Do you like nice things? I do.
I try to fight it. I tell myself I don’t really need my hair product. I don’t really shop anymore, aware that I have far too many clothes that cost far too much. The new battlefront is dining out. I have a perfectly good meal plan — I’ve resolved to stop blowing it off by using Durfee’s to stock up on Diet Coke and later grabbing takeout.
Then there’s my Bumble & Bumble purchase yesterday, and the incredible new blazer I got three weeks ago. Mea fucking culpa. Even committed to my present battle, I’m now realizing that I’m kinda down for Indian food. Sophomore year, I muploaded a Yale dining label for “cod loins” — perhaps the answer to consumerism is a subversive, sarcastic foodstagram?
Much of this behavior is about personal circumstances: I grew up privileged, and I’m blessed, in WEEKEND-speak and real-world terms, to have a family that doesn’t question much of my spending. My self-loathing about buying nice things is also rooted in my experience. A resolved Marxist since I turned 12, I despise structural privilege and the idea of constantly bowing to corporate interest by handing over ca$hdolla as and when instructed.
But I’m still certain that we as a culture — even non-brats unlike myself — afford pretty things too much weight. We do it each time we Instragram gourmet food or post some preppy perfection /confection we’re craving — we make it special; we give it power. We identify these things as possessions to aspire to in our daily conversations: “I really want the gold 5S for my next birthday!” When we tell ourselves that the product is sacred, we cut ourselves off from the choice of whether to consume it. Sarcastic as some of us are about other people’s fetishizing the product, a small part of each of us has the urge to do the same.
Somehow, suddenly, we know we want it. More than that: it’s become a ‘need.’ The limiting factor is our resources, not our endless, artificially constructed desire.
I’m not convinced that we really want, or need, a lot of the pretty things we stress out about getting.
Some folks tell us that we can learn as much from New Haven as we can in Yale classrooms. In that spirit, allow me to point you towards a new object lesson in how wants, needs and consumerism can be conflated all too tightly: Maison Mathis, my new neighbor on Elm Street.
The Maison is really pretty. It’s got an attractive French/Belgian vibe, which I know just drives Americans wild. It’s quite a nice place to study or meet with someone. The walls are just so white, and the windows so big. Consider, for a moment, that artfully placed rose in the center of each table. But the point of a coffee/dessert shop is coffee and dessert, you know? And on this score, Maison Mathis hasn’t just disappointed me — it’s broken bougie hearts from High Street to Howe. The espresso is decent, but most of the desserts, including the vaunted waffles, really aren’t worth the $5-$6 one is asked to shell out. Nothing this place is actually supposed to get us to consume is a product we might really want (at least after a first try of it).
That means the Maison offers something we really neither want nor need. The relationship it wants to cultivate is subtle, more cunning. Here is something we are meant to ‘want’ because it has all the trappings of other luxe things we’re big on. The substance ceases to matter. This is a cunning move, one suited to the demographic many Yale students belong to — or think they should belong to. It’s also one conspicuously out of place in a central shopping street in this city with higher poverty rates than much of the nation. That doesn’t matter, though, because apparently we can be trusted to think we ‘need’ this business around.
I don’t hate Maison Mathis. I don’t think it’s truly all that evil, and I’m not (as far as I know) a serious Marxist crackpot. It just strikes me as an especially disturbing way to exploit a mindset I wish I and those I care about on this campus could break free of. The Maison is not alone in tapping into our artificially inflated sense of what we need. Last week, I broke my boycott of Gourmet Heaven — drunk and starving at 4 a.m., I told myself the protest wouldn’t be harmed by a couple of purchases. I told myself I ‘needed’ it and I broke a picket line. Somehow, I forgot that some of the men on duty apparently live in one room owned by GHeav’s owner and are over-worked and under-paid. And I let my decision be made for me by what I thought I ‘needed.’