Growing up in small town America or suburbia, even in what are extremely comfortable circumstances by any standard, it's hard to believe that there really is an upper class; the sheer extravagance that some lives exude is unimaginable.
It seems less impossible here. One of my classmates last semester was the daughter of British socialites who own an island and spend all their vacations in exotic locales. Two of the girls in my Greek class--always dressed in chic Anthropologie garments--had an argument one day about whether it was better to go on an archaeological dig for the summer or work in finance so that they could buy Burberry coats for the coming fall. Another classmate recounted stories of the parties his parents throw at their home in New York City and the dignitaries and literati who attend them. One night I heard an undergraduate screaming in the quad about a hefty gambling loss ("15 grand!" he shouted into his phone. "How can you tell me this when I just lost 15 grand?!")
We graduate students live on the outskirts of it. Once a year, when the undergraduates take leave of their dormitories, those of us who have friends in the colleges descend like vultures (starving sparrows?) on the remnants of luxury. The courtyards are heaped with cast off furniture, designer clothes, and exquisite accessories. "Last year I found four pairs of boots, a purse, and clothes by Marc Jacobs," one graduate student told me, clearly pleased with herself. (Have you looked at the Marc Jacobs website recently? The price tags are unbelievable. I'll let you know when I have $3,000 to spend on a cashmere coat!) We're proud of our thriftiness and our second-hand style. We cash our twice-monthly stipend checks, go home to our comfortable apartments, and take pleasure in being unentitled.