I was fortunate to have a chance to talk with my two boys, both now grown, on the occasion of their surprise visit to the art studio on July 4th.
We ordered a couple of pizzas, and spoke of things profound and mundane; not least among our broad ramblings of conversation the challenges of making a living these days, and all others. They spoke of poor people, of those less fortunate than they have been their entire lives, as they wondered aloud what it must be like to face a future uncertain of financial stability.
The time seemed ripe for me to put on my best Dad voice, and tell them stories of their grandparents, and their great-grandparents – people who lived long enough to know them, if not necessarily the other way around – and how for much of their lives these people knew the pain of doing without. Without food, without a home, for a time without community, and how they not only persevered, but thrived in the face of existential challenge.
I told them of my own experience, in the not-so-distant past, when my only source of rent and groceries were on display in a cart where I sat at the mall, trying to learn the business of drawing and selling funny pictures.
It was my practice then not to eat before selling at least one print, and that day had stretched long into the afternoon without a single sale. Well on the way to feeling sorry for myself, it occurred to me, just looking around, that while I may be hungry, I was anything but poor:
All day long I sat in the center of a two story architectural wonder, a glass-roofed crystal palace the size of a small town, with carpeted runways, sparkling fountains and twinkling lights, the temperature-controlled air conditioned with the exotic scents of roasted coffee, cinnamon buns, fresh-baked cookies and expensive perfumes.
The space around my cart was floored in marble and fitted with shining brass rails and finials, with Doric columns thirty feet high, topped by soaring arches of decoratively wrought structural steel festooned with brightly colored banners, tinsel, and holiday ornaments. In the hall around the corner I could find indoor plumbing with sanitary facilities and clean, running water for washing and drinking – all I wanted, at the turn of a handle – with a staff of employees on hand to come in after me and clean up my mess.
Down below, not twenty feet and a magical escalator ride away from where I sat, was a fully outfitted Food Court, complete with servers, whose job was to honor me with an incredible array of international cuisine flavored with peppers, oregano, curry, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger - spices that once cost millions in gold and lives to discover and transport around the globe.
By any measure, ancient or modern, I was the beneficiary of riches historically reserved for kings – far richer, in fact, in that very moment than any king of old could ever hope to be.
My temporary inability to partake of the more savory of these riches was a matter of personal choice, and a condition that was completely within my ability to change.
Anyone living in America today, I told my boys, who slept in a bed the night before and had something to eat the previous day is rich beyond measure. That they enjoy the company of friends and family who care for and delight in them only multiplies their good fortune.
How poor we are that we don't recognize this, every day.