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Friends with Money: Why Cross-Class Friendship is So Difficult, and Why it Matters
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You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence… I'm tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves. I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed—from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches.
-E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
I grew up standing on an island of money. Either the sea rose, as seas are liable to do in this warming climate, or I threw myself off the island. Either way, my upbringing is that of a six-hundred pounder. My bank account is not.
There was an important study in the New York Times this week about money and friendship, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a pair of anecdotes:
A few years ago, not long after I had started at Trader Joe’s, I had coffee with an old friend from Berkeley. Carl and I hadn’t seen each other in years, but we’d stayed in touch; in college, we’d been called twins because we came from similar backgrounds, favored the same preppy styles, and and wore the same heavy tortoise-shell glasses. Carl became an investment banker and a venture capitalist; I jumped off an island and into the waves.
Carl was waiting for me when I got to the coffee shop. He sat outside, but hadn’t ordered. “I’m gonna grab an Americano and a muffin,” I said. “What can I get you?”
He knew my circumstances, as I knew his. One of us was bankrupt and behind on his bills; the other worth nine figures, and had just returned from a trip to the Maldives. He hesitated, and I knew he was wondering whether he should insist on paying, or whether he should preserve my dignity, which longed to imagine that we were, at least momentarily, on the same plane. He smiled, and asked for an oatmilk latte and a scone. I paid. When I brought Carl his drink and his treat, Carl smiled gratefully. “I’ve got next.”
We haven’t seen each other since, but Carl does periodically remind me that he owes me coffee. I believe him to be worth about a half-billion by now at least. That he didn’t insist on embarrassing me by paying, and that he remembers that it’s his turn next? These are twin acts of kindness and decency.
In 2019, I had lunch with a writer whose work I had admired for years. She and I had never met in person, but had been online friends for a decade. Margaux (not her real name) had stuck by me during the worst moments of my fall from grace. She had paid a price for it too; some of her more staunchly feminist friends had been bewildered and irritated that she had not cut off contact with me, as most of the people in our shared circle had done. Over Diet Cokes, I brought up Margaux’s loyalty, and thanked her profusely.
Margaux shrugged. “I’m a wealthy woman. They can’t make me pay a price for not cancelling you.”
My friend comes from inherited money. She makes her living as a writer (and a successful one), but thanks to family money, she stands on a very sturdy island indeed. In our hyper-politicized world, refusing to cut ties with the disgraced can have very real professional repercussions — but when one is both a very talented writer and possessed of a fortune, one can welcome a shipwrecked, deeply problematic friend onto one’s archipelago, and do so without fear that an outraged mob will rise up and cast you too into the sea. I am profoundly grateful for Margaux; I appreciate her friendship immensely. It is one thing to stand on an island, and another to use that security and stability to do small, yet significant (and even sometimes dangerous) acts of kindness.
One of the best predictors of upward mobility — in a nation where that mobility has become increasingly rare and difficult — is cross-class friendship. So reported the Times last week, citing a study that found that for poor kids, friendships with people who weren’t poor could have an enormous impact on their future financial circumstances:
There seem to be three main mechanisms by which cross-class friendships can increase a person’s chances of escaping poverty:
The first is raised ambition: Social familiarity can give people a clearer sense of what’s possible. The second is basic information, such as how to apply to college and for financial aid. The third is networking, such as getting a recommendation for an internship.
My children’s abuela (my ex’s mother) grew up in abject poverty in northern Colombia. She fell in love with a charming American, who promised her a better life in the States. Ana emigrated with her new husband, and a new baby girl. Chuck, my former father-in-law, was a good man — and an alcoholic. Soon, Ana was on her own in a strange country, with a third-grade education, very little English, and very dark skin.
Ana worked as a domestic and a janitor; Eira (my ex) grew up cleaning office buildings at nights with her mother. During the day, Ana cleaned the homes of rich white families in Glendale and Pasadena. Ana may have had very little formal education, but she was a student of class mobility — and she paid keen attention to what it was that the daughters of the well-off did with their time. She noted the ballet lessons, and the soccer travel teams; she studied the clothes, monitored the style.
Meals were skipped, endless hours worked, but Eira got the ballet classes, and the fees paid for soccer. My children’s mother was a talented athlete, and soon earned scholarships into elite travel clubs. One day, a modeling agent approached Eira on the street. Ana was suspicious, but it turned out to be legitimate; by high school, Eira could support the family with regular print, catalogue, and runway bookings. Eira would eventually go to Pasadena City College, where she’d meet the father of her children, and then on to USC — paid for with a mix of modeling money and earned scholarships.
Like so many immigrants before and since, Ana scrutinized the rungs of the American ladder. She knew that hard work was essential, but alone would not be enough. It would help that her daughter would grow to be tall and beautiful and a talented athlete — but in and of itself, genetic good luck wouldn’t be sufficient. Ana figured out the real key: getting her daughter around the right friends. Sports and dance, drill team and good grades, grace and poise all led to being invited into the homes of the wealthy as a guest, not a servant — and showed Eira the very real possibility of rising to the middle class, if not beyond. My ex-wife has not had an easy life, not least thanks to the challenges posed by the man she chose to marry, but she is very much a member of that educated middle class, the first person on her mother’s side of the family to graduate high school, much less college. It is a very small island on which she stands, but despite the odds, she has raised an atoll up above the waves, and her mother, children, and many other family members have found at least a little shelter upon it.
I fell in to relative poverty later in life. My ex-wife was born into it, and with her mother’s guidance, worked and sweated, charmed and ran her way out of it. One of the things that bonded us as a couple was our shared fascination with social class, and the unspoken rituals, practices, and assumptions that undergird privilege. At one point, we became active in a variety of charities, attending and organizing fundraising galas. What we both liked about the galas — besides the dressing up and the conversation — was the art of asking people for very large sums of money without making them feel pressured or guilty. (I got good at it, which was something of a surprise.)
And yet. There’s a world of difference between asking for money for a cause (a new wing for the hospital; a new rescue farm for chinchillas) and asking for money for yourself.
The first sort of ask is an actual requirement of participation in the American upper-middle-class. In the worlds in which I was raised and in which I traveled before my fall, charity was the indispensable social activity — indeed, fundraising remains the foundational justification for the strange rituals and awkward blendings of old and new money. (I always joke that the real reason WASPs are so scared of socialism is that if the state really provided for everyone’s needs, debutante balls and charity galas would lose their justification for existence.)
When Eira was a girl, Ana told her to never, ever ask her wealthier friends for anything. If a gift was offered, or a hand-me-down appeared, it was to be accepted gratefully and with thanks, but it was sheer disaster to ask. Somehow, Ana had figured out that for cross-class friendship to work, there must be a sustained fiction that the poorer person wants nothing from the richer one. Nothing kills friendship faster than expectation or jealousy. Eira and Ana figured out the same thing I had been taught: always appear surprised and grateful when one is given something, and never hint that you thought it your due. (Better still, have your surprise and gratitude be real, not feigned.)
When I had coffee with Carl that day, I worried that he knew he could solve all my financial difficulties in an instant. That’s not hyperbole; his liquid net worth was staggering and has grown more so. I worried that he would be grimly anticipating an ask for help. I did not hide my troubles from him, but I made it very clear in as tactful a way as I could that I knew that my problems were not his to solve. If he had any recommendations for jobs, or knew someone needing a ghostwritten memoir, why, I’d be ever so grateful to have my name come up — but even if he could pay all my debts as easily as I paid for his latté, our friendship required and requires that possibility to be unthinkable for both of us.
In Howard’s End, Margaret Schlegel — herself a six-hundred pounder — declares that she is “tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor.” She doesn’t mean strutting around in proletarian chic and visiting dive bars. She’s indicting the many wealthy people who confuse their own very real anxieties with the genuine precarity of those who live close to starvation and homelessness. In the book’s primary story of cross-class friendship, an off-hand piece of casual business advice proves disastrous for a working-class friend of the Schlegels, and ends in the young man’s death. The storm is real, drowning really happens, and islands of money aren’t just refuges from the tempest, they are too often citadels of self-justification, cluelessness, and contempt.
And yet. In America, where social mobility is our bedrock dream, cross-class bitterness and resentment only ensure that the prosperous and the precarious remain distant, both fearful and contemptuous of each other.. As the Times’ study found, and as my own family’s story makes clear, opportunity is as much a matter of relationship as it is of effort and intelligence. It is what you know, and always is — but it is also who you know. The trick is to figure out how to sustain deep and meaningful friendships across a vast wealth gap. If we are to close the ever-growing cultural and prosperity divide in America, we must be willing to risk the discomfort of being around those whose circumstances are so radically different from our own.
Guilt and resentment are human emotions, but they need not be dispositive ones. We can and must transcend our bitterness, our fear, our bewilderment at a system that seems to distribute goods so unjustly. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End dovetails with the advice in the New York Times: “only connect.”
Relationship is the only thing that will save us.