Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Class in New York City

Granted, I gave this blog entry a really sexy title because I wanted you to head right on in, tossing caution to the wind, because no one really wants to talk about the pecking order in New York and I now will do so, somewhat, tentatively. Somehow the subject is deemed un-American, too British, and we, still trapped in what the now forgotten but once influential American sociologist VF Calverton (United States of Amnesia?) termed the "colonial complex," have issues with the idea of class, an idea that is at the backbone of Our Daddy Britain's sense of history and order.

But there is a complex system of class, of course, as this Sunday NY Times Styles column makes painfully clear:

"I have been working at Hue, a Vietnamese restaurant and lounge in the West Village, since shortly after it opened last summer. In the beginning it was a hit with a young, fast crowd because of one of its owners, Karim Amatullah. He has been in the night life business for years, starting as a promoter and most recently as an owner of Halo. So many celebrities have been coming that we have grown selective. Once, Chad Lowe's assistant called and asked if he could have a table in the next hour. 'Sorry,' I said, 'we're all booked.'

"'Really? That's a shame because his wife, Academy-Award-winner-Hilary-Swank, is very hungry.'

"'Ah, yes, something just opened up,' I say."

A cautionary tale, to be sure; but one that is very, very indicative of class and power relations in the Big Apple. The degree to which the class system is in operation in our American democratic social experiment is, indeed, staggering. Anyone whose ever been on the unforgiving end of the velvet rope, as Sandra Bernhard brushes past you, says something to the rather plain looking lady with the clipboard and the headset, and is ushered right in behind the velvet rop (You didn't even say "pardon me," Sandra, you bitch). Or if you've spent some time in the tents at the fashion shows knows this to be true. I once had dinner with Greek millionaire playboy Taki Theodoracopoulos at Elaine's. After the dinner, as me, Taki and Christopher Buckley proceeded to down the volume of the Chesapeake in liquor he mentioned that if he had known I was such a good drinker he wouldn't just have seated me at the "second best table." Out of maybe 7 or 8 tables, Taki, ever the hierarchical-thinking European conservative, had created, at Elaine's, his own system of class, through the seating arrangements, from most important to least important table, all, I must add, in good humor, in relation and proximity to Taki. Our Sun God. (Ed Note. You are a marvelous host, Taki)

That British asshole Toby Young also had an interesting story about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter in his appropriately titled book How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Little, Brown U.K.). On the first day on the job at Vanity Fair, Carter tells Young:

"'You think you've arrived, doncha?' he said. 'I hate to break it to you but you're only in the first room.' He paused. 'It's not nothing -- don't get me wrong -- but it's not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn't get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you'll discover a
secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you're lucky, you'll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms in total
and you're in the first. Doncha forget it.''This, I later discovered, was Graydon's 'seven rooms' speech, a pep talk he gives to all new recruits."

Dirk Standen of Gotham Magazine reviewed the book, saying:

"At times, Young exhibits a level of admiration for his ex-boss that borders on hero worship. But Carter, the erstwhile editor of the satirical monthly Spy, also comes across as an occasionally grandiose character in the book. He likes to greet new recruits with an intimidating speech about the 'seven rooms'of power, and he boots Young out of a front row seat at a Calvin Klein fashion show with the words: 'Toby, you can't sit in the front row. You're still in the first room.'"

If there are indeed seven rooms, and Graydon Carter is not just a bloviating gasbag, then Richard Johnson and his merry band of Page Sixers stand at the gate guarding the keys. From personal experience of one who was once mentioned in Page Six (it was about an interview I did with David Lynch) I was the beneficiary of one day of glory. It was something, I'll tell you.

And, similarly, the keys to the Avant Garde room, the Downtown Room, the place where everything experimental and new is going on -- wait: would they even have a room, and wouldn't keys be considered too bourgeois? -- are held in the hands of the excellent Michael Musto and David and Kim at Paper.

There's no way I can really get into the subject in this blog because there are so many levels of power and class in the city -- restauranteur spheres of power, lawyer spheres of power, business relations of class, publicist social distinctions, independent film centers and players, journalist clas protocol, even, down the line to -- dare I say it -- blogger class, with Choire Sicha holding those keys -- the elite eyeballs, along with the mysteriosu TMLTMF, at the top of the food chain, dispensing glory, or, more importantly, links.

It's all so fascinating but I'm never going to get to the bottom of it here; I'm just trying to start a conversation.


Ron said...

Nor am I, Mr. Bwana:

Thanks for your thoughts.

Bwana said...


Fuck Chad Lowe and the horse he rode in on. AND Toby Young for good measure. Though I think he'd enjoy that. But we both felt that way since he started that diary about whoring his baby for fun and profit.

Please note I am not a crazy person, just remembered us both bashing him on low culture.

This extended handshake with the edges of celebrity...where does it end? Is this the new social order?

Anyway, as he said in his book...he ain't the in the first room.

Not that I am, either.

astralgirl01 said...

I'm agreeing with everything you've said here... EXCEPT one thing (we'll get to it in a second)...

But the class system is alive and THRIVING in America as we speak. Don't sleep-- Paul Fussel's classifications are dead on the money.

As a Black female who grew up in a upper/middle middle class suburb in the Midwest (wow, that's a helluva combo of viewing my own oppression, right?) who's worked in every major media/hospitality industry in New York City for over 7 years (magazines, music, fashion, hotels, nightlife... in addition to having 2 degrees in Political Theory), lemme tell you that American society (the double entendre is intended) is based upon the ideals that people with money and influence will always keep their place and power while disenfranchising those who ain't got none...

And class goes hand in hand to help support any other -ism you can name.

Over the years, I've seen and dealt with some of the illest shit ever from the "Top Out of Sight", "Upper Class" and the bougie "Upper Middle." Just due to being a woman, black, and (due to those dilligent stereotypes... didn't white folks watch the Cosby Show while they were growing up? ) supposedly poor.

And the so-called Avant Garde/Downtown crew is no better than the "mainstream" folks that they're trying to distance themselves from...

David and Kim at Paper are as harsh as Graydon and Anna Wintour, if we want to be honest about it... note all of the burnt-out, underpaid employees that scurry away as quickly as possible once they get the 411...

Ron said...

Graydon and the Vanity Fair crowd are definitely harsh. And I totally understand much of what you've said, astral, the media class in this town is HARSH to African-Americans. Just look at the mastheads of the top glossies -- or, just look at Conde Nast and Hearst, or even the talking head shows -- and you'd think that there are no African-Americans in the media other than Toure and Andre Leon Talley, which is not true, they just don't get the editorships or the "talent" positions.

I love Kim and David and have had a good run with them, and Paper. Downtown is where I think everyone has the best chance of doing your thing and getting notice, from the ground up. I look on this blog as a sort of floating resume, to be frank, to let people see what I can do and, hopefully, get me on the fast track to "the First Room."

I always love your posts astral, you make me think harder about the post I just wrote when I already thought I had exhausted the topic.


astralgirl01 said...

Thanks, Ron... I'm a big fan of your hearty dose of informative substance mixed in with my need to have some down-n-dirty truth-filtering aka gossipmongering...

But back to the point at hand:

I didn't mean to make it a Black/White thing... I kinda was aiming for the overarching idea that class, as much as Americans hate to talk about it, is a major issue affecting all facets of society.

But oops, I overshot it a bit with all of the personal antecdotes/grousing.

In my opinion, classism in the media/enertainment industries is the only acceptable form of -ism left that isn't challenged in public. It's gauche (and stupid, economically, these days) to be OVERTLY racist, as we all know that the media machine reappropriates all the up-and-coming trends and movements coming out of Black culture on a daily basis (fashion, music, language, etc). Homophobia is either (1)super-subvert, (2) repackaged as cute or trendy or (3) not tolerated at all (see fashion/film industry). Sexism is the daily norm, but again, it's totally ignored or repackaged as "dumb blondism" (and that can be Black or White)/pedophilia/power broads, etc.

I mean, the examples you gave are dead on: fashion shows and the fashion industry are hideous displays of some of the most classist, elitist attitudes on the planet. The music industry. Magazine publishing. PR and marketing... the list goes on and on.

And I'll concede that I somewhat believe that the "downtown scene" can be a good way to get a key in the lock... hell, I've even benefitted from being a so-called 'girl about town.'

Hey, everything is everything-- I realize that every social subset on the planet has its own rules to follow and asses to kiss.

But I'm finding it's kinda cool not to be constantly playing by the established rules anymore... I think by playing it smart, sticking to your gut instincts, and knowing when to freely flip the bird.

But hey #2, that's coming from a well-educated, upwardly-mobile salty Negra living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC. Who's to say that I'm even close speaking for the so-called "very-bottom" classes that Paul Fussel was describing...

Ron said...

I missed the whole race/ class argument from the get-go in trying to speak to the larger audience, and I was glad you brought it up, astral. The downtown crowd -- DJs, indie filmakers, bloggers, etc -- appears to me, at least, to be the one place as free of the sexism and classism as we as pragmatic people can hope for right now. In the downtown crowd very nature of accepting the revolutionary and the new, they look down on classism in general (of course, try to get into the hip new downtown bar and you'll find a hierarchical conservatism that would put the Upper East Side to shame).