How High Is Our Status?

Karen is taking her first break since beginning to write in this space. She is offering some of her most remarked-upon columns for you to enjoy again.

How high is our status (first published in May, 2011)

Recently, in another part of the country, I found myself in an unusual conversation. One person told us about buying his Rolex, which he then showed off. Another person mentioned her “baby Mercedes.” A third person described the house he was building—the island in the kitchen could seat 17 people, so you can imagine what the rest of the house might be like.

In downtown Boston, the scene would have been considered so down-market. Rolexes are ugly, and car makes are insignificant, since no one knows the kind of car you drive because you can rarely find a space to park in front of your house. Besides, some have no car. As for the island seating 17 people—most of our homes would probably fit into that speaker’s kitchen, but then our tiny space is probably worth more than his whole house.

After having that snarky thought, I pondered our local snobbery. It’s there, but not in makes of cars, fancy jewelry or house size. I checked with my friends, just to see what people knew about status symbols in downtown Boston. They knew a lot.

Take cars. We agreed it’s not the kind of a car you drive, although probably foreign is still better than domestic. Vehicle status here is measured by the number of neighborhood parking stickers that grid your back window. The more stickers, the longer you’ve lived here. Bingo.

Other vehicle stickers can advertise your successes or that of your offspring. Although alma maters still matter, prep school and college names on your car are the heavy-handed way to do it. Just leave your college alumni magazine around when visitors come.

A more subtle up-market attachment to your car, should anyone recognize the vehicle as yours, are those stickers from your yacht club, country club or the town dump where you own your second home.  You don’t have a choice—you must display them, so you can’t be accused of trying to show off. The island towns probably carry more status weight than does a Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont town sticker. All of them show that you’re shelling out thousands of dollars a year for these privileges, which lets people know you can afford such entertainments.

Even a lowly land-line telephone number has something to say. In the Back Bay, it’s the prefix 266, on Beacon Hill it is 227, or in Charlestown it is 241 or 242. Those prefixes show you’ve been in the neighborhood a long while, but then again sometimes they are simply handed out to new folks.

Downtown buildings can have front or back gardens, window boxes, roof terraces and visible balconies. If yours is planted beautifully, that is status. If yours is planted beautifully and you did it all yourself, it’s a status home-run.

Interesting or illustrious ancestors used to bestow status, but these days, it’s hard to tell who is who. And after “Clark Rockefeller,” a certain suspicion settles on any newcomer with a historic name.

The part of the Back Bay nearest the Public Garden is considered a better address than near Mass. Ave. although not all the buildings live up to expectations. The front or South Slope of Beacon Hill is still favored over the back or North Slope. Charlestown around the Monument holds more caché than the slope running down to the Mystic. And the Waterfront has more status than the interior of the North End. But all these distinctions are nuanced, because ratty buildings exist in the places with more status and nice ones in the parts of the neighborhood with less status.

Two items stand out in status, however, above all else. One is the ability to get many things done and still make it seem like you have a lot of free time for friends, family and frippery.

Another is, if you are biologically eligible, to have three or more children. It implies you can afford to house them and send them to the pricey schools that downtown children attend or have the leisure time to negotiate with the Boston Public Schools over matters concerning them.

One wonders if the recent royal wedding will have an influence on Boston status. We may never go in for hats like the Brits do, but perhaps the newly named Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor, Duchess of Cambridge has brought back small bosoms as opposed to the silicon-enhanced kind and lace-coverings that frame the face rather than bare unflattering strapless gowns as the most status-filled way to look on one’s wedding day.

I don’t think, however, that my acquaintances from other parts of the country will ever understand why my collection of neighborhood parking stickers trumps any car they could ever drive.

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