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Bosnian emigrant Irfan Sehic on class in America and shopping at Whole Foods

A photo of a white man smiling with his arms behind his head, sitting in an arm chair with a window behind him. Plants hang down in the window, and bare trees can be seen outside. He's wearing a green shirt and jeans.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Irfan Sehic sits for a portrait in his Milton home at the end of December. In this installment of "What class are you?" he riffs on, and rips into, the American class system.

Irfan Sehic and his family fled the war in Bosnia and arrived in Barre when Irfan was 17. He worked a number of jobs, went to college and started his own insurance agency, which he still runs out of his house. And for the last few years, he's been a club soccer coach.

Irfan lives with his wife and son in Milton, and in this story, he describes the American class system as he sees it, starting with the middle class.

"What class are you?" is an occasional series from Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman. In it, she talks with people from all sorts of backgrounds about money and class and privilege.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Irfan Sehic: They get up, and it's a suit and tie. And the dad is going to work and the mom, you know, kisses on the cheek and the energy is like, ideal family energy. And there's like two or three kids and maybe a dog. "Ruff!" And then Dad goes, sits in his car and then goes to work. And it's a neighborhood, it's just a neighborhood, you know, there's trees around and he goes out. Mom is preparing you know, like lunch for kids as they're off to school.

Now, my question is, how much money do they have saved up? Right? How much money do you have to save up that's giving you that comfort to live like that? And just be like, "OK, (kiss) I'm out of here." You know, like, "Bye doggy!"

In situations where they lose their jobs, and they have to work they don't have — I have I know how much money I have saved up is more than those people in those TVs have saved up. Right?

Erica Heilman: Why do you think that? 

Irfan Sehic: Because when the dad loses a job, he has to go look for a job and like the bills are piling up. And then this is like, the movie changes. That can be a comedy and then as soon as he loses a job — this is a problem with middle class. As soon as somebody loses a job, everything goes to hell, because they can't afford anything.

You know, part of the reason why I really enjoy my job and have this, like, quality in my life is because I'm not living beyond my means. I'm living like four steps below my means. And even if I lose my job, and I lose everything, I can go to the place down the road and work for $16 an hour and just still have everything that I have now. I won't lose that much.

But middle class is people that want to show off their deck. And they're really proud of the square footage. And they tell you about the warranty they got on it and the contract was pretty actually easy to deal with, you know, and the nice guy, I would recommend him if I do it again, I'll do it again. So they tell you all of this and they researched it before. But you know, man, they had to get an equity line of credit to do that. So now I want to be into this financial prison because you wanted this really nice deck. You know? What happens if you hit a midlife crisis or any crisis, and you want to switch jobs or you want to change jobs or you're gonna do something else, you really have to think about this deck. So how often you're going to enjoy this deck versus how many years you're going to be paying for it?

Man standing outside with sports shirt smiling
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Irfan Sehic and his family emigrated to Vermont from Bosnia. He now runs his own insurance agency out of his home and coaches club soccer.

Erica Heilman: So OK, then who are the upper middle class?

Irfan Sehic: Yeah, who's upper middle class? Yeah, upper middle class is probably people like doctors and lawyers that are making you know maybe like a million dollars a year or something, like mom and dad make million dollars a year.

Everybody can be low class and then like not everybody can be middle class and then as you come to the end of the funnel, upper middle class before you go into high class.

Erica Heilman: Rich people. 

Irfan Sehic: Rich people, but like making like, I don't know, like million dollar-plus. What is that?

Erica Heilman: I don’t even know anymore. I have no idea. But just if it's dollars and cents, I have no idea what "rich" is.

Irfan Sehic: Yeah. So we had a soccer tournament and we go down to Wesley area? What's the name of that?

Erica Heilman: Wesleyan?

Irfan Sehic: Yeah, so we go down there. And it's really nice area, like these neighborhoods that are idyllic. It's quiet. And then I go to the grocery store, which would be like —

Erica Heilman: Whole Foods?

Irfan Sehic: Whole Foods. Yeah. So I go to Whole Foods. And that was one of the most unique experiences of my life, being in that Whole Foods. I stay there for like an hour, just watching who's coming and who's going and how they're acting. And what I've seen is that there was this level of ease that I want to achieve in my life.

The husband was about 5 to 7 inches taller than wife and the wife looked slim, and wore like a summer dress, and it just all looked put together. And they were breathing not out of their chest but out of their stomach. They knew how to breathe, and there was a level of "we're good." There was a level of "this is — everything is good. It's all good." They contribute to the Democratic National Convention, like they'll contribute to NPR, which is cool with me. Hello, I like it. And they're Democrats, probably. And they think they're on the right side of the history. And they're thinking, they do everything right. And then they might be thoughtful about things. And there's no show of wealth.

And you get to that level. And it's not a lie! Like if I won billion dollars and I went down to live among those people, and I have the same car and the same house and everything, I would still have my anxiety, even though I might be among the richest, I still wouldn't know how to act as that high class or upper middle class or whatever. Because they have three generations of that. You have somebody that comes and figures something out and works hard. That's a grand-grandparent, right? And they made all the money. And then Mom and Dad just were born into that. And they lived that life. And they had certainty that their mom and dad had money and they didn't have to worry about anything, so where they're gonna go to school, what consulting job they're gonna get, all of that has been predetermined. So that's second generation. And then you have a third generation of that. So they already had like, all the smell that came off their mom and dad of the certainty and now they have this certainty that cannot be erased.

"So for me, you either have generational wealth, and you're like, you're third generation of wealth, and that's the peace you get from being third generation wealth, or I spend the next 20 years being a yogi and meditate 15 to 18 hours a day, and I come to the point where I'm just at peace and nothing can knock me off."
Irfan Sehic

Erica Heilman: That's more multi-generational wealth.

Irfan Sehic: Yeah, multi-generational wealth. And it was inspirational, like it was aspirational. I wanted to be them because everything is fine, nothing can knock you off.

So for me, you either have generational wealth, and you're like, you're third generation of wealth, and that's the peace you get from being third generation wealth, or I spend the next 20 years being a yogi and meditate 15 to 18 hours a day, and I come to the point where I'm just at peace and nothing can knock me off.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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