Seeking Status and Luxury
August 11, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
Grandmother Calvert stacked Life, Time, and The Catholic Times on the marble-topped coffee table in the spare bedroom where she had a soft, enveloping armchair, an old rocking chair, and a day bed almost covered with pillows of varied fabric, some with fringe. A threadbare oriental rug was centered on the dark wood floor. I slept in this room when I visited as a toddler, and she greeted me with “powerhouse” hugs.
At fifteen, I seldom stayed overnight, but this room was my refuge when the family came to dinner on some Sundays. I read stories about the first astronauts, the rising Kennedy family of Massachusetts, and far away places like China’s Li River in Life illustrated with photographs without margins on oversized pages. My interest in stories on the front page in addition to the comics and sports pages began when I delivered newspapers. Time’s cover stories drew me into the weekly magazine and then I perused other topics.
Time’s review of The Status Seekers by Vance Packard caught my eye as I waited for Grandmother’s call to help her set the table. Mom often deplored people going into debt “trying to keep up with the Jones,” but Packard’s relentless explanation of class and status symbols gave me a new perspective. I recognized that many of my classmates at St. Charles had more family money than mine, but Packard identified class differences as well. He portrayed status seekers as vain and pretentious—serious character flaws. Yet I longed to have cabled crew neck sweaters, plaid Pendleton jackets, and penny loafers like those I saw at school. Yes, I admitted to myself, I was a status seeker.
I began to put the usual silverware on the white linen tablecloth when Grandmother said, “We’re dining with class tonight. Put out the silver from the bureau to complement my best china.”
I found silver knives, forks, and spoons in a walnut box with maroon, velvet-lined holder for each utensil. I realized that the everyday silverware was not silver. As I set forks on the left and spoons and knives on the right of the plates with Chinese scenes, I wondered if grandmother’s plates came from China. I also mused about her phrase “dining with class.” Did she mean “upper class”?
During the adult conversation at dinner, she dismissed a former acquaintance as “back alley, shanty Irish” trying to be “lace curtain Irish.” Minutes later, she solemnly declared someone else was from a fine family and listed their parents and grandparents. Years before Grandmother was the wife of a doctor with a big house in the Clintonville neighborhood, but now, divorced, she struggled to maintain appearances.
A few days later, I saw a paperback edition of The Status Seekers in a rack at the drugstore and impulsively bought it. In addition to describing the habits and practices of the classes in American society, Packard showed how advertisers exploited anxious consumers who pay marked-up prices for brand names and prestigious labels. I devoured the book in one weekend.
My friend Mike Rodenfels stopped by the next day. I noticed his sunglasses, but didn’t comment. In a few minutes he asked, “How do you like my new sunglasses? Ray-Ban aviators. Designed with wrap around lenses for pilots. A little more expensive, but people recognize quality.” He held them out to me. “Try them on.” I did and offered some tepid praise. Soon Mike was on his way. He came by to show me his new aviators. I understood now.
No Ray-Bans for me. No prep school clothes either. My bag boy job at the grocery didn’t pay enough for such things, and Mom needed help with bills. It was just as well because I vowed to be neither a seeker of status nor a follower of fashion. I took pride in my humble attire. Necessity became a virtue.
Sunday dinner was mandatory and always scheduled to follow “Meet the Press.” I usually watched with Dad and Grandmother while Mom mashed the boiled potatoes and made the salad. A young reformer named Ralph Nader appeared before the panel of reporters. The moderator in those days, Lawrence Spivak, opened by asking in his raspy, nasal voice, “You are a Harvard graduate who chose to harass corporate America as a consumer advocate. I understand that you work from your residence on the third floor of a rooming house. Why?”
Nader, wearing a rumpled suit and an unfashionably wide tie, stared at Spivak balefully and said, “I believe luxury is debilitating.” He shifted his gaze to the next questioner while Spivak sputtered, “But…surely Mr. Nader…” before yeilding to the reporter next to him.
I applauded. Dad, who considered Nader a troublemaker, was not amused. He shook his head and told me, “Sophie Tucker said, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better!’ Remember that,” I recounted Nader’s interview at dinner without disguising my approval of his asceticism. Dad glared at me, and Grandmother contorted her face into a frown. My sister Kathy must have silently vowed to remember my admiration for such a ridiculous statement.
My wardrobe in high school was modest but adequate: two pairs of pants, a few shirts, a couple of sweaters, and a raincoat. When I began classes at Ohio State, I certainly did not wish to call attention to myself like many of the students I encountered. I was sure some of them ripped holes in their shirts and stuffed them under a mattress to maximize wrinkles. Faded Levi’s with the knees out and scuffed combat boots were standard for coeds as well as their grungy boyfriends with scraggly beards. My high school clothes made me one of the better-dressed students not living on fraternity row. The conformity of the non-conformists was obvious and amusing. They were seeking status. Packard would have understood: they were the same—only different.
Our freshman English instructor assigned us to read excerpts of Thoreau’s Walden and write comments as exercises in composition. Captivated by his pithy comments, I read several chapters beyond the required selection. I smiled when I saw, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” I began to jot statements in my tablet. So engrossed, I barely had time to write about the assigned passage: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I invoked Vance Packard’s findings about seeking status in my submission.
My favorite Thoreau tale involved two small, handsome, water-worn stones he found near the pond. He put them on his writing desk and enjoyed the sunlight glinting off their iridescent surface as he contemplated his next sentence about simple life in the woods. After two weeks of this pleasure, he noticed dust had settled on them and dulled their color. He began searching for a cloth to restore their brilliance, but stopped abruptly, grabbed the stones, ran to the shore, and flung these possessions into the deepest part of Walden Pond. Pretty rocks were intruding upon simple life. My wife finds this story disgusting.
I nodded when I read Thoreau’s words, “My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” Golf shirts with alligators, dress shirts with polo players, and khaki slacks with woven leather belts were luxuries that I did not need. I strongly suspected they were also debilitating.
My contemporaries in school complained about their parents and grandparents “Depression era” attitudes about saving and spending money. Habits formed in times when money was scarce and jobs were uncertain become ingrained. For this older generation, saving continued to be more gratifying than buying “things you really don’t need.” Inflation made purchases of these frivolous possessions seem even more extravagant as people age. I often heard my elders begin a sentence, “When I was your age that only cost …” or “My weekly pay for my first job was …”
I refrain from this—most of the time—with my grandchildren. I am not old enough to remember the Great Depression, but I remember when Mom had to choose whether to pay Ohio Bell, Columbus Gas & Electric, or Kissell Mortgage Company. The phone was the first to go—much to my embarrassment. We rarely lost power, but there were often notices of imminent cancellation. The bread man and milk man extended credit and continued deliveries. There were some weeks when we subsisted solely on a huge pot of navy beans, bread, and milk. Savings from my part-time jobs helped us through these times. The lesson I learned was some saving is good; more saving is better.
When I married, my wife’s convertible was our only car for several years. As it aged I began putting aside money for a new car more suitable for our young family. The fund grew with interest until we could buy a car without incurring a monthly payment. I can’t imagine that Thoreau would want a car, but I suspect he would have approved of receiving interest on savings rather than paying interest on a car loan.
My wife reluctantly agreed that we buy an inexpensive car without air conditioning. The salesman was incredulous. He reluctantly searched the inventory and found one new 1976 Chevelle station wagon in Maryland without air conditioning. The next time I bought a car, air conditioning was standard equipment, so I had no choice.
When we shopped for our first house, our realtor said we could finance a much more expensive house than what we had in mind. We chose a row house with a price less than half the amount the realtor said we could afford. He was disappointed since his commission was lower. Real estate values skyrocketed in subsequent years and we did not realize as much increased value on our modest house, but money in the bank was more comfortable than trading for a more expensive house every couple of years.
For years I have selected the oldest clothes from my closet unless I had an important meeting or a presentation. Grandmother often said “Clothes make the man.” Some suits were a little shiny and several sport coats at least a decade out of fashion, but my personal goal was to wear out my clothes. My wife, who does not share this goal, periodically fills a trash bag with clothes that were once bargains and asks me to toss in some of my vintage clothes. “When in doubt, throw it out” is her mantra. (She would be appalled if she knew my wide ties are in the back of my closet, but fashion does cycle back sometimes.) I seldom help fill the discard bag. When she returns, she proudly brandishes Goodwill’s donation receipts as tax deductions.
In recent years, my devotion to Spartan standards has eroded although my new car is a tan Chevette, a car Ralph Nader might drive. I silently take satisfaction parking it next to my wife’s shiny midnight blue BMW.
Last year, my wife and I went on a cruise of the Greek islands. I consented since we could hardly see the ancient ruins on the islands of Delos, Rhodes, and Santorini by renting a car. The temples, theaters, and stone foundations of the pre-Christian era were spectacular. The onboard amenities—swimming pools, jacuzzis, massages, entertainment and fine cuisine every day—were certainly not Spartan. When I reported on all these amenities to my sister with enthusiasm, she said, “I thought you believed luxury is debilitating.” I had no answer. Only silence, she laughed. I chuckled.