As the holiday season enraptures New York City, the Idle Rich come out to buy and play — and I wonder what it is about Winter that especially brings out their public braggadocio and bling more than usual.  Is it the cold weather that gives them the opportunity for the wraparound advertisement of exclusive leather and endangered fur — along with an outrageous hat?  Do cooler temperatures lead to a greater layering of clothing that provides even more ample opportunity to adorn and separate while prancing?

You can always identify the Idle Rich by their elbows — and by the attitude that becomes them while they’re wearing their hardly-earned, and under-worn, wares. They are always accoutred with gaudy rings and watches and other assorted dangling bangles.  They are toodled around in large limousines.  They also tend to sigh a lot for no reason in particular.

I am not the only one to notice this display of wealth and indemnification-from-poverty-by-birthright; in 1914, Stephen Leacock wrote the germinal, and terribly funny, book — “Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich” — and he better totes them up the flagpole 96 years ago than I ever could now:

The street in the softer hours of the morning has an almost reverential quiet. Great motors move drowsily along it, with solitary chauffeurs returning at 10.30 after conveying the earlier of the millionaires to their downtown offices. The sunlight flickers through the elm trees, illuminating expensive nurse-maids wheeling valuable children in little perambulators.

Some of the children are worth millions and millions. In Europe, no doubt, you may see in the Unter den Linden avenue or the Champs Elysees a little prince or princess go past with a clattering military guard of honour. But that is nothing. It is not half so impressive, in the real sense, as what you may observe every morning on Plutoria Avenue beside the Mausoleum Club in the quietest part of the city.

Here you may see a little toddling princess in a rabbit suit who owns fifty distilleries in her own right. There, in a lacquered perambulator, sails past a little hooded head that controls from its cradle an entire New Jersey corporation. The United States attorney-general is suing her as she sits, in a vain attempt to make her dissolve herself into constituent companies. Near by is a child of four, in a khaki suit, who represents the merger of two trunk-line railways. You may meet in the flickered sunlight any number of little princes and princesses far more real than the poor survivals of Europe.

Incalculable infants wave their fifty-dollar ivory rattles in an inarticulate greeting to one another. A million dollars of preferred stock laughs merrily in recognition of a majority control going past in a go-cart drawn by an imported nurse. And through it all the sunlight falls through the elm trees, and the birds sing and the motors hum, so that the whole world as seen from the boulevard of Plutoria Avenue is the very pleasantest place imaginable.

How do we feel about those sorts of clear displays of in-your-poor-face wealth?  Should we be ashamed of our denatured stock in life?  Or should we feel embarrassed for the Idle Rich who have nothing better to do with their time than to prance and pose?

Should wealth ever be inherited?  The many people I know who live off of Trust Funds — and who have miserably never had to work a day in their lives — are all fragile and quick-to-anger and full of a melancholy “do-nothingness” that defines their unreliable lives more than the silver spoon stuck in their pocket.

3 Comments

  1. I lived in New York City for at least half a life and now, after my return from several years living abroad, it seems like a life half lived for the idle rich (and so many others).

    I suppose my heart and soul wants to extend the tea and sympathy needed for the ignorance in the sometimes flashy ways certain of the financially unencumbered have, that can be seen in their ‘if you can make it there, you’d make it anywhere’ mentality and the flaunting of general wealth.

    At his time of year especially, with new cheer to spread and a new year to bend to their collective will. Well, they do seem busy, don’t they? All that sighing is probably weight of all the gaud. And you already mentioned the clothes, yes, the numbers are with the fat cats in more ways than one. Cat is fatter in winter fully clothed and bejeweled.

    Yet, I choose to believe that ignorance and being out of touch with themselves and others the cause for so much self-absorb-tion on the part of these types. In the age of Leacock we had quite a different class system and academy learning. Now, well, just about any Joe is a fat cat, the spectrum of background is so vast. The observation though is still valid. It is another world, but back then, interception by guards and strictly defined urban boundaries, and now, rich are anywhere and anything at any time. That throws us off. Throughout history it has been a bit different, the contact with the rich. I do not think we are meant to see it, as it reinforces the media message that we should be consuming and indulging at quite a grander scale than we do now.

    Welcome to the habitrail of marketocracy, so that some who observe these rich, as you so observed, will be tempted to max out their credit cards to try and get a piece of that idle rich feeling, or shake fists with rage at the injustice, and others who simply observe or try to interact with them as the case warrants. I guess I aspire to, or find myself in the latter, others. After all, everyone is fun to make fun of. If you don’t admit to that then you’re lying.

    Besides, I could never bring myself to judge the ignorant. Your post from September 18, 2008 may lend further proof to my argument that technology ramps up this tromping around of conspicuous consumption. [http://urbansemiotic.com/2008/09/19/the-mechanization-of-memory/]. That was the first article on this blog that I read before I was drawn to comment and publish on this post. (You were the number one hit for ‘semiotics and Nancy Grace’ by the way. This furthers my theory that Google is not an information miracle worker.) If that seems random, please do not be offended. I am very glad to have landed, just when I was considering more writing.

    My only response to the memory post is a poem I wrote along the same theme as a requiem for this insufferably confusing and crushing year (see “O’ 2010, ‘O’!” on my poetry blog). I felt like everything was at stake here, only to be confounded that morals are fast losing ground to something we have been sold lock, stock, and barrel as ‘how things now are’ including technology. And now add the idle rich, to that philosophical mix, if you will.

    Still, maybe my comment will lend some color to your observations, and mine. Because for the idle rich there’s text messages to send, and stuff to buy. We are in quite the national crisis and I prefer to think of these people as ‘economic patriots’. That is, when they aren’t so ostentatiously walking down their own reality show runway in New York and New Jersey.

    I secretly want them to spend as much money as they care to. Spend all of it if they like. They number so few that libraries and schools may depend on their wallets more than ever. Yes, I would like it if they saw the consequences of what they are spending it all on, so furs and leathers and ‘gaudy’ jewelry may not be the thing to concentrate on to see what many other free thinkers in society are commenting so voraciously on.
    Ignorance is bliss, and so it is blissful with them. Call it an ignorance of ignorance, so they must be ‘doubly blissed’, right?

    My two remaining points to this perspective: Remember the non-idle rich who make it scrupulously certain that when they go out in New York, that they are never to be seen by you or me, the rich who don’t quite push their impatience or sighs in your face, and may be at home and work splashing around some millions for philanthropies and projects to give back something to society.

    Though to be honest, the most impressive type of philanthropy for me, by far, is the mobile home living librarian who left a million to a college at her death and 1.3 million of her family money while living. [http://www.fox5sandiego.com/news/kswb-mobile-millions-librarian,0,5112108.story]. She definitely did not live a life unplugged.

    1. Thank you for your fantastic comment, Albert. I appreciate your insight and otherworldly connections! I don’t remember ever writing about “Nancy Grace” — but I’m happy you found us whichever way you happened to land here.

      I see on your blog you live in Jersey City. Where do you work as a librarian?