The Magazine

THE TRAGEDY OF SID

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By DAVID BROOKS
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Furthermore, the rich used to be remote. An investment banker went to Andover and Princeton, and a radio producer went to Central High and Rutgers. But in the new media age, the radio producer also went to Andover and Princeton. The schlumps she wouldn't even talk to in gym class are bond traders on Wall Street with summer houses in East Hampton. The student who graduated from Harvard cum laude makes $ 85,000 as a New York Times reporter covering the movie business. The loser who flunked out of Harvard because he spent all his time watching TV makes 1.2 million selling a single movie script.

Consider the situation of our composite editor. He's earning $ 110,000 a year as a top editor at, say, Time magazine. His wife, whom he met while they were studying at the Yale drama school, is a program officer at a boutique foundation that offers scholarships to Brooklyn high-school students. She makes $ 65,000. In their wildest imagining they never dreamed they'd someday pull in $ 175,000 a year.

Or that they'd be so poor. Their daughter turned 10 last year and needed a separate bedroom from her brother. They were lucky to get a fairly bright three-bedroom for $ 2,750 a month, even allowing for the dingy neighborhood and the cockroach-infested building. Jessica's tuition at Dalton is about $ 18,000, once you throw in the extras, and it costs at least $ 16,000 to send Max to the Ethical Culture School. The parking spot for the 1988 Camry is $ 275 a month, the part-time nanny who picks up Max from school costs about $ 12,000 a year (off-the-books cash; there goes any chance of serving as Attorney General), and after throwing in the costs of various ballet (Max) and rock-climbing (Jessica) lessons, the family is left with an after-tax disposable income for food, laundry, subway tokens, clothes, and leisure of about $ 600 a month. Which explains why the editor hasn't bought a new tie in three years and why he wakes up at 4 in the morning wondering where next year's tuitions are going to come from. It explains why he can't face his accountant, who knows that out of his $ 175,000 annual income, he gave a grand total of $ 450 to charity.

Members of the Titled Class are good at worrying about their reputations. All their lives they've mastered the art of having other people think them smart and wonderful. But the person who suffers from Status-Income Disequilibrium can scarcely spare an hour worrying about his reputation because he has to spend all his time worrying about money (when in fact all he wants from money is to have enough so he doesn't have to worry about it).

And it is not as if the Titleholder these days fills his mind with thoughts about truth and beauty, or poetic evocations of Spring. It is not as if he is compensated for his meager $ 110,000 salary with the knowledge that he can spend his days amidst the Higher Things. If he's in publishing, say, he spends his days thinking about market niches, the same thing those summer- house-owning executives at AT&T think about. When a book comes in, he wonders first which market it will serve: the Jewish market, the gay market, the depressed women's market? If every day he could publish a memoir by a neurotic lesbian Holocaust survivor with her own syndicated radio program, he'd have his own imprint in a year.

And it's not as if he is less ambitious than the partners at Skadden Arps, or that he does less schmoozing than the muni-bond traders at Kidder Peabody. The media person is in business just like $ 600,000-a-year smoothies in Fortune 500 executive suites. It's just that they are working in big-money industries and he's in a small-money industry.

The Titleholder is at the tail end of the upper class. Our composite editor is rich enough to send his kids to Dalton and Ethical Culture, but all the other parents make as much in a month as he makes in a year. When his wife wasn't working, she used to pick up Jessica from Dalton. She'd wait outside on the sidewalk, she and 150 nannies. She'd try to arrange play dates with the other kids, but their nannies weren't willing to travel all the way uptown to 103rd Street, so they'd end up going to the playgrounds off Central Park West. And she'd sit, a little uncomfortably, with the nannies on the benches that ring the playgrounds, trying to find common conversational ground. If a Martian were to land in a Manhattan playground, he would conclude that human beings are white as children and grow up to be black with Trinidadian accents.