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American Pie: Class, Crass, Money And Manners

...I’m embarrassed to admit that I believed if I succeeded in creating a better life for myself, the world I joined would be populated by people who valued civilized behavior, good manners and honorable standards. How stupid could I have been?...

John Merchant, reared in class-conscious England, has had his great expectations blunted in the egalitarian United States.

To read more of John's enlightening columns please click on American Pie in the menu on this page.

This column is an unashamed confession of naiveté, but I can’t help myself. The root of my naiveté is the mistaken belief that certain circumstances of birth, wealth and/or education should influence behavior in a positive way. Despite daily experiences to the contrary, I continue to cling to this foolish premise. If I need to explain the origin of my expectations, I guess my formative years in class-structured England are at the heart of it.

My family was working class in the real sense of the words; not, as in America now, where the “working class” has become the middle class. I believe this nomenclature transition came about in the US because the newly minted middle class is the prime source of tax dollars, so you’d better give them their due. Anyway, my folks, at the time I was born, were truly at the bottom of the pile.

My father was a bookkeeper for the gas company; my mother was from a family of steelworkers and had been the live-in help on a farm, prior to her marriage with my father. The ancestors on both sides of my family were of the same ilk, so it wasn’t as if we’d seen better days and fallen on hard times. The often-repeated mantra was that we should look up to and respect our “betters”. That we knew no one in these elevated classes didn’t render the protocol illogical in my parents’ eyes.

The classes of society as we knew them were: working class, middle class, upper class, landed gentry and nobility. If we had any insights into the lives of our “betters,” it would only have been the middle class; made up in those days of professional people – teachers, doctors, lawyers and the like, with a sprinkling of upper class unfortunates down on their luck. My mother, through her life on the farm, occasionally experienced a brush with nobility when the Duke of Norfolk’s shooting parties broke for lunch at the farm, which the Duke owned.

But, by and large, the lives of non-working-class people were a closed book to us, and if that seems surprising these days, you have to remember that there were no paparazzi or tell-all magazines back then. The attitude of most of us towards our “betters” was a strange mixture of grudging respect and sneering, Hogarthian derision.

My maternal grandfather harbored a burning anger towards the industrial barons who had all but killed him with their inhuman working conditions; and through frequent lock-outs with no pay when business was bad. Yet I’m sure he would have touched the neb of his cap and smiled wryly if he had encountered one of them. My mother often referred to the landed gentry as “dirty toffs”. In part this came out of the working class belief that cleanliness was next to godliness. The gentry were often not pristine, and very frequently were penniless, though you couldn’t tell by their demeanor.

Historically, English people had been enjoined to know their place and not to harbor ambitions to better themselves. Around the time I became aware of the world around me, World War II was beginning, and a belief that seems farcical when I look back on it, was that the travails of wartime would be a great leveler. While the war was at its height, there was some blurring of the class edges, but as we all should have anticipated, the status quo was re-established when the war ended.

But one social change that persisted into peacetime was that working class people allowed themselves to have aspirations to “better” themselves. A university education, vacations in Europe, a family car, their own home, dining out; all entered the realm of possibility. I certainly shared these ambitions, and looked upon it as my duty to my parents to progress beyond the plebeian status that had hitherto shaped our lives. I think my mother was a little apprehensive of my endeavors, but my father had always had closet aspirations and was more accepting of my striving.

And now we come to the full exposure of my naivety. I’m embarrassed to admit that I believed if I succeeded in creating a better life for myself, the world I joined would be populated by people who valued civilized behavior, good manners and honorable standards. How stupid could I have been?

These days I live in two communities; one in the winter and another in the summer. In both cases the people I interact with are prosperous, successful, and in the main, well educated. A significant number of them are also opportunistic, aggressive, and have the manners of an alligator. It’s a matter of time before I get hit in the face by a door let go by the person preceding me. And I can’t tell you how many times I hold a door open and have four or five people pass through without one “thank you.”

My winter community has a luxurious exercise room with showers and lockers. Towels are provided, with headphones for the TV’s on the exercise machines, and slip-on sandals for the shower. To obtain any of these amenities requires a signature. Why? Because the residents, some of whom live in million dollar homes, steal them. The men’s and ladies’ locker rooms originally provided top quality toiletries. Now, the colognes, skin and shaving creams and shampoos are all supermarket brands because people took the better ones home!

At the community pool, where towels are also provided, and signed for, people will check out six or seven and lay each one on a lounger, then go to the bar to join their friends for an hour or more. Meanwhile, latecomers are out of luck if they want a lounger. I could go on, but this is all beginning to sound prissy and preachy. But if education, prosperity and success don’t engender more civilized behavior, what will advance the ascent of man? And don’t suggest religion. Faith has had millennia to use its influence for good, and look where we are.

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