Signs of wealth

Since I have to work on Sunday, my sister Abby said we should take my dad out for a Father’s Day dinner tonight. So I drove up to Concord to meet them for dinner. I wanted to go to the Barrow Bookstore, one of the best places to find used books on Transcendentalism, so I got to Concord before they closed, which left me with two hours to walk around the town. And, although I lived there up until five years ago, I was forcibly struck with how wealthy the town appeared. I know that the average family income is something like US$120,000. But, I asked myself, what were the visible signs of wealth in the town? I came up with five visible signs of wealth:

(1) No one I saw appeared to be particularly overweight or painfully thin. If you’re on food stamps, you buy cheap calories which tend to bulk you out; if you’re so poor you can’t even get food stamps you get very thin and wiry.

(2) I didn’t see anyone missing any teeth, no one at all. Everyone seemed to have access to excellent dental care.

(3) Nearly everyone, with only a few exceptions, looked trim and fit. People who do physical work get shaped by their work (e.g., when I worked for the carpenter, my right side was bigger than my left); or they may show the damaging effects of their work. But the people I saw in Concord looked evenly-shaped, very clean, with no obvious damage to their bodies; the trimness and fitness that comes through working out in a gym.

(4) The houses mostly looked to have been painted within the past five years, and very few houses had vinyl siding. Many of the houses were painted in more than two colors, e.g., one house with siding painted a dusty rose color, trim boards darker pink, window casings medium green, doors and windows dark green, porch railings off-white, black highlights here and there.

(5) The landscaping around most of the houses looked professionally done. Professional landscapers use bark mulch and mechanical edging tools freely, they don’t sharpen their lawn mower blades often enough, and there is a uniformity to everything they do.

As I walked around the town center, I passed one house that caught my eye because it did not look like the others. Instead of new, bright paint, it was clad with weathered cedar shingles and boards. Trees and shrubs and grapevines came together to make a shady inviting space, and the ground was covered with carefully laid pea stone. The house had unique and delightful details: a beautiful half-round window, probably handmade on site, each small pane reflecting light slightly differently; a delicate roof line on the sheltering eave over a door; a simple but inviting railing on a porch.

“She can’t still be alive,” I muttered to myself. Twenty-five years ago, I knew the carpenter who did all her work for her. He was a real craftsman, one of the few in town, and he told us about her. Madame would ask him to do something, then when he was done come back and say, in her French accent, “Oh, no no no no no, Bill, no not like that,” and Bill would listen to what she wanted changed, and take the just-finished work out, and do it again until it was perfect. He said he never minded because Madame was polite about it, she paid him by the hour not by the job, and besides it sounded as if they liked each other. He swore she was the richest person in Concord, by far — she was one of the Rothschilds, although she had a different last name — and she only spent a couple of months a year in the town, living in her many other houses around the world the rest of the year. She must have been so much wealthier than anyone else in Concord that by her standards they must have seemed no better than the working poor.

She must have been over seventy then; she couldn’t still be alive now. I should add that Bill died on Independence Day two or three years ago.