The Rise of a Bourgeois Paradise
01 April 2004
One recent morning, I was sitting at my desk in my home in Los Angeles when the telephone rang. The display on the caller ID said Sandra Bernhard and indicated a number in the greater LA metro area. I took in a minor gasp. The actress/comedienne Sandra Bernhard, who has always occupied a place on my altar of celebrity worship, was calling me. What could she want? Perhaps she had read something of mine, a book or an article, and wanted to work with me on a project. Maybe she was developing a cable television show or radio program or humor book about some cultural malady she thought I’d relate to, like chronic misanthropy or dry skin or dogs that shed. Perhaps she knew someone I knew—how many degrees of separation could there be between Sandra Bernhard and me?—and wanted to “touch base,” “put a call in,” issue forth some recognition of our shared sensibilities, invite me out for coffee to talk about the possibility of collaboration, or whatever, you know, just say hi. It was a Monday morning, the first day back to work after a long holiday weekend, and as the ringing phone vibrated in my palm, the promise of good fortune buzzed through me like caffeine.
The days had been unremarkable of late. A slow September had folded into a slower October and November, the lack of seasons erasing any sense of urgency or passage of time. But there I was, on the first day of December, receiving a call from Sandra Bernhard, who was possibly calling because she wanted to option an obscure article I’d written for an obscure magazine, who possibly suspected I was a person whom she should get to know, who possibly wanted to be my friend, possibly very soon. There was a rightness about it all, a karmic logic, proof, finally, that things really did turn around when one was patient. This entire sequence of thoughts passed through my mind in the time it took for the phone to ring twice. I waited through the third ring to answer, preparing an air of vocal insouciance that would conceal my euphoric anticipation.
It was Blanca Castillo*, my cleaning lady. She was calling to ask if she could come on Saturday rather than Friday. In my shock, I barely listened to her. I wondered if Sandra Bernhard was right there, puttering around in leather pants and Manolos while Blanca stole away to the telephone. I wondered if Sandra Bernhard was neater than I was, if Blanca preferred her to me, if Blanca worked for celebrities throughout the week and saw me as a kind of charity case, a neophyte in the realm of domestic employment. Though she’s been in this country for almost 20 years, Blanca’s English is halting and uncertain, and as she stumbled through an apologetic explanation of why she couldn’t come on Friday, I felt a chemical shift inside myself—the euphoria vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The disappointment was almost overwhelming. Sandra Bernhard had not called me. It was another Monday, another month. Soon it would be another year. Still, the sun shined.
I cannot take this anecdote any further without explaining that before moving to Los Angeles, nearly a year ago, I’d never employed outside help to clean my house. I grew up in a family whose liberal guilt collided with its Midwestern origins with such thunderous intensity that I was 30 before I ever drove into a car wash (unsure of what to do) and 33 before I considered the possibility that paying someone $20 an hour to perform services for which they actively advertise and/or take referrals is not necessarily on a par with running a sweatshop. Still, I can’t help feeling that employing a cleaner represents some kind of foray into a phase of my life that might look something like adulthood, but has more to do with the simulation of movie and magazine-spread life that is at the root of the current American bourgeois construct. In recent years, I have come to own or lease a number of entities that would have been unthinkable during the pre-bourgeois years of my 20s. I have a house, a car, an 80-pound collie/St Bernard mix, and a sofa that I purchased at Crate and Barrel. And since I have reluctantly decided that the dog sheds more hair in the house than I can keep under control while fulfilling my own professional responsibilities, I enlist Blanca twice a month to perform duties that, prior to the Reagan era, the vast majority of Americans managed to do on their own quite nicely. This isn’t anything I’m proud of. The fact that I cannot keep my own house clean strikes me as more than a minor character flaw. But if I’ve discovered anything since moving to Los Angeles it’s that the assimilation process feels a lot like the aging process: We mellow out, we settle down, we accept, as a yoga teacher might say, “our possibilities and our limitations.” Put another way, I could say we lose our edge, become resigned, learn not to flinch so visibly at the price of real estate. Which is to say, for better or worse, we let the tides of bourgeois culture crash over our rough spots until we’re smooth as stones. Then we hire someone to clean up all the debris on the beach.
It feels not entirely accidental that my foray into the bourgeoisie coincides with my arrival in Los Angeles. This is a city that is bourgeois by necessity, less for its codependent relationship with the automobile than with its desperate love affair with the home. When you inhabit a geography that is at once so sprawling and so congested, when the prospect of going to a concert or a ballgame or a dinner party often means an hour or more on crowded, menacing freeways, the home becomes the primary focus of leisure activity. If there’s anything Angelenos enjoy more than going out, it’s staying in. And as much as the rest of the world may perceive Los Angeles as a city obsessed with cars, locals know that the car is simply a means to our most precious end: our houses. The amount of time discussing paint samples and Pergo rugs and the proper, earthquake-safe bolting of water heaters makes the topic of Lexuses (or is it Lexi?) and BMWs as incidental and irrelevant as the weather. Cars, like the 70-degree sunny days, are merely an ongoing condition. The house, be it a Brentwood estate or a slablike bungalow in South Central, is a living organism. And it is the house, more than the cars or clothes or Botox or anything else associated with LA’s celebrated materialism, that supplies the canvas for our bourgeois expression. We redecorate, we remodel, we refinance. Whether we’re spending $100,000 on a new kitchen or $40 on a designer doormat, we all have the opportunity to assert some symbol of affluence. That’s because the bourgeois lifestyle is no longer exclusively the domain of the bourgeoisie.
Though the term “proletariat” has become quaint, even politically incorrect, the fact that 43 million Americans lack medical insurance is, on its own, evidence that social and economic disenfranchisement is alive and well. When Karl Marx wrote that “the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange,” he could have easily been talking about the corporate monoliths that now sell us the Indian jewelry and shabby chic furniture that deliver an aura of hipness without the hassle of rummaging through flea markets. But anyone who’s shopped for a blender or even cotton underwear in the last several years has been wooed by the slick, shiny packaging in which our current mode of production and exchange is wrapped. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there that’s not very expensive. The economic course of the 21st century has helped to spread, if not the wealth itself, at least the trappings of that wealth into further reaches of the culture than Marx could have imagined.
The revolution did indeed come. It’s just that it was a revolution not of politics, but of style. Any Democrat who’s scratching his head wondering why the lower and working classes continually vote against their economic interests would do well to visit a Target store. Target, as most of us now know, is less a store than a phenomenon. It is what makes the poor really invisible. It makes them look just like the rich. In fact, at Target the poor shop right alongside the rich. If ever there was a symbol of the democratization of design, of the sudden ability of the average or even poorer-than-average American to appear affluent, it is the fact that a sleek, conspicuously modish Michael Graves “spinner whistle” tea kettle can be purchased at any of more than 1100 Target stores across the country for $29.99. Gone are the days when the rich had lustrous kitchen appliances and the poor made do with garage-sale items. Never before have so many of us been able to join this game of bourgeois dress-up. If the Roseanne show were still on the air today, the working-class Connor family might have a Michael Graves tea kettle. At the very least, its costumers and set designers would note that an Isaac Mizrahi zipped cardigan hoodie can be picked up for $24.99 and Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig’s Swell line offers a smartly chic fabric shower curtain for a mere $14.99.
As I write this, a giant Target is being built on an entire city block in Hollywood, just a few miles from where I live. This is a prospect that excites not only me but dozens of friends and acquaintances who view the opening of a new, convenient Target as a major asset to our quality of life. The frequency with which Target comes up in conversation, while amusing, is not exactly surprising. Now that the dues of bourgeoisie membership exist on a sliding scale, most of us can afford to stay in the club. This gives us all a common reference point, a safety zone in which we can discuss our consumer habits and tastes without fear of alienating others or appearing elitist. The reality that there is a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, the fact that a rich person’s Target experience (a playground of items that seem practically free!) bears little resemblance to the required discipline and inherent anxiety of a poor person’s Target experience can be easily dismissed. What matters is that we all have the same tea kettle.
I’ve been known to use the word “bougie.” I use it as a derogatory expression connoting various cultural forces that I and others of my ilk deem loathsomely middlebrow. By “ilk” I mean people who spent their late teens and much of their twenties engaged in a violent struggle to keep at bay anything that’s less than hip. We are people who have had the luxury of a certain kind of educational or class privilege and, as I see in retrospect, used that privilege as a means of rejecting almost everything in our midst rather than taking advantage of the myriad options that lay before us. That is to say we only liked things until the rest of the world liked them; then we hated them. Every generation keeps its own list of treasonous icons—the bands that become too popular, the authors that dare to write best sellers, the sneaker styles that suddenly show up in the mall. That I continue, on occasion, to trot out the “bougie” allegation surely points to some form of arrested development. It also roots me firmly within my age group. The things I find middlebrow are usually things my parents’ generation embraced as symbols of their cultural or socioeconomic prowess. It runs the gamut: bagel slicers, Volvos, Garrison Keillor. It’s also about as moot as anything could possibly be. As anyone who’s over the age of 27 (34 if you live in a major metropolitan area) knows, today’s highbrow is tomorrow’s middlebrow. The brows descend along with the rest of the sagging face—that’s why it’s called growing up. Insofar as going bourgeois reflects the aging process itself, we may be forced to reconcile it as a simple fact of life.
Not being 21 anymore means coping with the fact that the stuff you like is probably considered fogeyish by those who are 21. In my less self-conscious moments, I can even admit to myself that I kind of like Volvos and Garrison Keillor, that given the choice between Garrison Keillor and, say, 90 percent of what’s on the radio at any given time, I’d buy a ticket to Lake Wobegon and stay there until spring. To grow older is to accept that bourgeois is in the eye of the beholder, that “bouginess” is less an objective description than a way of calibrating our relationship to culture at large. But I think what dogs us, at least what occasionally gnaws at me when I’m sitting in my car (Subaru) listening to music that may pass for easy listening and fretting about how I still haven’t read The Tin Drum is the anxiety stirred by the fear of becoming one of them. Even as the universe expands, the world shrinks. The more connected we become, the more we know about stuff. And the more stuff is known about, the more bourgeois it becomes.
Not being 21 anymore means I’d be lying if I said that was all bad. Some of it, like the anxiety about my music in the car, is a waste of energy. Other parts of it may just be residual flotsam from the consumer carnival of the 1980s. In other words, it’s Ronald Reagan who made me one of them. The degree to which the economic policies of the Reagan administration lay the groundwork for the democracy of tea kettle design occurred to me last December during a broadcast of the TV movie The Reagans. Amid an otherwise unremarkable sequence of biographical snippets about the couple’s rise from Hollywood B-listers to the White House came a scene wherein Ron and Nancy, up late after attending a Republican fundraiser, mull over the ramifications of leaving the Democratic Party.
Ron: I like those people tonight. You know? They were really nice. Don’t you think? Nancy: And rich. Ron: I’ve never seen so many rich people in one place. Nancy: Yeah, it was a whole new level. Real money. Ron: Yeah, different. Texaco. Shell. Mobil oil. And they didn’t even look tired. You know? They look like they spend all their time on vacation. Nice fellas.
This exchange still leaves me with an uncanny déjà vu. I’ve heard this conversation somewhere before (minus the references to big oil and Senate campaigns). I’ve heard almost these exact words in more conversations than I can count and it’s never exactly about switching political affiliations; it’s been about moving to Los Angeles. Most often, it is how New Yorkers sound when they contemplate moving to Los Angeles. The thought sequence is nearly always the same, as formulaic and intoxicating as a pop song. There is the initial suspicion of the apparent ease of it all (it can’t be as good as it looks), and then there is the initial seduction of the weather (warm but generally not too warm, dry and sunny and moodless—weather on Prozac). Then the Californians begin their seduction. They’re really nice, don’t you think? They’re rich. Even the ones who aren’t rich seem rich. Such lovely homes, such lawn maintenance, such friendly dogs that don’t leave a trace of hair on the sofa. They don’t even look tired. You know?
Moving to Los Angeles is a bit like becoming a Republican. It is also, especially for New Yorkers, the ultimate bourgeois act. There is an element to living here that involves a certain hanging up of bohemian credentials, a surrender to the strip malls and car culture and suburb-oriented infrastructure that rankles those of us who purport to be “against” such things. As unimaginative a political position as this is, it can’t be denied that LA, for all its corners of funky, urban grit (see: the tattooed hipsters of Silverlake and Echo Park), will probably never shake its reputation for bottle-blond wannabe starlets and drug-addled, mansion-dwelling lotharios (see: the Phil Spector homicide scandal). Despite a formidable, albeit subtle, intellectual community in Los Angeles, the city’s brand recognition remains tied around a celebrated American stereotype: the general flakiness of Californians and the more particular (and insidious) shallowness of Angelenos.
Since I’m not one to deny most stereotypes their God-given kernels of truth, I will admit to running up against slightly more airheadedness in Los Angeles than I have in other parts of the country. Maybe it’s the automobile-induced isolation, maybe it’s the lulling effects of weatherlessness, but certain Angelenos, for some reason, like to talk about astrology and spirit guides and gurus and Scientology. This is their brand of bohemianism. And the speed with which this bohemianism has been converted to the bourgeois (see: the yoga aisle at Target) has less to do with shallowness than with a kind of willingness to grow up. Angelenos, as a group, do not rail against the bourgeois affectations of Garrison Keillor; they sit back in their cars and drink him in. They do not shout at one another in a crowded supermarket; they take a breath, find their balance, and say a prayer of thanks for all of life’s blessings—for instance, the availability of a certain perfectly good table wine that sells in California for $1.99. As a New Yorker at heart and a snob to the core, I can feel my edges being sanded down by these blessings, and I don’t always like it. But I try to chalk up this dichotomy to the yin and yang of the East Coast/West Coast continuum. What are the coasts if not the most tangible manifestations of the opposite sides of the cultural spectrum? What is California if not the epitome of the West, of the other edge, of leftness itself? What is Los Angeles if not the corporate headquarters of that edge, the McWest, a mammoth left-turn lane on Bougie Boulevard?
What California is and, more importantly, what Los Angeles represents to the vast majority of its residents is an exhilarating merger of middle-class values and upper-class aesthetics. If Target were a city of eight million, it would be Los Angeles, a place where ambition is expressed through appearance and form trumps function any day of the week. The rather cumbersome ergonomics of the Michael Graves tea kettle present the same contradiction as the million-dollar house perched ludicrously on the Malibu mud slide: It may not last forever, but it sure looks nice. At the same time, there are plenty of ordinary things to choose from here. For every Porsche, there are a thousand Toyotas. For every nipped and tucked Beverly Hills maven, there are a thousand office girls just trying to pay the rent in Torrance. The beauty in all of this lies in the degree to which everyone can absorb the glamor. With bourgeois sprinkled so evenly throughout the atmosphere, descending upon every man, woman, and child, like ashes from the wild fires, the democracy of design can give us the illusion of real democracy.
Los Angeles’s chief export may be the movies, but its local economy is largely in the business of lifestyle. The gleaming cars—never rusty or mud splattered—the generically attractive citizenry, the conspicuous yet largely unmentioned racial segregation all conspire to make the city look like a soundstage in the very movies that sell that lifestyle to the rest of the world. The degree to which my house looks like a movie set (albeit, given my minimalist tendencies, the set of Witness) has less to do with any particular decorating skills than with the value—some might say the moral value—I have come to place on the beauty of things. Like so many others here, I have come to answer the question “Why do you like LA?” by listing any number of visual effects: the pink sunsets over the palm trees, the twinkles of mid-century moderns in the nighttime hills, the way every stoplight offers a slide show of passing drivers. It’s a voyeur’s paradise, a thousand stories unfolding behind glass: Here is a man on his cell phone, here is a couple laughing, here is a mother with her child. These streams of traffic are our versions of snowflakes, dissipating into the background, replaced in an instant, no two ever alike.
I answer the question “Why do you like LA?” the same way I’d answer the question “Why do you like the United States?” I like it because for all its hypocrisy, for all its unnaturalness, for all the lies it sends to the rest of the world, it has found a way to wrap itself around the human ego like the sweetest sleeping partner. It nuzzles us when we need it to. It rolls over and gives us room when we need our space. It flatters us with its company, separating us from some fantasy of ourselves by only the tiniest increments. My phone rings and, for a moment, Sandra Bernhard is my new best friend. The next second, the tables have turned. Blanca Castillo needs to reschedule. Blanca Castillo is in the home of a celebrity. Blanca Castillo, though she lives in a cruel world where people do not clean up after themselves, is absorbing the most base form of American glamor, the glamor of celebrity, and I, in turn, am absorbing it from her.
Is this not, in the end, the road map to bourgeois life? What are we if not vessels of our aspirations? What is America if not an agrarian nation that feeds the world our fantasies along with our corn? Los Angeles feeds us in the best and worst possible ways. It lets us pretend ordinary people can look like movie stars. It turns our tea kettles into objects of beauty, our limitations into possibilities. It lets us grow up gracefully, unburdened by seasons, absolved of guilt, safe from the dark corners that house the damage we inflict. Every day the poor get poorer. And every morning the tea kettle whistles, and the fog burns off, and the sun shines.
*Blanca Castillo’s real name was changed for this article.