Posts Tagged ‘Dubose Heyward’

Perceptions of Wealth

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Perceptions of Wealth

Roses Pancakes Coffee photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“I got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me.” DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Say what we will about the silliness of Hillary Clinton claiming to be dead broke when she and Bill exited the White House in 2001 to make way for George “Picasso” Bush, at least her ridiculous boast brought to light the collective insanity of the obscenely wealthy. Wait a minute. We already knew the obscenely wealthy were insane. Or did we?

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I was part-time secretary to a wealthy woman who lived and worked near the top of the socio-economic pyramid of the city-state of San Francisco. At the beginning of my tenure as her secretary—in the archaic sense of being her editor, chauffer, escort, confidante, tea maker and typist—I interpreted her frequent claims of being poor and broke and penniless as a kind of self-mockery, and so simply ignored that particular line of blabber. But over time I came to realize she truly believed she was poor, her belief arising from consorting with people who had a great deal more money than she.

Over the course of five years of working for this wealthy woman, I met dozens of extremely wealthy people perched near the tippy top of that socio-economic pyramid, and I was astonished to find that many of them spoke often and bitterly about how little money they had and how terribly constrained their lives were for lack of funds.

“We were going to stay on our farm in Provence for the usual two months, but Jack said we could only go for six weeks this year and only spend a month at the Montana ranch because he had to be here for some stock thing. And we haven’t had a spare minute to get to the beach house this summer because we’re completely redoing the kitchen and it’s a matter of life and death. I am so done with black and red marble. Give me green serpentine! Did I tell you we’re busting out the south-facing wall to turn the dining nook into a dining room? I felt like I was in prison. I wanted the room to vault out over the canyon, but Jack said sinking steel girders into the cliff would add way too much expense and we’re just strapped right now.”

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” H.G. Wells

One day I arrived on my bicycle at the splendid Berkeley home of my employer to assist a renowned chef who was catering a seven-course luncheon for which I would prepare seven outrageously expensive teas—four greens and three blacks. I stowed my bike and knapsack in the garage, changed into suit and tie, climbed the twelve stairs to the front terrazzo and gazed westward over the descending hills to San Francisco Bay—the distant towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of white fog.

The front door swung open and here was my employer, a tall youthful woman in her late sixties, dressed as if for her coronation and beckoning urgently. I followed her into the dining room where the enormous oval table was set for twelve with heirloom Dutch china and gleaming Swiss silver, the royal scene crowned with a spectacular floral centerpiece of rare Brazilian jungle blooms—to be removed moments before the guests were seated.

The chef’s assistant peeked out from the kitchen and said, “Madame? Would you care to taste the soup?”

“Be right there,” said Madame, frowning gravely at me. “I have a terrible feeling there’s something not quite right about the mix. See what you think.”

I circled the table, noting the names on the parchment place cards, each card an original work of art by a well-known calligrapher—the guest’s name rendered in gold leaf and embraced by a fanciful watercolor rose.

I had forgotten nearly everything Madame told me about the people coming to her luncheon, except that they were all culturally influential, vastly wealthy, and food snobs. Knowing Madame would not be satisfied with a simple “Looks good” about her placement of the Very Important People, I was relieved to find one end of the table overburdened with males and correctly deduced that pointing this out would give Madame something to sink her teeth into before the guests arrived.

At which moment, there came a timid knock on the front door, and in my capacity as butler I went to answer. And here was Phil, a portly middle-aged fellow wearing dilapidated shoes, raggedy pants, a filthy gray sweatshirt and a red tartan tam o’ shanter. Accompanied by his ancient dachshund Boris, Phil was an alcoholic Scotsman who came to Madame’s house every week to beg for food and money.

Phil was about to say something when his stomach growled so loudly it sounded as if someone was trapped in there and crying for help. Phil waited for the impressive growl to subside, smiled sheepishly and said with his charming Scottish brogue, “Now that tells the tale better than I can, wouldn’t it?”

Before I could reply, Madame appeared behind me shouting, “Go away! Immediately! I can’t have you here. Come back tomorrow.”

Phil frowned and muttered, “Piece of bread?”

I turned to Madame and said, “I’ll take care of this. And my only comment about your table is that the west end is decidedly masculine, but otherwise…perfect.”

“Of course,” said Madame, smacking her forehead with the palm of her hand. “Hurry up with him and then come help me make things right.”

I stepped out onto the Welcome mat, closed the door behind me, and said to Phil, “Meet me at the end of the driveway and you shall have bread and cheese.”

His smile returned. “Didn’t see any cars but hers so I thought it would be all right to come up. Throwing one of her fancies, is she? Just a little bread and I’ll make myself scarce, though I was hoping to have a snooze under the pine back there. Think she’d mind?”

“No snooze here today, Phil,” I said, shaking my head. “Can we make this quick?”

“Say no more,” he said, beginning his descent with little Boris at his heels. “Just a bit of bread. Maybe some cheese.” Then he paused halfway down the stairs and murmured hopefully, “Perhaps a spot of tea.”

Walton Predicts

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

WALTON PREDICTS

Walton Predicts graphic by David Jouris

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Niels Bohr

My friend David Jouris, an eccentric mapmaker, photographer and quotation collector, has for several years suggested I create a web site called Walton Predicts. This suggestion stems from David’s amazement at my uncanny ability to make predictions that always come true. I have resisted creating such a site because making predictions is a sacred art, such prescience granted by the gods, which gifts I dare not taint with commercialization or anything smacking of self-aggrandizement. I am but a conduit for these coming attractions, an English channel.

Then, too, I frequently suffer from Prediction Block and would feel tawdry were I to create demand for something I was subsequently unable to deliver. No. Walton Predicts will have to be a sometime thing, that poetic summation of the transient nature of existence courtesy of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de la Fontaine

Walton Predicts: Coffee prices will go way up very soon. Brazil, the world’s leading producer of coffee, is in the midst of the worst drought in three hundred years and this year’s coffee crop is paltry. Brazil also produces vast quantities of sugar, wheat, soy, and infectious dance music, much of which they export and all of which have been adversely impacted by the drought, so prices for those goodies will be going way up, too.

Our neighbor works for Peet’s Coffee and has the job I would have wanted when I was twenty-five had I known there was such a job to want. Now, as I enter my dotage, his job sounds like living hell to me, but if you love to travel, love coffee and love the places where coffee grows, this is the job for you, except my neighbor already has the job. He flies all over the world visiting plantations that grow coffee for Peet’s sake. He makes sure the farmers are growing their coffee sustainably, checks the quality of the beans, sets dates for harvesting and so forth.

He recently stopped by while I was weeding my vegetables and I asked where he was off to next.

“New Guinea,” he said, half-smiling and half-frowning. “Fantastic place. Lousy hotels.”

I mentioned the drought in Brazil and predicted soaring coffee prices.

“You’re right about that,” he said with a knowing nod. “I’ll bring you a bag of New Guinea beans.”

Which he did, and now I’m hooked on those beans that tell of bittersweet naked people with a different word for each of a thousand shades of jungle green.

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.” Paul Valery

Walton Predicts: Fresh fruit will soon be a luxury item for most of us in America, not a dietary staple. I was in Corners of the Mouth, my favorite church turned grocery store, and was thrilled to find bowls of fruit samples amidst the plums and apricots. I tasted the flesh of a crimson plum. Ambrosia! The price? $5.99 a pound. I weighed one of those delectable fruits. A third of a pound. Two dollars per plum. Four bites. Fifty cents per bite. No can do. Prices at Harvest Market similarly exorbitant.

“The future will be better tomorrow.” Dan Quayle

A reader recently pointed out that my novels are rife with predictions, and that reminded me of a scene from my novel Under the Table Books wherein Derek, a homeless boy, asks Mr. Laskin, once the wealthiest man on earth and now a homeless savant, what can be done about the vanishing ozone layer. Written in 1992, but not published until 2009, Under the Table Books predicted many things that have since come to pass.

“Always the same basic story structure,” says Mr. Laskin, smiling up at the morning sun. “Somebody gets killed. Always several suspects, each with a powerful motive. The detectives, a man and a woman, always figure out who did it by studying the history of the place. The solution is always there. In history.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” says Mr. Laskin, excited by a sudden upsurge in lucidity, “that you must scale the whirlwind to the peaceful sky country and study the history of the world to find out what you need to know.”

“About the ozone layer? How?”

“I’ll make a wild guess,” says Mr. Laskin, feeling moved to oratory. “Pure conjecture, but then what isn’t?”

“Wait. I want to write this down,” says the boy, bringing forth a notebook from his back pocket. “Okay, go.”

“But first,” says Mr. Laskin, holding out his hand, “allow me to introduce myself. I am Alexander Laskin.”

“Derek,” says the boy, the warmth of the old man’s hand bringing tears to his eyes.

“So here’s what I would guess,” says Mr. Laskin, giving Derek a reassuring smile. “People lived under a brutal sun for thousands of years. We’ve all seen pictures of cities made of mud in the desert, and you’ll notice several things in those pictures. First, most everybody stays inside most of the time because there are no trees for shade. And when people do go outside, they cover their bodies from head to toe, except at night when they dance by their tiny fires. Tiny because wood is so scarce. Mostly naked, I’d imagine, night being the only safe time to do so. And they’re all skinny because they’ve learned to survive on very little. So maybe that’s what we’ll have to do when the ozone layer is mostly gone.”

Derek keeps writing. “So do you think the ozone layer will ever come back?”

That you’ll have to ask the universal mind, if you make it up the inside of the whirlwind. No easy feat, I imagine. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must finish my mystery. The cause of the crime is apparently inextricably enmeshed with the manufacture of automobiles.”