to the Ivy League. "It's the experience of standing in Diller-Quaile at two on a Wednesday in a pair of jeans and watching all these 92-pound trophy wives picking up their children in mink coats and stiletto heels," she explains. "Where are they going? It's a level of saturation in nail polish and hair color. And then I sit in the waiting room and hear these conversations -- 'We like the Filipinos.' I feel like a stranger in my own country."

Of course, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, not to mention Central Park West, are no longer the Wild West. Joanna Wolper, an independent TV producer, recalls a recent encounter with a Columbus Avenue florist when she was purchasing an azalea. "She said, 'When you're finished, you can plant it outside,' " Joanna remembers. "I'm thinking, 'This is Manhattan. Where am I going to plant this?' She said, 'You're not responding to what I said.' She just assumed I had a country house."

"It's a little idealistic to think where junior sixes are going for $600,000 is the Left Bank," observes one Riverside Drive writer. "When I go to visit my sister in Brooklyn, you still get the sloppy families looking really intelligent and cool. My spiritual home might be Park Slope."

The real question, a philosophical question to which, frankly, there may be no right or wrong answer, is whether the new rich are truly more tacky than those whose places they've usurped on the social ladder. Is their lack of class and fixation on hair and makeup something truly unprecedented? Or is that just a story the middle class and the impoverished rich tell themselves to salvage their self-esteem?

Molly Ferrer, a real-estate broker in the Hamptons, Chapin School graduate, and the inspiration for Sally Fowler, the lead character in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, thinks they really are that tacky. "The trophy brides are the bane of my existence," she says. "These people who didn't have money last month and are climbing the social ladder are looking for somebody to have under their thumb."

She recalls a recent client who seemed to regard Molly as occupying a position on her staff perhaps slightly above her handyman but certainly below her fitness trainer. "She did not get off the cell phone the entire appointment," the real-estate agent complains. "She was not talking about her kid having a tonsillectomy but 'Did you see that guy? Was he with a date?' And their kids leave soda cans in the back of my car. It's a disregard for basic manners."

Their behavior improves only after they discover that while Molly can't afford a $10 million house on the beach, which this woman was shopping for, her class and bloodlines still confer certain privileges. "I'm a member of the beach club out here," she explains, adding that her clients hope she can help them get in, especially when they find out her brother's on the board.

Rebecca, a lawyer, shares Molly's contempt for the new overclass. She recently withdrew her daughter from her school, Rebecca's own alma mater no less. It wasn't the education she objected to. It was the social scene among her fellow moms at dismissal time.

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