“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
IN FIFTH GRADE, my frenemy Garrett and I made an earnest $5,000 bet over who’d be making more money when we were twenty-five. Despite my playground bravado, I was certain I’d be homeless by then. I didn’t care for schoolwork and was so afflicted with the Protestant work ethic that I thought homeless people were simply grownups who hadn’t done their homework over the course of a lifetime. This was, I now see, a very Republican perspective.
Garrett forgot about our bet, but I kept thinking about it. By adolescence, we were estranged: he’d become one of those ruddy preppies, common in Washington, DC’s private schools, who play a good deal of sports and wear their blonde hair neatly parted, doff pressed khakis and a polo shirt when aiming to dress casually. I, meanwhile, was a drug-addled loser—we were called “freaks” by the preppies—with bright orange spiked hair. Still, we went to the same prep school—a kind of ambition-incubator in which everyone is president of his class—so orange hair notwithstanding I (much to my own dismay) remained fixated on our sleazy wager. I thought about it in college, too, and throughout my twenties. In fact, I still think about it.
I think about the misunderstandings within the bet: First, while we were not the first Americans to confuse quantity of money with quality of life, money isn’t even a good substitute for the hazy idea of career “success,” which is, I think, what we were actually trying to measure.
Second, although twenty-five seemed practically middle-aged to us at the time, it turns out that it’s not the ripest marker in adulthood, and is maybe not be the best place to step back for an appraisal of the arc of someone’s professional life.
Methodological equivocations aside, the hard truth is that, at age twenty-five, Garrett demolished me, income-wise. He worked as an investment banker in Manhattan, whereas I was a waiter devoting his spare time to writing short stories that were both overwrought and slavishly derivative.
Fortunately, Garrett and I weren’t in touch anymore. (Good thing; at no point in my adulthood would I have been able to give him $5000.)
Then, around my thirtieth birthday—no thanks to Facebook—I became “friends” with Garrett again. When I got his friend request, I was aghast. I accepted, not wanting to make a scene, but later that night I regaled my actual friends with stories of Garrett, this preppy monster I loathed, who had the gall to befriend me on Facebook—at the time, it was still kosher to be outraged that your “friends” on Facebook weren’t actually your friends.
On the upside, Garrett was no longer a Patrick Bateman-esque investment banker; now, he was a struggling actor in Los Angeles. On YouTube, he could be found acting his heart out in awkward zero-budget digital shorts. My spite faltered once I saw him there on a grassy median somewhere in the San Fernando valley, yelling his lines over the traffic, while a trembling cameraman struggled to keep him in frame.
Here in Seattle, I was still fielding an uninterrupted stream of editors’ rejections. By day, I billed patients for anesthesia in the basement office of Seattle’s only level-one-trauma center—a job from which I’d soon be fired. So it was heartening to discover that Garrett was a failure, too.
The politician extends his hand, smile affixed to his face, and demands that his opponent accept a $10,000 bet. His opponent stammers, unaccustomed to being bullied. The politician remains there, hand extended, smile rigid on his face. Later, on the campaign bus, his wife says people don’t appreciate his sense of humor, and he blurts a sound akin to laughter, but the message laugh now seems to get caught between his brain and his mouth, and then interjects, “Yeah, yeah, I mean, I live for laughter, ha, ha, ha.” And the camera turns away, slightly, involuntarily.
Garrett and I have both—at last—managed to fight our way out of our respective ruts without either of us becoming obnoxiously successful (or, for that matter, wealthy). To my surprise, I’ve found myself rooting for him, in that half-interested way that you root for a misplaced friend who has re-entered the periphery of your consciousness via Facebook. From what I can tell, he’s a fairly busy working actor. Sometimes, when I’m flipping through channels at night, I’ll spot him serving a drink to David Caruso on CSI: Miami, or he’ll be performing CPR on someone in The Good Wife. For most of our childhood, he was pudgy, but he’s outrageously handsome now, movie-star handsome, politician handsome. But he’s also edging toward his late thirties, and his hair is thinning, his face is developing character. In one episode of a bland police procedural called Justified, Garrett was bearded and bedraggled, on death row for killing his wife. The hero of the show ended up, in a stupefyingly predictable end, catching the real killer. At the denouement, an exonerated Garrett exits the prison and the camera lingers on his face and it’s clear he’s been humbled, has learned things the hard way. The hard icy edge he wore throughout our childhood is gone, replaced with real humility. Next time I’m in LA for a few days, I might even look him up, suggest we grab a beer.
The running mate scrubs already-clean pots at an empty homeless shelter while his wife rushes an empty platter to imaginary homeless people. A cameraman snaps a picture and there it is: the moment when reality and satire become indistinguishable. What else is there to say? Still, the politician tries, again and again, to be a man of the people, to mask his own icy edge. But he is forever singing in the wrong key, straining for an authentic emotional tenor, declaring his delight that the trees are the right height and insisting that he loves American cars and, by golly, he was born in Detroit, and—ha, ha—what else… Who knew I could feel pity for such a person? And yet, when I see him—like a panicked extra-terrestrial desperate to appear convincingly human—I just want to reach out through the screen and grasp him firmly, assure him it’s going to be okay. Win or lose, success is inevitable, the world will always be kind to him.