Analyzing a symbiotic relationship
If you want to make an Episcopalian look down at his shoes, goes the saying, all you have to do is mention two things: Jesus and money.
In his new book, Charles Murray, the Big Brain behind such Big Books as The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, doesn’t talk much about Jesus, but he does talk a lot about money, and what it — or the lack of it — has done to white people. And that has made a lot of white people — especially, it seems, the ones with the cash — very uncomfortable.
In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010, Murray divides those of us of a more pinkish hue into two broad categories: those who live in lower-class, slipping-down locations — he calls these “Fishtown” — and those who live in upper-class, movin’-up locations — he calls these “Belmont.”
And then, diabolically, he dives into “Belmont” and comes up with a tiny, tony subcategory, something he calls “SuperZips.” These are the ZIP codes where the rich and powerful live — the swanker parts of D.C. and New York, the Hollywood power elite of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, Silicon Valley, the leafy suburbs of Boston and Chicago. These are the kinds of places people talk about when they talk about yoga and wagyu beef and artisanal scented candles selling for $100. When Rush Limbaugh inveighs against “Georgetown cocktail parties,” he’s talking about the SuperZips. When people in these places say, “Did you see the paper this morning?” they’re talking about the New York Times, no matter where they live. And, in a wonderfully cocooning bit of symmetry, when reporters at the New York Times talk about “new trends in dining” or “how busy marriages work” or “what the independent voter wants” they’re talking exclusively about the people in the SuperZips, because, for the most part, those are the only people they know.
There are deep pockets of dough all over the country, of course. One thing that always astonishes the rich elites who live on the coasts is how much money there is in places they usually sniff at — places like Alabama and Indianapolis. It’s unnerving, to some of them, to note that Oklahoma City is the home of a giant, spanking-new Whole Foods. “What’s up with that?” they wonder to themselves. If a lot of unsophisticated Okies can buy organic chicken and mesclun salad mix, that sort of takes the elite, exclusive fun out of the entire Wednesday “Dining In/Dining Out” section of the paper.
(That’s the paper I’m talking about. But you knew that, right? Or didn’t you? What’s your ZIP code, again?)
If the biggest thing that distinguishes “Fishtown” from “Belmont” is money — Belmont’s got it; Fishtown don’t — then what distinguishes the broader “Belmont” from its subset of SuperZips is influence. If you breathe the purified, powerful air of the Upper East Side of Manhattan or the breezes off of Santa Monica Bay, you’re what we call in show business a “Chooser.” You’re one of the folks who put together the nation’s television shows, news reports, financial instruments, and academic agenda. You’re a consumer, naturally — people in the SuperZips gobble up organic vegetables and iPads with unrestrained appetite — but you’re also a creator of the national conversation. You’re one of the people who decided that Rick Santorum is too socially conservative. You’re one of the people who miss Steve Jobs. You’re one of the people who think that everyone in Fishtown thinks that 9/11 was an inside job. You’re one of the people who look at their shoes when someone mentions Jesus or money.
People in the SuperZips, according to Murray, are rich and powerful, and what’s more, they’re all alike. The folks who live in Atherton, Calif., have more in common with their fellow SuperZip dwellers in Weston, Mass., than either one does with the people who live in the towns just next door, which is probably some version of Murray’s Fishtown. People in SuperZips notice one another by certain class markers — a copy of The Economist, some kind of Mac computer, a foreign car — and they notice who’s not from a SuperZip by other markers — American-flag lapel pins, bad denim, morbid obesity.
Residents of SuperZips, in other words, are the very worst kind of rich white people — rich white people with taste.
Or, perhaps more accurately: old rich white people with taste.
Confession time: I don’t live in a SuperZip. I live SuperZip-adjacent, but that’s not really the same thing. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, the slow and stately progression from beachside slum to affluent-hipster heaven is still in progress. Young women with $5,000 strollers and peach-colored yoga mats vie for sidewalk space with bleary-eyed drunks. The $5 coffee spot on the corner sells pain aux raisins to children with European accents. Restaurants in the quarter are routinely profiled in pages of Food & Wine. The place is lousy with Priuses. Put it this way: When I bought into the neighborhood twelve years ago, the only candle you could buy was one of those emergency ones at the shabby liquor store, the ones the local junkies used for cooking up a fix. Now, the only candle you can buy is one of those scented ones that come in their own valise. And the closest we’ve come to having a local junkie lately was the few months last year when troubled movie star Lindsay Lohan lived in the neighborhood under house arrest.
The place still looks a bit like Fishtown. But it’s the Epcot version of Fishtown.
The neighborhood has changed so deeply that I often find myself wandering around the streets, walking my dog like some kind of disoriented ghost, wondering where the hardware store went — it’s a yogurt shop now — or where I can buy peanut butter — the local gourmet place doesn’t carry it — or where I can buy toilet paper. (The liquor store doesn’t sell it anymore. Had to make room for the artisanal-bread display.)
And that makes me the neighborhood oddity. Not because of my politics — I’m smart enough to keep those to myself — but because of the one thing that Charles Murray, in his excellent book, neglects to deal with.
Not old old — I’m still firmly in my mid-40s — but older than the entitled SuperZippers in Training who are my neighbors. Older than the artists and trust-fund babies — and, often, these amount to the same thing — who throng the coffee spots and eat up the arugula in my hipster heaven. They may not be as rich as their parents, a couple of clicks away, in the SuperZips across town. But they’re influential all the same. More often than not, when the Choosers who live in the real SuperZips want to go to the cool new restaurant or buy a pair of cool pants, they’ll head over to the Hipster Quarter — every SuperZip has one handy by — and contend with a waiter or shopkeeper who reminds them, vaguely and disquietingly, of their children.
Murray’s book takes in a tumultuous number of fairly rotten years — 1960 to 2010 weren’t really good for anyone, especially anyone who was paying attention to the culture — but it’s almost impossible to imagine that any of the feckless and languorous hipsters in my neighborhood will ever pull themselves together enough to move on up into the SuperZips when their parents finally stroke out on the elliptical. And even if they wanted to, it’s hard to imagine that they’d be able to afford it. The SuperZips, despite their atmosphere of entitled influence, are places where people work pretty hard, in media jobs (which are dwindling) and financial jobs (which are more competitive) and the kinds of occupations where young hipsters just don’t perform. They’ll be stuck in Fishtown for real, wondering where all of the yoga studios went.