Carpet Is a Class Issue
by Meghan Daum
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.