A Victim of Spiritual Poverty
I hope I never forget him, a 12-year-old boy in New Orleans whom I got to know in the 1960s, as that city struggled with the turmoil of school desegregation. But that child was white, went to a fancy private school, and was the much-loved son of extremely rich parents. No racial crisis bore down on him, as it did on the much more vulnerable white people of that interesting old port city, not to mention the blacks who lived there in such substantial numbers. The boy already had a sense of himself — “an air of importance about him,” as one of his teachers put it. When I came to visit his parents, and hear what they thought — the father was an exceedingly influential lawyer who had taken a strong interest in the progress of school desegregation — the boy would inevitably appear, approach me, and tell me (whether I asked or not) what he had on his mind. Often his comments took the form of admonitions, caveats: didn’t I know that “the colored” are not “reliable,” or “don’t always speak so you can understand them”? When I disagreed with him, or even gently challenged him, he got huffy: I’d find out, eventually, the truths he already knew.
I kept in touch with him over the years (the 1960s and 1970s) and I did find out certain truths what it was that characterized much of his life. They were truths he was quite willing to share with me — as in this self-regarding series of observations, made when he had turned 16: “I hate these long spring vacations. We’ve been everywhere! We just keep going back to places! My mother likes to see those ruins in Mexico. My father likes to go out West and ski. They fight over where to go. I just like a swimming pool in a hotel, near the ocean, with lots of different restaurants and a good tennis pro. If I have my way, I’ll be the best tennis player in the world. I’ll play all the tournaments! I have a pro here, but he’s not good enough. I think I’ll outgrow him soon. I don’t like tennis camps: too many people! I like a good game with a pro who knows how to teach, but isn’t too pushy.
“I don’t know what I’d like to do when I’m older. I wouldn’t mind ‘real estate development.’ I’m not sure what it is, but I hear my father’s friends say you can make two or three extra fortunes in it, if you’re savvy. If you’re not [savvy] you have no business in it [real estate development]. I don’t just want to sit on my inheritance; I know that. You’ve got to keep your assets growing, or you’ll slip back. There’s always some dude coming down the pike, ready to shove you aside and take the lead! I’d like to be up there, out in front — that’s my ambition!”
In his 20s he was no less determined to “keep up there,” as he’d often put it. I had known him long enough to be able to joke with him, even push him hard about his ideals and values. He is a good-natured person, and quite generous to his friends. He is also practical, earthy, and in certain respects quite unpretentious — a contrast, I often realize, with some of us politically liberal academics, whose assertively declared compassion for others is all too evenly matched by our showy self-importance, and our gossipy delight in dismissing anyone who happens to have the slightest reservations about one or another of our chosen “causes.” Not least, he has continued to be ambitious: “I’d like to get a new business going — something different from all others! I’d like to see my business grow and grow, and then I’ll be way up there, and my friends will pick up a copy of Fortune or Business Week or The Wall Street Journal and they’ll see me. You’re only here once, and you have to prove yourself. If you don’t, then it’s your loss. If you don’t, you have no right to be belly aching about someone who’s gone and done something and got someplace. Why are people so mad, because a guy goes and makes himself a success out of life?
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