THE WAY WE LIVE Materialism is dead, isn’t it?

At least on the surface now, we all seem to agree: Materialism is a thing of the past. The ’80s. But I find myself wondering sometimes whether we’re all agreed on what we mean. We know one thing. For most people, it means we don’t have as much money as we had in the ’80s. Therefore i( makes sense to find something new to do.

A materialistic binge at the Galleria in the 1980s, when you had the money but shouldn’t have blown it, might have been a problem. But a materialistic binge in the 1990s, when you don’t have the money, period, is a possible felony. Given the number of people who have less money now, it comes as no huge surprise to hear talk about rejecting materialism.

We were at dinner. The change from ’80s to ’90s had been much more dramatic for our dinnermates than for us, because they had a lot more money than we, even in the ’80s. He is a business person, and she is a Smithie/professional.

It was a very common-sense restaurant. In fact, between you and me, it may even have been a little too common-sense-almost ostentatiously common-sense, as if there were a statement involved. The menu reminded one of potluck dinners. (The new excess?)

She (the Smithie) said, “Instead of waiting for it all to come back, don’t you think people in Dallas just need to use this as an opportunity to look to other areas of life for fulfillment and get away from the idea that spending money and buying things is what will make us happy?”

I’m never sure about opportunities like this. I am tempted to offer the following test: Back during the fat days, when it was all bubbles and glitz forever, what do we think our response might have been had someone come along and offered us this chance to get in on the ground floor of humility?

Well, anyway, I think it’s probably the wrong test, because it involves hindsight-life’s one truly worthless form of intelligence. I’m sure, on the real road to hell. all of the signs face backward.

So I said yes. Reflexive-ly. She’s a very smart person. I always agree with her. In fact, I usually wish I had said whatever she just said before she said it. I agreed that it would be a good thing to take this passage as an opportunity to seek and find whole new sources of fulfillment.

But I did wonder. Her having put it that way. . .something in her tone. . .was it just the barest hint of a tiny, lingering wistfulness? A trailing note in a minor key? Something about the way she said it made me remember how much fun it used to be, being a wastrel.

I said, “Even now, when we’re not materialistic any more. . .and we all agree on that (and here, I looked around cautiously and saw that we did agree). . .even now, in the ’90s and so on, does anybody at this table ever have a moment when you’re in the car, and it’s toward the end of the day, and it’s been a bad day, and you’re kind of down, and way in the back of your mind, a still, small voice whispers, “Boy, I’d like to stop by NorthPark and blow a huge, fat wad of dough on a coat’”?

I felt like a terrible heel as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Everyone at the table got a faraway look, and then, for a second there, I was afraid we might all start crying.

I mean, look, let’s get honest. This is Dallas. Spending money was not just a fad or a way to kill time. Spending money was what we were all about.

Friends came in from out of town. What did you do with them? Take them on a nature hike? Forget it. Too hot. Chiggers. You took them to the mall. Or the shops. Maybe, in a special case, to some galleries.

Spending money was to Dallas what hula skirts were to Honolulu. It was what the city was here for. And now it’s gone.

We all have, I am sure, our own private vision of what it was-a moment, a phrase, a couple of bars from a popular song, a scent on the air that still stands for it.

Mine is a vision of an hors d’oeuvre table in the design district. Someone from out of town had come in to announce a new line of carved glass chairs. They wanted to stand out, which meant that they wanted to make a statement, which was always how these things went awry.

It was a small showroom, packed to the Styrofoam cornice mouldings with people in tuxedos and fancy dresses, in a cheaply built building with skinny Sheetrock walls and floors that bounced when people walked on them. The air conditioning was bad.

At one end of a long narrow room, overcrowded with carved glass chairs, they had arranged a glass table on which they had slumped hundreds of pounds of shaved ice, covered with what had to be a hundred pounds of caviar.

The place was very crowded, and people were all slithering around, trying to avoid barking their shins on the glass chairs. The jittery motion of the crowd made the walls vibrate a little bit. I remember looking down through that steamy black-tie mob, down to the table at the end of the room, and seeing that huge whale-sized corpus of caviar sitting there on the table, quivering.

Spoiled the stuff for me forever.

It is a good thing-well and good-that people are responding to the new realities by searching for a positive way to deal with them. Even if the old realities had never left us, I have to believe a portion of the populace would have turned against them some day.

But you worry. Right now, it’s not as if people have a tremendous amount of choice. It’s one thing to be a teetotaler on a desert island with no booze in sight for a hundred miles. It’s another after a crate of scotch washes up.

But there we are, doing the other thing they probably do on the real road to hell-crossing bridges before we get to them. After all, if life decides to hurl another tsunami of prosperity at Dallas in the near future, then Dallas will simply have to swim the best way it can. Those of us who have lived the course of things will be changed forever, one way or another.

I am unsure of my own precise destination, for example. The lane is still broad, but it does have limits at either side. Potluck menus are too far west. Hundred-pound masses of caviar are too far the other way. Meanwhile, it’s press-on-regardless and fine with me if we all play Puritan for another year or so. Gives us something to do.


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