Have you ever found yourself, unexpectedly, surrounded by an amount of wealth so great that it startled you? Have you ever casually been invited to a brunch, only to find other friends you know being employed by the host and hostess to play music, serve bloody marys with a stick of bacon, walk around serving hors d’oeuvres?
It’s one thing to feel prepared; quite another when we’re caught off guard, like the time my grandfather wanted to go to a “horse show” and it turned out to be the New England version of the Kentucky Derby, and my grandfather was wearing a full suit when his friend arrived in jeans.
I once walked up to the door of a friend-of-a-friend’s place in New York City, fresh off the subway all the way from La Guardia, only to realize I was on the steps of a seven-story mansion and was greeted by not one but two housekeepers.
Then, the other morning, I was casually invited to brunch, and I had no idea what I was in for, that the house neared eight thousand square feet and contained a lap pool and a wine room containing more money in wine than my yearly salary.
I peeked in through the glass at the sleeping bottles of wine. “We didn’t know what to do with that room,” the host offered. “But Teresa’s a big wine-drinker.”
“I could get one of these at my place,” I said. “But I would have to still fit my bed in there somewhere.”
That actually sounds like a pretty good idea.
“We lived in a four-hundred-square-foot apartment for the first seven years of our marriage,” he told me, proudly.
I listened closely over the next couple of hours and heard the host trying to justify the extravagance. He had three large barrels mounted on the bar where he was aging different mixes of alcoholic beverages, which were available directly from the tap. “People think it’s a lot,” he said, “but you can leave it in there for months, and it just mellows out. I probably go through the mix only once a year.”
I nodded, eyes wide, uncertain.
He gestured toward the windows, which took up the length of the house, and revealed a sweeping vista of the mountain and the valley below, this time of year a pure and gentle white. “I’m a builder,” he told me, “and I would never have imagined paying this much money for a house I didn’t build, but I just fell in love with that view.”
He also had a piece of art(?) that was a birch bark canoe with three stuffed raccoons set up to look as though they were paddling it. So, there’s that.
When suddenly encountered with this sort of staggering amount of money, especially to see my friends employed for the morning by these people, I felt a little out of sorts, like I had to get my sea legs back. Recently, a friend pointed out that America should not only be thought of as mobile in the upward direction, but in the downward as well. “Think of all the wealthy people who just spend their money,” he said. “Plenty of people in this country are born with it, and they just gamble it away or lose it somehow.”
Because of the freedom for economic mobility, we also have the option to look at the wealth around us and continue to aspire toward it. It’s hard not to stand in a room surrounded by wine bottles and think, “What would I do with all this money?”
As much as I like wine, I don’t think that would be it for me. Maybe our generation will always be drawn toward intangibles: experiences, travels, things that can’t be taken away in a Recession. Maybe our generation will always move toward the small spaces, the lower carbon footprint, even while we stay hungry for a work-life balance that lets us do as we please.
While at the fancy-house in New York, I went to put my plate in the sink. Not to wash it, just to put it. The housekeeper took the plate from me and set it on the table. “Miss Jamie, please,” she said, and she looked me in the eye. “This is my job.”
She too was pursuing her own living. While for me, it’s unfathomable to simply get up and walk away from my mess, I had to respect that she is also in a place of economic mobility, moving up in the world, and I had to respect her wishes.
Imagine a world where you walk away from your dirty dish and come back to find it magically has disappeared, cleaned, and put away on the shelf.
There’s one thing about being ultra-wealthy that I could get used to.