Reason why this column is offensive #1:
“In a 1997 survey of nearly 1500 public school teachers, nearly half of the respondents made a conscious effort to drink less while working, to avoid needing to use the toilet.”
— Nygaard I, Linder M: “Thirst at work – An occupational hazard?” (International Urogynecology Journal) 1997;8(6):340-3.
In the early ‘90s, I found out I was to receive ten million dollars from the sale of my family’s business. I’d grown up upper middle class in the suburbs of a struggling industrial town. I had pretty much the same upbringing as my high school and college buddies.
Suddenly, I was different.
The change was staggering. I immediately quit my job. For a year I rose, dressed, and took the subway with the rush hour crowd and wound up at the New York Public Library.1 I was like those Japanese businessmen who sit on park benches rather than reveal they’re unemployed. I was exhilarated by possibility, and I was ashamed. I can’t remember if I told my friends the truth right away or if they figured it out, but I definitely downplayed it.
I became one of the closeted rich.
There must be all kinds of closeted rich people (the self-made, old money, Buddhist nuns, stoners, conservatives, artisanal cheese-makers, billionaires, etc.) When I use this term I’m thinking in particular about people who are extremely conflicted about having money, don’t identify as rich, and go to great lengths to pass as being from another income bracket. We’re probably more of an urban and liberal phenomenon. Let’s face it, most of the time we’re obvious. You’re probably able to peg us within a few minutes of conversation at a party. Here’s how it usually goes for me:
We’ve just met and are making small talk. You ask me what I do for a living:
1. “I’m in graduate school at the moment.” This is dead giveaway. What person feels it’s necessary to proactively let you know they’re not always in graduate school? A rich person.
2. “I’m unemployed.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Oh, you know. Just administrative stuff.” The point here is to feel good for refusing to puff myself up. I’m so humble! There are costs to this answer, but the lie must always be an option, particularly when dating.
3. “I’m a writer.” “What kind of writing?” “Fiction, nonfiction.” If pressed, I’ll share that I’ve had a few stories and essays published in literary magazines. I was on a panel once. I’m “thinking about teaching.” This is the least self-destructive answer, the most truthful. The red flag is the underachievement, a frequent side effect of inherited wealth.2 Back in my hometown, an elderly family friend asked me what I was up to. After listening to my nervous and complicated answer he patted me on the arm and said, “You’re going to be terrific when you grow up!” I was forty-three at the time.4. Any of the above, immediately followed by, “And what do you do?” Turn it around. Keep the focus on them.
5. In very rare instances, I’ll tell the absolute truth. “I have family money and I don’t have to work. I write.” I’ll tell this to someone who’s just been very honest with me, or I’ll tell it to someone I really, really respect. Like, if I met Wally Shawn, and he asked, I’d just come out with it. Once, on instinct, I answered the question from a Brazilian painter I met at an artist’s residency. She replied with a succinct, “Ah,” offered me a cigarette, and began treating me as an equal—not because of the money, but because I had the guts to tell the truth for a change.
It’s not rocket science to guess who has money, even if we devote much energy to hiding it. This column isn’t about how to spot a closeted rich person. It’s about what being given a shit-ton of money does to one’s sense of agency. It’s about what we’re trying to ward off. It’s about what a (non-wealthy) friend of mine so wisely observed, “To get everything you want is to be damned.” The covertly wealthy person knows and fears this. We also know we have tremendous luck. We hate it, and we have wtf-would-we-do-if-we-lost-it-all fantasies?3
Here are some of the things you might hear from this conflicted individual, and some more you’d never know by looking:
1. While removing $200 worth of Kiehl’s shampoo and conditioner from a box we’ll brag, “Shipping was free!”
2. We gush about our primary care physician. He tests for Lyme on every visit. He prescribes herbs from Chinatown. He can get you in to the Hospital for Special Surgery in two weeks. When friends ask us for his number, we explain, “I’m still trying to work it out with my insurance, so you might want to check.” Translation: he doesn’t take insurance.
3. We tell you how impressed we are that you do your own taxes.
4. When it comes to giving money to the homeless, I wouldn’t dare generalize, but I myself am inconsistent. This has to do with deep acting. On any given day, I may be in complete denial about my financial reality. As the guy on the subway makes his way down the car with his jingling cup, I evaluate myself. I’m wearing a jean jacket, khakis, old sneakers. I carry a backpack. I start to imagine I’m someone else, someone who is having trouble coming up with the rent this month. “I mean, it’s possible.” I think. “It could be true.” I let the man pass without giving. Other times, I think, “It’s statistically true that people with less money give the most.” I reach into my pocket and give. A barely conscious thought flits through my mind, “Look at those well-off people on their way to work. Not one of them is giving. What’s wrong with them?”
5. Plagued by guilt, the closeted rich person will sometimes resort to the Absolute Mea Culpa. In a conversation with friends about deeply troubling world events, I’ll sometimes chime in, “I have blood on my hands.” I’m not referring to the ordinary guilt of being a citizen of the world’s superpower, but I’m OK with people thinking that’s what I mean. I’m not talking about drone warfare or poverty. I’m talking about my portfolio, which is to say, my direct investment in drones, poverty. It’s cleansing to momentarily stop and face the reality of my assets. It’s cleansing to momentary acknowledge the dissociation I live with every day. It’s purifying to admit that though I’ve taken a few small actions towards socially responsible investing, I’ve worked harder at removing stains on the carpet. The Absolute Mea Culpa is so fast and easy!
6. We brag about having only one credit card. I’m so down to earth. I’m so not caught up in consumer culture. This is because I can pay off that one card every month. I don’t need to care much about points programs or the discounts that come with signing up for new cards. Some closeted rich do just the opposite. They clip coupons and work points plans. It may seem absurd to you that they’re so proud to save a few cents, but a penny saved is a penny earned. These are crumbs of self-esteem for the guiltily idle.
7. We brag about not being on social media. We love reading editorials in Salon and the New York Times about why the use of social media is a kind of soul-sickness. The truth is, I don’t need Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or the rest of it because I don’t have to network, or for that matter, work. Deep down past the gloating about your addiction to social media, I don’t feel worthy of it. Real people living in the real world are entitled to a bit of “front.” As a closeted rich person, I spend so much time pretending to be what I’m not, that Facebook gives me an allergic reaction.
8. We always find an opportunity to tell you that our grandparents came over from Belarus or Prague or that our Dad “Grew up in Bensonhurst.” This has a double benefit. We want you to know we could care less about old money, and we also don’t mind if you infer that somebody in our family’s not-too- distant past was kind of clever.4 The only problem is…
9. We have to qualify this by reminding you, and ourselves, that it’s wrong to take pride in boot-strap-ism. It’s American Dream stuff. It perpetuates the notion that if you only worked harder, you’d be wealthy too. No, that wealth was skimmed off the backs of the workers. It came from organized crime, aka, Capitalism.
Your unease with all this may come from the fact that you can’t tell if I’m being serious or sarcastic. I’m being serious. I really believe the things I’ve written, about drones, about capitalism stacking the deck in favor of the already rich. You might want to focus your dismay is on how little it matters that I believe it. I vote progressive, pay my taxes, and give to charity. I asked my financial advisors to divest from Monsanto. Isn’t that enough? They tell me about emerging markets in Southeast Asia. I think about the day when the only orangutans left will live in zoos. It’s not their fault I say nothing. It’s not their fault I keep putting off doing something about it.
I have no intention of turning this column into an Absolute Mea Culpa. Guilt is a way of not taking responsibility. I want to unpack this thing, the lifestyles of the rich and ashamed. Why does vanity philanthropy horrify us? How do we judge each other? What’s shopping like? What’s it like to draw up a prenup? What’s it like to attend a portfolio review? How does being rich and guilty affect my ability to connect to people? Why don’t I know my neighbors? What’s the most amazing, delicious thing about being rich? What’s it like to feel hated from time to time? What’s reverse snobbery?
And, not least, I’ll look at the language of wealth retention and consider the possibility that stealth is not exclusive to the individual. In this world of “private wealth” there are legal entities of no material form. There are concepts so taken for granted that they come across like things-in-themselves, like, say, “sunlight” or “magnesium.” They avoid metaphor, which would call attention to the fact that they are beliefs about what is right and fair. They evoke nothing. Here’s one, a nice, fat, and deeply loathed spondaic foot I’ve never been able to say aloud: trust fund.
1 Oh, I’m sorry, the Steven A. Schwarzman building.
2 Exceptions to this rule torment me and are everywhere.
3 I often think about this. 1) clean houses and offices if anyone will hire me without references 2) drive for a car service 3) write romance novels? 4) start a foot fetish website? This has significant money making potential and low overhead. Only involves taking off shoes and socks. (There is something disingenuous about all this, like going out on a really cold day without a coat because you know you can just pop back inside.)
4 My grandfather started his business over his garage and patented a product now considered a classic of industrial design. My father reluctantly took the reigns, grew the company many times over, and, was thanked by the union in a full-page letter in the newspaper when he retired. That this is only a footnote reveals my nervousness about taking pride in any of it.
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