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Tuesday, March 4, 2003
By Paul Ford
A work of fiction, in which any relationship between actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
What seems like many years ago, I went out to dinner with my then-girlfriend, her boss, and her bosses' boyfriend, a billionaire who specialized in cloning things.
A billionaire! I'd met millionaires before, shaken their hands, worked for them, had them scold and praise me. But this was new. This man had a helicopter. And he seemed like a good billionaire, a Democrat, even. Which, sure, I've seen the Democrats lately, too, but for a billionaire, it's almost open-minded.
At the table, he was a physical and mental razor-blade: tall, thin, clever, well-read, the names of authors rolling off his tongue. The four of us, around the table, chatted like old friends. I'd worked for a non-profit that he chaired, so we talked about that, and we talked about art, because he was a serious collector, and I pretended to know more about everything than I did. We talked some more about cloning, and then the conversation turned to politics.
“I've been giving Al Gore's son-in-law some advice,” he said.
Oh, yeah, me too, I thought.
He asked for the wine list, and when he selected a bottle, the waiter bowed. The bottle cost $400. Later that night, after he had gone off on his own pursuits, I agreed with everyone that the wine had tasted wonderful, even though I have a poor sense of smell and taste; it could have been Thunderbird. Then, after his girlfriend made a cell phone call back to him, I was told that he, the billionaire, thought I was very “impressive.” I beamed. A billionaire thinks I'm impressive! Well, I might actually be impressive, then.
That night, I wrote him an email, thanking him, hoping he'd write back and I'd get - a job, a benediction, a ride in his whirlybird? I didn't know. I intuited, because I have over 5 million years of experience as a tribal pack-monkey, that the right thing to do, when faced with his great power, was: be entertaining and obsequious, do not challenge or threaten in any way, appear useful, and say, gently, “hey, if there's ever anything I could do....” In previous generations, it was an oath of loyalty; before that, a gift of cattle and daughters; before that, the presentation of the soft belly; here, in civilization, it was a thank-you email for dinner.
But there as no reply, which stung. Maybe I should have sent a cow over to his offices on Houston St., or gone over there and shown my belly. As it turned out, I was only a blip, another conversation, another person edging around to see what they could get out of him.
Then, A few weeks after he instantaneously forgot me, I forgot him, losing touch with all of the people I knew in that time. I began to do something new with my life. And so the billionaire was lost to memory, until, sitting in a cafe eating a tuna melt, I saw him again.
Not on the street, but in the paper, in the New York Times, and he looked the worse for the years between: his face was dour, and a lawyer was leading him into a downtown courthouse. The news then cut to a related story: a television personality, a famous TV homemaker, had benefitted from the wealthy man's last-minute stock tips, and thus too had come under the scrutiny of the SEC.
All that time he was cheating, and he knew it. Somehow he excused himself, over and over. His victims had no faces; they were aggregate masses of stock traders and pension holders, and recipients of tax-funded social services. And here he is in the news again, today, saving millions in taxes by sending his paintings to a warehouse in New Jersey, when they were intended for his New York loft. Was he saving for another helicopter?
And the stock tips: yes. Never directly from him, but there were stock tips. They just floated there in conversations. Hearing about them, urged to take action and join in the riches, I did an immoral thing: I signed up for an online trading account. But then, even though I had no fear of being caught, I decided that this was not a place for me, this gray zone of life out of which people never fully extricate themselves. Insider trading is not the right game for middle-class boys of small wit with no connections. With my name on their mailing list, the eTrade account pitches piled up in my mailbox, but I threw them out as they came.
What I see in myself, from that brief meal, is a tendency to bow, to respect power before it earns my respect, out of a hunger for approval and a desire for belonging. Here is a man with a billion dollars, whose life is one huge set of open doors, all the way to the President, and yet he was so unsated as to rob and manipulate to be even richer, to cheat the government on the acquisition of an art collection. But if that man had called me back, I would have glowed with pleasure and taken whatever he offered, pleased and self-congratulatory.
That tendency to do what I'm told, to believe, to trust, to compromise, remains. It's something to work out, something to balance, something I'm fighting with, this desire for the cloths of heaven in love and work, supported by a Panglossian tendency to assume that it will work out, that serving myself is to the benefit of all, and that, due to my bountiful good will and love for all, I can do no harm: all adding up to a faith that is not faith, the opposite of responsibility.
This piece is sponsored by Stephen Voss, a designer and photographer way the hell out in Oregon. He took this picture in Washington, D.C. I do not know Stephen Voss, but I believe he can whistle with his eyes, and, in the future, when we are nearly conquered by 12-foot-wide spores from the Yukon, it will be this talent that saves us. Thank him with your whole heart!