by Sarah Cope
Money has always confused me. I cannot tell you for sure what exact income bracket I fit into because I’ve always been too afraid to ask. Am I the one percent? I don’t think so, maybe five percent or the ten percent. If I know for sure, I feel like I will lose some ability to talk about socioeconomic inequality.
An obvious intersection of money and possession is cars. The car a man drives is a window into his soul, or something like that. I grew up in a blue Jeep Cherokee and a silver Volvo station wagon. When the Jeep gave up the ghost, our nation was edging out of the recession, and my dad decided to buy himself a “nice” car. I was in sixth grade; I didn’t know the difference. A car is a car is a car. He bought a forest green Land Rover 4. It could fit me, my mother, my sister, the two Australian exchange students we had for Thanksgiving, my dog, and my pet rabbit. It seemed like a practical choice to me.
The explanation for the car floated around my head, “Dad wants to impress his clients with his car. He spends so much time in it driving to projects, and sometimes he’ll drive the clients in it too, so it should be nice.” My father is an architect. The Jeep had smelled like horse, my sister’s hobby of choice, spilled coffee, and salt water, thus not a car to impress clients with.
As I grew older, I began to realize what cars signify. When my mother’s Volvo broke down for the umpteenth time, my dad decided she would get the green LR4, and he would get the newest model of the LR4 in blue. I was fifteen, and when I looked at our driveway, I saw excess. I saw status symbols, gas guzzlers, and shiny car doors. The seed of discomfort around money had already been sown but this was like a heavy dose fertilizer. It grew with abandon.
Every morning in the August before my junior year, my mother drove me to my job at a camp. My co-counselors were all older and drove themselves in beat up sedans and hand-me-down minivans. I would fly out of the car, unload my bike from the rack on the back as quickly as I could, and wave a hurried goodbye. Our car next to everyone else’s made me want to disappear. It yelled out a harsh you’re different.
For the most part, I felt like I fit in with the other counselors but one day the conversation turned to student loans. One of the counselors shrugged and said he didn’t have any. The aid he had received, and the money his parents had saved was enough.
“Well, look at you, money bags,” one of the other counselors smirked. I looked down. My parents had made it clear to me, as I started looking at schools, not worry about money.
“We’ve been saving for this for a long time,” my dad assured me. Business had been good again, the economy was better and people still wanted houses built and apartments remodeled. 2008’s stress of too many economic problems was replaced by the stress of too much work. As of that point, I was not going to need students loans. You’re different.
Now on the highway or driving around Westhampton, I see Porsches, Maseratis, BMWs, and Mercedes. I scorn them mentally. I need to be different. When we go to the grocery store, I climb into the Volvo before anyone reaches a Land Rover. It can still handle the three miles round trip to Best Market. No need to use the embarrassing car. The embarrassing car is the car that fits into the pocket of privilege that is Eastern Long Island during the summer. The embarrassing car looks like everyone else.
I don’t want to look like everyone else. I don’t wear designer clothes, live on the Upper East Side, go to parties, or so much as go shopping. I avoid status and privilege because I worry that it will bar me from discussions of real world problems. What would I know of economic strife? What right would I have to a discussion about lowering the cost of tuition if my parents can afford it? So I keep my mouth closed and avoid the shiny, big car when I can. I mentally mock the money spent on a fancy sports car. If I feel disdain for something, then I am not a part of it, right?