Option envy

How do you cope with watching all your friends get rich?

THE POET OLGA BROUMAS visited my English class when I was a sophomore in college. When a classmate tactlessly asked her if she made enough money as a poet, Broumas graciously replied, "I have a home, a car, and a stereo. What more do I need?" I admired her immensely and wanted to grow up to be just like her.

Dismissal of money comes almost naturally when you're 19 and your parents are paying all the bills. When I passed up a seat in medical school because I thought a writing career would be more "meaningful," my parents tried to warn me that I would end up poor. But the word "poor" never scared me even half as much as my parents had intended. Having grown up in an affluent household, I thought being poor just meant that I wouldn't be playing golf.

Ten years later, Broumas is still my literary hero, but I'm no longer sure I can share her cavalier attitude toward money.

"What more do I need?" How about 100 shares in a soaring dot.com venture? How about a car that starts at the first try? And how about an employer who values my work so much she or he overpays?

Although I love being a writer, I would be lying if I said that I don't feel doubts now and then about my career decisions. Lately, the money issue has been rearing its ugly head: Not part of the high-tech clique that made this city famous, I find myself suddenly feeling poor, unskilled, and surrounded by rich people my own age.

A year ago last spring, right after Amazon.com's music site opened for business, my boyfriend Matt, who had been working as a customer service representative since the company's early days, cashed in his shares. The very next day, he went out and bought a condo on Capitol Hill. A few months later, he "retired." Matt is 31 years old.

His condo is a spiffy place with boxy windows and an electric-powered stream that trickles around the perimeter of the lobby. When I first saw the building, I thought it was brassy and pompous, the Pacific Place of residential living. The only thing missing was a Starbucks on the ground floor. Matt's unit is the type of high-concept place with few walls. The kitchen opens into the dining room, which opens into the living room, which opens onto a terrace. His bedroom, next to the front door, has only one complete wall—the one separating it from the kitchen. In short, it's a glorified bachelor's pad with a glorifying price tag.

I didn't admit it to myself then, but the reason I didn't like the place wasn't its self-consciously modern design; it was that I knew there was no way I could afford something like that on my own. Matt is only a year older than I am, but we were living and buying as if we were a generation apart.

Matt didn't get the best deal on the condo, but he didn't need to. It may have been overpriced, but he was rich and could afford it; he wasn't being compromised. Not in the way that people like myself—who earn an annual income lower than one year's college tuition—are compromised every time we write our rent checks, buy furniture, or purchase plane tickets to go home for the holidays.

A few months after he moved into the condo, we broke up. It wasn't about money, but the disparity of our buying powers didn't help. He is still retired, spending his days pursuing personal projects—which consist largely of drawing comic strips, going to the gym, and smoking pot.

DR. PEPPER SCHWARTZ, a UW sociology professor since 1972, observes that wealth has become markedly more visible in Seattle in recent years. "Seattle has always been a subtle town, where the wealthy lived down and everyone blended in," she says. "Now, with downtown condo-building and major fortunes being made, we look a lot more like LA."

Such gentrification is obvious all around town—pricey shops and condominiums are springing up in place of empty lots and abandoned buildings in Belltown, Capitol Hill, and the Central District. Construction sites boast large "for sale" banners complete with Web addresses. With prices over $200,000 for a one-bedroom unit, these new buildings are clearly not targeted toward someone like me.

Dean Jones, director of marketing for the Concord, a new 230-unit residential condominium located on First Avenue in Belltown, is well aware of the growing number of young rich people in Seattle. He tells me of a 22-year-old who bought a $700,000 house—and paid cash. Sounds like urban lore, but Jones insists, "There are stories like that all over this city. These 'kids' were once in the grunge scene and now they're driving around in very expensive cars."

Many of the Concord's units look to have been designed for the single person. Narrow studios, at 480 square feet, seem barely bigger than my boss' office. Nonetheless, they cost $175,000. A one- bedroom unit is 535 square feet and costs $215,000.

Jones estimates that half of the Concord's new owners are directly involved in the high-tech industry. Perhaps they're attracted to the Concord because it's the first building in Seattle to have a functioning Intranet system. What this means is that every unit in the building can contact every other one by e-mail. You can also click on to the building's Web site and order such services as dry cleaning and pizza delivery, or reserve the building's conference room or barbecue area. "It's like having a cyberconcierge in addition to a live one," Jones says. He adds that even those who aren't all that computer-savvy—which he estimates to be around 20 percent of the Concord's buyers—believe that the building's Intranet system will add to the property's market value at resale.

Like so many others these days, Jones speaks of his high-tech clients the way those enamored with celebrity do of Hollywood stars. And why not? They're young, they're rich, and they're driving up the city's real estate market.

Am I envious? Of course I am. But more than that, I'm worried about my future. What if my skills as a writer aren't valued much more 10 years from now? Will I still believe I've made the right choices? Will the gap between those in the tech industry and those who aren't become even wider? And will I have to change my career—learn how to make Web sites, go to work for Amazon—in order to buy a tiny studio? I hope not—but at this point, that seems like wishful thinking.

How to stop hating the rich and get on with your life

Remind yourself that you are infinitely cooler than the new rich. You are more informed, more charming, and above all, sexually fascinating.

Pshaw, that Hockney on the wall? You can make your own art, something more culturally relevant and daring—say, with birdshit.

You look better in old jeans than anyone else in your age group.

You love ice-cold showers in the morning; they're great for your inner chi.

It's much easier to park a Honda Civic than an SUV.

You are more attractive than your rich friends, who are starting to resemble professional golfers.

You are more in touch with today's youth; you talk their talk, walk their walk, and wear the same cheap clothes.

You love riding the bus to work and supporting this city's public transportation system.

Hearing your neighbors' voices, their TVs, and their love-making noises makes for a closer, more caring community. As they say, it takes a village.

You do not have lawyers for neighbors.

 
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