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Visitors From The Planet Money

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The train was very crowded for a Saturday morning; the only empty seat I spotted was alongside three adult women engaged in a lively conversation. I sat down and opened up my newspaper, but the conversation around me was so engrossingly other-worldly that I stared at one unrealistic quote from Ben Bernanke for almost 20 minutes while I eavesdropped on two sisters and a daughter.

The on-going exchange between the mom and the daughter was about the newest styles of certain designer handbags, and how the changes rendered last year's bags suitable for nothing more than make-up totes and packing accessories. Talk between the sisters then veered into how paying premium prices for Broadway shows like the one they were attending gave them cachet among their friends as "theater experts". And then all meandered into the subject of whether they'd splurge on a pre-theater lunch (at one of two pricey restaurants) and then "go light" for dinner, or vice-versa. The deciding factor for indulging at lunch was neither the cost of the meal nor the extent of their hunger; they all agreed they wanted ample opportunity to shop for shoes at Saks once the matinee concluded.

The chat took a hard left when the daughter (who attended a private NYC university) started to pity a high school friend who was "getting robbed of a decent education" by having to go to a state school. In an e-mail to her train-blabbing friend, she'd confessed that compounding the humiliation of attending public college was being forced to live within a "ridiculously low clothing budget." Upon hearing this, the apparently appalled aunt said: "just hearing the word 'budget' makes my skin crawl."

Civility, futility, and a fear of confrontation kept me from butting in as the well-heeled extraterrestrials nattered on. Would a stranger blurting out that her son was attending a public college, or that her handbag was about 10 years old, or even that the widely-panned show they were about to see was selling heavily discounted tickets make these three see how removed they were from reality?

I recall a time, not so long ago, when the trio's topics would not have bothered me one bit (OK, I might have deemed them shallow before I quickly tuned them out). But now, having paid for my train ticket out of my "ridiculously low" budget, and worn down by the never-ending burden of this depressing recession, I admit these women made me feel dreary and depressed for a few minutes.

We all got off the train at Penn Station, they to enjoy a day of food, fun, and footwear, and me to work. As their voices grew fainter, I let the gloom I felt fade away. After all, my son was getting a great education, my purse contained the keys to my house and my car, and I was lucky enough to have some funds to manage in my budget. And chances were really, really good that they'd soon be squirming in their $250 Broadway seats, watching a nausea-inducing show on very full stomachs!

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