One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth. – Proverbs 13:7
My first major purchase after receiving my windfall was a Toyota Camry station wagon. I’d traveled to my hometown to buy it at a local dealership, and the night before I lay in bed unable to sleep. I thought my anxiety was about spending so much money. More likely my fear was about an imminent failure of compartmentalization.1
I reminded myself that I’d read lots of reviews and consumer guidebooks and picked a safe and reliable car. Reflecting on the design of the early ‘90s iteration, one blogger wrote, “This Camry is so anonymous that it could have gone through the Witness Protection Program.”2 It didn’t matter. This was a gleaming, brand-new machine that cost more than some college tuition in 1994. It was the kind of car my friends’ parent drove. And I knew it was going to out me.
Within days of arriving in New York with it, my ego suffered a small blow. I was parallel parking on a side street in Brooklyn. Overcompensating for the length of the car, I’d come in too sharply and was almost perpendicular to the curb. At this moment a woman I knew, a friend of a friend, tapped on the passenger window. The window glided down with excruciating smoothness. My acquaintance peered in. She was panting lightly and glowing with post-jog euphoria.
She was a confident, attractive woman in her 20s, a budding surgeon who ran marathons and mentored kids. Naturally I felt inadequate around her. On the minus side, she used one’s name multiple times in a conversation, was faux-mellow,3 and had the subjugation-of-sensory-input to ideas-about-things problem so bad it was a wonder she could taste food. She of course greeted me by name.
“New car?” she asked.
“Yep!” I said.
She eyed the shiny new vehicle and observed blandly, “It’s so suburban.”
This took me a little by surprise. I’d been so worried the car would out me as rich that I’d failed to see it was a patently unsexy family-wagon. This raises a question: Was being thought of as a rich kid so bad that my image-conscious twenty-something self preferred to be labeled “suburban,” i.e., adjective, boring; a carpooling drudge? On the other hand, “rich kid” meant “a negation of any endeavor undertaken as the result of having money, responsible for the global suffering of all species.” So yeah, success!
That embarrassment aside, it was a big, safe, and convenient ride for my friends and me on our weekend trips to the Catskills. When a cab scraped it, leaving a yellow streak along its side, I left it there. Door dents accumulated. It was my Velveteen Rabbit, growing more real with age. The older and less “suburban” it looked, the more I loved it.
While I let the outside rust, I did everything the mechanics suggested for the inside. I didn’t need to convince myself that repairs were essential, only that they were prudent. Those guys loved me. Each time I agreed to a repair I felt flushed and excited with a kind of shopper’s high usually seen at shoe store checkout registers. I probably paid for that car twice over in timing belts, struts, brake discs, compressors, flange-nuts, O-rings, and whateverthefuck.4
There’s no question it would have been cheaper to lease. However, leasing is not the way of the hidden rich. From the trustafarian perpetually tinkering under his VW van to the mustard-seed farmer rattling along in her old Ford truck, we shun the series of fresh new cars. Leasing is for the proud, the aspirant, or the just plain sane.
In the final years my car still rode like a dream. I loved her most of all now that she collaborated in my deception. I could feel like a normal person, an average urban car owner instead of a trust-fund baby faking her way through Brooklyn, even if I had no idea what “normal” car ownership really meant.5
As I approached the age of 40, I began to develop reality-based fears of hurtling along at high speed in a metal container. When a friend noted that my car lacked side-door airbags, I was spooked. One day I abruptly decided to sell the Velveteen Camry.
Riddle: What is the kryptonite of the hidden rich?
If you wish to discover the latent monies of those you suspect, look at their stuff. New parents are good subjects. It may not be the stroller or the car seat, for they know these are dead giveaways. They’ll lug a heavy stroller up three flights of stairs to put neighbors off their trail. The kryptonite of the closeted is not convenience. It’s not brand names. It’s not design. But somewhere among all that baby stuff you might find a triple-chambered nutrient-augmenting food steamer or a microbe annihilating air purifier.
The kryptonite of the abashedly affluent is:
You only have to look at the side streets of gentrified Brooklyn to see it. Volvos. Handsomely battered, very seldom new, but endless, endless Volvos.
Maybe I’m wrong about this health and safety theory. While it’s true that rich people have the money to buy longevity, the downside is all the thinking about death. Those fancy clinics and spas and rehabs for things like handbag addiction begin to resemble tuberculosis sanatoriums of yore. If you’re not careful, one day you’ll find yourself in a dimly lit lounge wearing a plush robe listening to a smooth jazz rendering of “Yesterday” while awaiting leech therapy.
In the news this week it was reported that Maserati sales are up 97% in the U.S. People able to spend a minimum of $66,00.000 on a fine Italian automobile are apparently doing so in investor-delighting numbers. This is good news for all, say mainstream economists; “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Uh-huh. Right.
Do I feel superior to the Maserati driver for his conspicuous consumption? Morally, no way. Not that he’s so great, but I’m starting to think being in the closet is worse.7 However, I feel I’m as entitled as anyone to label the driver of the $66,000.00 + car an asshole. I mean, come on. Some things are just objectively true. Ask the scientists.8
My new car is a Volkswagen GTI. It looks like every other modest compact hatchback out there, but it’s got some libidinal zip when the time comes to gun it past an 18-wheeler. The sales guy I test-drove it with actually called it a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It’s not witness protection, but it’ll do.
1 Like, say running into your gynecologist in line at a Chipotle.
2 Chris Hafner, carlustblog.com, 6/18/08.
3 Big stretches, lots of athletic slouching, overuse of phrase “right on.”
4 The comedown after the creative power of purchase feeds nicely back into the responsibility-eschewing guilt
5 “If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of car payments.” – Earl Wilson
6 As is its handmaiden, Health. And the dark overlord of them both, Longevity.
7 Rich people distressed by income equality are often the ones who are hidden. We’re not gossiping with each other, trading ideas, finding out about investing with our values, learning how to deal with having all this money. See impact investing, benefit corporations, double bottom line, toniic.com, resourcegeneration.org.
8 Which scientists? All of them.