She always leans in when she talks about peoples money and its usually just after theyve left the room. You know thats so-and-sos daughter. She looks at me expectantly. I look at the closed door, enlightenment pending. I look back and jump: Shes leaned in closer and is now officially in my personal space, eyebrows raised suggestively. Shes waiting, ready to burst with her secret news, but needing the go-ahead from me, lest she be a lone gossip. After a subtle but essential body shift, I give her all I can muster, and that grudgingly.
So? (In retrospect, I realize I must be a terribly disappointing player in the Whos Who game.)
So? Shes mocking me now. So, dont you know what they own? Theyre the ones who did the thing back a few years ago that made them all that money. More tangible disinterest by me.
And, theyre set for life on a bad day. Im still not biting.
She harrumphs, dealing with my ignorance but unable to forgive my indifference toward one of the single hallmarks of her life: knowing who has money, how they got it, and how they spend it. To assume that my neighbor just has more time on her hands than I do might be missing the point. Its certainly a generational difference as well, in this day of Internet riches and millions for the making the way they are in our culture. She lived through the Depression; I went snow-skiing every spring break. She packs everything away; I spring clean four times a year. She loves to talk about money; I prefer to dream about it.
My generation looks at money nonchalantly, the way we look at each other in bars -- over our shoulder before we turn back to our drink. We know it cant buy us love, weve forgotten Emily Post, and if we ever were Material Girls, most of us are over it. Were jaded; we hunger for inspiration, and everything else that money just cant buy, like Mr. Lovett says. Were not so much uninterested with money as we are just bored with it. Its just not news anymore; every third person we know comes from lots of money, makes a decent amount, or gets a quarterly check from the trust fund. One must either have a grand, undeniable fortune or have gotten whatever they have in some extraordinary fashion to be considered true grist for the rumor mill these days.
Growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Little Rock, I lived a charmed and sheltered life in which my biggest concern was not air-balling free-throws (which, to my dismay, I did quite regularly and publicly) and getting a date to the homecoming dance. I couldnt distinguish between who had money and who didnt, since everyone just did. As Ive grown, Ive learned that not only are there people out there with very little money, but I am one of them. The years since I waved Dads ticket goodbye have been startling and ugly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this has more to do with money management than the money itself. Even through my hard years, there has still been money around, out there for the taking and the giving away. The years I spent at The Charitable Institute of Mississippi (some call it Ole Miss) only reinforced the everyday-ness of other peoples big money because folks there give money away in rather large chunks to avoid any number of taxable debacles in April; free parking anywhere on campus and/or building dedications merely a bonus.
So while my relationship with money has changed as Ive gotten older, my view of it will never compare with my neighbors. My generation has never seen widespread poverty; we cant even imagine it. Thats something for other countries and other times to deal with. Our parents say we dont appreciate the value of a dollar, and theyre right. We havent been forced to appreciate it as their generation was, and we havent been taught to, either. TV shows give away millions for the right answer to a trivia question and our political leaders talk in the lingo of surplus billions. How could we possibly understand the notion of working for 20 cents an hour?
What we have been taught is that money means freedom: to do what we want, when we want. We fantasize about money -- not our parents or our friends, but our own, by our own success, and most of us search for it even today in our jobs, our life choices. The question my generation asks isnt what would it be like without money, but what would it be like with even more?
My own fantasies are pretty basic, centering around the small, currently useless piece of plastic in my purse, which becomes a powerful, svelte Supercard, able to go places and not be declined. I hand it boldly to the car salesman when my 91 Mazda -- with no washer fluid these three months and an unidentifiable squeaking noise -- becomes more than I can bear, and I say, Ya got anything with washer fluid and no squeak? (I am an easy sell.) I use it at dinner with friends whove come through for me when I cant pay my phone bill, and I say, Kids, its on me, and my friends cheer me. These are the dreams I have of money, and of financial freedom -- from counting every penny, from staying on a budget, from making responsible choices -- but they are likely no more accurate than my nightmares of having none.
Money brings requirements with it, likely the least of which is less responsibility. Be it by a church, a family, or a nosy neighbor, expectations and judgments of the wealthy in our society run rampant. I dream that I could live in seclusion with my money, inviting only nice people to my private island, but while the path of great money isnt heavily trodden, it certainly is watched.
I know a young wealthy fellow with nary a higher education degree who made his fortune on a good idea and lucky timing, and if his small business ever goes public, hell count his success by the millions before he turns 25. But when I see him berate his employees -- most of whom are twice his age with twice his degrees -- I wonder what forces cause the pendulum of fortune to swing in his direction; I think hes not worthy of the opportunity hes been given to live in a society where success doesnt stand in proportion to degrees framed on a wall. I expect things of him I wouldnt expect of other people, as if his money somehow requires him to be a better person than I am. Does this come from seeing so many wealthy people give their money to a good cause? Is it the view of the American-churched, that like heaven, wealth is a reward for some good deed? Maybe its just the view of my generation: We dont talk as much about money as older generations, but we expect more from those who have it.
Whatever has created this moolah-la land Im not sure, but it may be the one place where my generation and my neighbors meet -- we both pluck people with money out of the masses and find them different from us because of what they have. We find them worthy of our judgment or our conversation, and we quickly offer both. What we both miss when we do that is how theyre like us, which is in every other way. I believe that having money is like having an extra window in your home -- right in the front with no blinds. Some people look in as they run by at night, glancing at each house; others set up camp in the yard and cook out, sending in notes about the dust on the mantel. Thus, the window, if we look in it right, reflects our curious faces, our outrageous expectations, and our clumsy feet, always tripping on the same crack in the sidewalk because were watching someone elses path and not our own. May-be there are better days ahead, and the next generation will be the balance between the packrats and the simplifiers, the gawkers and the judgers, the view of our parents and the view of our peers. How much our children have or dont have isnt as important as someone near them who leans in and says, See that girl over there? The one from that wealthy family? She looks exactly like you.
[This originally appeared in the November issue of Memphis magazine.]