When I was four years old my mother accidentally taught me everything I’d ever need to know about the divided America of 2013.
The event was a routine visit to a friend’s house, and as a preschooler I had no choice but to tag along. My mother’s friend’s house was lovely – clean and new with long, clear plastic mats that kept feet off the high-low shag in the heavy traffic areas. My mother’s friend was lovely, too, at least as far as I could tell. At my height all I really saw was white go-go boots, tanned thighs that were roughly eleven feet long, and the hem of a baby blue mini-skirt.
“Tommy, take Jimmy out back to play,” she said. I dutifully followed Tommy along the rubber mats and through the back door. Their backyard was a child’s paradise – swings, slides, monkey bars, and a sandbox.
“Come here,” Tommy ordered.
“I want to go on the swings.”
“No, we’re playing cars.” He squatted in the sandbox and dumped out a bucket of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and then he began lining them up like pawns. I reached for one. “No,” he said. I’m doing something.” When he was finished maybe twenty cars sat in a neat row in front of him, tin soldiers with wheels. I’d never met a kid with twenty toy cars. All my buddies had one or two, tops.
“You get one and I get the rest,” he said. I reached for a navy blue hot rod with chrome and pipes and a real driver. A driver! Hot Wheels and Tootsie Toys never had drivers. They were ghost cars, driven only by the omniscient hand of the kid holding them. But this beast had a driver.
“No!” Tommy said. “That’s The Blue Shark. You can’t have it. You can have another car.” On down the line we went: No. No. No. No. When it was all over Tommy had 19 cars and I had a rusty Tootsie Toy fire engine that was missing its wheels.
“It’s broken,” I said.
“So? They’re mine. I don’t have to give you a good one. I don’t have to give you any. They’re all mine.”
I was at a turning point here:
- I could go inside and complain to the go-go boots, but I’d be stooping to the little brat’s level. Essentially I’d be all about getting my way at any cost, damn the consequences.
- I could play with the crappy broken fire truck and let Tommy have his mighty automotive empire until it was time to load up and go home with my dignity intact, and then swear to myself that I'd never treat another kid in that manner.
I chose the latter.
So why am I telling you this Super Seventies Tale of Matchbox Woe? Well, because when you strip away all of the emotion and rhetoric, this is the simple choice that we’re asked to make all day, every day. Sometimes it’s a debate about “job creators,” other times we wrap our greediness in the flag or the Constitution. Sometimes it’s just a question of whether to give a homeless person a buck. Some of us share readily, some too readily, and some convince themselves that they worked hard for their twenty cars so the heck with the rest of you.
This is the fundamental difference between the shallow, contrived, cookie cutter clichés that define left and right: Those lazy weasels on the left just want to take our Hot Wheels, or those greedy bastards on the right want all of the Hot Wheels for themselves.
These are convenient media stereotypes, but they also are powerful manipulative tools. “Don’t you want to be a twenty Hot Wheel kid someday? You can’t be if you keep giving them away to the takers,” the jabberheads say, and some of us fall for it. “Yeah! Down with sharing! Sharing is Socialism! (Hold on a second: Joey! I’m not going to tell you again to give your sister half that donut!)”
I don’t want to live in a nation of Tommys, and I don’t. The overwhelming majority of us play just fine in the sandbox. This notion that Tommyism is somehow good and pure and all-American is absolute nonsense paid for by and delivered by the Tommys. Yes, it’s the American dream to get ahead, no argument there, but not at any cost. History isn’t kind to Tommys. Their legacies bear insulting labels like “Rail Baron” and “Corporate Raider” and “Donald Trump.”
Is it really so bad to cut the other guy a break? Can you pay thirty cents more to buy tube socks from a company that doesn’t hose their employees out of health care by limiting their hours? How about tossing a couple of bucks in the kitty so that those who can’t get by can at least survive?
How about this: If you’re a CEO can you maybe make 50 times the average salary of your employees rather than 325 times? You’ll still have more Hot Wheels than you can ever play with.
I don’t know what happened to the real Tommy, but I know this: My “sharing is a good thing” attitude has persisted for well over forty years, and I live quite comfortably, thank you. I don’t just mean material comfort, mind you, but the spiritual comfort of knowing that my actions don’t need to be propped up with nonsensical justifications or hostility toward the takers who are out to get me.
I also know that when eBay came along I bought my very own Blue Shark, which sits in its original box on my desk. So take that, Tommy, and while I’m at it: I looked up your mom’s mini-skirt. Have a great, greedy day.