The Story of Rich People
I grew up in a very weird place–a tiny, tiny ski resort very high up in the mountains. When my family moved there in the 80’s, there were only about 800 people in the total population, and the town wasn’t yet the ritzy showpiece it would become in the next two decades. It had only one paved street, you didn’t have to dial a prefix if you were calling a local number, and if you busted your head open skiing you had to ride a helicopter to the hospital because there wasn’t one in town. Growing up, I never knew anyone who even owned a bike lock. We never had a key to our front door–in 20 years I don’t believe it was ever locked.
During the years that I was in middle school and high school, the town slowly became more of a classic destination spot for rich people who wanted sixth trophy homes and were willing to bulldoze 11 acres of pristine pine forest to get them. Also, it must be said, for rich people who were not huge assholes, including a cool guy my dad used to work with who at one point bought the entirety of one of the mountainsides hemming in the town and donated it to the town on the stipulation that it never be developed, at which point he became (rightfully) somewhat of a local hero, particularly among back-country skiers, who used that land constantly and who make up like 1/3 of the population.
So anyway, here we have the ski area, which was once kind of a low-rent hippie sort of thing where dudes drank beers on the single chairlift, and which is now among the premiere places to ski in the world. As the ski area expanded and gained notoriety, and as the town began being featured in Visa commercials and whatnot, it started rivaling Aspen as a place rich people would vacation and own vast mansions they lived in for maybe one week out of the year, like I said. These people began to include the absolute top A-list famous people. They also began to include your less famous rich people–people who had made millions in the stock market or whatever.
The thing people don’t often know about this town is that next to all this really astonishing money there live just regular people. Whenever I tell someone I grew up there, they almost always say, “I didn’t know anyone grew up there.” But we did, lots of us. We lived in neat little houses our dads had built themselves; some of us even lived in trailers, in an actual trailer park discreetly hidden from town-view. One guy lived in the side of a hill, like a hobbit. We went to school and were bored at night and threw popcorn at each other in the cute movie theater that always got movies like a month after they came out.
Anyway, the town was a mining town in the 19th century and then became a ghost town for awhile, and then in the 1960’s hippies moved there to live a life free of the rat race where they could half-ass some odd jobs and ski full time. These people were not rich. Who wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, at 9,000 feet, where you could die outside at night, where there wasn’t a grocery store for like 200 miles, to say nothing of an airport?? Not rich people. So, these people stayed, and raised children, and the children became awesome burly carpenters and bricklayers and plumbers and Olympic skiers, and they had children, and so on. Many, many people are third generation, who have no intention of ever living anywhere else. And these are working class or lower middle class people, just living their lives, working hard, etc. They live there because they like the freedom of a tiny remote town, they like the epic extreme skiing, the mountain climbing, “the outdoors.” They like each other, they like the vibe. Underneath all the glitz and money, the town has a pretty thriving barter economy. My brother told me recently that most of the people he knows couldn’t actually afford to live there any longer, were it not for the fact that you know someone who works in every sector of the economy. Drinks, food, plumbing supplies, you name it, there are local discounts that allow regular dudes to continue their lives even though their town has been gentrified to the max. Even at the level of the ski area! For my entire life, K-12, every summer every permanent resident child of this town would spend a week pitching rocks or sealing envelopes–doing random mostly pointless little tasks for the ski area–and in return were given a free season pass. Every year, every child. I think those passes were worth about $800. If you’re a working class family with a bunch of kids, you can’t afford to be a skiing family. But in my town, you could. So we were all skiers. School let out at noon on Thursday and Friday so we could ski. All day Saturday and Sunday you had to ski. In sixth grade you got put into one of the two ski teams–racing or moguls–and that was pretty much your life. It’s cool that it was for everybody, not just rich people. The beating heart of everyone’s social life, school life, sports life. Even (ahem) the poor misbegotten bespectacled bookish types who, quite frankly, would just as soon have stayed home reading Anne McCaffrey and eating cheese.
So now the population has risen to about 2,000 people, maybe? But this doesn’t count the increasing number of trophy homes, which aren’t really residences.
Ok, so, here is the story, which was told to me over christmas:
A friend of ours, a young man who I’ve known for my whole life, caretakes for a massive mansion on a certain mesa outside of this town where I grew up. I should pause and tell you that “caretaking” is a very normal job for young people to have in this town. This job involves living on a property and taking care of it while the people who own it are not there, which is, lets say, 355 days out of the year. This job entails varying duties and time commitments. Some people just want you to live there and make sure the pipes don’t freeze. Other people give you crazy lists of chores and tell you to build them a barn even though they don’t have horses or whatever. These are people who literally don’t understand what money is, so they pay you an insane amount of money. Lets say I found out that this friend of ours makes $80,000 a year, for doing this job. He is like an old-timey caretaker, like in Jane Austen, the guy who polishes the brass door knockers and sees to the lawn maintenance and opens the door for you when you come home late at night, shielding the flame of the lantern from the cold winter winds. This is a not uncommon amount of money to be paid for this kind of work. I know many people who have done this job at various points in their lives.
So, this rich person who this friend caretakes for (and think of all the other caretakers employed by this rich person, spread out across the world. I imagine a surfer-bum dude in California, much like my ski-bum friend in Colorado. A guy in Italy. A lady in France. Somebody running the beach house in Costa Rica. etc.), he decides to sell this house he owns in the town where I grew up. Lets say it is an 11-bedroom mansion out in the middle of this beautiful country where you’re surrounded by mountains and clean lakes and baby deer hopping around. He sells it to some fellow ludicrously wealthy person. And he says to my friend, his caretaker, “you can call up whoever you want, and you can take whatever you want out of this house. But it has to be done by tomorrow morning, because the bulldozers are coming in the morning to tear the whole thing down.”
So this friend calls up all his local pals–all the carpenters and plumbers and bricklayers (all of whom are also world-class competitive skiers, just as a weird cool aside) with whom he has grown up–and they all drive out to this house to scavenge it before it’s destroyed. And what do you think they find?
A $50,000 brand-new stove and gas range. A $10,000 refrigerator, filled completely with imported salmon and crazy fancy wild elk meat and such. They find tens of thousands of dollars of granite countertops. They find a $5,000 bathtub in every bathroom. They find pillowtop mattresses, down comforters, turkish rugs, furniture that has never been sat upon. They find an enormous barbecue grill upon which you could cook an entire cow, that has never been used. They find a completely stocked wine cellar full of wines costing anywhere from $100 to $1,000 dollars. etc. etc. etc.
None of it taken. None of it wanted by the man who bought it (or, who had it bought for him). None of it wanted by the new people, who bought the house from him and are going to tear it down tomorrow morning. Because what kind of gauche poor person would deign to sit upon a chair that another butt had dared to touch. Or really–who can speculate, as to the reasons? Such reasons are beyond the ken of you and I.
Our friends worked all night long. They pulled out the stove, the refrigerators, the granite countertops, the turkish rugs. One of our friends is a carpenter and he ripped out the living room windows, each of which he said was worth ten thousand bucks. Enormous 2 or 3 story floor-to-ceiling double-insulted windows imported from Italy or who knows. He tore out the beams holding up the cathedral ceiling, each of which was carved from a single beautiful tree many hundreds of years old. They dragged the wine up from the cellar and drank it. They cooked the imported salmon on the barbecue grill.
In the morning, they drove away with their battered pickup trucks laden with booty, which they would then sell to other people building less-fancy trophy homes. Or, I like to think that they kept a lot of it. I like to think of my friend I grew up with, who works so hard and has such a modest and sweet life…I like to think of him gutting a fish on a $10,000 granite countertop in his own home. Because fuck you, right? Fuck you.
That morning, bulldozers came, dug a huge gaping pit next to the house, and then pushed the entire house into the pit and covered it up with dirt. Everything inside of the house. The wood the house was made of. The glass in the windows; the carpets on the floor. The sinks, the bathtubs, the shelves, the bed frames, the beautiful individually hand-carved golden knobs on each drawer on each giant bureau in each giant bedroom. The copper wiring. The water pipes. Things someone had paid literally millions of dollars to purchase. Things people had made. Things so many people never even get to touch in their lifetimes. It was all pushed into a pit and covered up with dirt. Imagine the sound it made–like the Titanic turning upside-down, filled with grand pianos. Maybe there were some pianos in there. Maybe there were flat-screen televisions nobody had room for in their trucks. The mirrors. The pillows. The microwave ovens. The telephones. The toasters. The plates and bowls and glasses in the cupboards. Whatever our friends couldn’t carry away in their 24 hour grace period. $1,000 bottles of wine.
It’s so appalling that I just stared at my dad when he was done telling the story. It’s like something you hear about a medieval king, a crazy despot. It’s like something Vlad the Impaler would do, just because he was a crazy sociopath. But these people, they don’t even think about it. They aren’t intending to be ostentatious, to deliver a massive “fuck you” to pretty much everyone on the earth. It’s just what’s done. “It happens all the time,” my dad said.
So other rich people tore down that beautiful huge mansion–and these are not McMansions, made of fiberboard, these are glorious edifices made of logs so thick you can’t put your arms around them. I know the people who build these log mansions; who cut down the trees and lay the concrete for the foundations. So they tore down the hundreds of beautiful logs that the house had been built of, the brief purpose those 100-year-old trees served after being killed, and they crushed it all up with all the millions of dollars’ worth of stuff still left inside, and they dumped it in a pit, so that they could use the land to build another beautiful log mansion on. A mansion they then filled with the same millions of dollars’ worth of stuff and then lived in for 6 days a year. For a few years, until they got tired of it.
I think I always picture the really rich people running our country like they are evil masterminds, but they aren’t. They just don’t know a goddamn thing about anything. They grind us all down under their boot heels and they DON’T EVEN KNOW THEY’RE DOING IT.
I guess that is just life. I guess we all sort of do it. I own a single computer that was probably made by slave labor and will probably eventually give some starving Chinese kid mercury poisoning. We are all trapped in our bubble of circumstances. But still: Jesus Christ.
“That’s not what christmas is all about.”