Bad behavior doesn't diminish when wallets get bigger

I don't know, maybe I just don't like anyone.  

Back when I lived in Hartford, I thought the social tendencies of the underclass spelled certain doom for our nation -- wasteful personal finance habits, too many poorly-reared children, and an overall lack of good manners.   Having lived in Darien for the past five years, I'm certain the behavior of the privileged is equally bad, if not worse -- poor personal finance habits, too many poorly-reared children and an overall lack of good manners.   

The main difference is that the well-to-do have no excuse. 

Both the poorest and the richest municipalities in Connecticut do a lot of the same things about which they should know better or try harder.  

I'll get back to that in a second, first a couple of disclaimers.  First, Darien isn't the richest town -- New Canaan beats it out by a nose, in an annual per capita amount about equal to the cost of a few  Iraqi oil fill-ups for a Land Cruiser.  But that's the 1990 census, so ya never know.

Also, not everyone in Hartford is poor, nor is everyone in Darien rich.  But having lived in both places, I can make more than a few generalizations.

You see a lot of incivility and downright rudeness in both towns. In Hartford, the thundering car stereos audible from a few blocks away always made me cringe.  

Here in Darien, motor vehicle misbehavior is less intrusive, but more dangerous, as when drivers in behemoth SUV's try to beat pedestrians to the crosswalk.

Folks in both towns feel the need to blow their dough on designer fashions.  Back in the 'hood, no self-respecting, trash-talking young male would head out the door without first donning his Allen Iverson sneakers and Fubu jacket.  Of course, there are lots of Darien 'hood wannabes doing the same.

And locals here will also not think twice about dropping what is more than a week's pay for most people in Hartford on a Lilly Pulitzer outfit for their precious 8-year-old Ashley.  

Conspicuous consumption in Darien is so conspicuous it isn't even conspicuous.  

Refrigerators.  People in both places spend way too much to keep their cottage cheese cold, albeit for different reasons.  In Hartford, a lot of folks just don't have the dough to walk into Sears and buy a fridge so they rent from a loan shark thinly-disguised as a rental center.   They end up paying $1500 for a $500 appliance.

Here on the Gold Coast, the must-have cooler is the Sub Zero -- which is a brand name and not an IQ score.  Sub Zero doesn't make refrigerators, they make "refrigeration systems" by which you can make what looks like a closet door or a bread drawer be a refrigerator.

One Sub Zero purchaser I know told me the several thousand dollars they spent was well worth it because their small children could go to the drawer/refrigerator and get their own juice drinks.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that this innovation has been around since the icebox -- it's called a bottom shelf. 

Cell phones.  Rich and poor alike are hooked on these things. This is a lost cause, I know.  There are two kinds of people when it comes to cell phones -- those who think they are just terrific and folks like me who think people walking around yakking look silly and are being rude.  

And don't get me started on the blabbermouths who always seem to be in front of me in a cashier line.  It's all I can do to keep from ripping it out of their hands and stomping on it.  Remember when John Belushi smashes the folk singer's guitar in "Animal House" and then mutters a sheepish, "Sorry?"  That's my fantasy.  

Schools in both places are segregated.  Hartford, at least, is trying with its magnet schools which are seeing some success in bringing in some students from the suburbs.  The last time I checked,  there were no African-Americans in either the middle  school or high school in Darien, except for half a dozen carefully selected girls from New York who attend the high school and live together in a house as part of the A Better Chance program.

People in Darien say, "there are no black people who live here, so what can you do?"  Well, Simsbury manages to take a few score minority Hartford kids every year as part of the state's Project Choice program.  Simsbury, by the way, kicks Darien's butt every year when the Connecticut Mastery Test scores are released.

Why does any of this matter?  On a practical level,  poor people who don't spend money sensibly lose out in several ways, from the stress of too much debt to being unable to afford reliable transportation for employment.   And it seems to me that anyone who would buy themselves a $5000 refrigerator ought to buy themselves a nice $1500 Frigidaire and three Kenmores for those unfortunates at the rental center.  The milk will still be kept cold.

And we can learn something from a group modern sociologists are calling the "Belongers." Belongers are middle and lower-middle income people who tend to live in the Midwest, whose social lives revolve around places like the Elks' Club and the church  and who do most of their shopping at Wal-Mart and KMart.  Belongers have lower divorce rates, less alcoholism and drug-addiction and generally lead "happier" lives than those at the ends of the economic spectrum.  

Some trend-watchers are seeing Americans of all income groups, notably those in the Pacific Northwest,  moving away from brand name, high-end conspicuous consumption and instead opting for a more basic life fulfilled with simpler and more altruistic pleasures.

The optimist in me is encouraged by this.  Maybe the "in" crowd, or at least how we define it, is on the way out.


April 26, 2002