When you fly Virgin Upper Class out of Heathrow, you go through a separate set of airport security.
With a ticket that costs $4,000 round-trip, you swipe your boarding pass, go up a sleek private elevator, and pass through security and passport control that is delighted to see you. "Lovely suitcase," they coo. You're whisked away to the Virgin Clubhouse, with its free facials and single-malt scotch. Except briefly, you never interact with the airport's general population.
Some months ago, I got to fly first-class from London. Until then, I'd never realized it wasn't just a recliner in the plane and some cheap bubbly, but rather a separate sphere of being. In first-class, you weren't groped or barked at or treated like a combination of a terrorist and a cow. Instead, paid servants pretended your presence was a gift.
After years of work trips crammed in coach, being forced to show my underwear to the TSA, I felt like a guttersnipe in a palace. I loved it, but it was also deeply strange. "These people don't really like me," I thought, no matter how skillfully they acted like they did.
Until you see it, you never realize how separate the sphere of the rich is from that of everyone else.
I came from a middle-class, divorced home. As is typical, the upper-middle-class end of the split went to my dad, and the lower-middle-class to my mom. Like most people trying to make it in an impractical profession, I spent years living in rat-infested tenements with roommates who threatened to kill me in my sleep.
Unlike most artists, I started to make money. Not 1 percent money, but more than my mom ever dreamed of. Once I did, I started to realize how broken the idea of American meritocracy was.
Meritocracy is America's foundational myth. If you work hard, society tells us, you'll earn your place in the middle class. But any strawberry picker knows hard work alone is a fast road to nowhere. Similarly, we place our faith in education. Study, and the upper-middle class will be yours. Except the average student graduates $35,000 in debt.
Artists too have their myths. The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women. Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picket-fenced land of generous collectors and two and a half kids. But, make the first move, seize your destiny, and you're a whore.
But neither hard work nor talent nor education are passports to success. At best, they're small bits of the puzzle.
A fine artist, (successful, credential-festooned, with inherited money), told me that I was too focused on commerce to be an artist. A real artist endured poverty. Being poor was edifying, filled with moral uplift. I spent weeks in a murderous rage.
I've never been poor. I have always had the safety net of loving, middle-class parents. But what he said brought me back to me at 20, feverish and propped up against a subway pillar days after an abortion, on my way to a naked-girl job that I thought would get me raped.
What the artist was pretending he didn't know is that money is the passport to success. You claw a few bucks and use those to get more cash, while never growing ill or vulnerable, never caring for a child or sick parent, never letting your place slip on that greasy pole.
For my friends and I who fought our way to moderate financial success, money came from transgressing society's norms. It might have been fucking rich dude after rich dude you met on Seeking Arrangements. It might have been stabbing your stomach each morning with a syringe of hormones, in order to sell your genetically desirable eggs. With much luck, it required doing the ambitious work everyone said you weren't ready for, then getting mocked and rejected for it, until, slowly, the wall began to crack. You could never do what you were supposed to, never stay quietly in your place.
My friends who came closest to attaining the American Dream did it by breaking the rules on how to get there. The standard plan—college to secure job to home you own—was either unattainable or a path to the American debt nightmare.
Those with money usually think they deserve it. But most people who make the world run—who care for kids, who grow food, who would rebuild after natural disasters and societal collapse—will never be rich, no matter how hard or well they work, because society is constructed with only so much room on top.
Once, I met with a man who runs an idea festival. He was a great admirer of businessmen who became Buddhist monks. "I don't like protest," the man told me. "It's too much about ego. Ego is the problem with America."
I thought of the workers busting their backs lifting boxes at warehouses, while an electronic tracker yelled at them to work faster. Are their egos too big?
So much of the difference between the experiences of rich and poor comes down to kindness. Kindness is scarce. Kindness must be bought.
If you have money, you can pay to live in a bubble of politesse. Excellent wine choice, sir. Here's your gift bag, madam. Often, you don't have to pay for it. The mere promise that you might will keep you sipping prosecco and deserving of servile attentions. Soon, you think this treatment is earned.
Meanwhile, we treat the poor with casual cruelty. Single moms on welfare have their homes searched by police to make sure they're not hiding a man in the closet. But it’s too much to ask bankers to justify the bonuses they sucked off the public teat. The poor get stop-and-frisk, drug tests, and constant distrust.
Newt Gingrich, whose idea of hard work is refraining from cheating on his wife, suggested that poor kids learn work ethic by working as unpaid school janitors. Rich children's work ethic is presumably absorbed in utero.
I told the festival coordinator that we needed a radical redistribution of senses of entitlement.
My own sense of entitlement served me well. I got my first job at a candy store when I was 14. I worked in the stockroom. I would open a box, take out a smaller box, put a rubber band around the smaller box, and put it back inside the big one. I lasted two days. This job, I remember thinking, does not make use of my intellectual abilities. When I did need work, I went straight into the naked-girl industry. Honest employment was a treadmill. It's extreme privilege to believe your life is too valuable to waste.
Every dollar I clawed, whether it was from modeling or an early gig drawing cocks for Playgirl, served to amplify my advantages. Art is sometimes seen as gnostic freedom. But being an artist means you're in thrall to cash.
My last art show would have been impossible without the money and network of contacts I'd built. I never could have hauled massive slabs of wood up to my old fifth-floor walk-up—never could have painted them in the lightless room I once shared with three roommates. Without an assistant, I never would have had the time to paint my show. Without sponsorships, I never could have afforded the paint. Sometimes, curators look at the work, and say, "Why didn't you ever paint like that before?" I'd answer, "Because no one gave me enough money to be able to."
A decade of practice honed my talent. But cash let me express it. To pretend otherwise is to spit in the face of every broke genius who can't afford materials or time. It's to say I got here because I'm better than them.
I am good. But it's never just about that.
An artist, like an activist, is expected to financially hobble herself. Purity is as important as survival. There's a constant criticism for earning "too much." But as we slash the social safety net, once basic things—a home, college, a dignified old age—become mirages. It’s near impossible to live the average American dream on the average American salary.
Not talking about money is a tool of class war. A culture that forbids employees from comparing salaries helps companies pay women and minorities less. Ignoring the mercenary grit behind success leads to quasi-religious abundance gurus claiming you can visualize your way to wealth.
Even we successful artists do it. It's easy to ignore luck, privilege, and bloody social climbing when you stand onstage in a pair of combat boots. It’s easy to say that if people are just good enough, work hard enough, ask enough, believe enough, they will be like us.
But it’s a lie. Winning does not scale. We may be free beings, but we are constrained by an economic system rigged against us. What ladders we have are being yanked away. Some of us will succeed. The possibility of success is used to call the majority of people failures.
Celebrate beating a treacherous system. But remember, there is no god handing out rewards to the most deserving. Don't pretend that everyone can win.
(Illustration by Molly Crabapple)
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