In E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime we are taken into the vulnerabilities and motivations behind such historical figures as Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. We are witness to the making of revolutionaries and criminals. War is on the horizon – the great equalizer between massive wealth and massive poverty.
Each character ricochets off the next, creating a stream of events flowing from one to another. The book begins with Evelyn Nesbitt. Her beauty causes a murder among the rich and powerful. Her picture sends newspapers flying off the stands. She becomes the standard model for every sex goddess that follows after her. “Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is By being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out on her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich (Doctorow, 71).”
One of my favorite scenes involves J.P. Morgan, who in his quest for Egyptian mysticism spends the night in a Pyramid seeking a sign of his greatness. He only finds that the place is infested with bed bugs. His feeling of elite superiority to be in such a place is even more diminished when he is led out in the morning to find a team of ill-mannered baseball players goofing off on the ruins.
Coalhouse Walker, a liberated black man, seeks justice against the crimes committed against him. He turns into a revolutionary willing to sacrifice his life, staking out J.P. Morgan’s library of artifacts and rigging it with dynamite. As Booker T. Washington tries to reason with him, Coalhouse replies, “It is true I am a musician and a man of years. But I would hope this might suggest to you the solemn calculation of my mind. And that therefore, possibly, we might both be servants of our color who insist on the truth of our manhood and the respect it demands (Doctorow, 238).”
Throughout is the rage that we are experiencing in our own time in the same phase of a century - rage against the one percent. I grew up around wealth. I went to high school blocks away from Bill Gates’ mansion in Bellevue, Washington. My sixteen-year-old classmates drove BMW’s and Mercedes’. My mother wanted to make up for doing without as a teenager, so she bought me one thousand dollars worth of clothes every fall and spring. I learned quickly, that having everything you want doesn’t make you happy. And after college, I had no idea how to deal with real life or live on very little. It took years to train my brain how to stop being magnetized to extravagance. Eventually I gained the survival skills I needed.
My number one lesson was that I was too impulsive to own a credit card. As a teenager I’d never looked at a price tag, but now I became an obsessive bargain hunter. I sought out the cheapest market in my neighborhood and bought all the food I needed for a week for under $40. I learned to like my natural hair color and taught myself how to cut my own hair. Instead of buying beauty products, I only use almond oil. Natural remedies have replaced doctors and prescriptions. When buying clothes I tend to do day’s worth of research, and think out my choices and price options for the best quality at the lowest price. It pays to buy things that last. I have yet to own a car, though I did spend six months puttering around on a sporadic 1974 Honda CT90 motorcycle. I realized my own two legs were more dependable and I like the exercise.
I’ve been living on random jobs for eleven years telling myself that I can keep doing this while I wait for that book deal to happen. And every year has seemed like the last year I will do it, to the point that it amazes me that this distant carrot could keep me going in the same way until the day I die. I’m okay with that.
Jobs always come up when I need them, like magic. But there is a constant scramble for backbreaking work. One of those jobs is as a part-time contractor. I am the person wearing dirty overalls, up in my head all day sanding, patching and painting in the routine movements of a machine. When I work in public places, I note that people regard me as being beneath them. When I wear my normal clothes, the same people regard me as their equal.
I sometimes work for a friend, serving food and mixing cocktails at parties. We work for the one percent. I hate the feeling of subservience the very rich can make you feel. You’re not allowed to really exist. And I’m good at being a shadow on the periphery, taking care of their every need.
At one party, the couple was our age, in their mid-thirties. He worked in commercial real estate and she did nothing but buy designer clothes for all I could see. She didn’t know how to work the stove, and he couldn’t be bothered with knowing where anything was in the kitchen. They owned a mansion with forty-foot floor to ceiling windows with a full skyline view of the city. The kitchen counter was also forty-feet long. The house itself was built like a fortress with a ten-foot wide wooden door opening into the courtyard, and a glass door twenty-feet tall to the house.
Usually the very rich live in houses that are not to my taste. But in this place I found myself becoming more and more green with envy as the night wore on. I was disgusted with myself for feeling this way.
They were lonely people living at the top with the usual token gay bestie who worshiped their lifestyle. The husband did the usual boasting of only flying private, and told boring tales of doing without comforts in foreign countries. He was anal and obsessive compulsive. You could see he wouldn’t have gotten this far, this fast, if he hadn’t been. Everyone was slightly bored and more amused by the view of the city than the company.
I appraised their lame choices in art and thought of the paintings I would hang instead. I imagined where I’d put the grand piano and how I’d rock star the place out. Desperately, I wanted to go back to my own life so I could begin to forget. Then back at home I kept looking over towards their neighborhood from our balcony, pin-pointing exactly where that magnificent house stood amongst the crevices of the hill.
Is it bad, or is it okay to find motivation from being around the rich? On a good day I feel like the upstanding socialist – equality for all. And I am lucky to have the life I lead – rich with experience, vibrant, full of love and time enough to write. But as a human being, we are all competitive by nature.
It all reminds me too, that there is a part of me that is still that spoiled adolescent. She resides deep in my subconscious, causing me to make impulsive choices every now and then. Like J.P. Morgan, sometimes our illusions of grandeur need to be taken down a notch by bed bugs in the Pyramid.