Carpet Is a Class Issue

This essay, titled “Carpet Is Mungers,” is included in Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth, a collection of essays exploring being young and broke in New York. The book was first published in 2001, and is now available as an ebook (with a new introduction by the author!) exclusively from Emily Books.

Once, when I was desperately searching for an affordable apartment in New York City, I looked at a place that was gigantic by local standards. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen nook, a dishwasher, and a sweeping view of the East River. The building was staffed by twenty-four-hour doormen and had a running track and a garden on the roof. It rented for $400 a month. This was in a rental market where studio apartments rarely went for less than $1,100 a month, and it was unheard of to have sunlight let alone things like dishwashers and running tracks. I was in dire need of a place to live. I had precisely ten days to find something before I’d be forced to put my stuff in storage and sleep on a friend’s couch. But I did not rent the apartment. I did not for one minute entertain the possibility of living there. I did not even look in the closets, of which there were many. The reason is that the apartment had wall-to wall carpet.

Carpet makes me want to kill myself. Wall-to-wall carpet anywhere other than offices, airplanes, and Holiday Inn lobbies sends me careening toward a kind of despair that can only be described as the feeling that might be experienced by a person who has made some monumental and irreversible life decision and realized, almost immediately after the fact, that it was an error of epic proportions. Carpet makes me feel the way the woman who married the multimillionaire stranger on national television must have felt when she was on the plane to the honeymoon in Maui, the $35,000 rock on her finger, and her possibly sociopathic husband next to her in first class. Carpet makes me feel the way I felt when I was twelve and “went out” with Stephen Mungers, a boy from homeroom who I barely knew, for a week. In seventh grade, “going out” signified nothing more than a mutual agreement that the term would be applied to the parties involved; no physical contact or verbal exchange other than “You wanna go out?” and “Okay” was required. And even though the situation was entirely reversible, I remember that week as an unprecedented and traumatic psychological jaunt into a self that was not my own. I had, in the context of seventh grade and the various ideas I’d developed about who I was, become “other” to my own self. I felt somehow that I had betrayed a basic premise of my existence. And although I was unsure exactly what that premise was, I specifically recall spending that week practicing the oboe with such concentration and nervous energy that I finally mastered a particularly arduous exercise and decided, with more certainty than has since accompanied more serious matters, that as long as I went out with Stephen Mungers I would be wholly incapable of being the person I should be and, in fact, was. A similar effect occurs when I walk into a house where not one square inch of floor is showing.

Carpet is Mungers. Carpet is otherness. It is not my house and not the house of ninety percent of the people I know. It’s more than just not my style, it’s not my oeuvre. People always say to me, “Oh, I don’t like carpet either. It makes me sneeze and it’s so hard to clean.” Sneezing and cleaning have nothing to do with my feelings on the subject. If not having carpet caused allergies and presented maintenance difficulties, I would tough it out. It’s really shallow, I know. But I’m capable of being extremely shallow, far more superficial that I’m often given credit for. There’s a lot of stuff I can look past—unemployed boyfriends, borderline personalities, offensive comments aimed directly at me—but when I balk, I balk hard. When you get to a certain age you learn what the deal breakers are.

But let’s cut to the chase. Carpet is a class issue. I didn’t make it that way, I’m just pointing it out. And I’m not talking about socioeconomic class. Carpet has, since its inception, been the province of the elite. It’s found in high-rise condos and suburban ranch houses. Cheap landlords like to install cheap carpet in cheap rentals so they can raise the price and it amazes and depresses me that people actually buy into this. But I also realize that many of the people who don’t mind or even like carpet possess the kind of “class” that, in my earlier days, I believed ran in inverse proportion to wall-to-wall floor covering of any kind. In other words, I did not believe that they read books, owned classical music CDs, or were not necessarily members of the John Birch Society.

That false perception was the result of confusing “having class” with “having to have class.” The kind of class that I associate with wood floors is the kind of class that emerges out of an anxiety about being classy. People who must have wood floors are people who need to convey the message that they’re quite possibly better than most people. They’re people who leave The New York Review of Books on the coffee table but keep People in the bedroom. They’re people who say “I don’t need to read Time or Newsweek because I can get everything I need from the Times.” They’re people who would no sooner put the television set in the living room than hang their underwear to dry on the front porch. They buy whole-bean coffee and grind it in a Braun grinder. They listen to NPR, tell other people what they heard on it, and are amazed when the other people say they heard it too.

I am one of those people. My TV is in a room that also contains a pile of magazines I won’t admit to reading, a Kenny Loggins CD I don’t want anyone to see, and a Restoration Hardware catalog from which I want very much to order a Teacher’s College Chrome Plate Schoolhouse light, if only Restoration Hardware was not so wannabe, so postiche. My apartment has oak floors and oriental rugs and, for as long as I can remember, oak floors and oriental rugs have played as great a role in my sense of well-being as the knowledge that after falling asleep I would eventually wake up. I haven’t bought a can of Maxwell House in over ten years. I have an intellectual crush on former Talk Of The Nation host Ray Suarez and a WNYC coffee mug out of which I eat Grape-Nuts but never Total. I use Arm & Hammer laundry powder. The thought of owning a bed that is not a platform bed, i. e. one that has a box spring and therefore requires a dust ruffle, lowers my serotonin level. I do not wear colors any brighter than pale blue or dusty rose. I do not wear panty hose, only tights. I do not wear gold jewelry. I would never drive an American car. I stick to these rules because I am terrified of what would happen if I deviated from them. I fear the “other.” I fear carpet.

Maxwell House is carpet. Total is carpet. All-temperature Cheer is carpet, as is commercial talk radio, dust ruffles, bright-colored clothing, pantyhose, gold jewelry, and the United States Automotive Industry. Carpet is the road you congratulate yourself for never having taken. Carpet is the woman at the supermarket whom you are glad not to be. Carpet is the house who bought the oddly-named and aggressively bland-tasting Savannahs when you sold Girl Scout cookies. Carpet is the job you held immediately after graduation, before you realized that a career in marketing posed a severe threat to your emotional health. Carpet is the distant relatives you see only at funerals. Carpet is the high school sweetheart you would have disastrously married had you been born one generation earlier.

Here is a brief, heartbreaking story about carpet. I once loved a great man. He treated me with that rare combination of adoration and decency best known to characters that were once played by Jimmy Stewart and are now played by Kevin Costner. He showed up at my door with flowers. He embarrassed me in front of the mailman by sending me letters addressed “To My Sweetie” on the envelope. He could have been the one were it not for the sad fact that he could never, ever have been the one. For a brief period during our two-year relationship, I fantasized about our wedding: a Wyeth-esque outdoor affair, tents and mosquito netting, and a string quartet playing Bach in a wheat field. I would wear a 1920sera lace dress with a dropped waist and go barefoot. Friends would toast scintillatingly. The New York Times would run a Vows column with a headline like “Passion on the Plains.” But such an event would never come to pass. He was, despite his old-fashioned ways and gentlemanly demeanor, a reception hall and DJ type of man. He listened to Yanni. He enjoyed the television show Wings. His house had carpet and he was not bothered by it. He had, in fact, paid to have it installed. Though I believe to this day that his soul, at its core, is as pure and as capable of embracing my required snobberies as is the soul of any man with oak floors, it was shrouded in carpet. It was suffocating in pale-blue shag and our love was eventually subsumed under an expanse of Scotch-guarded fibers.

Carpet is the near miss, the ever-present land mine, the disaster that looms on the horizon. It’s the efficiency apartment you’ll be forced to move into if the business fails, the marriage collapses, the checks stop coming in, and the wolf breaks down the door and scratches up those precious polished floors. Carpet can be there when you least expect it; some of your best friends could have it. It could be the bad news at the end of the third date; sprawling across the bachelor pad from wall to wall, it’s what makes you decide not to go past first base. When I take a risk, what I put on the line are my essential, uncarpeted conditions. To venture into the unknown is to hazard a brush with the carpeted masses. They taunt and threaten from the sides of the road, their split-levels and satellite dishes forming pockmarks on the prairie, their luxury condo units driving up the cost of living.

Where there’s carpet, there’s been a mistake. Where there’s carpet, there’s Mungers. The arrangement is temporary. The clock is ticking. Carpet is a rental car, a borrowed jacket you’d never buy for yourself, the neighbor’s key ring, with some tacky trinket attached, that you keep in case she locks herself out. Carpet makes everybody a stranger. Carpet tells me it’s time to pack up and move on. When there’s carpet, every street gets me lost. Every restaurant is a Denny’s. Every room is a hotel room. My feet can’t quite touch the floor. I am so far away from home.

 

My Misspent Youth is available as an ebook from Emily Books. Megan Daum lives in Los Angeles. Previously from Emily Books: “Being a Cheesemonger Is Better And Worse Than You Think It Is,” an excerpt from Martha Grover’s One More For The People.

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58 Comments / Post A Comment

Ok, I’m gonna have to buy this book now.

oiseau (#1,830)

I like/get this a lot. I have triggers, too, not carpet so much as other little things that are not an issue for other people but make me want to puke and die!

Pleated pants (for dudes); french tip manicures (for women). I could do this all day!

oiseau (#1,830)

Builder’s grade countertops/faucets.

Country-style half-curtains on windows.

Vertical blinds.

Exposed cement block foundations.

Fire-retardant pajamas/anything.

ETC. Hatred! Puke, die!

Gah! That sound vertical blinds make when you close them!

oiseau (#1,830)

Things that smell of nicotine.

Frozen entrees.

Ill-fitting clothing.

The ‘burbs.

Strip malls.

Man-made ponds.

Monster trucks.

ThatJenn (#916)

American cheese and/or Wonder bread.
Pants that are short enough to show socks.
Kitschy signs/figurines in bathrooms.
Big signs with neighborhood names on them (that are not related to some natural or historical feature of the area).
Gold hoop earrings.

Fig. 1 (#632)

So much great stuff on the Billfold today! Thanks guys!!!

I love all the signifiers in here that make it so clearly from a decade ago (which doesn’t even feel that long ago!) The aversion to gold jewelry and American cars. The people who claim not to read Time and Newsweek. Kevin Costner! Wings!

@Katey Rich@facebook and yet this joke is still relevant: “The New York Times would run a Vows column with a headline like “Passion on the Plains.” THEY WOULD DO THAT

amyfrances (#1,522)

“Carpet is the job you held immediately after graduation, before you realized that a career in marketing posed a severe threat to your emotional health.”

That part made me very, very, very scared of the future I am slowly building for myself, not because I want it, but because I have to have a job.

Mae (#1,769)

@Katey Rich@facebook I know! I am glad not to live in a time when bright colored clothing is declasse.

Sallymander (#3,159)

WHAT the heck did I just read. Seriously.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@Sallymander I mean, somebody just please, PLEASE tell me that I am not crazy for thinking this person is wildly uninteresting and trying way hard to be interesting by way of this garbage essay.

@Sallymander NOT crazy. i totally agree. the whole thing made me cringe. the privilege alone was too much…like wow, lot’s of people wouldn’t able to turn down a $400 apt just because it had carpet. ugh just ugh.

@Sallymander I thought it was satire, and then I kept reading and now I’m not sure.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@Claire Henry@twitter Phew! Glad it’s not just me! I seriously had to roll my eyes at:

“The kind of class that I associate with wood floors is the kind of class that emerges out of an anxiety about being classy. People who must have wood floors are people who need to convey the message that they’re quite possibly better than most people…I am one of those people.”

Like, oh I am SO INTERESTED in the fact you feel the anxiety-inducing need to surround yourself with flooring and objects that you feel will broadcast your classiness to the world! I’m sure all these things will magically endow you with class and add depth to your identity which is otherwise so flimsy that it would be smothered in the shallow nap of wall-to-wall carpet. Give me a break.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@Sallymander Yeah. I basically thought that I’m happy that I’m not quite that pathetically insecure.

keaton (#2,721)

@Sallymander
Yeah. This is dreck that I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been on this usually cool website. At first I thought they were trying to convey that they had grown up poor, unable to afford living in places with carpet – but then it turned out to be precisely the opposite? WTF. It reads like bad satire. This person sounds like the worst.
And their writing style is pretty poor, I think I would have been more forgiving if they wrote well, but …

EM (#1,012)

@Sallymander @keaton It makes a lot more sense if you’ve read this other essay she wrote, wherein she summarizes her values at that time period as: ” From that moment on, everything I did, every decision I made, every college applied to or not applied to, every job taken or not taken, was based on an unwavering determination to live in a prewar, oak-floored apartment, on or at least in the immediate vicinity of 104th Street and West End Avenue.”

It doesn’t make it sympathetic, particularly, but it does seem like she’s writing about her very specific cultivated aesthetic, which is interesting because it’s so extreme.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@Michelle Right, it was even on the Billfold. I was wondering why it sounded familiar.

EM (#1,012)

@Fig. 1 Yeah. I think this isn’t supposed to elicit positive reactions- the other essay was more explicit in explaining that she was criticizing her own particular snobbery and desire to maintain a certain image, which puts this essay in more of an, “Ah, this is about your oak floor obsession” light.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@Michelle Ooooooh NOW I understand! She used to be a teenager with vapid, trite notions of what it would be like to live in a wood-floored apartment With Character And Charm. Suddenly this story is an fascinating, thoughtful tale of youthful misadventure and Lessons Learned.

I mean, I generally try not to be a cruel person but honestly in this case I am not trying that hard.

Norrey (#407)

So, I think this is a very geographic issue, too. You can’t find a reasonable rental where I live that has hardwood floors. In places where buildings aren’t old, everywhere has carpet. Carpet is for rentals, cheap new construction, and condos. Only nice house, or beat up old house student rentals have wood.

@Norrey yeah I was really confused by this part: And I’m not talking about socioeconomic class. Carpet has, since its inception, been the province of the elite. It’s found in high-rise condos and suburban ranch houses. Cheap landlords like to install cheap carpet in cheap rentals so they can raise the price and it amazes and depresses me that people actually buy into this.

Maybe things have changed more than I realized since 2001, but I have definitely never been apartment-hunting in a market where hardwood floor meant anything other than 1) pre-WWII construction or 2) way more money than I can afford.

keaton (#2,721)

@Norrey
Yeah, I wrote this in a comment below, but I felt like the author undermined her point by claiming carpet was the “province of the elite” and then went on to associate it with being plebeian, lower-status, ‘common’, etc. I am confused …

Fig. 1 (#632)

@keaton Perhaps she’s talking about the trickle-down effect – carpet was originally expensive so it was an indication of luxury (or nouveau riche-ness). Like how baby names gradually move down the class system, so if you want to know what’s gonna be the most popular kid’s name in 10 years you just look at what the Hons. are picking?

@keaton I read the “province of the elite” as being a desperate attempt at trying to frame it as something other than a classist rant. It’s ok, because she’s not bashing the poor (who I guess she assumes live solely in dirt-floor huts), she’s bashing the lower middle class, who aren’t as “authentic” as idealized salt-of-the-earth poor people and stylish urban upper middle class people.

Beck (#2,269)

@Norrey Agreed. As someone trying to raise money to redo the floors in a house (old, but not so old that the shitty carpet is covering – surprise! – fabulous hard wood), I have come to realize that carpets are for the masses. Unless they (the carpets that is) are made of wool from New Zealand. Where does bamboo fit into all of this? ‘Cause that’s where I’m leaning…

Norrey (#407)

But also – this is a great post! I forgot to add that. =)

vine fruit (#3,232)

Okay, everyone has these things that they think are totally gauche, and it’s totally legit to make decisions based on that, feelings are real and valid. But we’re not ignoring the part where Daum acknowledges that it’s also classist and gross when you expand that kind of thinking, right? That it’s fairly awful to think that someone who likes or even allows carpet in their home is incapable of appreciating classical music, for example? I think that’s a really important point in the essay that is obscured a bit by all the examples of cultural signifiers that Daum talks about buying into.

@vine fruit YES times a million.

oiseau (#1,830)

@vine fruit Good point about this essay, I agree that it is snobby thinking and I dislike my classist dislike of the things stated in my comment above. I do try not to leap to assumptions of other people just because they live in a run-down house in the suburbs, etc. That being said, the thought of me living in a run-down house in the suburbs that smells of nicotine and eating frozen dinners and riding around in scooters, etc, makes me literally want to puke/die.

oiseau (#1,830)

@oiseau …and I think that was also a part of this article, that one of the reasons carpet terrifies her is because she associates it with being poor/failure/ignorant. For better or worse (mostly worse, but still).

chic noir (#713)

@oiseau – You don’t like frozen dinners? Wait until you try the Stouffers fish and mac dinner(red box ).

AitchBee (#3,001)

My reaction to this article reminded me a little of how I feel when I watch “Girls”: I start out all “Ahaha, so true, aren’t we SILLY FOLK, you and I,” but by the end I’m just screaming forever into the night.

@AitchBee I have that reaction to most things that are supposed to be about “being young and broke in New York”.

melis (#42)

WINGS IS SO GOOD how can you not like Wings

melis (#42)

Steven Weber is an underrated genius

faustbanana (#2,376)

@melis I have never watched an episode of Wings and I am inordinately proud of that.

melis (#42)

@faustbanana You stop that you stop that right now it is ALL ON NETFLIX. Everyone great is on that show. Megan Mullaly guest-starred as a down-trodden town tramp in the first season. Tony Shalhoub was a nervous Italian cab driver! Thomas Haden Church made a blissfully dumb Being There-style mechanic! Steven Weber did an amazing Sean Connery sequence in season 7!

smack (#307)

@melis SO TRUE WINGS 4EVA

squishycat (#3,000)

…as much as I love hardwood floors and HATE VACUUMING, I really don’t mind that my apartment is carpeted in every room except the kitchen and the bathroom, because if the floors weren’t carpeted, I’d be required by the lease agreement to cover at least 80% of the floor space with rugs. And I like rugs. But not 80% rugs. 80% rugs in SO MUCH WORSE than wall-to-wall carpet.

Also, what the fuck did I just skim.

calamity (#2,577)

I read this book a few months ago. The introduction was fantastic, and the opening and title essays were also very good, but I found most of the others (including this) kind of … lacking. It’s very stereotypical Tales of Not Quite Making It As A Writer In New York City – kind of like a less funny Sloane Crosley collection.

keaton (#2,721)

Are you fucking kidding me!
Carpet is insulation, it makes your house
a) easier to heat and keep warm
b) less noisy
c) more energy efficient.
I mean, it can have different cultural meanings, but I completely don’t understand their viewpoint. We all have our quirks but disliking carpet to the point that it breaks up relationships and causes harsh judgment on strangers, WTF.

This piece isn’t even internally consistent. The author writes about how carpet is an upper-class phenomenon (“Carpet has, since its inception, been the province of the elite”) and then spends the rest of the piece talking about how carpet is too plebeian (implied: lower-class, common) for her.
UGH. I don’t usually have strong reactions to things I read online but this left a bad taste in my mouth.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@keaton I think it might be one of those things where the lowest kind of prole is the prole who tries to co-opt elite status symbols. Peasants should know their place.

jenfizz (#100)

@keaton Well there are CAR-pets and carpets. You know what I mean? blerg.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I love Meghan Daum. I love her love her love her! I also love how the comment section of everything she writes EVER is filled with hate.

chic noir (#713)

@Lauren more hate filled than gossip blog posts on Beyonce and Gweneth.

Litirate (#3,235)

Ok, I think she is commenting on how all-encompassing class-consciousness is in American culture.

While you may critique her, what you are really critiquing is society (which she is skewering). That is the intended effect, but it’s somewhat layered and nuance in that she brings you into a world-view that is contemptible for being the very thing it despises. Which is a bit of satire.

Is it super good? I admit, I was drawn in, and interested. I mean, it’s old ground, but still…. But then I haven’t been reading much fiction for ages. It wasn’t the greatest. But it’s a commentary on materialism. This signifier.

The comments were way more interesting, tho.

jenfizz (#100)

Can we get a one-year, media blackout on all things related to New York. People in other places do interesting things. Being young and poor in NYC was a boring and cliched thing to do when Patty Smith was doing it. It’s almost as bad as marrying at 20 and raising kids in the suburbs.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@jenfizz seconded!

Sallymander (#3,159)

@jenfizz Arguably, kids and suburbs are more interesting depending on the family!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@jenfizz Somebody hurry up and tell all those young poor people in NYC that they’re a cliche! Lots of people live in NYC, and write about it, and everyone is free not to read about them if they want. Or write about young people living in Montreal, or old people living in Cleveland, or whatever you want, really!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

I just…loved this book so much when it came out, I foisted it on everyone I know, and loved this essay in particular. It really nicely articulated all the weird, irrational feelings I have had about carpet. Which sounds pretty insane to even write, because, what’s so bad about carpet, right?

LHOOQ (#1,634)

Carpet is a class issue, and snobbery is a moral issue.

I prefer hardwood floors to carpet, too, but I can’t get over how many people are giving this pean to snobbery a pass. It’s one thing to acknowledge one’s privilege and another thing entirely to rhapsodize unabashedly about one’s own shallowness.

Also, bonus points for the exquisitely condescending use of the word postiche, I guess? Don’t hear that one every day. Unless you’re in the John Birch Society. (Points rescinded if a typo for pastiche.)

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@LHOOQ It’s pretty clearly self-satirizing. She’s using carpet as a metaphor for her own class-climbing anxieties.

LHOOQ (#1,634)

@WaityKatie I know, but it’s more ‘aren’t I cute’ than self-deprecating. I get that it’s satire, but she’s using a veneer of self-mockery to reinforce her position that she feels no need for personal growth on this issue. Maybe everyone doesn’t need to be oozing self-loathing all the time. Fine. I’ll return to my corner of puritanical self-flagellation now.

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