Nobody Knows You When You're Downwardly Mobile

March 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mark Kleiman notes a line from a New York Times story about downward mobility. The line concerns Ame Arlt, age 53, who had been making $165,000 a year as vice president at a media company. Now she makes $10-15 an hour doing mostly data entry.

Saddest line in the story: “Even though she has parted ways with some friends because she is no longer in their social stratum . . . “ I’ll have to get a new dictionary. The one I have seems to have an obsolete definition of the word “friend.”

Did Mark think that her former friends had abandoned her? That was my first thought. In my mind’s ear, I heard Billie Holiday singing the bridge to God Bless the Child:

Money – you’ve got lots of friends
Waitin’ round your door
When it’s gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more.

These lines are at 1:16 into this clip.

But on reading the sentence a second time, I got the impression that Ms. Arlt was the one who had decided to let the friendships drop. It’s not about their snobbery, it’s about her sense of self.

That interpretation may be more accurate, but it’s certainly not the more popular one. In fact, as I was trying to think up a title for this post, I ran through the lyrics of all the “friend” songs I could think of, and they all said the same thing: “I’ll be your friend even when things go bad for you.” None of them looked at it from the position Ms. Alt is now in. None of them said, “When I’m down and out and you’re still in good shape, I won’t be self-conscious or ashamed about still being friends with you.”

Can anyone think of a song, or anything else, that expresses that idea?

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