In my small southern city, the highest rung on the social ladder is a family with an old pedigree and money. The second rung is a family with an old pedigree but no money. The third rung is families with no local pedigree but money and the last one, the fourth, are families with no pedigree, no money, but act like they do which is expensive.
When I moved here 35 years ago, I learned very quickly about these four social groups but more importantly I realized I couldn’t keep up with any of them. I couldn’t afford to join the Country Club, or the private social club, apparently you can’t join one and not be a member of the other. I couldn’t afford a house in the right zip code (there are just two) or buy a house on one of the historically named streets. What I was left with was to be the fifth rung on the social ladder, someone not interested in keeping-up with the Jones.
I married into a well-off family, a respected Doctor but not from here which is an important point. Both of my in-laws are down to earth people, yes members of the Country Club but that’s because he is a golf nut. They have never been on the A list of the social circuit. Because he is a doctor, maybe B+. They are members of a Debutante Club (look it up, it’s a Southern thing) but not THE Debutante Club (yes, there is more than one). They also get invited to stuff, balls, galas, etc. but they both know where they land in the pecking order and are okay with their very comfortable, and respected lot in life.
My neighbor, Sam, down the street committed suicide last week. He was 63. He grew-up and lived most of his life on the fourth rung of the social ladder, no pedigree, no money, but acted like he had both. His Dad had a small business and was a member of the Country Club, the private social club and lived in a house right on the edge of the proper zip code. Sam’s Dad sent all three of his kids to the local private school that all the blue-bloods attend. It’s expensive. Like, college tuition is expensive, $15,000 to $20,000 a year today.
I met Sam when I first moved here. My impression of him was that he was on the first or second rung of the social ladder, a cute blond wife, house in the right zip code and on a historically named street, working in sales for one of the companies owned by an old pedigree family. I figured he was somehow related to the family.
Sam ran hard and partied hard too. Pictures of him and his cute blond wife showed up in all the social pages. Everyone knew him and he seemed to be at the center of all activity. But I learned later that Sam wasn’t in the first or second rung of the social ladder, he was a fourth, no pedigree, no money, but spent like hell, just like his dad, to act like he was.
After a while he could no longer afford to run with the big dogs. But the problem he had was his cute blond wife didn’t want to hear that. She liked being invited to the balls and galas. She liked having their child in the private school. She enjoyed having coffee and lunch with the other moms who didn’t work.
Sam finally had to face the facts and tell her their glamorous life would have to be scaled back. Send the kid to public school, and she needed to get a job to help dig them out of debt. For Sam and the cute blond this was the beginning of the end.
They lasted about three years. Sam’s drinking started affecting his work to the point that the pedigree family had to let him go. He got another job in the same field, but it was like starting over without the backing and the foot in the door of working for the pedigree family. His weekly nights out with his buddies became more frequent and the alcohol changed his mood. He went from the life of the party to eventually just a party of one.
Cute blond divorced Sam and got the house, the kid, and married a banker on the rebound. She ended up in the same cycle with the banker who had no clue what he was getting himself into but that’s another story. Sam got a secretary at work pregnant, married her, moved into my neighborhood (not the right zip code) and settled into a fifth rung lifestyle, somewhat.
He tried to run with the money boys when he could, but he couldn’t afford the golf weekends at Pinehurst, or the charter fishing trips in Key West. He could afford the weekly visits to the strip club, and beers in the men’s grill at the Country Club paid for by someone else. But slowly, over time, his social group quit calling, and quit extending those invitations because they knew, what they always knew, that Sam really wasn’t one of them. He was just pretending he was.
I saw Sam at the store about six months ago. We spoke briefly about life, kids, etc. He was always a mellow dude, but I walked away thinking his mellow was almost comatose. I sensed no real excitement about anything in his voice, even when I asked him about his kids. Don’t ask me that question unless you really want this proud Dad to tell you.
I didn’t think about Sam or our conversation until I heard he had put a bullet in his head last week. Word filtered down that his drinking was out of control, and he was very depressed. He had quit his job but for the first few months got up every morning and acted like he was still going to work. I am not sure when or how his wife found out that he was unemployed. Maybe when she looked in their checking account or saw a notice of nonpayment for the power bill.
I am sorry for Sam’s wife and their two kids. I am sorry that Sam didn’t feel like he had any reason to live. Depression is real and depression is dangerous. Alcohol and drugs numb the pain, but they also make you do stupid shit like put a bullet in your brain. Sam had a lot to live for, two great kids, a loyal wife, friends he had known since grade school. But for whatever reason, Sam’s brain told him that wasn’t enough, he should have more, or his brain decided his family, and his friends would be better off without him. Whatever the reason, he was wrong on all accounts.