Sunday, January 17, 2010

Class Discomfort

"Shop assistant: Hello, can I help you?

Vivian: I was in here yesterday, you wouldn’t wait on me.

Shop assistant: Oh.

Vivian: You people work on commission, right?

Shop assistant: Yeah.

Vivian: Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now."

- Julia Roberts as Vivian in film “Pretty Woman”

My husband is celebrating a BIG birthday today, so for two months I can gleefully say that we are residing in two different decades, because I’m petty like that. I asked where he wanted to eat on his birthday, and he said, “Let’s go to a steakhouse, even though it’s more than we would ever spend on steak at home. We’ve never gone to one.” We went on to research some steakhouses, and we agreed on K.O. Prime in Boston because: it wasn’t a chain, boasted great sides (creamed spinach raves), was known for delicious desserts (vanilla crème brulee was a favorite), and had a bone marrow appetizer (That was my selling point). Oh, and the steaks were supposed to be fabulous as well.

Once we chose the place, I went on to make a reservation, but nothing came up, so I called the restaurant. Turns out they were closed on Sunday and Monday, which struck me as odd. We decided not to waste all of our research and just go the day before the BIG day.

I knew that the steaks ran as much as $45 a plate, not including sides, which would get me about six or eight filet mignons at Costco. Of course, my home in Area 4 boasts none of the atmosphere of a restaurant in a swanky hotel just off Boston Common. A birthday only comes once a year, and a decade changer comes once every ten years (I paid attention in Math class). To keep myself from getting anxious over the price tag, I told myself the whole night would cost some outlandish amount, so when the bill came I’d be pleasantly surprised. Believe it or not, it worked.

After explaining to my husband how to dress “business casual” per the restaurant website’s instructions, I dressed up as well. When we arrived, the staff took our coats and immediately seated us, once we figured out what name I put the reservation under (Not “Theresa”, not my husband’s first name. Turns out it was under “Milstein”). My husband scanned the wine list, and then handed me the menu, which meant I would choose the wine. I was going to joke that I’d pick a bottle of wine costing the same number as his birthday, which would be a BIG splurge as we usually choose about as low in price as we can. Turns out that the cheapest bottle cost $45. I thought about my outlandish estimate of the eventual bill, and believed I’d still fall under it.

I’m not one to pretend I’m something I’m not. When the waitress came over, I told her I didn’t want to spend much on wine, and asked for a recommendation. She recommended Spellbound, which wound up being perfect. And when it was time to order steaks, I sought her advice as well. If you live in the Boston area or plan to visit, and like to spend a lot of money on steaks, go to this place.

At some point I used the bathroom. After washing my hands, I reached to take a paper towel, and almost had a moment when I wondered if the paper towel was actually a hand towel. They were so soft and absorbent that they didn’t mush from the water, and the wastebasket looked like a laundry receptacle.

Something similar happened to me four years ago, when a friend and I took my sister to a tearoom for her birthday. For the record, I would never go to a tearoom on my own, and I don’t even know if that’s the correct name for it. We had teas in lovely pots with pretty pastries. When I used their restroom, I was flummoxed by the quality of the towels, fingering them in confusion. Were they to go in the garbage can or was there another place for them to be laundered?

Although I was still dismayed that these towels would take decades to decay in a garbage dump, this time, at least I knew they weren’t made of cloth. Can’t they be recycled?

As you can see, I’m not exactly comfortable with what I perceive to be excess. Some of it comes from my upbringing. My family almost never went out to dinner; I wore hand-me-downs for years, and we didn't own anything that my father would have called “ostentatious”. Because my father grew up in a working class household, he sometimes leaks out some of my Irish grandfather’s attitudes towards the wealthy. While he did well, there was the Irish “Don’t get too big for your britches” sentiment. Since I don’t think I own any britches, no problem there.

Now I’m not as out of place in nice places as Julie Roberts was when she first stepped into the boutique on Rodeo Drive in the movie “Pretty Woman”, but it’s different than my day-to-day life.

Yesterday morning, we were all cleaning the house. I began scrubbing areas that often get overlooked, and when I notice them, they have a layer of grime, like the kitchen windowsills. At some point, my husband came in and said, “Now that you’re working more, we should outsource this thing.” He wanted her to do the parts that we often neglect. I know a lot of people who work full time and get a maid to clean once a week or once every other week. I understand how indulgences seem like a necessities because when I’m pulled in too many different directions, something has to give.

This past week was like that. I only worked four days, but each afternoon I had to scramble to make it to the children’s after school activities, cook dinner, and at least wash clothes, if they didn’t get folded and put away. When my son tells me he’s out of shirts, and I have to tell him to check the pile in my room, I know we’ve hit chaos.

But is having a maid a solution? My husband brought it up again during dinner, and I chewed on the idea and my rare steak. It was hard for me to articulate why it’s weird to me. The woman will probably clean my house, along with many others, go home and have to cook dinner for her family, and then clean her own house. It’s as odd to me as women who have relatives watch their children so they can go to some family’s home and watch someone else’s children. These scenarios existed for few families thirty plus years ago.

If I get a maid, then she makes money, and that’s good. But it seems miles away from my Sicilian grandmother doing piecework in a tenement house on the lower east side nearly a century ago. I’m in a different place, and I have to make peace with it.

“There is only one class in the community that thinks about more money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.”

- Oscar Wilde


  1. Martini, I don't know if we can justify having a maid, so don't get too jealous yet!

    Sheila, I'll give him the message.

  2. Hi

    Yes happy birthday!

    Tough call about employing a maid. It'll need a lot of thinking about,it's a major decision, it's up to you and your family and what you feel is right.

    Take care

  3. The idea of having my house stay clean without having to spend all my free time doing it myself is appealing. However, PAYING to have it done, and having some stranger in my house to do it is not appealing. I would feel like I'd have to clean up before he or she got there, so I wouldn't be embarrassed that it was messy. Silly, I know, since the whole reason the person is there is to clean the messes I didn't get to. I wonder if the maids judge their clients' homes and gossip to the other maids about them. I'm sure they do. How could they not?

  4. I'm contemplating the same thing. And it is weird in a way.

  5. Thanks for the birthday wishes, Old Kitty.

    Surfie, I think a lot of people feel like you do about cleaning for a maid. I'm sure maids gossip, but if it's about my house being dirty, I've already revealed it here!

    Joan, I agree it's weird. I have a friend who got one, but she was uncomfortable with the whole idea. Then when she thought the house wasn't being cleaned thoroughly, she was too timid to say anything, and let it go on for weeks or maybe even months.

  6. We're from the same household, so I get it; more money can bring certain
    comforts, but I'm not comfortable doing certain things that most families don't have the luxury of doing, like hiring a maid. However, given your hectic schedule , I'd urge you to consider it.

  7. Happy Birthday.

    My belief, you earn the money you can spend it anyway you want. It doesn't matter how other people would perceive you spending money that you earned.

    If you go for the maid, enjoy it!!


  8. Kathleen, I'm trying to tell myself that it's not different than hiring someone to landscape your property (I don't have any) or to do your laundry (I do my own).

    Andrew, thank for the birthday wishes. I think my husband is surprised that he's getting them from people who read my blog.

    I guess I'm stuck on the idea that I'd be hiring someone who probably makes as much an hour as me and doesn't have insurance like me. If it weren't for my husband's job, there's no way we could consider it.