A stranger bought me coffee today.
After a morning of window shopping in Hayes Valley, I decided to wait in line at Blue Bottle Coffee. The guy behind me asked me to hold his place in line so he could say “hello” to all the dogs patiently waiting with their people. When he came back, we struck up a conversation about coffee and bacon and his Scottish boyfriend and falafel and George W. Bush. Then he paid for my coffee, wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I didn’t even get his name.
I walked over to Hayes Green to engage in one of my favorite weekend activities: drinking coffee in the park while watching hipster boys, with their ironic facial hair, scruffy shoes and equally scruffy mutts. A six-year-old boy circled the park repeatedly on his bike (training wheels still on) while his dad read the paper. The boy made me remember my own childhood – the family trips to the park or the beach where my brother and I played and rode our bikes so my parents could get some “alone” time with each other. I suddenly wondered if most families even engage in that unstructured time together anymore.
Growing up, my parents were always broke. Not a poor broke, but the kind of broke that comes from putting all your money into a house and paying for parochial school for two kids. My parents didn’t have “date nights” – they couldn’t afford babysitting, let alone movie tickets and dinners out – so going out meant packing homemade sandwiches and finding free places where my brother and I could entertain ourselves relatively unsupervised while my parents sat together and caught up with each other.
Through a college education and my career choices, I think I’ve moved into a different social class than the one I grew up in. Sunday brunch and dinners out are a regular part of my social routine. My friends have nannies or, at the very least, Friday-night babysitters. I’ve contemplated getting a dog walker. I don’t laugh at the Hayes Valley stores that sell $28 candles and $325 shoes. I drink $2 coffees. Heck, I even wait in line for 30 minutes for those $2 coffees.
I sometimes ask myself if I’ve lost a certain richness of experience by leading a middle-class (some would say upper middle-class) life. My salary now is more than my parents’ combined income. I’m not romanticizing growing up in a working-class family – even at a young age, I could feel the stress of my dad’s frequent layoffs, and the strain of living from paycheck to paycheck – but I think that it’s easy for me to equate spending money with genuine experience.
The things that make me happy – hanging out in the park with my dog, good conversations with friends, drawing in my studio – aren’t expensive. In fact, they require me to be engaged with the world in a deeper and more creative way than paying for something ever could.
One day I’ll probably have a husband and kids. I hope that my relationships with them will not be focused on how we spend our money, but on real experiences of play and creativity and conversation.