Essay: Choices

September 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: What makes America a middle class nation is less a matter of dollars than it is the freedom to dream. “If I take that new job,” “if I go to night school,” “if I get a patent for my invention or find a publisher for my novel”– who knows?

Some day I will live here, alongside the very rich in upper Broadway, in San Francisco. Every time I have been to Houston, Texas, my host, or hostess, has asked if I want to see River Oaks, the neighborhoods of palaces belonging to the nouveau riche, and the inherited rich, and the gay divorcee. Even now, when so many houses in River Oaks belong to disgraced executives of Enron, I do not tire of this tour.

For middle class Americans, the rich at Beverly Hills, or Palm Beach, or Park Avenue uphold a standard for our dreaming. There are houses of concrete and bricks confirm that our dreams are not near air. (Stock bells ringing)

Only lately, something has happened to middle-class Americans, and you can measure the change out of the climbing Dow Jones Average. Dreaming has turned to sleeplessness at 4:00 in the morning. Russia has fabulously wealthy people, as Mexico does, as Nigeria, but the strength of a nation is not measured by a number of Giorgio Armani boutiques it supports, it is measured by the number of dreams it entertains.

In America’s middle class scheme of things, the self-made fortune was always better than the inherited fortune. The self-made rich confirm middle-class ambition– “she was once like us.” We middle class Americans certainly like it that Warren Buffett, one of America’s richest men, lives just down the block in Omaha, but perhaps we do not like it too much when the very rich too closely resemble us.

ACTRESS: Hey, you know an awful lot of tricks. You are not a professional magician, are you?

ACTOR: No, I’m not a magician.


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: From the novels of Henry James to Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” middle-class Americans have mocked the pathos of being nouveau riche ;not knowing which fork to use at the banquet. Ralph Lauren, who comes from a past as humble as mine, has become very rich indeed, convincing middle-class Americans that if we buy a blue shirt with a polo player stitched on, we will look as gloriously bored and as golden as the old rich of Long Island.

In the go-go 1990s, the business channel, CNBC, would display a tally of how many new millions or billions tech executives had accumulated over five days. In those years, friends of mine saw their portfolios expand, expand beyond dreaming.

SINGING: And if I had a million dollars…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Suddenly, the 20-year-old was a millionaire many times over. What seemed not to trouble the newly rich was an elementary principal of economics called inflation. If everyone is a millionaire, then a million dollars will pay for less and less. There is a flaw, but certain frustration built into our system of capitalism is something we recognize perhaps more easily when there is only one bemused winner of the super- lotto. We shrug at our inevitable loss.

SPOKESMAN: You gotta have people, like you, go to jail for what you did.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But middle-class Americans are disgusted by recent allegations of corruption in the boardroom. Our politicians, who used to call many of these famed CEO’s and CFO’s by first name, our politicians tell us they will fix it certainly before the November elections.

On the other hand, a retired executive once employed at a venerable New York bank tells me that I am naive; didn’t I realize the game in America was always fixed? Maybe what unites the upper class with the working class in America is this dark knowledge. Certainly among the working class, or the stoic, or the angry, I have long heard that the fix is in. That’s what my immigrant father believed: That the game in America is rigged. As a boy, I turned away from his voice. Long before I had the money to prove it, I was middle class. I live in a nation of dreams.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.