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The Cost of Money

Today I met a man who yelled at me to write about him. He didn't know that I write this column or syndicate a cartoon. He yelled at me figuratively during the pauses between his words. He silently yelled things like Hey, I am an oaf and wouldn't you like to sock me in the nose? I had to listen to the man, however, because I was at work and the customer is always right... in my face.

All of us here in The Acorn distribution zone enjoy at least middle-class status. Many are doing better than that and stopped looking at price tags years ago. Some of us were born into money; others had to make their dough from scratch. There are people here who treat their neighbors like human beings, and there are people who seem to hail Hitler in their delusion of a superior race.

The man I met today is none of the above. He is the most hapless of all people in that he lives on the border of well-to-do, a begrudging spectator. He isn't poor, mind you. He just can't live in the neighborhood for which he has been packed for years. We'll call this chap Harry. (Fourteen Harry's just got on the phone with their lawyers to find out how they might sue me.) Harry is a corpulent man with a horseshoe hairline that he combs over a gaping, sun-beaten bald spot. Harry's breath was merciless, and he had a wart on the edge of his lower lip. He caught me staring at it three times during our conversation.

What defines Harry more than his physical traits, however, is his gluttonous fixation with making money. Like so many beside him, Harry is a businessman, somebody with whom you can't chat because "chatting" is unprofessional. Harry longs to succeed in business something fierce. He wants respect, and he wants stuff by the bushels. He aspires to drive around in a garish sports car and glare at passers-by like they should be so lucky to know him... like he'd remove that lipwart if only the chicks didn't dig it so much.

At my office today Harry began a dissertation about his scheme to beat interstate gambling laws. His plan was to offer a twenty-cent phone card to the public for one dollar, then give away a monthly prize worth forty cents on the dollar so that he keeps the balance, his customers gamble perpetually and the government can't do a thing about it. Harry's speech collapsed from sheer exhaustion, at which point he looked at me with a smug, Alex Trebek smile. I returned it as best I could. Harry repeated the words, "Not a damn thing the state can do about it." He proceeded to open his briefcase and do the math for me on a business card -- in case I didn't believe him. Sure enough, Harry wasn't lying. The numbers all agreed. And "there wasn't a thing the state could do about it."

In truth, I was hardly paying attention. All I could see was a man who never stopped to ask my name or consider any facet of his environment beside what he brought with him, a man driven solely by his desire to do business. Something tells me that Harry is single. Very single. Everywhere he goes he is thinking about his phone card and about leaving the state of Have-Not. He is working when he falls asleep; he is working when he's stuck in gridlock; he is working when he eats (and that means overtime). Harry is a businessman.

And although he left a merciless taste in my mouth, Harry is not all that different from the masses. He just amplifies an unbecoming trait of our society, a cultural lipwart if you will. How many phone card plans have you heard in your life? How many pyramids and 900 numbers? How many parcels of get-rich-quick mail have you thrown away? How many times have you been promised a way out of the rat race? If I had a nickel for every time someone tried to make me rich, I'd be rich. It's like the gold rush never ended in California. Everyone is still hysterically panning for gold, only in other people's pockets.

It was Harry's "harried" pace that finally slowed me down. It was he who made me reflect on this beast called business. Harry made me realize that I only work in the day so that I can return home to the people I love and the time worthy of my passion. Yes, money does facilitate numerous secular processes, but what does that mean in the end? Whether we're rich or poor or en route between the two, we all begin dying the minute we are born. Our precious time should not be wasted on business. We need to mark that point where making a living ends and living begins.

Harry never made genuine eye contact with me, yet he taught me a valuable lesson: Sometimes money is outweighed by its own cost.


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