Girl with magnifier

Monday, April 16, 2012

The trappings

You can win the rat race but you are still a fucking rat.
Mike Tyson

I have been thinking a lot about the subject of class and materialism of late. My thoughts coalesced this morning with a spirited debate with coffee partner Bob at the klatch this morning.

I am tired from a long week but will hopefully be able to present you with a not too scrambled post on the subject.

We are largely defined in our culture by what we have and what we drive.

I went out to dinner in a tony exburb of Del Mar with S and T the other night. The upscale shopping center was awash in expensive to very expensive cars. I have noticed that I have been feeling very poor driving through some of these coastal communities in my humble dodge lately.

My hosts are wonderful people who can afford to drive anything they want but choose to drive a Mazda and Hyundai. Highly functional, nicely appointed cars that rank quite low in terms of social cachet. They get major points for this in my book. They could care less what anybody thinks about their rides but did let on that the Genesis came with the option of removing all recognizable branding and it passes quite nicely for a more socially acceptable ride.

My friend Mel is a hardened Berkeley radical who came up in the Free Speech Movement and is as far left as they come. She and her hubby are both rocking Mercedes as of last week, she the CLK 350 and he a nice sedan. I told her last week that come the revolution she was now officially dead meat.

BigD's M5 took a powder and he also got a Benz after 30 years of having the top BMW's. BigD has been to all the race car schools and for him it is supposedly about performance so maybe I cut him some slack. Barely. The new one is more of an old man ride.

Lena had her beamer broadsided by a hit and run before our trip and is also looking for a new ride. When I mentioned a lesser breed of car she looked quite horrified. Not to pick on my dear friends. We all want a nice mode of transportation. And the decision involves something more than mere utility.

Our cars obviously serve a function beyond mere transportation. They are telling the world something about our images of ourselves.

Several of my close friends, a couple of who read the blog, made a bunch of money through hard work and bought Ferraris. They all sold them. K said that he thought he really wanted one but it ended up just sitting in the garage so he sold it. Because it turned out that it didn't matter to him. When I lived in Rancho Santa Fe for a brief period in my youth the guys I really admired were the zillionaires driving Civics. They had nothing to prove to anybody. Of course, driving a bat out of hell can be a lot of fun too. We all do things for different reasons. Wanted a minerva blue porsche 911 in the worst way as a kid. But ended up fat and living on a dirt road so it was never to be. Did do the BMW thing early on.


My father had some very nice cars. I showed his 1954 Sedanca De Ville Rolls Royce Silver Wraith at the Laguna Concours de Elegance in 1976. The one with the open chauffer's compartment. Mulliner body. He also had an extremely rare Aston Martin DB5 convertible. Many Bentleys and Shadows, E types and what not. Gravitated to Lexus in his old age.

He was presenting the world a picture of himself as a man with taste for the unattainable. They were beautiful cars and I think that I understand his motivation. And have to say that he never thought too good to drive in my old truck.

My father was a rare cat, a wealthy man with taste. People think that there is a correlation between having money and having taste but after thirty years of selling art, I have learned that the opposite is usually true. My father had an exceptional eye for nice paintings, ivory and orientalia and his hallways sported canvasses by Van Dyke, Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. I have been in many millionaires houses with an abysmal sense of design. In my opinion of course. Zebra rugs and Patrick Nagels. Spent so much time clawing their way to the top that they never had time to develop an aesthetic sense or have a proper look around.

In my business the most passionate collectors are rarely the most wealthy. They are often teachers or people that save for a whole year to purchase their prizes. I always enjoy selling to these people. They are informed and many times more expert than I am.  The recent recession weeded out a lot of people who were really more interested in making a quick flip in a booming and speculative California Impressionism art market than actually enjoying the artwork. Unlike the new money people who buy Warhols or the latest modern art rip off.


I was out of high school and working as a groom in the saddlebred and hunter jumper horse business. Hard work, mucking stalls sometimes at 4:30 in the morning. One of the barns I worked for was in Rancho Santa Fe. I will never forget the day. A fifteen year old girl had a fierce screaming tantrum. Her Mercedes was in the shop and her parents suggested that she drive a Vega the three miles home. She couldn't be seen in such a lowly car. Apoplectic.

I got burnt out on the gaited horses for the same reasons we stopped showing cars. At some point it degenerated into a pissing contest where the really wealthy people just showed you how they could win by throwing obscene amounts of money at everything.


My breakfast argument started with my observation that most BMW's and Mercedes are very stale from a design sense. I can hardly tell most of the BMW series apart. But they deliver enough social cachet that they continue to sell.


There was a very successful art dealer in town that got a frantic call from a client a few years ago that he needed paintings for his home in Newport Beach asap. He was having a home tour the next day. Spent a couple million, including a Granville Redmond painting for over 600k. My friend laughed as he told me about receiving a call from the guy the next day, "What was the name of that painter again?" Can you imagine spending that kind of coin and not even knowing the name of the artist?


I was sitting at the blackjack dealer last month when the guy from Phoenix sat down next to me. He was making some heavy losses back and betting a couple grand a hand. His wife walked up sporting the new three thousand dollar purse he had just bought for her. God bless them for being able to afford it and more power to do whatever they want but I would freaking if my wife decided that she needed an expensive ugly purse to separate herself from the masses. Nouveau richedom seems so tiring and venal at its worst.


Some accoutrements of the wealthy are indeed quite beautiful. I would love to tool around in a nice Bugatti or Talbot Lago. Give my eye teeth for an Edward Hopper or N.C. Wyeth painting, even a small one. If I had any bread I would indeed be dangerous. I am not merely talking about simple envy here.

What bothers me is the junk that has become currency in the culture. Anything adorned with initials that give you instant access to some club gets under my skin. So stupid. But serves some internal purpose of defining you as a class apart from the philistines. It is tricky to collect status symbols because it can be so transparent if the object in question is obviously tawdry.


I was talking about this subject with some buddhist friends this afternoon and they brought up the concepts of dualism and attachment. You can be equally ensnared by having something and not having something. I am not championing some sixties paradigm of non materialism. You made the freaking money, probably through talent and very hard work, you can do whatever you want with it. However I do think having to keep up with the rich neighbors seems a bit exhausting. And it will be so hard to fit all the toys into the eventual pine box.

If I measured my self worth by my balance sheet, I would have to characterize  my life as a colossal failure. I tend to measure my worth in the great friends I have, of all social stratas and walks of life. And in being so handsome and brilliant of course.


Anonymous said...

Handsome and brilliant, of course. You forgot to mention how the sun always finds you no matter how cloudy the day-shining down from heaven upon your glorious visage. Methinks that if you were astride a Bugatti the sun would no longer seek you out.

Anonymous said...

If you spread all the wealth out evenly tomorrow, in ten tears we would be right back where we started, yeaterday.

J. Paul Getty