So we are agreed. We are living in the second great Gilded Age, a time of startling personal wealth. In the West, the mansion after mansion with broad and rolling grounds; in the East, the apartments with foyers in which bowling teams could play. Or, on another level, the week’s vacation in Disneyland or Dublin with the entire family—this in a nation in which, well within human memory, people with a week off stayed home and fixed things in the garage, or drove to the beach for a day and sat on a blanket from one of the kid’s beds and thought: This is the life.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average has hit 14000. The wealthy live better than kings. There isn’t a billionaire in East Hampton who wouldn’t look down on tatty old Windsor Castle. We have a potential presidential candidate who noted to a friend that if he won the presidency the quality of his life would go down, not up.
The gap between rich and poor is great, and there is plenty of want, and also confusion. What the superrich do for a living now often seems utterly incomprehensible, and has for at least a generation. There is no word for it, only an image. There’s a big pile of coins on a table. The rich shove their hands in, raise them, and as the coins sift through their fingers it makes . . . a bigger pile of coins. Then they sift through it again and the pile gets bigger again.
A general rule: If you are told what someone does for a living and it makes sense to you—orthodontist, store owner, professor—that means he’s not rich. But if it’s a man in a suit who does something that takes him five sentences to explain and still you walk away confused, and castigating yourself as to why you couldn’t understand the central facts of the acquisition of wealth in the age you live in—well, chances are you just talked to a billionaire.
* * *
There are good things and bad in the Gilded Age, pluses and minuses. I write here of a minus. It has to do with our manners, the ones we show each other on the street. I think riches, or the pursuit of riches, has made us ruder. You’d think broad comfort would assuage certain hungers. It has not. It has sharpened them.
Here’s a moment in the pushiness of the Gilded Age. I walk into a shop on Madison Avenue daydreaming, trying to remember what it was I thought last week I should pick up, what was it . . .
“Hi! Let me help you find what you’re looking for!” She is a saleswoman, cracking gum with intensity, about 25 years old, and she has made a beeline to her mark. That would be me.
“We have summer sweaters on sale. What size are you?!” Her style is aggressive friendliness.
In another shop, as soon as I walk in the door, “How are you today? How can I help you?” Those dread words.
“Oh, I’m sort of just looking.”
“I like your bag!”
“Um, thanks.” What they are forcing you to do is engage. If you engage—”Um, thanks”—you have a relationship. If you have a relationship, it’s easier for them to turn you upside down and shake the coins from your pockets.
It is like this in all the shops I go in now, except for the big stores (Macy’s, Duane Reade drugstore), where they ignore you.
There are strategies. You can do the full Garbo: “Leave me alone.” But they’ll think you’re a shoplifter and watch you. Or the strong lady with boundaries: “Thank you, if I need help I’ll ask.” But your reverie is broken. Or the acquiescent person: “Take me under your leadership, oh aggressively friendly salesperson.” But this is bowing to the pushiness of the Gilded Age.
* * *
You leave the floor for the street and meet the woman with the clipboard. “Do you have two seconds for the environment?” Again, not a soft question but a challenge. Her question is phrased so that if you don’t stop and hear her spiel, you are admitting you won’t give two seconds for the environment, or two cents for it either. You give the half-smile-nod, shake your head, walk on. She looks at you as if you’re the reason the Earth is going to hell.
Do they know they’re being manipulative? If they have a brain they do. Their trainers certainly know. Do they know it’s also why no one quite trusts them? Do they care? Why would they? They’re the manipulators on the street.
Or: I’m in a local restaurant with a friend. We sat down 40 seconds ago and are starting to catch up when: “What do you want to drink?” An interruption, but so what? We order, talk, my friend is getting to the punch line of the story when: “We have specials this evening.” Not, “Let me know when you’re ready to hear the specials.” We stop talking, listen. The waiter stands there, pad in hand. “You ready?” If you ask for a minute, he’ll nod and be back in exactly one minute. “Do you know yet?” Again, this is not a request. One is being told to snap to it. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out. Move ‘em.
It’s funny. In a time of recession, you’d think salespeople would be more aggressive, because so much might hinge on the sale—a commission, a job. In a time of relative wealth, you’d think they might be less aggressive. But the opposite seems true.
* * *
Technology has not helped in this area. Cellphones are wonderful, but they empower the obnoxious and amplify the ignorant. Once they kept their thoughts to themselves. They had no choice. Now they have cellphones, into which they bark, “I’m on line at Duane Reade. Yeah. Ex-Lax.” Oh, thank you for sharing. How much less my life would be if I didn’t know.
BlackBerrys empower the obsessed. We wouldn’t have them if the economy weren’t high and we weren’t pretty well off. Once, a political figure in New York invited me to a private dinner. I was seated next to him, and as the table conversation took off he leaned back, quietly took out his BlackBerry, and began to scroll. It occurred to me that if I said something live in person, it would not be as interesting to him as if I’d BlackBerryed him. It occurred to me that if I wanted to talk to him I’d have to BlackBerry him and say, “Please talk to me.” And then he would get the message.
It is possible that we are on the cellphone because we are lonely and hunger for connection, even of the shallowest kind; that we BlackBerry because we hope for a sense of control in a chaotic world; that we are frightened of stillness and must interrupt conversations; that we are desperate to make the sale in the highly competitive environment of the Banana Republic on 86th Street and must aggressively pursue customers.
It’s also possible we have grown more boorish. I think it’s that one. Many things thrive in the age of everything, including bad manners.