It was the usual chit-chat among strangers encountering each other over breakfast at a Seattle bed-and-breakfast: “where are you from?,” “how’s the weather there?” Three middle-aged couples and a 20-year-old son who immediately set off my classism alarms. The first red flag was his face, a sneer usually seen on sulky teens much younger than him. While the rest of us oohed and ahhhed at each food item presented proudly by the proprietor (berry scones with homemade jam! eggs with local tomatoes!), he appeared deliberately unimpressed, as if he’d seen it all before. I took an instant dislike to him, thinking “spoiled boy.”
Next we were trading horror stories about the recent heat wave, 90 degrees here, 100 degrees there. He had us all beat: “My car thermometer registered 107 when I was driving to Princeton. Princeton New Jersey, heading to Princeton University.” Say what? Did he just go out of his way to drop his Ivy League credentials into a conversation about the weather? Does he want us to be impressed?
Little did he know that he had picked the wrong person to try to impress! I went to Princeton University in my youth, and after I dropped out, I had such an acute sensitivity to how others reacted to the P-word that for many years I answered people’s questions with “I went to college in New Jersey.” (When I told one working-class new friend my alma mater, she started laughing and was still laughing three minutes later, only coughing out one word over and over “Princeton! Princeton!” while I stood in fear that she wouldn’t be my friend any more. Fortunately, she got over it and remains my friend). Now that I don’t believe in hiding privilege, I take a deep breath and say the P-word – but I sure would never bring it up like this fellow did. And though I stay in touch with beloved friends from Princeton, none of them are people who would brag about their college to strangers either.
So then the boy’s father starts talking about how hot it’s been in Philadelphia where they live, “but I don’t feel it, because I go straight from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office, so it’s no big deal.” Well, very nice for you, mister; a 92-year-old woman died in an un-air-conditioned apartment in Philadelphia during that heat wave. Ignoring that comment, I say to him, smiling at the Philadelphia coincidence, “Oh, where do you live? I used to live in West Philadelphia!”
And the sneering boy — you can hear what’s coming, can’t you? — has the nerve to say to me, “Oh, did you get out before it got bad?” Say WHAT? You’ve known me 10 minutes and you’re presuming I share your condemnation of my former neighborhood? Was this an attempt at white-bonding over the fact that West Philly is majority African American? In that case, the multicultural neighbors were one reason I stayed so long, not why I “got out.” There was a scary increase in crime and drugs there in the 80s, but I hear it has now abated, thanks to lots of good community organizing. Most of these ups and downs happened before this arrogant boy was even born.
So how did I respond to his question? I’m embarrassed to admit that this was the best I came up with on the spot: I said, “I loved living in West Philadelphia. Some of my best friends still live there.” Pretty weak, eh?
A question for blog readers: What else should I have said? In theory I believe I should find common ground with people who make classist or racist comments, not writing them off but starting a dialogue and hanging in with them until they understand why they should change their views, while humbly remembering all the dumb things I’ve said myself. But how could I have applied that good intention to this guy, a one-time breakfast acquaintance? And challenges usually only work if I have a friendly connection with someone- and by that point I really, really disliked this young man. Only a quick come-back is possible in a situation like that.
Gail and I often stay at B&Bs or little guesthouses when we go on vacation, but this was the fanciest, most expensive one we’d ever stayed at. That delightful, one-shot luxury was marred by meeting such sneering braggarts there. In the future I want to go back “down” to the kind of accommodations where the other travelers also feel grateful for every little indulgence and where they bond over something more human than shared elitism.