Many Bostonians winter in Palm Beach, even though it is one of the three most insecure places in America (the other two being Beverly Hills and East Hampton, Long Island). Why insecure? Because money first, glamour second. For many of the Palm Beachers, they cannot get over the impression that the people at the next table in the restaurants and the clubs have millions more than they do. It’s a numbers game and it drives people crazy. I thought a 2011 update in the land where Bernie Madoff roamed would be timely as we supposedly come out of the ‘Great Recession’.
I always take the pulse of a resort town by shooting the breeze with service people: cabbies, shopkeepers and waitresses. Then I talk to friends and clients to get the high-end gossip. Our cabbie from the airport told me, “I’m a conflicted guy. Part of me says ‘Bring the rich people down’. Then part of me says, ‘keep ‘em rich so I can make a living.’”
“So how’s biz?” I asked.
“Fair,” the driver said. “Such horrible weather up north, you’d think they’d flock here. But it’s been so difficult getting out, they stay home. If you’re lookin’ for real estate, everything’s forty to sixty percent off from three years ago. At least the stuff under five million. America’s on sale. But I don’t care; I’m just tryin’ to stay alive.”
This theme was echoed, but more positively, by a woman running the small lobby gift shop at our hotel. “How’s biz?” I asked. “Mezza mez,” she said. “We’re not supposed to say that. We’re supposed to say ‘it’s great’. The weather’s great, but business is fair. Better than last year, but still… tough.” She paused. “I’m really in the real estate business. But I’m here to bring in a paycheck.”
“What’s the future?” I asked.
She smiled. “You have to reinvent yourself,” she said. “Do what you have to do. Everything’s in cycles. Give it some time. I’ll be making six figures selling apartments again. Glass half full. But today, can I sell you a bathing suit?”
My wife and I had a dinner on Worth Avenue with Franco, my energy guru, who insisted on ordering an expensive Antinori wine. Franco was a short man, with slicked back blond hair, Gucci’s without socks, and brilliance about geopolitical matters, if you took the highly conservative road.
“It’s over for us,” Franco said. “Unless we get our tails in gear. In Iraq we invested a trillion dollars. And we get nothing. We import fourteen million barrels of oil a day. And we’re consuming twenty million barrels. The dollar’s goin’ down the drain. So you gotta own oil and gas and Canadian tar sands and gold if you own anything at all.” He had a young lady with him, as blond as Franco, not smiling, even though I picked up the tab.
My wife and I, whenever we’re on this island, always find a way to dine with Captain Money. His college classmates gave him this name, claiming that his family ‘owned Cincinnati, or, ‘one of those cities no one ever visits.’ He joined us at one of his watering holes, pink jacket, white linen shirt, Hermes tie loosened a bit around his neck. He pointed to it, “Devil may care,” he said.
“What’s happening in Moneyland?” I asked.
“Here’s what the Bostonian’s down here tell me. One woman from Brookline sat next to me at a party. Half the meal she tells me about taking her dog to a psychiatrist. The other half she’s complaining about not being able to find a cook who can make a decent brown sauce.”
“You’re dumping on that? You live the same way.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “But I inherited money. Her husband made it and they both went lah-dee-dah, the King and Queen. No way to act, if you made it yourself, like out of Masterpiece Theatre, ‘yes, m’lord, yes, m’lady’ People see through that like a window.”
It was high season here. But the stores seemed quiet, salespeople trying not to look bored. The high-end restaurants we never found full and the same was true of most hotels. “Bernie Madoff and the economy are still taking their toll down here,” Captain Money added. “People have lost their houses, parents moving in with children who resent them moving in, resent that the parents lost their eventual inheritance. Money, or lack of it, bringing out the worst in people.” Captain Money sipped at a flute of Prosecco. “Here’s the irony of Bernie, however,” he added. “I went to one of the museums for a reception last night. Big givers have their names all over the rooms. Some of them, most of the money for the art came from distributions from Madoff to the givers. A lot of space on American hospitals and museums should be renamed, ‘The Madoff and Assorted Victims Ward.’ Here’s the deal with most rich people. They want to rub elbows with the guys in the locker bay with them at the country club. Gossip about a hot money guy in the locker bay means whoever listens in, wants in. It’s the eternal quest to be ‘in with the in crowd’”. Captain Money twirled an index finger at a waiter. “Prosecco encore.”
Two last images from Palm Beach; the place my bother-in-law calls “where the tall dogs pee.” Being a school holiday at the time of our story, there were dozens of kids all over the hotel. I saw three little girls no older than twelve our first morning. They each charged a bathing suit. Then candy and designer water at $4 a bottle. Various stations around the hotel offered water free. And they never deigned to notice the woman serving them. No thanks, no notice, jabbering away at the pleasures to come. I saw behavior like this for our entire stay, mannerless, rude, and, my least favorite word… ‘Entitled.’ The young folks will learn a lot in the years to come. Much of it not to their liking.
But as for one of the many revolutions we see around us, on our last day, I was in the biz center, checking emails. I couldn’t get logged on, and the attendant was stumped as well, frustrated. Four little kids were playing on the floor with Gameboys. One was a boy, and he jumped up. “I can get you in,” he said, and I helped him into my chair. Tap, tap, tap, tap, he went… and in I went. “How old are you?” I asked.
“Ten,” he answered. The attendant was so amazed, she never charged me for the computer use. I did my business, logged off and thanked the little boy, giving him a buck.
“That’s it?” He responded. Captain Money. And much of Palm Beach would have been proud.