Rick Burstein tells Charlie’s story.
Charlie works as a political donations lobbyist for the Democrats in Western Springs, Illinois, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the state. The median income, taking in over $100,000 p/a, with a populace of an estimated 13,000 people, the concentration of that wealth is spread to a few thousand; and, thus, we have some idea of the heights of income in this area. Charlie also explains, since it is his business and livelihood, that ‘income’ is only a margin of the wealth in Western Springs. His work entangles him into the wealth that hovers below the surface of “blunt metrics” such as income.
“Part of the appeal of making a donation into my fund is that the receipt can go toward the exemption of certain taxes. The opportunity we aim to exploit is that the wealthy always want to hide the appearance of cash-cash.”
Charlie was hired into the role without any relevant prerequisite qualifications; he studied art history at Columbia so, in effect, it qualified him as a ‘democrat’, but that was all. Charlie was hired into picking up donations in Western Springs merely because he was one of them. Much like with their wealth, the people of Western Springs conceal a lot about themselves to outsiders. Charlie’s father was an engineer for the military before being headhunted by the motor industry in 1998. He had worked with GPS technology during Desert Storm and provided assistance to the U.N. on several missions in Africa during the 90’s. The car industry was now ready to put GPS technology into their mass-produced cars and Charlie’s father was one of the chief engineers to integrate the technology.
So Charlie grew up in Western Springs among the families of Illinois wealthiest, of which his father was a middle-bottom individual. He didn’t own factories, nor did he own copyrights and trademarks on essential drugs that were needed all over the world. Charlie considered himself fortunate to have a father who didn’t have to hide how he made his money:
“And I don’t mean in that they would lie to their own children about how they have millions running through their accounts. I genuinely mean that they, without accountants and bond holders and lawyers, do not ‘fully’ grasp it themselves. Also it’s very typical of this neighbourhood to talk about money problems and downplaying the capital. So people are wary of explaining too much to their kids, because their kids might say too much.”
Charlie was tapped up by the democratic party, who had struggled to get a foothold onto the potential donations sitting in Western Springs. For Charlie, most doors in the neighbourhood were open to him, he knew what concerned the parents of his friends. He also had access to the highly-exclusive social events of the neighbourhood. In the summer, the Western Springs community throw parties and events to their clique. A chance to interact, and pick up the gossip, not to mention tips on potential products and stocks that could be shooting up. On top of this, it was an opportunity to show the progress of their mansions – Charlie explains:
“Every house is like the Winchester Mansion, not haunted, just under permanent construction. So the parties will always include a ‘status’ tour of the latest developments, which have to show what was promised the year before; it’s a great shame to see if a fountain idea promised the previous summer has been abandoned. The whole thing is a one-person-show, the suffering visionary at war with their sycophant architects and the bruising unimaginative construction managers. The construction of these houses are pitched as a story of adversity. It’s gross but, no matter how much one would want to discredit this, it is the ‘culture’ of the neighbourhood.”
Charlie worked the parties for a few years, picking up helpful donations for the Democrats. He knew how people in the neighbourhood worked, he knew what would incentivize them to want the Democrats in office.
“When you’re stood with them, beside their own kitchen island, drinking a cocktail and explaining how a tax break benefits them only marginally compared to a progressive policy, the ‘super-wealthy’ understand the nuance. If you leave the argument to TV, then people get convinced that the right wing’s promise of somehow eliminating the things that they are afraid of, is more effective.”
The Hendry’s in the corner
Charlie noticed the Hendry’s at the party of the Bennett family. He had never seen them before, it was common for the occasional newcomer to attend the parties but often they would seem more synchronized to the community. The Hendry’s did not belong, and they seemed to know it themselves. No one was really talking to them, nor were they evidently keen to mix. They were sat near the bar in near silence – only occasionally making an utterance to one another that, as far as Charlie could read from body language, was a shy inquiry if they were ‘okay’ and if they wanted to stay any longer.
Charlie circled them, intrigued. His impression of why they seemed such an ill fit for the event was unexpected.
“New people at these parties is not uncommon. And for new people to be a bit shy is something that happens a lot. But, I know this might seem horrible to the uninitiated, they were both overweight. You could turn up to this event in Cost-Co shorts and sandals, and you’d be seen as some dot-com billionaire… like, crude but not suspicious.”
They were unknown. They were relatively young, the man in his early thirties perhaps and the woman a little younger. And they were overweight, not obese, not even fat but they were both soft, pasty complexions, their posture was not just shy but defensive: neglectful to their bodies, uneducated to the basics of personal vitality – poor.
After the party, Charlie made some investigations into the couple. They had purchased one of the biggest mansions in Western Springs – Red Vale. They had moved in almost a year ago but had barely ventured out until the party. As Charlie investigated among the people living around Red Vale, there were many suspicions. They were called Hendry, and had moved to Western Springs from San Francisco, thus assumptions were made that they were from Silicon Valley, but inquiries to contacts in the Valley proved that there were no significant billionaires going by the name of Hendry.
Charlie decided to pay a visit. The husband, Steven, was a pleasant host and a lifelong democrat. They discussed politics in his yard – which Charlie noted was being neglected. Steven wrote up a huge donation and handed it to Charlie after their first meeting. It was strange for Charlie, Steven was not interested in discussing anything but politics.
“He was a smart, articulate guy. His politics may have been considered more ‘left’ than people in the neighbourhood would accept, so I figured maybe he wanted to keep it quiet.”
It was only when he cashed the check that he received a call from a San Fran-based lawyer:
“It was one of those great neutral-threatening calls that lawyers are so adept at giving. It was like a Cobra standing upright with its wings fanned out. What was this donation about? Which candidate do you represent? How long have you known Mr. Hendry?”
It was a barrage of questions that lead Charlie to only one possible conclusion, whatever the money was that Steven had, it appeared not to be completely his. He was not perturbed by this, Charlie did not see this as Steven deceiving – but he felt obligated to hand the check back personally and advise him of what had happened. This second meeting took place in Steven’s lounge, last time Charlie had no been inside the house. Now he could sense a tragedy. The walls were mostly blank, the Hendries had not really made any attempt to re-design the house, not even to furnish it fully. Couch was clearly one of Ikea’s cheapest models and it was pushed up against the wall in the darkest corner of the room. At the foot of the couch was an empty bottle of cheap wine and some tissues. As Charlie explained the phone call from the lawyer, Steven nodded his head sagely. His eyes rolled with embarrassment, knowing he should have realized.
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of his wife arriving home in the car, the tires rolling over the crunchy pebbles, followed by silence. The two men waited for her to enter; waited for the steps over the gravel; waited for the car door to shut. But none of that happened. Steven cleared his throat and headed for the door.
They found his wife asleep in the car. It was a self-driving car. She had clearly fallen asleep on her way back from the store. Gently, Steven woke her and walked her back into the house. As she staggered by, Steven holding her up, she regarded Charlie and smiled weakly. To Charlie, there was something broken about all this. Two people, seeming distraught, rolling in piles of money that they did not appear to control fully.
On the refrigerator, he saw a child’s drawing on the refrigerator; he’d not seen any sign of a child in the house. The name signed at the bottom was just about legible; a few of the letter were facing the wrong direction, but the name seemed to be George Palmer. Steven came back down and apologized to Steven for all the trouble. Charlie assured that it was not a problem and gave Steven his personal cellphone number. Outside, the self-driving car door was still ajar, and would probably stay that way for a while.
When Charlie got back he called a friend in the Valley to see what there was about George Palmer. His friend, told him that was ‘old news’. George Palmer was hit and killed by a self-driving car around 6 years ago, when they were testing them around the Bay area.