posted on Friday, December 23, 2011, 9:38:51 AM | fractalbob
“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” — Spanish peasant’s proverb
I don’t know if you’ve ever spent Christmas in a hotel, but if you enjoy the warmth of family and holiday traditions, it sucks. On this tree-less, carol-less morning of a Christmas past, Sarah was putting on her make-up when I stepped out of the shower. She glanced at my junk with the look I might give a rental car that I had bottomed out.
“Never fear, we’ll be back in service in no time,” I said. She handed me my shorts to put on.
Then, in our Sunday best, we went downstairs for Christmas buffet and followed our cheerful hostess to a table amid twinkling fairy lights and fragrant boughs of fir. I wished her a merry Christmas before she left us.
“What’s your problem?” I snarled as I followed her to the buffet tables. “These people have given up Christmas Day with their families to make ours special. The least we can do is be polite.”
“It’s their job, idiot,” she said. “You think they’re grateful to you for having spoken to them, but the truth is, they see right through you.”
“So I should have been rude?”
“A simple ‘thank you’ will do.” Then she gave me a mocking smile, pearly canines threateningly exposed. “Merry Christmas!”
“Shut up,” I said, nudging her forward in the line. “And leave some of that ham for me.”
Since our visit to Huntsville, I had been brooding over Sarah’s take on my hometown and her prescription for its rise to exurban glory, with only the blink-of-an eye buffer of federal woodland between incorporated borders. And even the national forest would eventually be put to good use, I assured her. “There will be drilling companies all over that place one day. Sure as shootin’.”
Huntsville’s middle class must overcome its inferiority complex, and its upper class must reassert itself, she had said while we lunched at one of a few black-owned businesses in HTX frequented by whites.
First, we quibbled over definitions. Sarah was determined I agree that “middle class” was an absolute — that membership in Huntsville’s middle class must be transferable to the middle classes of any urban area. This would eliminate the folks — like prison guards and firefighters — who take advantage of a lower cost of living to buy brick homes in nice middle class neighborhoods.
Members of the middle class in good standing would also lose ground. A $260,000 house of 3,000 square feet house in Elkins Lake would cost double that in a similarly upscale neighborhood in a big city. For the same price, you could only get about 1,200 square feet, a garden home or a condo.
“That’s why people come here to live, dummy. More room for the money,” I said. “More bang for the buck! The lower cost of living allows more people to share in the American dream. It helps retirees maintain their standard of living.”
“Yes, but don’t you see?” Sarah said. “You can put proles in brick houses, but they’ll bring their trailer park aesthetic with them. There’ll be couches on porches, pink flamingos and junk in the yards.”
Even worse than affordable housing is cheaper commercial property, which allows the proletariat to open businesses, Sarah said. As your proles acquire more economic power, the business community responds. The real middle class will shop and live elsewhere if the lower classes fill the landscape with too much kitsch and glitter.
“Simply put,” she said, “Huntsville has given over its cultural identity to its proletariat, leaving the middle class feeling inferior to its urban counterparts who come here to shop or tour.”
“What if we tell pretentious pricks from Houston and Dallas to go fuck themselves?” I said.
“See,” Sarah said. “This is what I mean. You all simply must remove that chip from your shoulders. It’s essential to your economic development to begin fighting back.”
I felt guilty even listening to this. “That’s ridiculous. How would we ‘fight back’?
“Raise taxes,” Sarah said.
This would force the lower classes out of your middle-class enclaves and raise funds for rehabilitation and beautification once the university professors — having fled to Conroe and The Woodlands — come back here to live.
“The college is the only viable economic engine you have,” she said. “And you’re not likely to attract more if you’re not keen to address your eyesores and the other problems.”
Sarah and I left Bennie J’s that day to stroll around the downtown square, decorated and lit for Christmas. I thought she’d see the warmth and character of the place. Instead, she was horrified at the murals and trompe l’oeil painted over 19th century storefronts and the boxy straw-colored courthouse.
“You’ll have to tear most of this down and start over — something tasteful and energy-efficient,” she said. “Something that can’t be painted over or go to seed as it ages. Glass and steel, perhaps.”
“You know most of Brooklyn is old and shabby,” I said. “I don’t see a damn thing wrong with this.”
“Brooklyn is edgy and evolving,” she replied. “This is — this is just ghastly.”
The “ghastliness” extended down Sam Houston Avenue to the university, past scruffy strip centers with their discolored awnings and empty buildings filled with junk, all déclassé disappointments in a swath of brilliant opportunities.
“Oh, don’t look so crestfallen,” Sarah said. “I know you love these people, and I’m not saying they’re not warm and generous and true blue.”
Then out of the gloom of a damp afternoon, a fleet-footed Mercury appeared and dashed through a door between downtown shops.
“My! Who was that fey being in the huntsman’s cap?” said Sarah, breathless.
“I told you — our upper classes have not abandoned downtown.”
“Oh, my. Then perhaps you have a bigger problem — the rightful arbiters of taste here are unqualified,” she said. ”You’ll need to outsource the whole project to someone totally urban who knows what they’re doing.”
Poor downtown HTX, it hardly has any friends. The Powers That Be are content with using it as a backdrop for their tourist attractions, but they have no intention of investing any real cash in Main Street. They’re all about the west side feeder road, where they’re breeding new chain stores and restaurants. Even the proles can afford to feast at Olive Garden when the eagle flies on Friday. And nobody gives a shit if it kills the inner city.
We drove back to Houston at dusk that evening, and Sarah seemed refreshed by the sight of skyscrapers. But I had become obsessed with reorganizing the world into proper social classes. By Christmas morning, I was still nanocategorizing, and Sarah was enjoying the game as well.
“Suspenders — upper, middle or lower?” I asked Sarah as we dressed for brunch.
“Upper middle,” she said, turning to look at me. “And, um, ‘literary.’ You’re not going suspenders on me, are you?”
“Log cabins in the middle of downtown?”
“Original site? Properly restored?”
“Of course not.”
“Middle class stupidity, I’ll wager.”
“Rhinestones? Silver sequins?”
“High prole,” she said. “This includes zebra print and hot pink, anything that can be called ‘bling,’ nosebleed heels and acrylic nails.”
“Downtown dwellers with two-dimensional Christmas trees?”
“Bohemian,” Sarah said. “And why wasn’t I introduced to them?”
Baby Jesus — prole. Old Testament Jesus — high prole. Jesus going righteous on the rich and tax collectors — middle. Jesus, God’s chief of staff— upper middle. Dark-skinned, muscular carpenter Jesus — boho.
“What about the upper classes? Don’t they love Jesus?”
Sarah clucked her tongue. “Have you heard what he’s said about us?”
“What if I create my own church and appoint myself pope?” I said.
Sarah mused on this as she applied her lipstick. “With or without psychotic delusion?”
“Without,” I said, knowing I was out on a limb.
“Upper,” she said. “Definitely.”
We were now dressed and ready to go, but Sarah paused to check my choice of tie — blue with foulard blobs. “Very good,” she said, and, as I followed her from the room, I pinched her ass.
Merry Christmas, HTX. I love you just the way you are.
*With nod to Paul Fussell