The Assumption of Wealth

I had an awkward encounter in the cafeteria the other day. I never go in there anymore, but I have a few meals on my card, so I figure I should probably use them before the semester ends. Don’t want to be wasteful, you know. But the female student serving up food in the line started to strike up a conversation with me. She was African—not African-American—and took notice of the collared shirt I was wearing.

It’s a wrinkly, ratty piece of clothing, but decent nonetheless. She asked me what brand it was. This question did not surprise me because I get that question often, and I just as often have no answer for it because it’s a brand I’ve never heard of. The insignia looks similar to a feather duster. That’s all I can liken it to. I told her I had no idea what brand, and I don’t think she quite understood because she asked again,

“Yes, but I do not recognize it. What brand is that?” I could only reply,
“I really have no idea. I just found it.”

This is true. Sophomore year, some guy in the dorm just dropped out of Harding and left a box of his clothes. After two weeks, the guys on the hall assumed he wasn’t coming back for it, so we took what we wanted. If I ever want to sound intense, I tell people I stole it, which I guess is technically true. But I decided to not tell the girl in the cafeteria this because that would take more lengthy explanation. So I stuck with just saying I found it. What she said next, though, took me aback.

“Hm. It’s probably really expensive.” My initial thought is one of, “Uhhhh . . . okay.” But I didn’t say anything as she continued to fill my plate. But she wasn’t done making observations. She then kind of scans my backpack strap and locates the North Face logo. She then says,

“Turn around.”
“Excuse me?”
“I want to see the back of your backpack.” By now I’m still put off slightly by all of this, but I oblige and then she says,
“Ah. That is a very nice backpack. That would cost at least fifty dollars. It is very expensive.” I’m feeling a spotlight by this point and go,
“Yeah, well . . . it was a gift. Trust me, I wouldn’t be able to afford something like this on my own.” This seemed to go in one ear of hers and out the other because in a far off kind of way she goes,
“Yes, very expensive.”

By this point my plate was full, so I moved on. If I’m going to be completely honest, I was a little ticked off. This girl knows neither me nor the fact that I do not purchase nice things for myself. If you look at the things in my apartment, anything that could be called “nice” is most likely a gift. But this did not appear to matter. All that she sees is luxury. While the shirt and pack on my back both together cost me zero dollars, it doesn’t make a difference. They cost somebody some money. Maybe that’s what bothers her.

And then it made me wonder: despite this issue of whether or not I actually purchased these items, my possession of them screams personal wealth. At least, it did to this girl. And so, does that make me inaccessible to those who have less, regardless of the fact that I, myself, am well below the poverty line? I have no answer for this right now. In fact, I don’t even know whether or not to label this girl’s observations of me as cheek, impropriety, or perhaps typical of a forward type of tell-it-like-it-is interaction from her culture.

This happened yesterday. As I type this, I still don’t know what to make of this encounter. Maybe it was just another one of those needed remarks from the voice of the outside world that highlights and reminds me just how good I’ve had it. Who knows? But I will be mulling it over in my head for quite some time.

Much love.

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