The Chocolate Covered Kitchen's Blog

Where Making a Mess Is Worth It
DECEMBER 30, 2011 3:49PM

My Life in The One Percent

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Growing up in a working class family deep in the heart of the Michigan auto industry, I always thought of myself as immune to the arrogance of extreme wealth, as if somehow I were innately more humane in my treatment of others.  Any fantasies of prosperity were inevitably accompanied by images of my effervescent generosity as I scattered cash and gifts and opportunities like a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds of future abundance along every path I trod.  Then one day, the dream came true.  I joined the upper one percent, and I wasn’t even trying.

It happened years ago, as a graduate student, beginning with a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, then another from the National Science Foundation and then a Fulbright Award.  All told, these pots of money – to study access to medicines in the rainforests of Madagascar – were cumulatively significant, well into the six figures once some smaller grants were thrown in.  It wasn’t enough to nudge me into the upper crust of my homeland but once in Madagascar, my economic status soared.  In a country where the average annual income was less than $250 for a life spent working round the clock, my pot of gold amounted to more wealth than the entire village combined possessed, give or take a few thousand acres of pristine paradise (which they gave, and we took, as a U.S.-funded national park swept in to save their “global” resource).

And so it was that I set off to demonstrate that I was simultaneously “one of them” – by way of my working class origins – and at the same time, “the good rich” – by way of my noble generosity and the power to bestow it.  Assuring the village elders that I would provide employment to as many people as possible in exchange for their gracious tolerance of a whacky white woman moving in to pry into their daily lives and take a lot of pictures, I hired my staff.  I hired a young woman to cook for me (having flunked out of Girl Scouts, cooking over an open fire every day seemed like a bad idea), another to wash and iron my clothes (yes, really; somehow the thought of wearing wrinkled cotton seemed more preposterous than having a full-grown woman press them with a cast iron pan filled with burning embers, and as long as I could afford to pay her to wash them with fistfuls of sand in crocodile infested waters, I could outsource this risk to life and limb).  And I hired a slew of young men with strong backs to haul all my crap across the mountains and build me a new mud home complete with concrete floor and corrugated metal roof.  The total cost was minuscule – six hundred for the house, another two hundred for the sacrificial beast to bless it, and about thirty a month for my domestic staff.  Thirty five a month went to my high-school educated research assistant who came from a distant city, and I was set.

It wasn’t long before villagers came to me asking for small loans; nothing I couldn’t manage, and nothing I found the slightest bit unreasonable.  A few dollars for medicine, some money for chickens, a loan for a pig.  No problem.  But the more I loaned, the more people showed up asking for more until one day I realized a parade of total strangers had been knocking on my door – alerted to the easy-loan cash I was doling out, people from villages far and wide crossed rivers and hiked over mountains to get to me.  After a momentary tirade about not being such a sucker, I finally stopped loaning money except to those I knew.

But still, there were problems.  Not only were people viewing me as first and foremost “rich,” (well first and foremost, “white” but those categories tend to overlap in certain parts of the world) but I was also discovering how easily I could buy my way out of any discomfort – paying someone to pick and pound and roast and brew my coffee by dawn, carry my twelve-pound laptop over the mountains because it was much too heavy, heat gallons of water so I could shower in comfort, build me an outhouse so I had some privacy.  On and on it went until I resented any discomfort I couldn’t purchase away, just as I resented being viewed only as rich.  But irony does have a way of bringing us down to size, just when we think we’ve got it conquered.

When a bird epidemic wiped out all the poultry, not even my immense wealth could buy me a chicken dinner.  And when malaria struck and I wasted away in my damp rainforest hut – the mourners howling outside my window awaiting my pending death so they could divvy up my stuff – no amount of money could get me over the mountains and to urban healthcare before I’d expire.  The geographical isolation and decrepit infrastructure were enough to deny access to healthcare for even the wealthiest.  And when my father sadly did die, no amount of wealth could bring me the news until days later, for the same isolation cut off communication to rich and poor alike (this being the primitive days before cell phones).

Upon learning of my father’s death, the village elders gathered, and brought to me their gift – money.  Just as with every death, where the gift of cash is offered to the surviving family as a gesture of caring, and to mitigate the funeral costs, so too was this same gesture extended to me.  I protested – I cannot accept this money from you!  But I immediately regretted my behavior.  To turn away the offering was a great indignity, so with humility and gratitude I accepted the worn, tattered bills, amounting to nothing to me, but a great deal to each of those who gave it.

I still have that money, so worn from the many people who handled it before me – in exchange for some rice, some wages, a chicken, some moonshine or sex – and it is priceless.  It is the stark reminder that no amount of wealth can save us from death, from arrogance, or from our own ultimate isolation.  And the stark reminder that no amount of poverty can take away one’s dignity, generosity, or humanity when it is called for. 

I’m no longer in that one percent, and now in my own homeland, I struggle again with the same concerns of so many others throughout the world.   I may know my dinner will be provided tonight, if not by my own hands, then by the speedy delivery of a pizza.  And I may know where I will sleep tonight, not in a cold mud hut, but a warm and comforting bed beside the sea.  But I no longer know that my home and meals will be provided as I age, that I will be healed if I fall sick and lack access to needed medicines because insurance won’t provide it, that the resources I once used recklessly because they were abundant will be mine for the taking once they turn scarce and out of reach. 

Wealth has a way of making itself at home in whatever world we live in.  But how that wealth is distributed does change the way we view our place in the world and the place of others who have or do not have it.   As comedian Louis C.K. said, now that he sits in first class, he likes to think he would give up his seat to the war veteran sitting in coach, but he never does, finding comfort in the fantasy of doing so.  We all want to be better people, yet when given the chance to do so, we often stumble over our own desires and interests and end up even more generous to ourselves.

May we all find ourselves sitting in first class some day, in some way.  But most of all, may we all know the humility of what it is to be truly poor, unable to buy ourselves out of our discomforts.  Only then can we know the vulnerability of our own powers, and the power of our own vulnerabilities.  Therein lies our future, no matter what our past.

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Having learned what you have makes you the richest person you could be. It's the kind of wealth one could not hand in worn out bills. Thank you for this wonderful essay.

This is an incredible essay. It doesn't preach but leads us to the truth of the matter, wrapped in a wonderful story. Well done. I hope you will contact me so that I can read more.
This is a wonderful piece of writing, so touching and so real. Thank you for sharing your story. Rated.
This profound reflection of yours explains so effectively what angry protesters cannot. Your critical assessment of your own motives and behavior is so honest and courageous, and it sets an example for those who continue to try to rationalize and purchase their guilt away. This is truly a gripping essay that rises above the widespread invective on this topic.

Thank you for making such a mature and powerful case for our better nature to prevail.
This superbly written piece will stick with me for a very long time. If it weren't a true story, it would be the most effective parable I have seen outside of the bible.

Having married into a 1% family, then divorcing back into the 99%, I relate to so much of your experience. Wonderful essay.
Beautifully written—which is one thing—but I suspect the other is that it comes from a beautiful soul, which makes it all the more a very nice read.
Anyone who can write honestly, insightfully, and gracefully about money is aces in my book. Great post — good for you!
Travel can so often be a great teacher. It certainly taught you well. This is a wonderful essay, with amazing insight.
I'm glad Fusun tipped me off to this TCCK. You've captured that rich-poor dichotomy quite nicely, along with its colonial overtones.
I lived in southeast Turkey and hated. Hated beggers. My housekeeper and babysitter worked for 240 a month and cried the first time I paid her for both American and Turkish holidays. Poverty is everywhere, but you piece moved me. It was...splendidly woven with years of thought and reflection. I was fascinated and touched. I've never lived as you have back then, but I know the longing of being wealthy among those less able to gain the dollar in lands inhabited by others willing to clean eight hours- to honor them by cleaning behind you, again, but the cost is great- to one's self.

May your year be blessed and I look forward to reading you, again and again.
“Wealth has a way of making itself at home in whatever world we live in. But how that wealth is distributed does change the way we view our place in the world and the place of others who have or do not have it.”

No truer words have been spoken.

Excellent story. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Excellent piece. ~r
Thank you for the heart-warming comments; each one has made my day. Curiously, I posted this piece on Huffington, and it's been my least popular piece! It just goes to show, once again, how thoughtful, reflective and supportive the OS community is.

Mango Sherbert -- the beggars, oh, the beggars! Now there's a post. I'm looking forward to catching up on your posts about Turkey.

Divorced Pauline -- wow, that sucks. But freedom's always worth the price, which is usually quite high.

Lezlie -- this is the first time my writing's been compared to a parable in the Bible! Will you be my agent?

And to everyone else whose chimed in, thank you. Many far too generous in your praise, but I'm not complaining!
"We find comfort in the fantasy of being generous." *chuckles* Yes, we all think we're good people but just how good are we really? - Rated
Well done. posting to FB.
"rich people march on washington every day"
--i.f. stone

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
--supreme court justice louis brandeis

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--upton sinclair

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

occupy party reaches critical mass/seismic effect--now what?
What a lovely way to tell such a meaningful story... ~r~
Fascinating insights on being rich and being poor, and the relativity of it all.
A timely tale. With our "rich" economy about to get smacked upside the head by the second half of the recession, many more of us will find ourselves living a third-world lifestyle.

We have been able to ignore the 25% or so of us who do so now, but when it is over 5o% it won't allow of being ignored.

We have much to learn.
This is a successful post on so many levels. It brings the point home for forcefully and clearly without any irony or moralizing - it just is what it is. That was a great experience that works so well to make your point. And the writing was enjoyable as well. Congratulations on the post and on your experience.
This is so true. Imagine that having an outhouse built meant that you were wealthy! My experience, living for awhile in a 3rd world country, was that all of my protestations against the concept that all Americans are rich, because many Americans live no better than those in the 3rd world, fell on deaf ears. "How can that be true when you have so much more money?" R
Great essay about discovering yourself by going into the jungle, literally and figuratively, for the treasure. I loved writers who explore the margins, the edges, the cliff but somehow are unable to walk back from the experience and write about it.
I think I understand. I've never been "wealthy" in anyone's eyes and it suits me just fine. In so many cultures the refusal of a git is the worst offense. Maybe it would have been better to have held one note as the reminder and gifted the rest back to those people who actually needed it. Not that you weren't a generous person (more so than many) it's just that you seem to know the advantages you were born with and the difference between poor and poverty. None the less, I am not criticizing, just pondering.
Rodney Roe: It's true that there is tremendous and extreme poverty in the U.S., and it doesn't help matters that anything shown on t.v. tends to depict us all as living in million dollar homes, but the poverty of some places in the world is beyond anything we see here; while there, ten percent of the village died from mostly treatable diseases, and I witnessed or learned of many deaths from malnutrition in my and nearby villages. People do die from malnutrition here, but the rate is not nearly as high as some parts of the post-colonial world.

Bobbot: I hung on to the actual currency that was given to me, but gave considerable cash and gifts to the villagers and school.
This is an outstanding post. Living, as you did, as one of the "mighty rich" brings priceless insights about the way we see ourselves, and the way we see money vs. wealth.
Thanks for sharing this.
OnIslandTime: Thank you; not only did I learn a great deal about what it was to be rich, but as the only white person in the village, I learned a great deal about race -- from being called "the white girl" by people who knew me, to going to other villages where children would run screaming and sobbing at the sight of me. Very humbling experience!
Lovely piece, and so many of us can relate to your message. Thanks to FusunA as well for referring it on to some of us!
You can take many things from a righteous poor man, but his dignity is not for sell. If you sell your soul to the rich man, it stays in his safe for all eternity.
Beautiful and very wise. Thank you for sharing this life lesson.
Fascinating, thank you.
Fusun sent me. I am so glad she did, as I loved your story of growth, of acceptance and realizations: "no amount of poverty can take away one’s dignity, generosity, or humanity when it is called for." Beautiful. R