The Unholy Pleasure
My life-long recovery from snobbery.
Thank goodness that my friends and schoolmates must have been busy with their own ridiculous, desperate self-preserving strategies, so they didn't perceive how ridiculous I had become. And thus we could all stay friends. But I think that the smug beliefs I was coming to hold exacted a toll more lasting and more damaging than Tammy's early-adolescent obsession with fashion ("My clothes make me better," she seemed to be saying), or Demond Williams' wannabe-Casanova strutting ("The ladies know that I am the man"). My more encompassing snobbery became a habit of mind, difficult to shake, my indwelling friend and foe to this day.
That's why it is very difficult to be a true snob before the age of 9 or 10. The infant or toddler is by nature a solipsist, concerned only with satisfying certain immediate wants. The young child of, say, 3 or 4 years old begins to look up to older children, and to desire their acceptance, and the slightly older boy or girl, newly able to think ahead and coming to possess some social intelligence (and cunning), may begin to recognize that a given skirt, or a facility with soccer, will ease one's way—but this is a very utilitarian plotting, along the lines of, "If I wear that skirt, she will like me." The next stage, the one I reached in third and fourth grade but began to perfect in fifth, is the abstraction of these principles, the infusion of them with moral judgment—the decision, for example, that using big words makes me a better person even if there is no obvious reward for doing so, or perhaps because there is no obvious reward for doing so. A child must reach a certain age before he can decide that rejection is the proof of his superiority.
But once a child can reason that way, the possibilities for new snobberies are endless. And, fortunately for that child, American popular culture is happy to supply him with ideas. For example, I knew that my parents valued the reading of the Sunday New York Times. I knew this because they went out of their way to acquire this publication, walking to the Food Bag convenience store at the corner of Bronson Terrace and Dickinson Street to purchase this newspaper. I knew that most of our neighbors contented themselves with the Sunday Republican, the local newspaper of Springfield, Mass. Even at age 10, I must have recognized that the Times had more difficult content. It was not hard to infer that consuming the Sunday Times was some marker of intellectual accomplishment, and to further assume that whatever was contained in that thicket of words and images was a small sampling of the heroic life.
I fixed on the New York Times Magazine, in particular the lush advertising spreads that Ralph Lauren seemed to purchase nearly every week, in the expensive space before the table of contents. They were veritable guidebooks to a leisured, monied, Gentile fantasy world, where the country squires never went bald, only silver; where their wives were nowhere to be seen; where their daughters were honey-blond, freckled, and happy to walk the Irish setter; and where their sons, home from college, never looked better than with hair tousled, clothes rumpled, and leather satchels loosely slung. I fetishized these lovely, landed people.
From those advertisements, I learned the preppy style. I began to see it all around me. I saw it on certain pages of the L.L. Bean catalog, which we received every month or so, and I saw it in the window of the Brooks Brothers store at Westfarms Mall in Connecticut, the mall where my mother took me shopping when she needed a skirt for a special occasion, when the shops at Enfield and Eastfield malls just would not do.
More important, I began to notice where that style was absent. Our street, Bronson Terrace, a slightly upper-middle-class street in the Forest Park section of Springfield, was the northern border of a little community within a community, where the houses were single-family and the lawns were well-tended. There were two streets to the south that looked like ours, more or less, Texel and Elwood drives. Then the neighborhood was squeezed to its termination at the confluence of Dickinson and Trafton, two arterial roads that met with finality at the tip of a triangle. On my street and those parallel streets to the south, one might spot a Polo shirt, or a pair of Blucher moccasins. But on all the streets to the north, beginning with Olmsted, just around the block, the uniform ran to acid-washed jeans, Flashdance-inspired leggings, hair-sprayed big-hair, and Reebok aerobics shoes for the girls, Nike basketball high-tops for the boys.
And with the innocent wisdom of a child, untroubled by classist inferences, I saw what was obvious. To the north, in the land of big hair and acid-washing (also the land of the revving Z-28 hot-rod in the driveway, the three-family house, the unkempt lawn, the teenagers loitering in the middle of the school day), there was more dirt, and noise, and chaos. Kids were territorial: There was a group of junior-high girls at the eastern end of Olmsted who would demand, whenever I walked by their row of houses, "Where the fuck do you think you're going?"
On my street, people dressed in the Ralph Lauren spirit, even if they could not afford his clothes exactly; on Olmsted, nobody dressed that way. I saw the correlation; it was quite apparent; it was undeniable. There was a uniform of civility and decency, and the people who wore it were likelier to be nice to me, and to one another. They were better.
At school, the student body was racially divided into thirds—black, Hispanic, white—and the minorities cared much more about their appearance than whites did. The white boys, in particular, were mostly indifferent, and it was a girl, Tammy Duchesne, who was my peer in sartorial awareness. She wore two brands exclusively, Benetton and Esprit. It took me some time to sort out the class connotations of these brands, but eventually I figured out, if not in an articulable way, that these labels sent the message that she could keep up with trends—these brands were everywhere, Benetton with its ubiquitous ads and Esprit with a store in every mall. The clothes were not cheap; one saw them on white girls only, and white girls from the better families (Bronson, not Olmsted). And yet I perceived that there was something subtly déclassé about Benetton and Esprit, precisely because they were so of the moment. The Ralph Lauren ads, by contrast, announced the clothes' archaism; even as they defined a kind of trendiness, they practiced a denial about that trendiness. Like all good totems of snobbery, they were for a defiant minority, definitely not for the majority.
Inspired by Alex P. Keaton, the preppy conservative teenager on the television show Family Ties (another nerd who found dignity in snobbery), I one day brought a briefcase to school, an old clunker my father had abandoned in our basement. "It's for my important papers," I told Mrs. Britt, our school-bus driver. But the stares I got in the hallways were too much, and I abandoned that project immediately—one more bit of evidence that I was not a true eccentric. My sense of superiority was too close to its roots of inferiority; I could not choose to stick out on purpose. Where difference was unavoidable—I could never have pulled off Air Jordans and acid-washed jeans—I made a virtue of my difference. But I soon was forced to admit that I couldn't make a briefcase cool.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.