“I have seen the dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns, It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways, The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the West Vancouver neighbourhood where I spent much of my childhood, the main street is one long sleepy boulevard offset by long, widely spaced, curlicue driveways. Each driveway leads through heavy gates and ends in a roundabout so that the 16-year-old owner of the Range Rover or the Mercedes or the Cadillac Escalade doesn’t have to reverse and negotiate three-point turns like everyone else in the world. In fact, everything about these homes is perfectly calculated to afford their owners the privilege, which quickly comes to feel like a right, of not having to do what other people have to do. These curlicue driveways are littered with vehicles, a shiny melee of vehicles-all purchased within the last two years-strewn like wasted leftovers at a catered dinner party. The surplus of options is another thing that is perfectly calculated here. Power is in, not just the excess of choice, but the waste.
Sometimes you will see employees, men and women, often from the Phillipines, standing in thigh-high rubber boots , hosing down these cars in frigid weather. For even when these cars are not being driven, there is still the luxury of having them cleaned. The driveway resembles a post-apocalyptic luxury car dealership where the only survivors are the paid workers and even though it rains almost 200 days a year in Vancouver, the cars must be still washed everyday.
West Vancouver is often touted as Canada’s most affluent zip code. Sometimes you also hear that the British Properties, one of West Vancouver’s most emblematic neighbourhoods, holds the dubious title of having one of the highest rates of suicide in the country. I have never found a reputable source to back this up and I suspect that this folklore has a lot to do with our need to feel we live in a just world, to feel that more money does not = more happiness. I’m not suggesting that rich people have no problems. Suffering is inherent to the human condition and rich people will still suffer from the loss of love, betrayal, self-loathing, illness, sickness, death. People who live in West Vancouver still negotiate aging, addiction, child abuse, death, domestic abuse, car accidents, accidents, trauma. But make no mistake, the detrimental effects of economic and social marginalization on both mental and physical health are well documented. Privilege and white privilege are undoubtedly protective factors.
In West Vancouver, the interiors are made up of hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances. The towels in the bathrooms always look unused as they hang folded over their rails, stiff and yet soft at the same time, never limp or mysteriously yellow or bleached in places. The toilet paper rolls are often folded in a fancy v-shape and surplus rolls are neatly tucked away in cabinets under the sink, as opposed to stacked on the back of the toilet tank. Bathroom cabinets are always full of Kiehl’s shampoo and conditioner. People never run out of toilet paper in West Vancouver and the toothpaste nozzle is never clogged. Soap dishes are never filled with slimy dead soap, the drain never clogged with hair. These homes feel a little like hotels, where everything is turned over and re-stocked at the end of each day, made to look as if nobody lives here, as if nobody has ever taken a shit in the toilet, or stained a sheet, or jerked off in the shower.
There is often a Phillipino woman named Emily or Mimi who keeps the fridge stocked with tiny cut up fruit from Whole Foods. She is also the one who takes the dog to the vet when they are sick or need a dental cleaning. There is surely something reassuring about all this order, like the feeling you get at the Gap from looking through all the clothes, perfectly ordered and pressed and arranged according to size and colour. Or the feeling you get from having your teeth cleaned. Or the feeling you get when you ride in a new car. The feeling is sterile and vaguely laden with middle-class guilt, yet shamefully soothing.
In West Vancouver, a person’s relative level of richness is not determined, as is the case in many other places, by symbols such as whether or not one own’s a car, whether or not one has a big screen TV, whether or not a child has their own bedroom. Material objects of various types have always acted as status symbols, markers of a person’s relative worth in the world, but here in West Vancouver, telling the very rich from the extremely rich is more difficult The kids I grew up with who were extremely rich didn’t just have long driveways and multiple expensive cars and fancy toiletries, but rather, they had an elevator, an outdoor pool AND an indoor pool, and extra 20-car garage, an elevator to transport cars up to this 20-car garage.
I grew up in West Vancouver. So often my childhood feels as though it were split in two, cleaved down the middle like those enormous geriatric-colored slabs of clay you get in high school art, the ones you got to slice through with crusty pieces of twine. Up until the age of 14, I lived in one of those West Vancouver houses with a pool. After the age of 14, when my Dad left, we moved into a smaller house, by the railroad tracks.
But the diversity of my experience within this privileged community does not change the fact that I lived in West Vancouver. And even if I didn’t live in one of the big houses with luxury cars abandoned all over a heated driveway, I still lived in relative comfort and enjoyed the privilege of a safety net that is not afforded to most people. This is why my husband says I’ll never understand. My husband grew up with a loving family and a mother who worked tirelessly to keep him clothed and fed and safe, but he did not grow up with luxury. He couldn’t afford to go to college, and this perhaps more than anything has directly affected his life is so many discernible ways.
Him and I disagree constantly about the kind of life we want to live. He looks at car magazines wistfully and gets starry-eyed driving through these neighbourhoods with big houses and infinity pools. I tell him if we work hard we can live a comfortable life. And he says he doesn’t just want to be comfortable, he wants to be able to buy a Ferrari on a Saturday because he feels like it. I get frustrated with him. I tell him that is soooo unnecessary. I tell him that is soooo unrealistic. All the while, he tells me I’ll never understand, and I’ll the while I know there is truth to this. Me who has owned a new car, who has travelled and studied abroad, who has had the incredible luxury and privilege of completing four different university degrees. My driveway is not littered with cars, but it is littered with education, with diplomas and semesters spent in Salamanca and Paris and Havana and Tokyo. My very ability to speak about West Vancouver with derision is a direct consequence of having experienced it. My contempt is a luxury. And I know that beneath my husband’s desire to buy a Ferrari on a Saturday is the deep fear of the economic and racial marginalization. Buying a Ferrari on a Saturday is not about buying a car, but rather, it is a symbol of security. Being able to waste in this way is indicative of safety, of the ability to exert control over your own world, to neutralize threats. And who doesn’t want to live in safety?
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about the Dream. He is talking about the American Dream specifically, but I think this Dream applies equally to Canada and to places like West Vancouver. In Coates’ estimation, the Dream is not just the shiny cars and floors of West Vancouver, but it is the idea of attainability. Inherent to the mythology of the Dream, is the unquestioned belief in the possibility of upward social mobility for all, as well as the denial of white supremacy. If you aren’t living the Dream, it is because you are doing something wrong, you aren’t trying hard enough, you just aren’t there yet. Anyone can live the dream if they work hard enough. But this is what is truly noxious about the Dream. It is not the Dream itself, but the perpetuation of a state of self-blame and shame in those who are not living the Dream, and a state of condescension, philanthropical at best, by those on the upward end.
It is condescending for me to tell my husband these things are not important. Only someone who has experienced these things or who has the possibility of experiencing these things, has the luxury of rejection. For my husband these things will likely always exist as a glittery horizon of what happiness can be, at once unattainable and also necessary to happiness. Coates calls this feeling the “gripping fear that undergirds the Dream”.
I no longer live in West Vancouver, but I drove through my old neighbourhood last week. Things looked the same from the outside. The same towering houses with two-story plate glass windows, the same thin women in Lululemon walking small dogs or jogging with ponytails. The same sense of stillness, like it is not only the bathrooms and bedrooms that are unoccupied, but the streets as well. This silence was pregnant with the same unsettling mixture of the calm and the uncanny. This is not a place I would like to live again. And yet, it is a privilege to reject this life, a privilege to reject its perfect institutional ordering and organization. Its’ safety. It is a privilege to renounce privilege. For most people there is only a desperate and futile leaning towards the Dream, towards the safety and security that is promised by the Dream, towards survival itself.