Paul Fussell’s great book on American social class stratification — titled, duh, “Class” — is pretty out of date in the details by now. Written at the dawn of the go-go ’80s, it missed how much that decade changed the relationship between class and money, never mind the ’90s and ’00s, which blew it out of the water.
But a lot of the details are timeless, including my biggest takeaway, which is probably not unique to him, but he gets credit for being the first writer to point it out to me: The hallmark of the middle class is fear. Fear of slipping a rung, either in reality or just in the eyes of others. It explains so much about how middle-class Americans dress, talk and otherwise comport themselves.
Middles love euphemism (“Excuse me, but where is your powder room?”). They like their labels on the outside of their clothes, so everyone knows they bought the right designer purse or necktie. They fret over the condition of their lawns and the shine on their cars. Etcetera. And so it was that I picked up my Detroit News today and immediately identified the area’s biggest residential foreclosure as a distinctly middle-class house. Hell, it might even be proletarian. Who else would build an $18 million, 13,777-square-foot house in a subdivision, complete with bowling alley and “custom wine tasting and cigar rooms?”
“It’s like going to Disney World,” said real estate agent Chris Knight, who has sold the home twice. “It’s a phenomenal, one-of-a-kind special property. Waterfalls, ponds all over the place, streams. Lots of Venetian plaster walls. Imported this, imported that …”
Venetian plaster, you say? It’s so much…classier than regular plaster.
The story reminds us this pile of Venetian plaster — inevitably described as “a mansion” — is not alone in its sad little subdivision, Turnberry Estates:
A third of the subdivision’s homeowners have either faced foreclosure in the past two years or had mortgage problems, public records indicate.
Since March 2008, one house was lost to foreclosure; three were scheduled for sales but avoided them; and two foreclosure sales are pending — including (former Detroit Lion) Charles Rogers, according to the Legal News. The former No. 2 NFL draft pick faces a sale Aug. 31 after defaulting and owing $1.17 million, according to a Wednesday notice in the Legal News.
Turnberry Estates has to stand for something bigger; the writer in me demands it. Nowhere do you see so much evidence of how disconnected wealth and responsibility got in the last 25 or so years than you do in housing — not just in these vulgar money pits but even in more modest upscale homes (always homes, never houses), with their media rooms and enormous closets and wine cellars and poker rooms and all the rest of it. I knew a guy who built a 10,000-square-foot house when he married a woman who had two daughters. They needed the space, he said; they would have a live-in housekeeper to watch the girls when they wanted to do impulsive newlywed things like go out to dinner or fly to New York for the weekend or whatever.
They’re divorced now. But you knew that.
My house is 2,000 square feet. The people who built it raised seven children here, in three bedrooms. My last house was about the same size. The previous owners had five kids — and one bathroom. My friend with the 10K house had separate bathrooms for each daughter. The first thing they did after moving in was convert a dead-air space into a deluxe closet.
Do I sound resentful? I’m not. Enjoy your money, rich people. But when my house is foreclosed upon, I bet it’ll be easier to unload than the $18 million Venetian plaster showplace. Even with a cigar room.
So, some bloggage? Probably we can rustle up some:
The New York Post falls for a wrong-o. Did an accused killer who swallowed rat poison get an emergency liver transplant, as the paper crowed? Um, no. But that is one great headline: Thug’s op is liver worst. Congrats to the greatest copy desk in tab-dom.
Thanks to Rana (I think) for reacquainting me with Tom and Lorenzo, the Project Rungay bloggers who dabble in “Mad Men” on the side. I can take or leave them on the episode guides, but their commentary on the clothes is first-rate. I loved their latest, on Betty Draper last season, including her slammin’ Roman holiday getup. They’ve got great things to say about all the madwomen, though, so warning: You can get lost in that site. But in a good way.
The Michigan oil spill now stretches for 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and yes, pals, it looks like we have another BP on our hands. Who could have predicted? And so on.
Kate’s going to the Warped Tour show with her dad tomorrow, and I promised her I’d get her a new guitar strap to collect autographs on. So time to hop to it.