I’ve been watching a terrible lawyer drama show on Netflix, and much of the action takes place in the lead character’s apartment in New York. You can tell she’s rich because the apartment is the size of an airplane hangar and none of the furniture touches each other. There’s enough space to do an entire gymnastics floor routine without knocking over a single chrome vase or coming close to touching a wall. Even the other character, who lives in a hotel room, has enough space in her hotel room that you can’t ever see the whole room from a single camera angle. I’m jealous because you can see practically my entire house from one camera angle.
I live in a small house with a lot of stuff in it. Bookshelves full of books, a huge hutch full of dishes and glassware and tchotchkes that people have given me from their travels, stuff inherited from my parents and stuff given to me by my children. Some of it I bought myself from catalogs because I fell in love with the way that it looked in the airy, richly-furnished make-believe world the catalog created. I’ve always liked looking at catalogs because the rooms in catalogs are like storybooks of lifestyle possibility where every tight space is cozy, every bedroom is airy, every dining room can seat twenty and every home office is neat and tidy.
The opposite of that look is squalor – the condition of being dirty, overcrowded and miserable, with its insinuation of poverty. When movies, television or books want to show poverty, the irony is that they show possessions. Clothes-strewn floors, pots and pans on counters, toys littering the floor. The poor have plenty of stuff, but no space in which to put it.
That’s the thing. It’s not that the rich necessarily have more stuff than the poor (although one assumes they have a better class of stuff – more fashionable clothes, nicer pots and pans, more expensive toys). It’s that the rich have someplace to hide their stuff. There’s a catalog/website called “Frontgate,” and it bills itself as “luxury decor for America’s finest homes.” A large part of what they sell is storage. Places to hide nearly everything, including litter boxes, electrical cords, and any dead bodies you may have lying around your backyard.
There’s another class of people who appear to have nothing: monks. Monks are expected to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, and therefore not just to not have anything – they’re expected to not want anything. It’s a noble ideal, and one that many people recognize as praiseworthy without actually cultivating it themselves. Monks in their stuff-less existence have less to distract themselves from the larger questions of life and therefore can devote themselves to pursuing the larger truths. Monks are better than you and me because they have chosen to pursue real answers to life’s mysteries, rather than the fake answer of material gain.
Maybe that’s why the media portray rich people as having so little stuff. They want you to believe that the rich are actually better than you. Not just better off, with not only more cool junk, but with more expensive furniture to hide that cool junk behind, but better. More virtuous. Privy to answers about the inner workings of the universe whose questions you can’t even afford to ask.
The sorrow and the pity is that so much of America has bought that lie, even though they can’t afford it.