Monday, July 30, 2012

Two Kinds of Rich: Adventures with Milton S. Hershey and Bobby Flay

Hershey Park (an amusement park in Pennsylvania) and Bobby Flay's restaurant, the Mesa Grill, in New York City, may seem unrelated to you, but to me, they both made statements about the relationship between money and perception to me over the last week.

We did the small family vacation thing this year. We spent two days in Hershey, Pa. There's an amusement park and it is the home of the chocolate company, founded by Milton S. Hershey, way back. It's a cool place to go, just to see a good example of a business that built a town and to take the tour, replete with animatronic, talking cows, that explains how the chocolate is made. But, we are also a roller-coaster-loving family, and some of our faves are in the park.

1st Class Cabin, Titanic
Since we were going small, this year, we shelled out a pretty obscene amount of money to rent a cabana at the park. Doing this made every fiber of my musician/teacher's body tremble with Scroogiosity, but we had saved the money just for vacation, so...what the hay?

The cabana got us a shady place to sit when we needed a break. It also gave us instant access to "The Lazy River" -- no line waits. We got a refrigerator stocked with water. We got "free" towels (I figure they were more like, maybe, thirty dollars a piece). We got a tote bag for "free" towels and a little restaurant stand that was just for cabana people: no waits, and they would bring your food right to the cabana. We also got a "free" soda machine we could use with out "free" souvenir cups.

Rich people do this. I don't do this. I wasn't meant to do this. 

I went to get a soda and a guy was filling the ice for the machine. I waited patiently. Quietly. I have worked in restaurants. I have sweated under the sun, cutting lawns and carrying bricks. I have served people. No biggie. When the guy saw me waiting, he was all. "So sorry, sir...please go ahead, apologies, sir..."

Apologies? Who the hell am I? I'll tell you who I am: a guy who paid an exorbitant amount of money for convenience. I guy who got showered with a torrent of fawning respect because he was perceived (incorrectly) to have a lot of money.

I felt like an ass. I told him to not worry about it and finish what he was doing; I would wait. He insisted.

3rd Class Cabin, Titanic
Later, it started to rain hard in the park. Rides closed and vacationers scrambled for spots under awnings and in shops. We managed to get back to the cabana area to get our stuff when the rain let up and then it started to rain again. We waited -- just the four of us and an employee with a security guard -- under a big  awning at the entrance of the cabanas. A man with his family (a little girl, a baby in a stroller and his wife) scrambled up. He was stopped by the security guard who asked if he could help the man. The man said, smiling under his sopping baseball cap, in these exact words, "I was just wondering if we could take shelter under your awning there." "I'm sorry, sir," he was told. "This is a private area." The man walked, uncomplainingly, off into the torrential downpour, with his family. What, were we on the freaking Titanic?

I didn't stand up for the guy, directly. I suppose I should have. But I did let loose a clear, "Are you f-ing kidding me? The guy can't stand under an awning?" Had the sky not been full of lightning bolts, I would have walked the family right on out. Ridiculous.

I walked away pretty glad that I didn't grow up privileged -- financially, at least; with the idea that having money made me superior. I walked away thinking how lame rich people are and how uncomfortable "moneyed" environments make me feel.

Then, yesterday night, my wife and I went to New York with my sister and brother-in-law to the famous Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's first restaurant. Part of me was thinking, "Well, here we go again. Here I go pretending I'm an Astor." But, you know, it wasn't like that.

I mean, it was expensive, for sure. (I calculated. For instance, I got an appetizer of shrimp tacos. Each one was about two inches long. There were three of them. Each two-inch taco cost me exactly five dollars and thirty-three and one-third cents.) It was expensive, but it was delicious beyond description. You got the creations of a master chef. So you paid for that.

But what you didn't get was snobbery. You could easily miss the place from the street: a little black "M" with "Grill" written under it, over the door. At the bottom of the menus, typed in a standard font: "Chef: Bobby Flay." The waitress was pleasant and funny and she talked to us with polite equality. The service was the service you should get when you pay that kind of money: water glasses never empty -- that kind of thing. But it was never the service of a slave to a master. You get what you pay for, but superiority is not something you can buy at the Mesa Grill. It's all about the attitude, in this case, and I am sure Bobby Flay (laid back as he seems to be) has a lot to do with that paradigm.

So, maybe I could be rich. As long as I don't need to hang with people with "rich" attitudes. But, if it rains, everyone is allowed to shelter under my awnings; and, if the ship is sinking, I won't forget about the people in third class.

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