I walked into a pen store, today, and felt extremely out-of-place. Well I should amend that — I walked into World Lux, a store that specializes in watches, luggage, “mens’ gear”, also fountain pens. And I felt out-of-place.
Luxury stores always make me feel uncomfortable. In fact, it took me a long time to feel okay going into something like a Banana Republic, even though I know it’s essentially upscale Old Navy. I mean, I feel confident and secure in myself, I don’t have anything to prove, yet I still feel like an interloper.
Las Vegas was like that for me. Nicole and I visited and stayed at the Four Seasons on top of the Mandalay Bay over our honeymoon. Extremely nice, 5 stars at the time. The service was impeccable and I got a glimpse of how the 1% might live. Hell, how the 10% live, even. Very nice, very comfortable, but also very uncomfortable for me.
It’s a little how I feel on the East Side here, in fact. East of Seattle are the towns Bellevue, Redmond, and Issaquah. They’re pretty much populated by traditional families (mom at home, dad works), but with a much, much higher median income than I’m used to coming from the midwest. There are a lot of Microsoft employees, a lot of high-functioning/helicopter moms and dads with good skin and nice clothes. A distinct lack of t-shirts. There’s money floating around; not as much as the SF Bay area, but anyone from San Mateo would find the vibe familiar.
This also makes me feel out-of-place. I’ve always assumed that out-of-place feeling was from my country upbringing, or maybe a latent sense of unworthiness from high school, or something simple like “well I just can’t afford to be here”. But today I realized it was all about the story of the place, the message that people tell each other and themselves about where they are.
Let me elaborate.
Everyone likes feeling as if they’re somewhere. Even more, they want to be told where they fit into the world. And I don’t even mean “what is my purpose in life”, I mean “where are the exits?”, “why should I go into that room?”, “is this an event that provides food?”. Each of these things are stories that you look to be told so you can fit yourself into them. The difficult bit to grasp is that people always set things up this way. And the stories are everywhere to the point that you don’t notice you’re playing a part.
An example: Say you walk into a living room with no furniture. You have nothing to do there, right? Well if you put a chair in there, it still doesn’t become a living room. It becomes a living room once you arrange the couch and the chairs and some tables and lamps to tell you, “This is a comfortable place to relax”. I mean, this isn’t rocket science or really that hard a concept to grasp. Any interior decorator or feng shui expert can tell you this.
Malls and shops are designed specifically to make you feel a certain way, and you are ready to plug yourself into that story because it just feels right. You don’t have to think about it, it’s automatic! There’s nothing nefarious there, just normal human nature.
So you walk into the Disney Store and you instantly agree that indeed that fantasy was a wonderful story, and it’s good and right to believe in happily ever after, dreams really do come true. You walk into a mall and you agree that it is indeed a safe environment hearkening back to main street USA, the merchants looking to provide you with the best wares. You walk into a luxury store, and you acknowledge that yes, you are a person of means comfortable buying this expensive thing, partly because it is expensive and it is what people of taste do.
I walked into the pen store because I was looking for the story of, “shop operated by a seasoned person who knows about pens”. Maybe something like a Tinderbox or an old library. Perhaps a kindly, bushy-eyebrowed old man, hunched over a loupe and a leather folio. I wanted to talk with someone knowledgable about fountain pens who could give me some tips, see if my nib was bent. Maybe look at some neat Waterman’s.
Instead I felt as if I was supposed to act a different way. Be something other than someone who just likes using a good pen. The floor was shiny and marble. There were lots of bright lights. It was a bit like a museum of fine goods. I looked at some pens, but even mentioning my impressions of the ones I handled — heft, scratchiness, etc — seemed almost uncouth. I felt like I was supposed to want a thing because it was expensive and looked nice, rather than because it handled well. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the $480 Homo Sapiens, but I also really liked the $20 Noodler’s that I ended up actually buying.
My discomfort with luxury stores is entirely my reaction to the story they’re telling me. I don’t want to fit into that part of the story. It’s not me. I’m happy with how I am. And I guess what it comes down to is I both resent being expected to participate, and resent the awkwardness and pushback from those who do choose to participate. The subtle “you’re not doing it right, you obviously don’t belong here.”
And now it occurs to me that maybe the pushback is because they don’t know how to take me. They think I’m going to play the role of Mercutio but I end up playing Lady Macbeth.
Who knows? Perhaps all I’m bothered by is that it highlights how much people operate on scripts when I really want to believe that everyone can be original. The truth is that we back-justify our presence with our own story, but it’s always easier to borrow someone else’s than write our own.
“Disney is a wonderful place. I am here, I obviously wouldn’t be in a not-wonderful place!”
“This hotel has fine furnishings! People of taste and discernment must stay here. Since I am here, I must be a person of taste and discernment!”
“I am a good and wealthy person because only wealthy people would shop at such a store. Wealthy people value paying top-dollar for a thing of beauty. To do otherwise would be foolish. And since I am here I must not be foolish!”
After all that, here’s the maddening bit. If all I’m saying is true, what I am really saying is, “I don’t want to act like a wealthy person, because wealthy people aren’t the type of person I am.”
Just like most everyone else, I see myself as a good person. That’s my personal story. I also see acting like a wealthy person as opposite or incompatible with who I am. Me, a good person. What does that say about how I view people with money?
Ah so, the second edge of self-reflection.