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July 1, 2007

The Carpenter's Access to Luxury

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During my (paid) 15 minute break in the morning and my (not paid) half-hour lunch as a carpenter, I've leaned against gateways and taken in views that other families must spend generations accruing the wealth to enjoy. Workers can develop a feeling of temporary ownership of the empty mansions in which they toil for most of their waking hours, and for the average construction crew, there's nothing so humanizing of the young billionaire as cutting a hole for duct-work in his bedroom and finding his stash of naughty DVDs hidden on the tippy-top of a nine-foot shelf. Far from solidifying a kindred sense, however, these mild epiphanies that the rich and the working are all human — sharing traits both transcendent and base — make differences in standing and perspective even less comprehensible.


Many's the time I've turned to my younger coworkers — most, I suspect, not accustomed to such lunchtime conversation — and wondered aloud what effect it must have on the psyche to have so much. When I had a dog to walk, I would most nights pass a view that brought regular feelings of spontaneous gratitude to God for having created the world thus, and I owned neither the perch nor the view. I imagine that people born of great wealth must feel as if those views were created for them. Leisure time, fantastic settings, great privileges — such is life. Their life.

It can be difficult working in their ocean-front mansions during the families' in-town season. In winter, the rich are phantoms — no more real than when one sees them on television or reads of them in books — and one scarcely believes the groundskeepers that they exist at all. When they do stop by to review the projects' progress, they seem more like character actors in an elaborate illusion than living conduits of tremendous wealth. In the summer, the tradesman must watch, while he toils, as they enjoy their vacation from... what? Their lives are vacations. It would be edifying to follow them around for a while — here and wherever it is that they go in the fall — to investigate just what they do. They fill their houses with superfluous furniture; with what do they fill their days?

Don't get me wrong. Some such folk are wonderful people. I've recognized, in my time as a driver of nails, an exuded gratitude and respect when I'm the guy who can, for example, fix a door so that the dogs cannot sneak out and be mauled again by the coyotes that are attracted to the acres of open land. The experience of months of intensive doggy-care has exposed some vulnerability that I have the knowledge, skill, and tools to prevent from being chafed once more. But always interceding in such interactions is my knowledge, and their apparent ignorance, that with less labor than I am expending, they could fix the debt problem that has dogged me for over a decade.

Perhaps they are unaware of their own ability to fix doors, as it were, or maybe lifetimes of outreached hands have led them to do the math concerning the cost of too dramatically indulging a sense of responsibility. They would be able to solve a great many people's problems, and yet they aren't able to solve them all, so it could be that they learn early on (in youth, perhaps,
and subconsciously) not to burden themselves with finding their own boundaries for giving, taking instead those that society has defined. Our society, unfortunately, has defined them poorly, not only through the legitimization of avarice, but by its tendency to grab for, rather than apply pressure for, wealth.


It is a shame, and detrimental, that our too secular society seems intent on rubbing out the distinction between obligation and responsibility. Yes, responsibilities can be shirked, but explicit and enforceable obligations give the impression that responsibility ends with them. For a brief while — of which we under fifty sometimes hear tell — America seemed to have faith in the shapeless forces of cultural expectations, one of which held it a courtesy to allow others a chance to accelerate. Now, it appears that only coyotes and the fortunate carpenter may come and go past the walls that attempts to manage the distribution of wealth, and the stoked strategic concomitant of class envy, helped to inspire.

Posted by Justin Katz at July 1, 2007 3:41 PM
Culture