Photo by Marcia Sloane
(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)
“ Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.” John Kenneth Galbraith
I know people who own nice houses and multiple cars and have sufficient wealth to eat and drink whatever they want to eat and drink, and to take occasional vacations, too, yet they do not consider themselves rich. That is, they do not think of themselves as people who should pay higher taxes because, well, they feel they pay high enough taxes as it is, too high, actually, and besides, they aren’t part of that one per cent we hear so much about, those multi-millionaires and billionaires who pay no taxes at all. These people I know don’t own three and four homes, for goodness sake. Some of them own two houses, and maybe a rental or two, but no one ever gave them a golden parachute. They voted for Clinton and Obama. They proudly click buttons on web sites to indicate their opposition to icky pipelines and their sympathy for homeless people and their support for endangered species. So…now their houses are plummeting in value, their stock portfolios are crashing, and the price of everything edible and the price of anything that produces heat and electricity and horse power is skyrocketing, so it’s not as if these people have much to spare. In fact, when you add everything up, these people I know with houses and money are, relatively speaking, poor, though the words poor and rich are not precise terms; so let’s just say that these people I know with houses and cars and money are adamant that they are not rich.
“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields
I was six-years-old when my family moved from a tiny house in a working class neighborhood in San Mateo to a three-bedroom house in Atherton. For those of you unfamiliar with Atherton, it is a town of eight thousand residents and their servants not far from Stanford University, twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco on the northern edge of what is now called Silicon Valley, formerly Santa Clara Valley. The town of Atherton, though there is no commercial sector to speak of so it isn’t really a town but more of an enclave, is where the fabulously wealthy robber barons (Stanford, Spreckels, Crocker, Hopkins, etc.) built huge estates in the late 1800’s to escape the madding crowds and cold foggy summers of San Francisco, the climate of Atherton kin to Camelot. Indeed, those untaxed zillionaires built a private railroad to carry them in gilt coaches from their San Francisco mansions to their Atherton mansions, which railroad became the commuter line that today runs from San Francisco to San Jose.
The vast estates of these robber barons were eventually divided into twenty-acre estates for the next generation of wealthy crooks and entrepreneurs, and when my folks bought their flimsy two-year-old house in 1956 for thirty thousand dollars, most of those twenty-acre estates had been subdivided into one-acre parcels. Today, Atherton is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. That is to say, some of the wealthiest people in the world today have at least one of their houses in Atherton. But when I was a lad, the homeowners in our neighborhood were teachers, doctors, dentists, car salesmen, airline pilots, merchants, stockbrokers, graphic designers, advertising executives, and businessmen; and their wives. Most of these homeowners were children of the Great Depression, came from working class backgrounds, and had surpassed their parents on their way up the economic ladder to snag three-bedroom houses in Atherton.
My parents were forever out-of-step with the Atherton ethos, which is to say my father thought of our acre as a little farm, and so he planted a fruit orchard in the field in front of our house, planted a grove of twelve redwoods, let the wild oaks grow large, and cultivated a big vegetable garden on the edge of a small grove of ancient olive trees (planted hundreds of years ago) behind our flat-roofed one-story sort of modern-looking house. Everyone else in our neighborhood had manicured gardens patrolled by vigilant Japanese gardeners. I am proud to say that in my parents’ fifty-year tenure in Atherton, at least two ordinances were passed specifically to curtail the Beverly Hillbilly tendencies of my derelict father. The first ordinance forbade field grass to be above six inches high, and the second ordinance forbade the hanging of unsightly objects in trees—my father forever dangling strips of aluminum foil in his fruit trees to scare away voracious birds.
Which is all to say I grew up in the midst of rich people, went to school with a mix of rich kids and working class kids, had a few extremely wealthy friends, and was, in fact, rich, though I didn’t know I was rich because my mother insisted we were poor and if I wanted money I would have to work for it, which I began to do in earnest at the age of eleven, gardening for neighbors and babysitting their children, many of whom were not much younger than I.
“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.” George Bernard Shaw
Shortly after the passage of Jarvis Gann in 1978, the infamous Proposition 13 that put a ceiling of one per cent on property taxes in California, and with the ensuing ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and his everything-for-the-rich-nothing-for-anybody-else policies, housing prices in Atherton went from high to incredibly high. And though my parents’ falling apart old house was by then essentially worthless, the acre it sat upon was worth a million dollars in 1980, two million dollars in 1990, and three million dollars in 1995. When I came home to visit over the course of those fifteen years, I found Atherton undergoing a shocking transformation that reached a crescendo of obscenity at the height of the dot com insanity circa 1997.
In the Atherton real estate parlance of the 1990’s, houses built in the 1950’s and 60’s were called scrapers, not tear-downs, but scrapers, because when such a house sold to a wealthy buyer, the entire lot—house, driveway, trees, everything—was scraped down to bare earth to make way for a massive new house that would cover most of that acre of ground and sell for between seven and fifteen million dollars. These new houses, by the way, were not passive solar, active solar, or even attractive. They were huge blocky hideous monstrosities, ecological disasters housing extremely rich people.
“Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Thomas Jefferson
True story. Just up the hill from my parents’ house, a shady lane departed from the main road and wended its way around a dozen large homes built in the 1950’s and 60’s, each house sitting on a two-acre lot. I used to go up that lane when I was a boy, braving the growling dogs, because at lane’s end there was a fabulous gorge filled with live oaks and a seasonal creek—a wild refuge inhabited by deer and bobcats and quail and nature spirits. I played there for many a summer, sometimes with friends but more often alone, imagining I was an Indian, and I don’t mean someone from India.
Forty-some years later in the 1990’s, a young man devised a kind of software I shall not name, software used for accounting, and he became a multi-billionaire. With a small portion of his fortune, he bought all twelve of the large houses on that shady lane, and he bought the wild gorge, too, along with several other adjacent properties. He paid five and six and seven million dollars for each of the shady lane houses, and twelve million for the house of an old woman who was not going to sell to him at any price, at first. Then the young man did an odd thing. He invited several of his friends to party with him in those many houses he’d bought, and in each house he and his friends put golf balls on the floors, and using the best golf clubs money can buy, the young man and his friends hit those golf balls through the windows of the houses. Fun? I don’t know.
Having shattered the windows of these many houses (some of which were designed by famous architects and featured in Sunset Magazine and Architectural Digest) this young man and his friends drove gigantic bulldozers into and through and over these houses, for the fun of it, I suppose, before they turned the work over to professionals who really knew how to scrape everything away down to the ground.
Then the young man ordered thousands and thousands of gigantic truckloads of dirt to be brought from faraway to fill the wild gorge so the land would be level for his very own nine-hole golf course, no skimping on distances, designed by a famous golf course designer. Then the young man had a house built at the high point of his property, a house that took dozens of carpenters and masons three years to build, an enormous four-story mansion resembling the castle in the Disney logo; and the young man also had a huge indoor athletic facility built a stone’s throw from his castle, a facility housing a big swimming pool and a tennis court and a racquetball court and a full-sized basketball court. And then, along with two posh guesthouses, one Japanese modern, one Swiss Chalet, he had a beautiful fountain installed at the bottom of the gently sloping hill behind his castle.
Only this is no ordinary beautiful fountain. No, this young man’s fountain, which resides in the center of an enormous plaza accessed by an immense staircase descending from the vast terrazzo behind the young man’s castle, is an exact replica of the largest fountain at Versailles. The young man had the massive fountain and the enormous plaza and the immense staircase built by a small army of skilled craftsmen flown from Italy to California to make these colossal replicas out of exquisite white marble quarried in Carrara.
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com