In the Land of the One Percent

As the election nears, one family's tentative excursion behind enemy lines.

Because of a family funeral, we spent the weekend, in which Mitt Romney finally released the tax returns that showed a mysterious disappearing $7.2 million, with people who are like him but different from us: They have a lot of money. It was my daughter Marcy’s first lengthy visit to an enclave of wealth, and it was for all of us who made the trip across the Turnpike to a posh Pittsburgh suburb—Marcy, my husband, his mom and me—our first real foray, in this election season, into enemy territory.

Since we were guests, and because the occasion was a funeral, we didn’t feel we could respond when our hosts made fun of the President and hurled scorn at Obamacare and brought up birth certificates and joked about the immigrants who mow that enclave’s perfect emerald lawns. (Someone actually told that joke about Hose A and Hose B.) Sometimes not challenging the enemy just gives you more time to mull and observe.

That’s what Marcy seemed to be doing. Fresh from her ivory-tower grad-school milieu, where she’s surrounded daily by people who probably really are socialists, she sat in amazement and listened to a sort of careless chatter she’s never heard before, poor sheltered dear. She was confused, because she liked the people she was meeting; they were warm and welcoming. But their shared point of view was one she’d  never been exposed to on the side of the tracks where she grew up, at her little liberal-arts college, or in her grad-school classes, where the party line would make Christine Flowers bust a vein.

We do have a token Republican in our immediate family. But he’s such a minority at our gatherings that his needling derision of Obama promptly gets hooted down. Out there in Pittsburgh, amidst extended family, we were the minority. And it was doubly confusing to Marcy, I think, because these people have it all: beautiful homes, lovely children, awesome incomes, nice cars, really huge TVs. So why, when they’re so fortunate, would they make fun of the less fortunate? Where was the sport in that?

It was a little unnerving for us all to be confronted by so solid a refutation of the promise that you’ll reap what you sow. There we were, threadbare liberals in Payless shoes, perched on sofas that cost more than our cars, sipping very nice wine and biting our tongues as isms of all sorts flew through the air. Why, when our values are so immaculately spotless, were these folks the ones who had it made? Why don’t I get a Viking stove and a Sub-Zero fridge?

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally come to realize that I don’t get a Viking stove because I don’t really care about a Viking stove. My trusty Kenmore gets the spaghetti sauce made. If I cared more about money, I’d make more money. I’d have studied finance instead of Elizabethan literature, you know?

I did fear, though, that the glitter might tempt Marcy to question the money she’s doling out for her degree in social work. I mean. Those were some big-ass TVs. But it seems there’s nothing like a trip behind enemy lines to make home seem sweet in contrast. “All that house!” she marveled in the car on our return trip. “Who needs five bathrooms for four people?” That’s my Obama girl.