Ravaged by Consumption

As recently as 2003, I went without regular recourse to a bottle of Parker-rated wine. I still shopped with a mental calculator at the “cheap” H-E-B, which was exhausting and emotionally grinding with kids in tow, but that 5 cents here and there does add up. Six madhouse years later, I feel a sense of mild disgruntlement when the wine pantry looks empty (or worse, is stocked only with re-gifted plonk) and a vague hostility whenever my husband goes on about how much cheaper the Southside
H-E-B Plus is than Central Market. Sure, I grouse, but they don’t carry French lentils.

That old saying shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations feels like an anachronism these days; in the late aughts, it was more like shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three years. But what a three years it was! All that ready credit — extended by card companies and mortgage lenders — seemed to come from nowhere and belong to almost everyone by birthright. It began to feel a little shameful to drive an old clunker, to not have the latest iThing. Thriftiness wasn’t a virtue; it was a sign that you weren’t participating in the fabulous global Now. In retrospect, even those of us with a rudimentary understanding of economics should have realized that this was unsustainable, but no one was calling the cops on that party; if we weren’t already in attendance, we planned to get on over there any minute.

I do remember feeling a slight rolling nausea during an edition of NPR’s The Splendid Table, which was touting the subtle wonders of $30-plus bottles of olive oil, as I rounded the on-ramp from I-35 to 281 North — on my way to the Central Market deli, most likely. Gawd, it’s gone too far, I thought, as visions of a young radical Austin motherhood flashed before my eyes.

I did not, however, actually change my freshly acquired consumption habits. It began to seem normal to occasionally have a case of Champagne on hand. I googled recipes for cherimoyas, stocked up on individually wrapped Asian pears and homemade mozzarella, and expected fresh arugula every week. I bought party dresses even when I had no scheduled party to attend — you never knew when an invitation might pop up, and no one was wearing the same dress twice. The balance in my vintage- and thrift-stocked closet tipped decidedly in favor of new. I learned to walk into retail stores without heading straight for the discount racks, to make bold eye contact with sales clerks because I might just buy something full-price and extravagant. I still shopped the markdown racks, sure, but now they were at Neiman Marcus instead of Old Navy. I occasionally thought of Anna Karenina, who threw over the modest ways she associated with her responsible, button-down husband to chase the dashing young military man. But not for long — dinner reservations at 8!

When the recession took its toll on my family’s income, making us for the time being a single-paycheck household, I remained weirdly stoic — in shock, or deep denial, or just congenitally Midwestern. No problem, I told my husband: We used to live on fideo and canned clams. And, anyway, I miss cooking at home.

It did not take long (read: exactly one trip to the “poor” H-E-B) to realize that this was all brave bullshit talk. While I am, in fact, enjoying cooking at home more, I feel blue when I see the restaurateurs and waiters I know and remember that I’m just passing along the malaise. Although I still admire secondhand fashion on friends, I no longer get the same thrill from digging through musty color-coded racks in search of a Banana Republic wrap dress with the tags still attached, or pristine Jordache bell bottoms. Expensive shoes, it turns out, not only fit better, they wear better, too. And, yes, I do know how to hem my own pants, thank you, but it’s so much more working-woman glamorous to drop them off at the tailor. Crucially, I realize that I might actually identify with some of Paris and Nicole’s deprivation on the telling mid-aughts reality show The Simple Life. Paris, presumably, is surviving the recession just fine.

In spring 2006, Louis C.K.’s short-lived comedy Lucky Louie premiered on HBO. Its struggling blue-collar protagonists and beige set felt distinctly ’70s, the antithesis of glittery, aspirational late-’90s/early aughts series Friends and Sex and the City. The grownups had palpable responsibilities and weighty problems — menial jobs and paychecks that didn’t meet expenses, a child to care for, resentments fueled by the grind of daily compromise. Like real adults. But we were still reveling in an extended adolescence funded by a prosperity we didn’t produce, and that wasn’t actually ours to keep. It’s such a downer, I thought at the time. I wish they’d bring it back. •

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