I am not alone in my obsession with class warfare, i.e, gobbling up anything involving the French Revolution and enjoying shows that vilify the wealthy such as Succession and Squid Game. One can’t escape the theme of class conflict in popular culture. During a recent car ride, a friend introduced me to the only podcast that has drawn me in to date, You’re Wrong About. My favorite episode (so far), ably lead by the two millennial hosts, dispelled many myths about Marie Antoinette and had me chortling loudly, thanks to the witty banter of the hosts and their funny, far-reaching references. I’d known that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them Eat Cake, ” but hadn’t realized that the Queen had written warm journal entries about the poor and had a sympathetic habit of taking in poor children and paying for their education. Perhaps most interesting to me was learning that she affected the trappings of the peasantry- dressing as a provincial milk maid and roughing it in an elaborate hameau (hamlet)she built at Versailles. I am reminded of how my friend and college roommate wrote her senior thesis on how French society, French artists like Millet and Courbet romanticized the life of French peasants. (Pardon me J, if I’ve butchered your thesis).
We all know that folks have been stealing the look of less privileged groups in order to appear more “edgy” for some time (e.g., Carrie Bradshaw’s gold name necklace taken from Black urban fashion, is one example my friend Michelle recently mentioned), but I was surprised this cringe-y behavior went as far back as the 18th century. If Marie Antoinette was around today, she would surely sport a necklace of her name in big gold letters.
I learned from the same podcast mentioned above that some French royals even kept a “hermit” on their estate who would get free housing in order to play the role of a wise recluse. (Kudos to the clever podcast hosts who made reference to Kato Calin!). A quick internet search about royally-sponsored hermits in pre-revolutionary France, lead me to an article about the worst jobs in history; with an admitted measure of ignorance on this topic, as an introvert and an employment attorney who hears about a host of difficult jobs, the estate hermit gig doesn’t sound so bad! (I realize, I am being an ass to make light of this; I assume, in reality, this job was probably one of servitude and degradation).
It’s probably not original to write that the hermits of yesteryear and modern day building superintendents are similar because both of them are provided a place to live rent free but are paid little to no wages on top. When I was a young adult, I joked with my husband, that I should be a building super because of the free apartment most supers get, which would make NYC almost affordable. (I thought this remembering I had a childhood friend whose father was the building super of a Fifth avenue doorman building and they had a large, luxurious apartment with a wrap around terrace). The idea of me as a building super is preposterous because I comically struggle to open the locks on my own pre-war apartment door to let guests in and out so the idea of installing large air conditioners in tenants’ windows is alarming. (For the pedestrians below, they would get a lot more than pennies from Heaven!) My romanticization of the building super job ended when I started practicing employment law and met many superintendents who were exempt from getting overtime pay under New York law and whom are typically on call 24/7. Of course, most do not get spacious abodes with wrap around terraces (more like code-violating basement apartments that are rife with mold/vermin or other niceties).
The belief that there’s something edgy or romantic about poverty is tiresome. It’s never been noble or beautiful. As a child, I went to a roster of private schools mostly on scholarship (Dalton for five years, Ethical Culture, Riverdale, Hewitt and Trinity for high school), which used to embarrass me and now gives me a strange, unique status among some parents I meet. Though I’m grateful to each of these schools for taking in this ruffian and educating me well, I sometimes wonder if being low income at some of the most privileged schools “crushed my soul.” What an oddity I was at these fine institutions with kids who shopped on Madison Avenue with their parents credit cards, skied at Vail and juggled multiple homes. Mom and I had trouble holding onto one home. I’ve memories of our geriatric landlords, a Polish married couple, who serenaded us with blistering, potty-mouthed messages on our answering machine when rent was overdue and memories of a Brazilian lady landlord named Pilar rapping at our door and yelling in Spanish for overdue rent when we rented an apartment in Tudor City. (This caused me a panic attack–I ran down the 12 flights of stairs, yelling all the way to the lobby). Then there was the time, mom fell behind on rent while we lived at the Hotel Olcott, a hotel in the West 70’s and we had to sneak past the front desk to get in and out to avoid questioning. (At the time, there was a young bellhop who liked me, which helped because he used to hide mom and I behind his trolley of suitcases from time to time.) It was that year, I had some agoraphobia-sometimes too scared to take a walk down Columbus Avenue with my mom. Other times, we stayed with mom’s friends/acquaintances; I fondly remember one such acquaintance who was severely depressed but let us stay in her spacious Fifth Avenue apartment for a modest rent; she rarely left the apartment and wallowed in one uniform: wrinkled blue silk pajamas with peacocks printed on them and if memory serves, complimentary blue kohl eternally smudged around her eyes. I remember that she pulled herself together one night to make my mother a delicious Russian chicken dish with cheese inside (Kiev?) for mom’s birthday and that she never made us feel like unwanted guests. I hope you’re well, lady, wherever you are.
I never thought of myself as homeless when I was a kid. For the homeless were the families with whom mom worked as a social worker at the Prince George Welfare hotel in downtown Manhattan. I spent hours waiting around for her to be done with her work inside the Ballroom–a breathtaking, high ceilinged room, crammed with homeless families who needed social work and other services. I met many people whom I easily distinguished from myself. Noone looked like me and few looked like mom, a white woman. The kids were generally not going to the best schools in the city and were not friends with the city’s most privileged. But I felt strangely comfortable at the hotel with its once grand lobby that smelled of urine and its solid marble floors now cracked and soiled. I felt kinship with some of the families, in particular a former military family who had wound up at the hotel. When I wrote a short story about this family in the the tenth grade, my mom and i were in and out of homelessness–though I never acknowledged it. How my beloved Trinity English teacher lavished me with praise–surprised that I had inhabited the life of a homeless boy so convincingly. (To this day, I like writing as a male narrator as it feels more anonymous and separate from my own life). I enjoyed the compliments and never told my teacher about my secret life.
I was grateful for the stability offered by most of these schools. Some of them dealt with scholarship kids in better ways than others. At Hewitt School for girls that I generally liked, the problem lay with Ms. Buck, the chubby, reviled (at least by me) Southern headmistress. I remember her jowly face, dowdy attire and her odd method of quieting a room of tween girls— clapping a pattern with her hands and demanding we copy her. One day, she pulled me out of class and explained my mother had not paid the tuition so I would have to leave the school until she paid. I vividly remember the shame of sitting on a very visible bench waiting to be plucked from a school I had grown fond of and how I had to tuck my chin in tight so no one could see my tears. Other schools handled our financial travails with more grace. During my junior year at Trinity, my mom lost her job and couldn’t pay tuition. Mom told Trinity we had to leave but they protested and noted it was time to apply to colleges. Then, in what can only be called Herculean effort, Trinity quickly found an anonymous board member to not only pay my tuition but pay our rent at the James Tower, a nice rental a block away from school. They told mom they took action because I was a talented writer and they had empathy for our plight. A human response I will never forget.
My recent observation of a heated altercation at the UWS Shakespeare and Company bookstore between a mask denier/protester and bookstore staff, affirmed my fear that our country is headed toward virulent class warfare. We are indeed not a far cry from pre-revolutionary France as shown by Trump’s followers climbing the walls of Congress to attack. I imagine we will soon give China a run for their money when it comes to class divide. Years ago I remember reading about a spate of hit and run incidents in China, often involving rich young Chinese youth running over rural Chinese people on the street; one story involved a couple who accidently hit a rural man with their car and though the man somehow survived, the couple was caught on camera, rolling over his body to finish the job. I read a memorable story of a wealthy teenager who killed a rural laborer with his sports car and fled the scene, only to be witnessed a few hours after, smoking and laughing on the hood of his car with a group of friends. At the time, I thought to myself, how savage and cruel they were and, perhaps ignorantly, how different from Americans. But we are clearly not so different. (See all the Black Americans that we’ve let be shot/choked by police officers for so long. See the way we bystand the violence and poverty in many minority neighborhoods. See how some of the most privileged New Yorkers at elite private schools leave in a hysteric rage when asked to address diversity in the classroom. Feast your eyes on the embarrassing spectacle of wealthy Manhattanites litigating to kick homeless people out of their neighborhoods. Even in the most “liberal” bastions like the UWS, privileged public school parents rise in anger when public school policy changes to allow broader access to good schools).
It is no wonder, the #1 show on Netflix is Squid Game, a Korean drama that I miraculously stomached and liked, despite some gory scenes and spurts of jarring violence. It is a show that captures the zeitgeist-the wealthy, masked barons betting on which of the 456 desperate, debt ridden game players will survive a series of children’s games where losers are killed in violent and unique ways and the winner gets more than 40 million dollars. In the manner of any good Korean drama, the writers give us a lot of back story for the main character, Number 456; he’s a disheveled, divorced father who lives with his mother, gambles away all the money meant for his young daughter ‘s birthday present and gives her the least appropriate gift possible- a large cigarette lighter shaped like a realistic hand gun. The show’s premise that there are rich people so villainous they view the poor as entirely disposable pawns and that there are swaths of society whom would overlook the high possibility of certain death to pursue the minuscule chance of winning a huge jackpot, is strangely and tragically believable.
Hearing me wax poetic about the show, my clever friend Rachel suggested I make myself a Squid Game birthday party outdoors so that is what I am doing. This week, my free moments will be spent trying to make delicate Ppopgi (Dalgona/ honeycomb candy, which is basically sugar plus baking soda on the stovetop) without burning down my kitchen, getting large, long ropes for a group tug o war ( for I eagerly wish to test the different strategies of tug o war that 001, the old man and others teach us in the show), buying mass amounts of marbles, trying to figure how in the world I will emulate the glass bridge game, learn the rules of Squid Game (which may be too rough a game for young kids) and plan a Korean menu that can be easily carted to Central Park. ( I may deeply regret the challenge I’ve taken upon myself to do this for 20 plus guests during high school application season).
See the below recipe for Ppopgi (Dalgona/Honeycomb candy) as found online. The fun game involving this treat involves players having ten minutes to pop out the cookie-cutter imprinted shape inside the candy without breaking it, which is surprisingly difficult because the candy is brittle. You get a needle but other methods can be used such as licking the candy until the shape pops out. (I’m imagining we party goers in the park looking insane as we lick the large, flat candies for 10 minutes). https://www.aol.com/dalgona-candy-netflix-squid-game-134200709.htm
With all I’ve given you to fret about, please make some of this sweet candy and relax!!