How Eating With The 1% Made Me Look At Wealth In A New Way

Photographed By Janelle Jones.
Last week, my partner Marc and I had dinner at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. It was our second Michelin experience and our first three-star. It’s an expensive “experience,” yes, but one that we both savored and appreciated for months and years both leading up to and following it. My big Christmas gift to Marc last year was the very gift card we used last week — in July — and it’s not an understatement to say we spent those seven months checking the menu updates, reading reviews, and delaying the gratification of the (ultimately incredible) meal.

But it would also be an understatement to say that, each time we’ve dined at a restaurant like this, we’re incredibly taken aback by the diners who surround us. Last week, when we walked in from the rain and greeted the three elegant hostesses, we interrupted what appeared to be a pretty severe tongue-lashing from a client who was unhappy. Why? Because she hadn't received the table she wanted — yet she hadn't asked for that table, either. She chided one hostess for not insisting the patrons currently occupying the table move for her benefit, and snapped at the other two when they tried to help find a solution. After the first hostess safely escorted her to the bar, I joked to the other two hostesses about how unreasonable clients like her must be a pretty frequent occurrence.

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“At least 10 times a day,” one hostess told me. “And actually, she wasn’t that bad; usually, they’re racist, too.” She told us about the awful comments she receives on a daily basis as a Black woman with natural hair, and people's assumptions that her white colleague (who is actually the new girl) must be her boss.

How can people become so numb to this level of luxury and delicacy that they find the energy to harass a hostess, or barely touch their food because they know they can come back a week from now to get the exact same thing?

As Marc and I looked around, it became clear to us that our situation — coming here after months of anticipation, for an extravagant experience — was the exception, rather than the rule. It was a Thursday night, and most of the tables around us seemed filled with businesspeople at important dinners, client outings, and the like. There was also a not-insignificant number of families, complete with bored-looking children playing with iPhones as they pushed their $200 meals around their plates. One family of three — an older man, his beautiful young wife, and an 11-year-old boy in a suit jacket — seemed to not speak to each other for the entire three hours we were seated across from them.

I’m sure that the weekend crowd (and the more budget-friendly lunch crowd) is filled with excited gastronomic tourists like us, and that the weeknight aspect only added to the “bored regulars” dynamic, but still, it was painful to see. How can people become so numb to this level of luxury and delicacy that they find the energy to harass a hostess, or barely touch their food because they know they can come back a week from now to get the exact same thing? How can people sit in silence with their loved ones in such an extraordinary setting, when everything from the wine to the ambiance to the impeccable service is worth discussion and excitement? How could you not want to spend hours talking about the nuances of your food and trying one another’s dishes?

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I won’t say that it ruined our dinner (that would have been impossible), but it was certainly sad.

And, it made me wonder about the children in the restaurant: Where do they go from here? What will be left that their pleasure receptors are not numbed to? Are they doomed to end up like the 30-something businessmen with beautiful dates who spend the entire time talking to their bloated, red-nosed bosses in $5,000 suits? Marc and I briefly promised each other, on the slim chance that we end up with the kind of money that would afford eating here frequently, that we wouldn't do it — simply in order to keep it special (and that under no circumstances would we ever bring a child with us).

In moments like this, I fear wealth, and its numbing, dehumanizing effects.

Because even today, and even with our relatively normal lifestyle, Marc and I have become numb to things that are considered a luxury by huge portions of the world. Going to a restaurant is not, in and of itself, a thrill. We don’t have to think twice before we buy basic things, and we're able to travel many times per year. We have already come to take these things for granted to a certain degree. Though we would never treat someone the way those rich, impatient clients were treating those hostesses, we probably come off as tired or bored when we’re receiving customer service, as all of us do from time to time. The simple act of getting seated at a restaurant is not something special to us, just as a five-course tasting menu by a world-renowned chef has become nothing special to the people who dined around us on Thursday night.

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In moments like this, I fear wealth and its numbing, dehumanizing effects. Aside from what we know, statistically, about the rich and their tendency to give less and be less compassionate than people with more moderate incomes, there also seems to be a general boredom that settles over a person when he or she is given such unbridled access to the best of what the world has to offer. By many standards, the average American is already “rich.” Despite the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the world will never sit down for a meal in a restaurant in their lives, many of us feel nothing particularly thrilling about that experience; it can be either good or bad, depending on the quality of the individual moment.

There is a way to stay empathetic and human, and remember that the things we assume are everyday aspects of life are far from a given.

But this is ridiculous. These things are incredible. Our freedom to move around the world, even in coach, is fabulous. Our ability to immediately quench our thirst or hunger with a snack we can pick up at any number of clean, safe eating establishments around us is a privilege that many people will never know. We may not all be sitting in a three-star restaurant overlooking Central Park, but by many standards, we are already in the luxury class of what the world has to offer.

That dinner, in some ways, felt like the Capitol in the Hunger Games: a parade of ostentatious wealth that has nothing left to do but consume, mindlessly, because it can. And though there is no way to guarantee that you will never become this particular kind of wealthy person, if you ever do come into wealth, there is certainly a way to be lucid about what you have. There is a way to stay empathetic and human, and to remember that the things we assume are everyday aspects of life are far from a given. We can also be more thoughtful about when and how we decide to “treat ourselves” with lavish experiences, even when we can afford them frequently.

A dinner that Marc and I make ourselves, at home, prepared with someone we love and enjoyed over a few hours and a bottle of wine, can be a deeply pleasurable and rewarding experience. And just because we could replace it, every day, with an expensive meal out doesn’t mean we have to. We can still hold onto and love the little things, so that the big things — on the rare occasions we enjoy them — are that much sweeter.

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