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It's Nelly's World

Bluish Blood

alec vanderboom

Margaret Bourke-White, 1937


Let us talk for a moment about privilege.

There is the type of privilege that is simply being here, now, alive. This is the highest. Then there is the privilege of, say, owning such an amazement a dishwasher, an appliance that accepts greasy dishes and spoons and returns them new again after the mere press of a button (and the selection of a crossword puzzle's worth of interlocking processes). It also returns a bill from Central Hudson, which I guess is also something of a privilege. I try to imagine what my grandmother, with a family of five boys coming out of the Depression, might have felt having such a thing in her kitchen--either a dead faint, or the Hallelujah Chorus.

I am hugely privileged, of course, and I know it. Not only in having a dishwasher, but also, in a short list, the following: a view out my window of rough and wild mountains (only partly ruined by high-tension wires, which I'd be a sorry ass to dislike, given their gifts [such as dishwasher and bill]; trade-offs are also a form of privilege); a car in my driveway that has not failed to start every single time I have turned the key; two motorcycles in the garage that do not always do the same, but this in its own way might be considered a privilege (that of needing to engage with them fully); the dog whose happiness redoubles my own when I watch her bound ahead of me on the trail with every cell in her being on fire with exuberance; the surpassing love I feel for her in the morning, whether it's come too soon or not, Miss Bright Eyes, complicated and uncomplicated both.

It goes without saying that the privilege of having a child, healthy and smart and funny, embarking on his own path into a world of peculiar privilege entirely his own, stands as king at the head of this nation of marvelous luck.

The final privilege I wish to enumerate, though, is a little more strange: the privilege of occasionally brushing up against august privilege--that of impossible wealth and luxury. And then retreating again, to my own life of advantage. Though everything is relative, isn't it.

I have been dressed in a long gown, ready to go to a black-tie gala where I will drink champagne and eat the kind of dessert that always features thin curtains of chocolate making a cityscape on the plate, and wondered if I had enough money to pay the cabbie to get there. (Riding the subway from Brooklyn in formalwear, especially high heels, is only for the heroically brave, and I am an abject coward, apparently.) I have been to homes where I was waited on by servants--I mean, the house staff. I have partied in a home that used to be an embassy, where the walls were filled with modernist artworks that would have been in a museum had they not been bought by an individual with more money than most museums. (Imagine entering a small private library, snooping about hopefully unnoticed, and discovering that it is the Joseph Cornell room. As in, not one, but many, of his incomparable boxes. I had to pick my own jaw up from the floor.) I have been to little fetes that cost more than I earn in a year.

Then I got back into my jeans and went, once a week, to the soup kitchen at Goddard Riverside. After ladling food onto the plates of people who had parked their shopping carts containing all their worldly goods in the foyer, people who shuffled by with heads down, lost inside the private universes constructed as protection from the intrusion of the outside in lieu of four walls, I would lead them in "activities." I had no expertise--crafty I am not--but in having the privilege of all that I did, I was qualified. I proposed teaching videography. One older man who never spoke, who never joined any other group, joined mine. After a few weeks, he smiled. For the first time that anyone there ever saw. A few more weeks, and I was told by a staffer that he said he looked forward to video class. Finally, it was just him and me. And then I had to leave. To rejoin my own life of privilege, I suppose. The pain I feel on visiting this memory, of having made him briefly happy, and then leaving him alone, is nearly scorching. Twenty years later, I can still see his face in my mind: his eyes, darting up, meeting mine at last. Then dropping down. Afraid, alone, gentle. Unknowing of privilege. I could cry.

I have a friend whose worth is in the double-digit millions. I have heard her complain of things she wanted to have. But, she maintained, she didn't have enough money.

My declarable income qualifies me for food stamps, but I do not need them. I am lucky enough to buy what I like at the grocery store, and I eat out in restaurants. When it is a particularly fine one, I order the appetizer. Half the prize, but more than enough. And gaze about me at the people who get whatever they want, and only eat a bit.

The greatest privilege of my privileged life is to have been able to walk the tightrope between two galaxies, and to pretend I am home in each. But I know I am not. I am only home in mine.