I'm a pretty fortunate person. I'm not wealthy by any means, though I am surrounded by people who are, at least by my definition. It's pretty strange for me. One neighbour is an MIT professor, the other a lawyer. Next door down, a doctor – and so on and so on, with me in their midst, feeling a bit sheepish. I write books, I tell them when they ask. “You know, when I'm not vexed.”
Then I shake my fist at the heavens, and my neighbours leave me alone thereafter. It's a good system.
The circumstances of my birth would never have led me to become a doctor or lawyer. And I was homeless during my senior year of high school. There were simply too many short-term problems getting in the way of long-term planning. In short, I was far too preoccupied with the basics of survival than, say, giving a thought to career goals.
But here I am in Cambridge anyway. I'm close to MIT, and not far from Harvard. A few blocks away are the offices of Facebook, Google and Microsoft. You see their laminated badges sometimes, hanging from hoodies in Starbucks. This is the new Silicon Valley of Biotech – or so people have been saying for the past decade or so. I bought a ramshackle little house here, back when someone like me could do something like that.
Anyway, one thing I occasionally like to do is have conversations with baby-boomers. They see the world through such rose-tinted glasses! The world's a meritocracy! Climate change is a myth! – I'm telling you, theirs is such a wondrous, idealistic world. And nothing like the pragmatic, gritty reality to which we younger generations have been forcibly acquainted.
When I meet baby-boomers they usually exhibit a tendency to get a bit excited about me on a personal level. Turns out, I seem to embody an almost mythic character that fits perfectly within their collective belief system. It's the money thing. They get absolutely giddy when they learn that I came to the United States with only a few hundred dollars, then worked and saved up enough money to buy a house just down the street from them.
This makes them happy because it seems to confirm something that, well, between you and me, isn't really true. But to your average baby-boomer, the essential focal point is that I made it. After years wasted as a wandering itinerant, going nowhere, being broke and homeless, and being, overall, persona non grata – one day I became landed gentry. I matter now. And I proved the system works! They flush with joy on my behalf because – well, look at me! An immigrant success story! Bootstraps pulled all the way up, and that sort of stuff.
Yes, it's nonsense but I can't tell them that – why spoil their enthusiasm? I mean, yes, it may not matter to them personally that I worked seven days a week for most of a decade, merely to buy a house they could have bought for a thousand dollars in the 1960s, but from my point of view it doesn't feel like much of a victory. The process of saving up for a deposit really sucked – for a decade! I spent those years not hanging out with friends and not going on vacations. Spending the least amount of money possible might sound noble, but it's not – as someone who has done it, I can testify that it's rubbish and people shouldn't have to live that way.
Suddenly, I'm reminded of the time I found myself on a plane next to an old guy who told me that I was precisely what America is all about. It was nice. He was approximately fifth-generation upper middle class. He hadn't worked for a few decades, though he was still ‘on a few boards’, whatever that means. He owned a couple of residences, inherited, of course, and these days he spent a lot time going back-and-forth between Europe. But – and this is the main thing – my sacrifice of time and youth and energy had really inspired him. He was proud of me. I wasn't like those other immigrants who are lazy, he said, a little angrily. I didn't know who he was talking about at first, then I realised he meant lazy people from all over the world, who inherit multiple residences and haven't worked in decades. The old boy was really bent out of shape about them, too. I presume it was because they never pay any tax.
But unlike that optimistic old bloke on the plane, I don't truly believe in ‘feel good, follow-your-dreams’ mushy fairy-tales, not when it comes to bootstraps and hard work. Hard work just kills people and ruins lives. Nobody who has worked like a dog wishes it on others. That's just malice, plain and simple. I want everyone to have an easy, peaceful life – which isn't a political opinion so much as a hope derived from the basic fact that I generally like people.
And I like Cambridge, too, at least for the six months out of every year when you can actually go outside. And if I ignore the escalating cost of living – which is complete nonsense, by the way. Actually, now that I have my critical thinking hat on, there is a contingent of very wealthy people who want me to leave Cambridge, but otherwise … wait – wait a moment. Have I not mentioned the investors before?
Well, it turns out that wealthy investors are thick on the ground in Cambridge, and they're particularly keen to get to know me, apparently. It's … somewhat awkward at times. They send me letters indicating that they want to pay cash for my house. And I don't even know them, though sometimes I google them, just to find out what they look like. And you know what? Every single time I do that it turns out that the investors are in their early 20s and, for reasons that I've never been able to adequately explain, have wet, slicked-back hair. And they're baring their teeth maniacally at the camera, like they're trying to stare down an agitated bear and it isn't working.
But as I'm indicating, I worked pretty hard to buy this ramshackle little house. And now these recent graduates of Boston College who, in their list of ‘Hobbies and Interests’ on their websites, include words like sailing and lacrosse, are reaching out to me with exaggerated friendliness. It's a little unfair, is what I'm saying.
I've been getting so many of these spam-ish texts from them lately that I'm wondering if they're doing okay – you know, on an emotional level. Though it maddens me that they know my first name, my street address, my phone number – which I change all the time and give out to never more than, like, five people ever – but it seems they're really interested in “developing their real estate portfolio” and could I please get in touch?
Now, it's Christmas here so I thought I'd do the nice thing and send one of them a message today. Here it is, verbatim.
“Hi. Yeah sure, but just so I know you're making a serious effort here, can you pick up some fruit mince pies and drop them off at my house? Twenty will do. You know my address, evidently. If you do this for me, I'll know you're serious and we can sit down and have a discussion.”
Now, fruit mince pies come in boxes of six. That's three boxes, plus one extra that would have to be opened and have four pies removed. If I don't receive precisely twenty, I'll know that they're not effective communicators. By which I mean, they obviously ‘lack essential reading comprehension skills’, and I can tell them that – you know, with a mouthful of fruit mince pie.
Unfortunately, there is only one place to buy fruit mince pies in Boston, and that's Cardullos in Harvard Square. And usually at this time of year they're sold out by now. But this should provide only a minor annoyance to any wealthy investor looking to “develop their real estate portfolio”.
By the sound of their messages, they're going to be thrilled to hear from me. The way I see it, I'm making their Christmas a bit brighter. Still, I'm not going to sell my house – especially not to wealthy investors with slicked-back hair who spam me – but I am rather interested in receiving fruit mince pies, especially for the price of texting a few short sentences.
So I suppose what I'm saying here is that Christmas can be a special time for everyone. It's really what you make of it, I suppose.
Wishing you the happiest of holidays,
December 25, 2019 Cambridge, MA