Friday, October 1, 2021

You Can't Solve Most Problems With Money

This is a followup to my previous posting, "Zen and the Art of Bathroom Renovation", where I wrote:
I'm not saying problems can be solved by throwing money at them. That's completely false.
I'll explain, below, how I first realized this. I hesitate to do so, because it makes me look silly in multiple ways, but I'd rather make myself useful by telling truth than look good.

In "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", an epic series of posts telling the tale of my web company's sale to a major corporation, I explained how the windfall impacted me.
The amount, really, was immaterial. Literally. Below a certain point, publicly traded companies need not disclose acquisition costs. Our price was never announced (and I'm sworn to secrecy) because it was below that threshold. The official term really is "immaterial". It's the businessman's way of saying "pocket change".

Of course, an amount laughably immaterial to the business world is material indeed to a jazz trombonist/freelance writer. If I remained modest in my overhead, I could, post-CNET, enjoy a few years off to handle long-deferred personal maintenance. I would never again be forced to take crap from clueless authorities (which I hate), and could concentrate exclusively on doing quality work (which I love). And I'd be able to afford as many pizza slices and secondhand dvds as I want. Awesome!
Many of my friends assume Chowhound's sale made me a massively wealthy Mr. Howell (and the more I try to dispel the misapprehension, the more certain they become). But here's the thing. Being quite poor (as I was) and becoming dentist rich is far more transformative than going from "comfortably well-off" to "billions". My sensation of wealth, in other words, was indeed massive. So, in a way, my friends are not wrong.

For a freshly-minted billionaire to live up to his new circumstances - i.e. feel a real sense of change - he must add cumbersome elements to his life. That new private 727 won't fly itself. And you'll need to go find a chalet to buy, and add it to the long list of things you worry about. Your "people", who you'd imagine would help you with all this stuff, must be found and hired, and will ultimately disappoint you and mess things up just like the people you and I hire for our more modest needs. Even if you get lucky and stumble into someone flawless and honest and resourceful and perfect, that person won't work for you forever. He wants to go out and become someone like you, not work year after year as your well-paid butler.

My position is much better. When I use a Manhattan parking garage, I get giddy over the privilege and convenience. I can't believe I can afford this. I do not require a plane or a chalet to feel massively wealthy. And, now, having filled in all this background, I'll tell the story of how I realized that throwing money doesn't solve problems. It's a doozy.

The immense cruelty of my new boss became apparent at the moment his company's cash transfered to my checking account. I've explained the aftermath in my work life, but not, until now, in my personal life.

I'd been living in cheap NYC rental apartments in scary areas for my entire adult life. Now I could afford to step up a couple notches. I had to move, anyway. My current landlord needed my apartment for one of his family members, so I had a month to get out.

My deal with CNET did not relieve the immense burden of running Chowhound. All plates would remain spinning, plus there'd be time-consuming interaction with corporate overlords. So my workload actually increased. There was no time to buy a dream home, or even hunt down a more habitable rental. What's more, the overlords wanted me to spend lots of time in California.

I'd be in a state of limbo for the year I was contracted to them, so the smart move was to book a small, cheap apartment for the year, then run screaming from the corporation and attend to life issues such as housing.

I hastily rented a small fourth floor walk-up apartment in a bad part of Queens. This may sound harrowing to you, but it was well within my established comfort zone. I took the apartment so hastily that I forgot to measure rooms and consider fit. It didn't matter. I'd leave most possessions boxed, poised to transfer somewhere nice after the sacrificial year of corporate servitude.

But on moving day, my couch didn't fit. My beloved couch. The only nice thing I owned.

What do you, reader, do in this circumstance? You're standing on a mean street in Corona, Queens in 95 degree summer heat and the movers are bringing your beloved couch back down to street level, and need a decision. I tapped into my poor-guy resourcefulness, but no solution occurred to me. And suddenly I remembered....I was no longer poor. Petty vexations like this were a thing of the past! I could buy my way out of problems like this!

I actually reached for my wallet. I didn't quite pull it from my pocket, but I did reach for it, in a delusional impulse to extract a fat wad of cash, hold it high above my head, and insist that someone fix this, pronto. I'd summon the rich guy helicopter, which would land beside me on 82nd street, and terribly competent fixers would spill out and handle this, albeit at great expense. It made me indignant to think that I, a person of some means, had found myself in this position. Unacceptable! I marinated in my indignation until Louis, the 6'7" mover, tapped my shoulder and reminded me that, bro, we have another job to get to so what do you want us to do with the couch?

"Leave it," I sullenly replied. It was dumped in front of my apartment building, and was gone by morning.

No helicopter ever appeared. There is no helicopter. I was still a shmuck. I'd always be a shmuck. There is no elevation from shmuckdom. One might spend a handsome sum to pretend otherwise, but that's the truth. My huffy elevation lasted a brief three minutes and never reappeared.

Money buys comfort. One can occupy a marginally larger and fluffier airplane seat for a few hours for a couple thousand extra bucks. But money can not, in and of itself, solve most problems.

If Bill Gates really needs to get from First Avenue to Tenth Avenue IMMEDIATELY during Manhattan rush hour, too bad, Bill. You can reach for your wallet, hoist bills, and imperiously scan the sky for a Rich Guy Problem Resolution Helicopter, but you'd be wasting time better spent hopping in a cab. Even better: the subway, which is faster. Bill Gates, in that position, cannot do better than the subway.

I've never lost touch with that image of Bill Gates hopping in the subway.

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