I’m upper lower middle class and on good days I lean towards the lower middle middle class. I have a roof over my head, I drink lattes, I can’t afford Apple products. On most days I can’t afford anything that isn’t necessary, which is of course subjective. My mind rebels against challenging a $4 purchase. I’m fortunate because the beach is free and I have a car with gas that can drive there. I avoid the Beverly Center, 3rd Street Promenade and pretty much every mall in Los Angeles. I refuse to shop at the 99 cent store.
I’m average, the middle, the median, medium. So is my friend whose idea of a good deal is to pay $350 for a $500 pair of Cole Haan boots. So are all my friends who go on vacations, and say “let’s get dinner”, and argue the virtues of various tablets, without doing complicated math in their heads that never adds up.
One day, as a girl in a bleak suburb of Detroit, I went with my mother to a music shop that sold used instruments. It was down 9 Mile, in the direction of the zoo, in a shopping center with a Fantastic Sams, a 99 cent store and numerous boutique fashion stores whose window mannequins always looked to me to be waiting for salvation. The parking lot for the shopping center had parking meters, a novelty in suburbia.
The music store was a dim place, mysterious, sacred almost, the light from the street through the display window barely effective. Bells tinkled when we walked in. A layer of dust glistened over everything in the gray-scale light from the window. We were looking for a guitar for me. My only reference was the one from WalMart that sold for $100. In that price range.
Above us, on the wall tp the left, guitars hung from the ceiling, each at an angle like they were posing for a family wedding picture, hips to the camera. My eyes roomed over the wooden curves of the guitars. There was one guitar, different from the others. I hardly remember it now – only that its wood was darker, the color of brewed coffee, a warm brown. I can see where it was on the wall, about a third of the way through the lineup, and I can see its flared curve which I would not then, but do now, associate with the lines of a woman. I pointed at it, afraid of voicing my admiration.
The owner was a small man, gray hair, a face that wasn’t afraid of aging. He wore large glasses and was in shirt sleeves. He was small, he moved quickly, spoke easily in an accent, and paused frequently. “That one?” he repeated, he pointed his finger at it. Yes. He laughed, a friendly laugh that forewarned something.
“You have good taste,” the owner said. “That guitar cost $2,000.”
I looked at the man. Another customer was running his hand over a piano. The door opened and the bells tinkled and there was classical music playing discreetly in the background that I hadn’t noticed before. I noticed it now, heard the isolated notes of a melody that wouldn’t stop moving, and I followed it.
“Thank you,” I said. Because it was polite, and also for the compliment, for making it okay that the $2,000 guitar was out of my reach because I had something better. An appreciation for beauty, and quality.
I’ve repeated that to myself many times, when there are beautiful things I can’t afford.
There’s a ludicrousness inherent in the range of middle class and how it has to be broken up into three – middle, upper, and lower, and then each of those divided again into threes so that in the end average actually means unique. It’s your own point on an infinite line of lower upper middle class. It means having a love-hate relationship with things and beauty, with owning and having and wishing, and a necessary worship of upward mobility.