Two apartments ago, I lived in a garage that had been converted into a guest house; according to my dad, a building inspector would not have found it “up to code” — apparently the front door swung the wrong way and the stairs were too steep. But I loved that garage-house. It came fully furnished, and cost less than most bedrooms in New York, and once, my landlady made me soup.
The garage-house was also fully carpeted, boasting some nice firm pile that was soft enough to really luxuriate in but not so soft that it felt like I was standing on quicksand. It was cream-colored but had enough woven-in specks of black that it wouldn’t be immediately obvious if I accidentally treaded some dirt in. I did not mind this carpet; in fact, I appreciated it, especially in the winter, when the place would get really cold because it was a garage and all I had were space heaters, which might also explain why it was so cheap. When the carpet got dirty, I vacuumed it. Once, I was out of the house running some errands when my dog experienced an unfortunate case of uh, liquidated colonic release; upon discovering this situation, I went to Petsmart and bought some magical shit-removal spray, applied it to the carpet, and an hour later it was gone.
I now live in an old quadplex near downtown Durham, a place that has central heating and hardwood floors. And I’ve got to admit, I kind of miss having carpet. Anecdotally, I am in the minority here. The vast majority of friends whose houses I’ve visited have hardwood floors, or at least linoleum floors that masquerade as hardwood, and I have definitely had friends with carpet comment on how gross it is that our feet were resting on pedestrian fuzz instead of the restrained elegance of a wood floor. I know people who have opted to rent old apartments in which everything is broken over new apartments with fully functioning things because the broken apartments had hardwood floors and the non-broken apartments had carpet. Slightly less anecdotally, if you browse your local real estate listings, you will find that hardwood flooring tends to correlate with higher home values.
This seems insane to me, in large part because when you enter the home of a smug-ass hardwood-floor-haver, you’ll undoubtedly encounter floor rugs. Lots of them. Oh, they add panache to a room, and are nice to walk on, especially in the winter, a hardwood-floor-haver will say. You know what else does that? Carpet. What is carpet but a wonderful rug that covers the entire room?
Despite the fact that they exist to be covered up, us Millennials love us some damn hardwood floors. “Millennials are moving away from carpeting in favor of bare floors,” Realtor.com declares, while a 2018 National Association of Home Builders survey found that hardwood flooring was second only to having a laundry room when it comes to what Millennials look for in a house. At this very moment, there is a Millennial out there typing variation of the joke, “Baby Boomers blame Millennials for everything, but they’re the ones who covered their hardwood floors with carpet” into their phone, smiling, and then posting it to Twitter.
In an essay from her book My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes:
Carpet makes me want to kill myself. Wall-to-wall carpet anywhere other than offices, airplanes, and Holiday Inn lobbies sends me careening toward a kind of despair that can only be described as the feeling that might be experienced by a person who has made some monumental and irreversible life decision and realized, almost immediately after the fact, that it was an error of epic proportions.
To Daum (born in 1970), “Carpet is a class issue [...] Carpet has, since its inception, been the province of the elite. It’s found in high-rise condos and suburban ranch houses.” This is not, she emphasizes, to say that hardwood floors are more working-class than carpet. Instead, it’s an issue of “classiness.” Daum again:
The kind of class that I associate with wood floors is the kind of class that emerges out of an anxiety about being classy. People who must have wood floors are people who need to convey the message that they’re quite possibly better than most people. They’re people who leave The New York Review of Books on the coffee table but keep People in the bedroom. They’re people who say “I don’t need to read Time or Newsweek because I can get everything I need from the Times.” They’re people who would no sooner put the television set in the living room than hang their underwear to dry on the front porch. They buy whole-bean coffee and grind it in a Braun grinder. They listen to NPR, tell other people what they heard on it, and are amazed when the other people say they heard it too.
Daum is sort of joking here, but this does not stop her from going whole hog on hardwood, and her description is, in my estimation, a near-perfect encapsulation of the carpet/hardwood divide. Millennials, on the whole, favor well-crafted and “authentic” items over stuff that scans as overly complex or ostentatious, even if the former ends up costing more than the latter. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there spending money in a certain way to show that they belong with other people who have spent their own money similarly. In other words, Millennials hate carpet because we’ve decided that wood floors represent the refined simplicity that defines our dominant aesthetic sensibility. Hardwood floors can be personalized with rugs; they develop unique character and quirks as they age, creating a sense of shared individuality. Carpet, meanwhile, is meant to look pristine and new. When it gets old and gross, you have to rip it up and throw some different carpet down.
The problem with our collective hardwood mania, though, is that market demand has made hardwood floor not just an issue of classiness, as in Daum’s analysis, but of actual class. That shit costs way more than carpet does! And for what? The ability to dab your dog’s poop up with paper towels instead of carpet cleaner? As I get older, I’ve come to realize that “caring about aesthetics” very often means that someone has tricked me into believing that giving them money will allow me to express my tastes. This is fine most of the time, because life is hard and if you think buying a thing will make you slightly less unhappy, you might as well go ahead and do it. But houses are expensive, and it takes fewer years for a person’s tastes to change than it does to pay off a mortgage. You might as well make things a little easier on yourself by being cool and having carpet.