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They Call Me ‘Sir’
Comfort and respect in the richest country on Earth.
Comfort and respect in the richest country on Earth.
Most of my life, people have addressed me with respect. I’m starting to realize something — or maybe I should say I stumbled upon a realization which is both enlightening and a little sad. I am that man.
It has always annoyed me when people I considered affluent and silly have demurred from being called ‘Mr. Smith’. Oh please call me John, my dad is Mr. Smith. It betrays a false sense of humility — I don’t quite understand what causes it but I have my theory. My theory is that they are connected, privileged and untalented & unserious. Informality is all the formality they can afford. They are the people who go everywhere and do nothing. They have an embarrassment of riches — they are the owners of small fortunes, large houses and unpaid loans to wealthy in-laws. They smile a lot.
My daughter observed that we live in a very nice neighborhood where the rich people don’t act rich. Yes, we have some of those good neighbors. We live in a place where reasonably rich people can live normal lives; I’m attracted to such neighborhoods. But occasionally we pay the social price in the company of boys who inherit and don’t grow up.
Myself. I’m like a cousin to Robert Schimmel. Son of the Holocaust survivor. When things go bad, that’s when I get funny. But most of the time, I’m serious, and for most of my life, I have preferred to be called Mr. Bowen. Yes, that’s my father’s name, and his father’s before him and his father’s before him.
A couple weekends ago, I found myself in Carmel. Carmel is a town where rich people come to act rich, especially if there’s an event at Pebble Beach. You can tell by the little logos. That one says US Open. That one says America’s Cup. Here’s a man wearing tortoiseshell glasses driving a fully restored cream and brown Citroen 2CV Charleston. Here’s a man discussing the finer points of a $300 fountain pen. These kids are from Tokyo. I happen to think rich people are interesting in their element. Here’s a tall fellow who exclaimed that he went through a cowboy hat phase and he and his brother have one of every sort. Shopping in Carmel is not enlightening, but like shopping everywhere, it’s always fun to see people get gratification.
I have expensive taste. I like things that do what they are supposed to do, for a long time, and are designed be repaired by engineers who expect they are used properly. Occasionally, I admire very well engineered things that are superficially functional and exquisitely beautiful. So I priced some Damascus steel folding knives at the cowboy hat store, but I don’t have 3500 bucks to spare. I took the brochure anyway. I too am going through a cowboy phase, only I don’t have easy access to capital. Still, because of my tastes, places like Carmel are not totally foreign to me, I appreciate restored old cars as much as anyone — I am generous with knowing nods for all gearheads in their show-off-mobiles.
As the Spousal Unit and the First Daughter were finding the discount arcade, I ambled purposelessly along the boulevard overhearing resort namedropping conversations in French, Japanese, Catalan and Connecticut Yankee. Most of it was the informed burble of Victorians and their best servants, updated to California Casual. One has to admire the spunk of men who would study golf, or hotel science so deeply and wear their khaki slacks, blue blazers and rep ties with such smug confidence all the while knowing they are lackeys at the highest level. One hopes they are not abused. The stunning soundbite I caught amongst all of the street chat was:
“Well you have to treat everyone with respect because you never know.”
It hit me almost at once that I was in America. The America I remember from before 9/11 when I used to think about the wonderment of fancy restaurants. In any fancy American restaurant, the guy two tables away from you just might be a multimillionaire. Of course that truth remained after 9/11 but we started getting all dysfunctional about what America meant. I’m talking about the open society that we still are. Free parking on the street in Carmel.
One of the things I remember most about that book I read about the rich, the wealthy and the super wealthy was that a lot of the wealthy are pretty peculiar folks, meaning that they are the guy who spent 20 years perfecting goat cheese, or ball bearings. If you were the guy who invented the Maglite, you started off with a dream to have a really good flashlight and then one day everybody in law enforcement wanted one. Four years later, you’re a regular old guy with time and millions to burn in Carmel. You go to all the Red Sox games. You buy the wife a new Benz. Yeah the watch costs 6 thousand, but whatever. You just buy stuff that works, not all that flash. You can find things out if you really want to know. You have time. You have money. You have patience. You’re not under pressure to make a whole lot of mistakes. You appreciate a good meal. You realize you have been blessed, and you take your freedom seriously. By my reckoning, a reasonable man, once rich, will get over the hump and mellow out or wreck his life within 5 years.
Obviously there are a lot of factors. But people have always called me ‘sir’, and aside from some testy Los Angeles Koreans back in 1990, I can’t think of anyone who has ever pestered me out of their store. Although, I do get the itch in some of those men’s departments in NYC on 5th Ave. So it occurred to me that outside of the actual buying, bossing people around and ordering things done, people are starting to treat me like I might be something of a wealthy patron. I don’t generally ask stupid questions. I’m not in a rush. I’ve got my inner peace, and I take my freedom seriously.
Today I realize that I am visibly older and chilled out. I’m happy to be in my young 50s. When I dress, I can no longer do the casual abandon. I have been working at home for 2 and a half years in pajamas in the cloud. Going out is always going out. I’m noticing that I’m the guy who is often mistaken for a civilized individual. In other words, people treat me like I’m rich. And I am. In any context in the world I’m doing just great. The only thing I need is to replace what I already have that breaks. That and get my kids through college. But I got them through high school and it went, more or less, according to plan — where I live in a beach town in Southern California, one of the most expensive middle class neighborhoods in the world.
I am Mr. Bowen. I only have regular American upper middle class standing, which is very often very tenuous, but I’m accustomed to dealing with the headaches. I’ve paid the taxes. I’ve paid the attorneys, almost. I’ve paid the dues. I haven’t been worn out or defeated, and I’m not pretending that I’m going to take over the .. whatever or save the planet. But I’m someone you can look up to if you are young, and I’m not going to pretend that life hasn’t taught me some serious lessons. I’ve got the deadpan humor to prove it. I know what to say when people die. I know how to react when shit hits the fan. I know when I need help and I know when I can be helpful. I know my dependents and my dependencies.
It never gets old. Facing life never ceases to be scary. I’ve dealt with enough tragedy to be way beyond looking for thrills. When you grow up and have been through it, you don’t go wearing bright colors hunting for it. I may be getting to that point at which I become like the old soldier who hasn’t died yet. Like the gambler who makes a killing cheating, gets caught and knows how to shut up and give the money back. I understand the role of chance, and I know not to ever depend on it, but capture it when it comes.
I have lived much life, and life is good. I think people see that in my eyes, and that’s why they call me ‘sir’.