Filthy Lucre – by Molly Crabapple
When you fly Virgin Upper Class out of Heathrow, you go through a separate set of airport security.
With a ticket that costs $4,000 round-trip, you swipe your boarding pass, go up a sleek private elevator, and pass through security and passport control that is delighted to see you. “Lovely suitcase,” they coo. You’re whisked away to the Virgin Clubhouse, with its free facials and single-malt scotch. Except briefly, you never interact with the airport’s general population.
Some months ago, I got to fly first-class from London. Until then, I’d never realized it wasn’t just a recliner in the plane and some cheap bubbly, but rather a separate sphere of being. In first-class, you weren’t groped or barked at or treated like a combination of a terrorist and a cow. Instead, paid servants pretended your presence was a gift.
After years of work trips crammed in coach, being forced to show my underwear to the TSA, I felt like a guttersnipe in a palace. I loved it, but it was also deeply strange. “These people don’t really like me,” I thought, no matter how skillfully they acted like they did.
Until you see it, you never realize how separate the sphere of the rich is from that of everyone else.
I came from a middle-class, divorced home. As is typical, the upper-middle-class end of the split went to my dad, and the lower-middle-class to my mom. Like most people trying to make it in an impractical profession, I spent years living in rat-infested tenements with roommates who threatened to kill me in my sleep.
Unlike most artists, I started to make money. Not 1 percent money, but more than my mom ever dreamed of. Once I did, I started to realize how broken the idea of American meritocracy was.
Meritocracy is America’s foundational myth. If you work hard, society tells us, you’ll earn your place in the middle class. But any strawberry picker knows hard work alone is a fast road to nowhere. Similarly, we place our faith in education. Study, and the upper-middle class will be yours. Except the average student graduates $35,000 in debt.