September 12, 2006

Things Unavailable

My life is not a hardship of wanting.

There have been years where things have been difficult. And there was a time, when separating from a bad breakup in which the ex in question maneuvered to control the the collective finances, that things were very difficult. I'll never forget when after talking to a friend about the innumerable packages of ramen I had been eating, he went out and bought me a bag of fresh oranges. The luxury.

And after that time, came the time of debt.

It's not an unusual story, of a woman, in graduate school, doing everything she can to support her partner, in graduate school, especially when the partner already had maxed out on student loans, and the woman, well, the woman had been thrifty and never taken a one. Scholarships. Work study jobs. Parental help even. So when loans were needed for the collective, the woman takes them, knowing that in a few short years, the partner will be out of graduate school, pulling down six figures and she some hopefully moderately good figures in the fives. Even though she is funded with prestigious fellowships. And of course, she puts the partner's name on her credit cards for emergencies. Or a few large household items that are otherwise difficult to acquire, like a bed for a couple, or a dining room table for that cute little duplex they rent. And why not buy new things, of course, since in a couple of short years, the partner will be earning six figures?

And, of course, in a few short years the partner was earning six figures. However the partner had decided that the six figure earning would require the woman to give up a dissertation, produce heirs, pick up dry-cleaning, and become support staff to the six figure earning. And had decided to become rather forceful about the communication of that necessity. And the woman decided that no fault freedom was worth far more than the cash she'd be out by dragging out the process.

And out of cash she was.

And yet, and yet... my life is not a hardship of wanting. I have everything I need. Really, I have more than I need. Especially I have things that I might oneday need, because you'll never know when you need them. Because when you need them, knowing that life tosses things in our way, like manipulative relationships or downsizing or medical leave, you might not have the ability to buy them. So useful things, sturdy things, and most especially free useful things start accumulating.

Free or thrift store things like mismatched, but very funky chairs. Forty year old italian espresso pots. Couches. And no, they are not for burning. I've got at least one couch on every floor. Actually, I take that back. I have at least two couches on every floor of my house. And I did not pay for a single one. Not the love seat in the attic. Not the futon couch in my office. Not the art nouveau sofa. Not the 1940s chartreuse velour semi circular sofa. None of them.

So when I read a blog post about buying a couch, and see the picture and think, hmm, that's a cute couch, and click through to the online catalog of furniture, and check out the price coming in just under two grand, after my eyes go booiiinnnngggg in sticker shock, while my brain tells them to calm down that it's probably a quite reasonable (modest?) price, I think...

I wonder what it's like to be able to buy a new couch?

And then I think...


Posted by binky at September 12, 2006 06:34 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Culture


i visited a friend in D.C. once. a friend whom someone less charitable, or whom one with more dissimilar or less decadent taste, say, might call a snob (but in the wholly non-perjorative way, or in a shrugging perjorative way that brings down the speaker with him). a friend with a taste for the best in things. a friend who, at the time, had recently finished his law degree at a certain prestigious ivy-covered institution, and who had managed to do so without leaving in debt (due to his rather extraordinary ability to sustain a more or less full-time solo consulting gig while staying at or near the top of his class at said hallowed institution of learning (the prick!)), a friend who as of that moment was clerking at a certain prestigious destination located in that very same D.C., and who had a cushy among cushy gig at arguably the most elite white-shoe firm this side of the andromeda galaxy awaiting his completion of said clerkship (a friend who now calls a brooklyn condo worth more than a cool million his starter home).

said friend, then living in the small but slick first floor of a georgetown brownstone, welcomed me into his home, took me to dinner with his paramour of the time, took me home alone, welcomed me to his patio under inferred stars, talked to me as a friend. and upon returning inside, readying for sleep, i gestured as though to start making a bed of his couch, a lovely red piece, obviously expensive, something the painstaking selection and consternating purchase of which had been a topic soon after my arrival that afternoon (as a sort of consumerist travelogue) -- and he cringed like i had cuffed his toddler.

i looked at him quizzically, and he shook his head. he brought me to his bedroom, where he opened a closet to reveal an old futon folded up at the bottom, and gestured for me to help extricate it from its compressed enfoldedness at the bottom. "you understand," he said, and i did, feeling dirty, like an interloper, an inconvenience -- feeling, irrationally, judged, as though a more worthy friend would not have prompted such awkwardness.

i vowed then, a six-figure salary of my own soon in the offing (and still, as always, in the offing, just not embraced with all it entails as yet), never to buy a couch i couldn't bear to let a friend sleep on. but then, i have cats.

well into my fourth decade on this planet (by which i mean my thirties, of course), i have yet to buy something that costs thousands (as in two or more) of dollars with cash. but i do sometimes fantasize about that day, recognizing that for many people my age, people with far less earning potential, such is not extraordinary. it must be nice.

Posted by: moon at September 12, 2006 10:29 PM | PERMALINK

That's the thing. I don't really fantasize about it. I have the "oh that's cute" moment, and then it evaporates. The reason I put this post under culture rather than personal rampbling thoughts was that it occurred to me that I am so out of step with most of my (certainly generational peers, but also) fellow citizens in the US. Not just with those who buy these things, but those who want to . There are a very few things I buy new, with deliberation. My laptop, for example. Really, almost everything else, from the island in my kitchen to the couches and coffee tables and sisal carpet, and the cats and dogs, are found objects. And in found objects I'm including things like coffee tables grabbed for five bucks at the neighbor's yard sale, hand me down lamps, and the trashpicked folding chair on my porch. Somehow, I like the serendipity far more than the idea of planning and weeding out swatches.

Posted by: binky at September 13, 2006 08:04 AM | PERMALINK

with my roommate gone, i've been having a ball surfing CraigsList, especially the free section, for opportunities to trade up certain pieces of which i'm none too fond for little or no money. none of it needs to happen, which makes it more akin to the serendipity you talk about. i have friends who head out, the night before bulk trash day, to some of the nicer neighborhoods in and around pittsburgh, just to see if anything interesting, anything that began its life as a pricey modern or antique piece, is at the curb. they've found amazing things that way over the years, thousands of dollars of stuff by any honest appraisal.

i do like the idea of buying things, but i think these days i romanticize more the prerogative to do so, looking at something and declining to drop a few grand not because i couldn't afford to, but because, given the choice, i opt to do something else, or nothing at all, with my money. there's still some sort of materialism at the heart of it, but it's like theoretical materialism.

i'm so overwhelmed by debt and by having lived hand to mouth for my entire adult life, every bill cycle a minor crisis, that i'll love watching my resources build up too much to run out and lease a BMW the second i move to a higher-paying job. indeed, aside from certain necessaries -- e.g., a much pricier wardrobe, which really is a requirement for people billing the exorbitant amounts associates in big firms bill -- i really don't see changing my life much at all. a nice two-week trip out of the country would be nice, maybe, but that's about it.

Posted by: moon at September 13, 2006 03:41 PM | PERMALINK

See, that's the part I just don't get. Even the theoretical part. I find shopping to be boring and irritating. It's not the price, that attracts me, it the finding without intent.

Though I should say, I'm not repelled by cheapness.

Posted by: binky at September 13, 2006 04:55 PM | PERMALINK

i definitely have expensive tastes, and there was a time i worried that i'd spiral down into a lifestyle centered on that. perhaps one positive of my unwillingness to make the sacrifices necessary to get ahead, at least so far, is that i've more or less settled into myself and discovered that i can do most of what i want to do, have msot of what i really consider it important to have, at maybe 110% of what i currently make. which is a big relief; if i'd had a big paying job say four or five years ago, i'd have very little to show for it now. that's not a mistake the mellower now-me would or will make.

Posted by: moon at September 13, 2006 07:41 PM | PERMALINK

You sound so very mature Moon. :)

I find Binky's lack of commercialism refreshing, even if I'm afraid I don't share it. Obviously wanting fabulous and fabulously expensive clothes isn't what I most want in life. If it was, I'd have gone into another line of work. But I'd still like to have them ... and live in a gorgeous house with appropriate furniture (be it something by Richard Meier or some dark, rambling bit of late Victorian wonder).

Posted by: Armand at September 13, 2006 08:39 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I'm not above coveting the occasional pair of Camper boots. But even $250 sounds like a king's ransom to me.

Posted by: binky at September 13, 2006 09:32 PM | PERMALINK

Me, too. I did, however, buy this as step 1 in converting the second bedroom into the office it wants to be, and I'm picking it up tomorrow!!! It looks way better in person, and by that I mean, it's way more worn and old-looking (but completely solid) in person, nothing like the vaguely replica-esque suggestion of the photo. I was so blindsided by how cool it was in person that I totally forgot to haggle.

Posted by: moon at September 13, 2006 11:02 PM | PERMALINK
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