By Richard McCord

photo courtesy The Photography Studio

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Each society has its own status symbols, and, of course, its status seekers. So is it also with Santa Fe-except that here, the status symbols are loony. They defy logic and common sense, and to casual observers, they defy comprehension. No wonder they call this "The City Different."

But Santa Fe's status symbols are also fun.

Take the matter of dirt roads. Anywhere else in the country, it would be an embarrassment to admit that the street in front of your house was unpaved. But in Santa Fe, everybody wants to live on a dirt road-dust, mud, ruts and all. When word gets out that the city is planning to pave a street, residents actually band together to block such progress. And the narrower, twistier, harder-to-negotiate, the better. You see, that's real Santa Fe charm.

Needless to say, to have any class at all, your house on the dirt road must be built of-dirt. None of those practical, durable houses of brick, stone or wood will do. The only homes that count in Santa Fe are those made of mud, or adobe, as it is officially called in these parts.

Such houses require almost constant attention, or they will quickly disintegrate back into dust. But when replastering outer adobe walls to protect them from the elements, it is important not to do too good a job. So that everyone will know your house is REAL adobe-and not merely cinderblocks with a fake adobe skin-you must studiously leave some big cracks in the plaster, to let the adobe bricks show through.

Inside, the houses should have curves instead of angles, even around the windows and doors. No self-respecting adobe house can have neatly-squared-off corners or, God forbid, right angles. This undulating construction does, to be sure, make it hard to get doors to close tight or windows sealed against the cold, but what's more important, efficiency or social standing?

Finally, the house must be old. The older the better. A truly status-conscious Santa Fean would die before moving into a nice, sound, all-new building, in which everything worked. It is far preferable to contend with a drafty old rundown mud hut, which wasn't put together any too solidly when it first was built, 200 years ago. In such buildings the heating, plumbing and electrical systems seldom work the way they're supposed to, if at all; but of course that's the point, and a small price to pay for prestige.

But having an ancient, decrepit, chipped and malfunctioning adobe shack on a tortuous dirt trail is only the first step toward gaining acceptance in Santa Fe's better circles. Once you've found such a place, before paying your $250,000 for it, you have to make sure that the neighbors are poor. It doesn't do at all to be surrounded by others of your own socioeconomic group. In Santa Fe, that's so, well, "unauthentic." No matter how lavishly you fix up the interior of your own place (making sure that your marble fountain and bronze statues are not visible from the street), it needs to be set off against the tarpaper roofs of genuinely poor neighbors, preferably on welfare.

Fortunately, one thing you don't have to worry about, status-wise-speaking, is a luxuriant lawn. Far from it. Such an unnatural growth in any socially correct part of town would mark its cultivators as coarse intruders without the slightest appreciation of the way things are done. In all matters of landscaping, the only acceptable Santa Fe approach is the natural one. Real dirt.

When it comes to cars, however, Santa Fe does not differ too much from other places. An impressive car is essential to make the right impression on the right people. The only thing to remember is those nasty, narrow, little streets, which of course make the big Cadillacs and Lincolns so loved by Texans and Albuquerqueans somewhat impractical here. But even if the model must perforce be compact, it is quite proper-nay, expected-that you put a lot of money into your automobile. The Mercedes has long been THE Santa Fe car, but equally acceptable are BMWs, Porsches, Alfa Romeos and even Jaguars. Just don't try to get away with a Rolls-Royce. People would think you were showing off.

If the local automotive scene resembles the national norm, clothes decidedly do not. The operative word here is "casual," and Santa Feans with all the money and social standing their friends can stomach are careful to dress as though outfitted by Goodwill.

Formen, blue jeans are acceptable anytime, if not de rigueur on many occasions. Except in a couple of the more pretentious restaurants, blue jeans and a white T-shirt are perfectly acceptable attire, and many a local millionaire has dined out dressed that way. Unironed work shirts are also "in." As for footwear, work shoes and cowboy boots will never be out of style, whether entertaining at home or going out on the town.

And surprisingly, the women of Santa Fe are usually about as casually attired as the men, although from time to time they do get gussied up to the eyeballs, presenting a startling contrast to their scruffily-clad husbands and boyfriends, who could care less.

Another status symbol peculiarly "Santa Fe" has to do with the local cuisine. Longtime residents take great pride in a high threshold of pure, raw heat when eating New Mexico chile dishes. Green chile has slightly more cachet than the red, but it's a personal choice, and those who prefer red are not looked down upon. What really counts is the heat level.

Concoctions that leave tourists gasping for breath and steaming out the ears are downed without a blink by the locals, who scorn the tenderfeet and seek ever-hotter plates. As time goes by, their tolerance for the hot stuff reaches truly impervious levels, and renders them incapable of even detecting the nuances of, say, French food. Attaining this level makes Santa Feans very self-satisfied, and not a bit remorseful over their burned-out taste buds.

Keeping track of Santa Fe's labels and customs bamboozles newcomers, some of whom never figure things out. But in the end, for all their peculiarities, the town's status symbols are harmless, even benign. Best of all is the status symbol that Santa Fe DOESN'T have. Upon meeting for the first time, Santa Feans seldom or never size each other up, once and for all, with that big-city question, "What do you do?"

In Santa Fe, what counts is who you are.

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