Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yep, the rich sure are different

I don’t watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch, I religiously avoid so-called reality shows.

I don’t care who gets voted off the island or thrown out of the house, and I’m hard put to muster much sympathy for would-be chefs who weep in their tureens as they and their deflated souffl├ęs are sent packing.

But my limited viewing schedule does allow for one exception: “Shark Tank.”

It’s not that I particularly enjoy watching five entrepreneurs rip apart wannabe tycoons – and one another. After a while the arguments and insults seem like just so much shtick.

But I like “Shark Tank” because, all bantering aside, it’s educational. I like watching the entrepreneurs’ business minds work and seeing how they analyze proposals, even if at least some of what they say goes a wee bit over my pointy little head. And I like to think that other viewers can learn from the show too; I fear that our current educational systems fall short when it comes to teaching how things work in the real world.

However, there is one thing “Shark Tank” cannot teach me – something I have already known for years:

Rich people love to get free stuff.

If you’ve seen “Shark Tank,” you probably know what I mean. Whenever a would-be entrepreneur’s product is food or hats or whatever – but especially food – the Sharks respond with an enthusiasm that would put Pavlov’s dog to shame.

Especially Robert. Offer him free food and he’ll jump at the chance to eat it but not invest in it. (“These are the best oatmeal cookies/cupcakes/spare ribs/porterhouse steaks in the universe! Unfortunately, I’m out!”) Call him a sharp entrepreneur, call him a shrewd investor, maybe even call him a freeloader, but don’t call him late for snack time.

Yes, rich people love to get free stuff.

But I would like to add what I modestly call Murphy’s Corollary:

Rich people love to get people to do things for them for nothing. That’s one reason why they’re rich people.

I learned this lesson from a distant cousin of mine. I’ll call him Edward.

Many years ago, Edward wrote a letter to my Aunt Helen, who, like me, had never met him. Edward told Aunt Helen that he was researching his family genealogy and mentioned that the two of them were related. Aunt Helen, who at that time was the closest thing my family had to a senior matriarch – if a Roman Catholic nun can be called a matriarch – knew enough about the family to know that Edward wasn’t a fraud.

So she wrote back.

Eventually Edward, a lawyer, invited her to his family’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. Apparently, judging from what I heard about his home and its surroundings, the law business had been very very good to Edward. He also knew some well-known people, including Ethel Kennedy and Andy “Moon River” Williams.

Although I can’t say with certainty that Edward lived high on the hog, I’m sure he had at least one foot in the stirrups.

Edward also became acquainted with my younger aunt, Aunt Dorothy, who was also a nun and who also visited his home and kept in touch with him.

My one encounter with Edward occurred some years ago during the week of Thanksgiving. I had traveled out of town to spend the holiday with relatives, including Aunt Dorothy. Unfortunately, my aunt had taken ill and was in the hospital, but her condition was improving.

When Edward called my relatives to see how Aunt Dorothy was doing, someone told him I was visiting, and he asked to talk to me.

I spent the better part of the next hour (OK, maybe it was only a half-hour, but it sure felt like an hour) answering what I would call a slew of questions about my family – that is, I would call it a slew if calling it a “slew” weren’t such a ridiculous understatement.

What were my brothers’ and sisters’ names? How old were they? Were they married? How old was I? Was I married? And so on. And so on.

The next day I visited Aunt Dorothy in the hospital and told her about my talk with Edward – or, rather, his talk with me. And I told her about the grilling I’d endured.

My aunt was surprised, to put it mildly. She told me that Edward had asked her all those questions some time ago, so why did he put me through the third (or maybe third and a half) degree?

Looking back, I suppose the obvious answer was “because he could,” but I never would have said it out loud because Aunt Dorothy and Edward were on such good terms.

So I would have forgotten about Edward and gone on with my life if it weren’t for one thing.

During the conversation, Edward had also asked me to do him a favor.

When I got back to my hometown, could I try to dig up a couple of things for him?

One of them was a news story about an accident that killed a family member at the state fairgrounds during the 1920s. And Edward also wanted me to try to find this same relative’s immigration certificate.

Edward said nothing about paying me to do this or reimbursing me for any expenses, but I said OK anyway. I was, after all, brought up to be polite.

A few weeks later, I visited my local library’s Local History department and was able to find a story about the fatal accident. That seemed easy enough.

Getting the immigration certificate was more of a chore. It turned out that such records were kept in the basement of the building that was then the county courthouse. I had to go there and find someone to help me look it up. One of the clerks gave me a book that he said contained what I needed, but he nervously warned me to be careful because the paper was old and easy to tear. I got the impression that the slightest rip would cause his supervisor to rip him several new orifices.

I found the certificate – I will say that looking at it did give me a low-grade thrill, considering that it was literally a piece of family history – and I was able to order a copy of it without committing any archival mayhem.

At one point – I can’t remember whether it was before or after I went to the records office – I was walking through the basement when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked me to step aside.

I did so, and then watched as a small parade of prisoners was marched from the jail – there was an underground passageway – to the courthouse. My memory isn’t always reliable, but as I recall they were shackled. I couldn’t tell what they were accused of or how dangerous they were just by looking at them because I simply avoided looking at them. Of course there was always the possibility that one of them would overpower a guard, grab the guard’s gun and hold me hostage.

Yes, I sure hoped Edward would appreciate how I took my life in his hands just so he could graft part of another branch onto the family tree.

Eventually I mailed all this stuff to Edward. As a bonus – and a subtle hint – I enclosed, without comment, a list of professional genealogists from my hometown area. That’s “professional” as in “people usually pay other people good money to have this stuff done, El Cheapo.”

I’ve been racking my brain, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t think Edward ever acknowledged what I did for him, though – my memory again being what it is – maybe he did send a card and I forgot about it. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And I can definitely state that he never sent me any money or other tokens to recompense me for my time and expense.

Not even a “Let me know if I can do something for you sometime.”

Not even an autographed picture of Andy “Moon River” Williams.

So maybe he didn’t think my subtle hint was all that subtle.

But what did I care? Although I didn’t go so far as to check every last follicle each night before I went to bed, I figured that Cousin Edward was now out of my hair, for at least a while.

As it turned out, “at least” was putting it mildly.

A few years later, I was visiting Aunt Dorothy when, just to make conversation, I asked her if she’d heard from Cousin Edward lately.

To my surprise and shock, her face collapsed in tears.

“Cousin Edward died!”

I immediately went into Consolation Mode, mumbling the usual “Gee, too bad, sorry to hear it,” and similar sentiments.

And I must say I’m proud of myself for having enough self-control to not say the first thing that popped into my head when Aunt Dorothy told me Edward had died:

Well, that’s one way to find out about your ancestors….