Friday, February 15, 2008

place mats

I work in an "assisted living" facility for rich old people. Oddly enough, many of these old people maintain a mindset of their childhoods, a mindset of Yankee frugality and a puritanical discomfort with being served. There are a few who don't mind being served, and who relax and let us servers clear the tables. But most of them act as if they are still the "classless" people of their youths, when the class stratification in small towns was not great. These subtle attitudes I see in how they react when I clear their tables.

They neatly stack plates and put silverware together, even moving it all over to one side. And invariably they fold their paper place mat neatly, several times, until it is a little square. They are uncomfortable being placed in a passive, non-constructive position. These people grew up, like me, feeling that the purpose of life was to work and be "constructive." Even amusements were best if "constructive." These carefully folded place mats are a metaphor in my mind for their discomfort with money and privilege. Their thousands of dollars a month should, theoretically, allow them to lean back and do absolutely nothing. But they cannot give up the symbolic acts of the "useful adult" who pitches in to help out when others work.

One old woman, spending 4 or 5 thousand dollars a month to live there, leans close to me when I ask if she wants dessert. She almost whispers, "Can I have just a little tapioca? Not too much." She timidly plays the supplicant, the thrifty person so afraid of waste or gluttony she always emphasizes her need for small portions -- as if an ounce of uneaten tapioca, worth half a cent, would weigh on her soul. She reverses the position her money puts her in: as a consumer, she controls me. But she acts as if I somehow have authority. I have seen women place uneaten bites of meat in ziploc bags to take to their rooms, to be eaten at the next meal.

I am amazed at the huge amounts of money changing hands compared to the continuing rituals of extreme frugality and self-help. For all that money they could ask for a gallon of tapioca, eat one spoonful, and throw the rest out. But they cannot. In their hearts, they are poor, industrious children living in the 1930s.

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