May 27, 2005

You're not what you wear, and why Jane don't talk so good

This past week I've been reading a series of articles in the New York Times on the subject of class. Apparently the editors just got the memo that you're not what you wear. (Earlier in the week, they got the memo that the better your health insurance, the better and faster medical intervention you'll have access to.) They could have saved a lot of legwork by interviewing the staff of the paper -- the entire staff, from the loading dock to the printers and up through the white collar ranks.

Social class is alive and well and breeding in the water here. (No kidding. It took a team of writers and editors to realize that? To whom, exactly, is this a newsflash?)

Or the reporters could have taken a quick tour of my neighborhood. Part of my zip code is the most prosperous in the country and has real estate prices to match; part of it contains ancient tenements where the average age of occupant is 60+ and has been in that apartment for 40+ years under rent control regulations.

It's Manhattan. I don't know about the female populace at large, but I do know that here, if you're going to be getting about by foot, it is not in your best interest to look either prosperous (leave the jewelry at home or in the vault) or remotely sexy (don't expect to walk by a construction site without remarks from the contractors).

On the sidewalk, it takes all kinds. My least favorite is the kind who sees fit to speak loudly on a cell phone about personal matters I have no interest in -- whether it's the result of a pregnancy test or a debate about which is the most prestigious to attend (from a social vantagepoint) among the charity benefit dinners that masquerade as social life.

There's a part of me that thinks about these cell phone abusers, just as I think about cab drivers: if you're going to pay attention to the task at hand -- whether it's keeping the child in the stroller or driving me to my intended destination -- get off the damn phone.

My clothes come from a combination of places: mail-order catalogs, e-bay, and thrift shops, primarily. Oh, underpants, tights and sacks are purchased brand-new from the nearest discount drug store.

I used to buy clothes from local boutiques, but the real estate market has driven most of them to the terminal clearance sale in the sky. Just today I walked by what was most recently an unsuccessful chain clothing store branch (one whose demographics I don't fit). Judging from the shop's failure, it didn't succeed with the teenagers whose demographic it did fit, probably because it was a chain without any zing to it.

Private-school here kindergarteners seem to spend classroom time learning to identify Chanel suits (the real from the faux). Their Mommies certainly teach them not to spill anything on those precious suits, or on Grandmas'. Their nannies, on the other hand, probably don't have the same priorities, and you are far more likely to see child-with-nanny than child-with-parent.

If you were wondering what happened to the English language, just glance at the speech patterns and accents of the nannies in charge of the children. Or turn on the TV, for lowest-common-denominator vocabulary and syntax. My mother the grammarian raised me, and I made a career out of three words she said frequently when I asked questions: "Look it up."

The reason Jane don't talk so good is she gets very little exposure to those who do. Parents may be able to conjugate verbs in their sleep, but whether they choose to impart that knowledge to their children, I don't know. At this point, perhaps it's the grandparents who need to share their knowledge, since I suspect it was one of my peers who came up with Apple's ungrammatical slogan, "Think different." Another decided "impact" was a verb, and still another selected "transition" as the verb du jour.

On my corner is a shop that sells Dior outfits for babies and toddlers. Personally, I think babies spit up or toddlers fall and get skinned knees just as well in outfits whose only label is Target (not that we would have one here) or K mart (which, much to my bafflement, we do have, and in a neighborhood once considered trendy.)

Sure, I have designer clothes in my wardrobe, and jewelry of sufficient value to say "mug me." Neither is meant for real life, go-out-and-get-the-groceries/go-to-the-bank errands.

I grew up an anachronism: Raised to dress for dinner or to travel -- even via airplane, back when flight attendants were stewardesses who wanted to help you enjoy the flight -- I never quite understood the need for a "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy, but obviously my education was incomplete.


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