(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)
“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre
In search of good chicken for our once-a-week intake of animal flesh, I saunter into our magnifico Mendocino Market across the street from Mendocino’s blessed post office, my basket laden with the latest edition of the admirable Anderson Valley Advertiser, and I find the lovely little market and deli in the midst of a calm before the inevitable lunchtime arrival of legions of tempestuous teenagers and loquacious locals and inscrutable turistas.
Jeff, the jocular and unflappable co-master of Mendocino’s finest sandwich shop, has a few moments to wait on me, and as he rings up my purchase of four superb legs and thighs, he shares the following story.
“So yesterday, this guy comes in and I know he’s somebody famous, an actor, I’m sure. I’ve seen him on television. Has to be him, but I can’t think of his name. And then he uses a credit card to pay and his name comes up: Timothy Geithner.”
“Wow,” I effuse. “ Former Secretary of the Treasury, master criminal, and most definitely an actor.”
“I know,” says Jeff, smiling. “Amazing.”
“What did he buy?” I ask, guessing Timothy purchased a few bottles of expensive organic wine.
“Couple of chicken salad sandwiches,” says Jeff, nodding. “On a road trip.”
“Wow,” I say, “Timothy Geithner. God of the one percent. Stood right here and handed you his credit card.”
“Yeah,” says Jeff, chuckling, “we’ve got this Recession Special I was going to tell him about, but I decided not to.”
“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.” Aldous Huxley
Thinking about Timothy Geithner buying sandwiches in our very own Mendocino Market, I try to imagine being so powerful and important that the President of the Unites States would appoint me Secretary of Anything, but my imagination fails me. However, I do have a vivid fantasy of shopping at Corners and bumping into Timothy Geithner in front of the broccoli and saying to him, “How could you? Have you no conscience?”
And that fantasy and the questions I asked therein, remind me of Obama’s recent appointment of billionaire Penny Pritzker to be Secretary of Commerce, which reminds me of my encounter with Penny’s father, Donald, at a fundraiser in Atherton, California just a few months before he died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine while playing tennis at a Hyatt Hotel in Honolulu, the Hyatt Hotel chain being one of several corporations owned by the Pritzker family, Donald the CEO.
Believe it or not, I met Donald Pritzker at the very same gathering where I met Daniel Ellsberg. What sort of gathering was this? And what was I doing there? I’ll tell you. The year was 1972 (Penny would have been thirteen at the time) and Daniel Ellsberg had recently become very famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and thereby seriously messing with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and the ruthless rulers running the Vietnam War. I happened to be friends with a guy, a zealous anti-war activist, who had convinced his mother, a minor Pritzker, to host a private fundraising soiree for Daniel Ellsberg, who needed funds for his ongoing legal travails and anti-war activities. When I heard about the soiree, I begged my friend’s mother to let me attend so I could listen to the great hero, and she said, “I’ll need kitchen help.”
So I donned white shirt and bow tie and black slacks and showed up at the snazzy Atherton digs at the appointed hour, at which point it was decided I would ply the crowd with champagne and hors d’oeuvres before Ellsberg spoke and then manage the groaning tables of food and carve the roast beef after Ellsberg spoke. And while he spoke, I could listen from the kitchen with the swinging door propped open a few inches.
There were about twenty people in attendance on that sunny afternoon, the females outnumbering the males two to one, everyone in attendance fabulously wealthy. The women were dressed elegantly, the men wore suits and ties, and the accents of these loud-talking folk were predominantly Chicago from whence the Pritzker clan sprang, though many of them had relocated to California. I remember being struck by how handsome and strong all the women were, and how nondescript the men, and whether it was true or not, I concluded that this clan of Jewish siblings and cousins was a powerful matriarchy, the men mere sperm donors.
I also remember being keenly aware that I was serving people who were used to being served and that I was invisible to them because I was a servant. I had met a few super wealthy people in my life, and it was my impression that extremely wealthy people were void of humor, but I had never before been in the company of so many wealthy and resoundingly humorless people. Or so it seemed.
After the preliminary wining and dining, everyone took a seat in the large living room and Daniel Ellsberg rose to speak. I positioned myself at the kitchen door where I had a view of the daring whistleblower, and just as Ellsberg began, a short bullish man rose from his living room seat and came charging into the kitchen.
“Phone,” he barked at me. “I need a phone.”
This was Donald Pritzker, red-faced and pissed off, and this was 1972, long before the advent of cell phones. So I directed him to the phone on the kitchen wall from which he proceeded to make call after call, buying and selling, cursing and commanding, threatening and cajoling—running his empire—while in the other room Daniel Ellsberg spoke about the ongoing atrocities being committed by our rulers and our armed forces in Vietnam. What a disconcerting dichotomy!
Despite the proximity of Donald’s torrent of vitriol, I managed to focus on what Ellsberg was saying, and I realized he was speaking to his audience as if they had never heard of Vietnam and knew nothing about the war that had been going on for almost a decade, which may have been largely true. These were not people troubled by distant wars. Indeed, they were prime beneficiaries of a most successful imperialism and a booming economy.
Halfway through Ellsberg’s talk, Donald Pritzker snapped his fingers at me and said, “Coffee. I need coffee. With sugar.”
I prepared his coffee and set it on the counter next to him as he growled into the phone, “You tell that sonofabitch he’d better come through or…”
He was purple with rage, the veins in his neck swollen, his knuckles white as he clenched the phone in a death grip—not a happy person.
I returned to my post at the kitchen door just as Ellsberg finished his talk and asked, “Are there any questions?”
No one said a word. Not one of the handsome women and non-descript men raised a hand, and Ellsberg stood there for a short infinity, looking very sad and tired. Finally, the hostess, the mother of my friend who had arranged for me to be present at this strange soiree, leapt to her feet and cried, “Eat, eat, eat!” and the Prtizkers rose to begin their feasting.
“There is only one way to endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” Alan Paton
I think of Timothy Geithner and his wife driving south on Highway One, enjoying their excellent chicken salad sandwiches from the Mendocino Market and superb lattes from the GoodLife Cafe, just, you know, having fun being far from the madding crowd, enjoying the view of the shining pacific and the passing fields rife with mustard flowers and the cerulean sky dotted with puffy white clouds. For just a little while, a rare little while, Timothy and his wife forget all about the millions of less fortunate people who are, in essence, paying for Timothy’s fun. Yes, for just a little while, Timothy might be anybody.