Early this summer, when I was collecting people to be in my summer house rental upstate, a 28-year-old guy, Chris Fahey, turned me down because he said it was “too bourgeois” to be part of a share. Too bourgeois! It gave me a strange thrill to hear those words. They had a taboo-ish sexiness, as if he ought to have delivered them via samizdat. The lefty, bohemian, Village Voice -reading downtown New York where those words once had a home is occupied by the mighty, cocktail-swallowing armies of Wallpaper and Fast Company . Who, in the fully ironicized, mall-ified, I.P.O.-rich New York of today would earnestly say they were worried about being “too bourgeois”? Was this some kind of retro thing?
I was so intrigued that one weekend in July, I spent a day driving around Sullivan County, where my share is, visiting friends and accosting them with, “A summer house is too bourgeois: Discuss.” Surprisingly, hours of debate ensued. The lens of the summer house somehow made visible what I’d thought was an extinct sector of the New York brain: good, old-fashioned, liberal guilt.
I wanted to understand my refusenik’s position, so I called Chris on his cell phone. “I definitely did have a little crisis about it,” he said. “Part of it is that I’m very conscious of going places where they hate New Yorkers, because they come in and they act like they own the place. But the locals can’t do anything about it because their economy’s dependent on them.”
“You don’t want to be taking ‘a cheap holiday in someone else’s misery’?” I asked, quoting the Sex Pistols.
“Yeah.” He told me a story to illustrate his point. “A friend of mine got married in Bucks County, Pa. The entire scene was full of magazine publishing people, and artists, and rock stars-like Jon Spencer and his wife were there.
“That night, we all went out to the local bars. We were all dressed in our wedding outfits, so we all had these really nice suits on, so there were a lot of beautiful, well-groomed New Yorkers, and all these poor Pennsylvania hicks. Then this kid comes up to me and my friends. He had some fucked up, like, missing teeth-he was right out of Deliverance or something. He was about 22 or 23. He was a little drunk. He goes, ‘You guys are from New York, huh?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Awww. Nothin’ happens here.’
“He gave this sort of, right out of a cheesy Broadway tearjerker play, about how, ‘Oh, the small-town blues, nothing happens here, wish I could go to the big city, we don’t get too many people like you here.’”
Chris’ liberal guilt kicked in at this point. “He was really nice. And really wanted to be friends with us. We hung out with him and played pool with him and stuff. But at the same time, I felt really bad. I felt like, ‘Oh, I wish I could take you with us, or something,’ but, you know, you can’t.” Chris was locked in an ideological dilemma. “The whole sort of self-reflexive loop came in, like, ‘I can’t feel sorry for him, because that’s condescending, but if I don’t, then I’m being callous.’ You know, ‘How can I be real about this? How can I be real about anything having to do with class consciousness?’”
An acquaintance of mine from Brooklyn, an artist and teacher who asked not to be named, bought a farmhouse in Greene County a few years ago, and he feels pretty guilty about it. “I do feel that it’s bourgeois,” he said.
Like Chris, he feels guilty about the have-nots who live year-round in his playground. “There’s a lot of tension with locals. We come from different economies. They’re not feeling the boom up here. Plumbers and people like that look at me like I’m Mr. Moneybags.”
I realized that summering out of town activates class guilt in a way that riding the subway, for example, does not. One constantly sees people poorer than oneself in the city; but being a full-time resident gives you that “we’re all in the same boat” feeling. Going upstate, though, if you’re at all sensitive, you know that you’re an invading and not necessarily entirely welcome species, and that your relative wealth and city-slicker ways can be a noxious irritant to the locals.
Joe Weisbord, a friend who works for a national nonprofit housing organization, has tried a couple of ways to avoid parading on their own turf before those who are less well-off. He thought of “vacationing where there are no locals,” but, he said, “that’s even worse-places like Disneyland, or those resorts in Jamaica where there’s only a hired staff.”
Joe and his wife also tried the route of going to “the most low-rent summer spot: a state park.” But that wasn’t any good, either. They found that they didn’t really like the masses all that much. “We were surrounded by people from the Christian Right, or the K.K.K., or something horrible like that.” In the end, they admitted defeat in the war against summertime bourgeois attrition. “I guess we’re really just prejudiced elitists. We prefer to be around people from our own milieu.”
Most of the young, new-style lefties I know are offended by guilt-wallowing, anyway. Their Gen-X capitalist logic decimates baby boomer, Ben & Jerry’s-type sentimental Marxism. “Guilt is a useless emotion,” declared 28-year-old Nicole Nolan, a grad student in medieval literature at Rutgers, where the humanities departments have for years been influential hotbeds of leftist cultural studies. “The idea that, ‘I’m not going to spend my money because it’s too bourgeois to spend it’-that’s ridiculous! Aren’t they suffering in the Catskills because they don’t have as much tourism as they used to?” Ms. Nolan and I were doing our bit for the local economy-she’s in my share, and we were chatting while lounging on our lovely redwood deck, overlooking the inner-tubers and kayakers on the Delaware below.
I called up Andrew Ross, famously leftist director of American Studies at New York University and author of The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town (just out from Ballantine). “I don’t have much time for
the antihedonistic ethos amongst the political left,” he said. “It’s not bourgeois to want to get out of the city in the summer. The country and the seaside should be part of the welfare state. It used to be, in the case of the socialist bloc. The workers stayed in seaside resorts and hotels that previously belonged to the bourgeoisie.”
The Catskills were once the preserve of the un-fancy classes, anyway. I know this from having seen Dirty Dancing . Jews without money created the borscht belt of summer resorts and cheap communal camps-probably not all that dissimilar from those socialist bloc resorts. I guess the problem now is that people like me are going up there and pricing out people like them.
Whatever. What are you going to do? Thanks to his ideological paralysis, Mr. Fahey had to stay in stinky Manhattan all summer while we in the share breathed fresh Delaware River air. We went to yard sales and bought old board games to play at night. You can learn everything you need to know about real estate by playing Monopoly.