Chicago, home to Carl Sandburg and Clarence Darrow among other of my heroes, rises and falls simultaneously in public regard, with Obama and Blagojevich in the news. Pat, my best friend in the Army, nearly fifty-five years ago, was also from Chicago. I remember asking whether he had read Studs Lonigan. “Read it?” he said. “I lived it.”
Some time later, during a bull session in the barracks, half a dozen of us were arguing social issues. (Military service, in those days, was not a blot to be kept from the escutcheon; it could even be an asset. Among those who served with me as enlisted men were many college graduates, a couple writers, some teachers, and at least one lawyer.) We got onto the topic of welfare, which even then was a guaranteed dudgeon elevator; the consensus — the opinion of the loudest talkers — was that people needed to work for what they got, that welfare offered too many avenues for fraud, that… well, you get the idea.
Through it all, Pat had remained uncharacteristically quiet. Finally one of the more determined of the reformers (this was a good twenty-five years before Reagan and his welfare-queen routine) asked what he thought. “Better to pay nine chiselers,” Pat said, “than to let one needy person go cold or hungry.” It stopped the argument on the spot, and probably helped set me on my present political course.
Skip ahead fifteen years. I’m teaching high school, and my best friend on the staff is Dick, a determinedly egalitarian man from an elitist background. He and his wife live in inconspicuous comfort, aided to some degree by her quite wealthy family. Dick complains that they are obliged at least twice a year to visit his in-laws, and that, when they do, the daily routine is this: get up in the morning; have breakfast; go shopping; come home for supper; go to bed.
Skip ahead to today. Financial outlook for most people is the worst it’s been for years, arguably the worst in more than seventy years. Are the rich — those who by dint of foresight, luck, or felonious avarice still control liquid assets — are they doing anything to mitigate the pain of those less fortunate?
Last week, Kathleen Fuld, wife of Lehman Brothers C.E.O. Dick Fuld, stopped by the Hermès boutique on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue to buy some holiday gifts. As she paid for her purchases, she vetoed the store’s signature orange bag and asked for a plain white one instead.
It’s become a common request…. Sales associates at this temple of good taste have gotten used to passing out plain white shopping bags to clients eager to hide their $10,000 Birkin habits in the current economic environment.
At Hermès and a handful of other exclusive retailers, “secret shopping” has becoming the winter season’s newest trend. Anyone who can still afford, say, the three cashmere throws at $2,225 each that Mrs. Fuld bought when she stopped by the store that day isn’t likely to advertise it….
“We kind of respect it,” says the sales associate, who’s worked at the store for several years and sees a white bag twice a day now, up from once a month in August. Skipping the trademark citrus bag, with its thick paper, brown cord handles, and logo, Hermès’ biggest spenders are “trying to be discreet.”
Indeed. Since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, Mrs. Fuld has still been a regular client, visiting the boutique once a week and spending $5,000 or $10,000 each time, says the associate. Now, she doesn’t want any one to know.