So last night I metroed half of my worldly possessions across DC to store in a friend’s basement. After I dropped off my suitcase, backpack, and a cardboard box of boardgames, I remember thinking “Now I have nothing. No wait. My remaining possessions still cost more than what a billion people earn in a year.” I took an inventory. I had my kindle (the $200 version), my cheapo Chinese semi-dumb phone ($30), keys, a wallet with $80 (an usually high amount for me), And the clothes on my back (probably around $100 worth). I am a very lucky person, to be able to have nothing and yet my nothing is worth so much.
But Life is not without a sense of human, er, I mean humor. On the way back I ate a burrito at Chipoltle and was reading my kindle when some teenager comes along and asks, “What is that thing?”
“Uh, you mean the kindle?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
Now I’m used to getting tis question in Kenya but never in DC. “I’m reading a book on it.”
“Does it have a touch screen? Can you get on the Internet?”
“No, I use these buttons to turn the page. It’s not a phone, and you don’t use it for the Internet. You just read books on it.”
“How much is it worth?”
“You can buy one across the street for $70.”
Then the kid next to him turned to me and mumbled something.
“What? I didn’t understand you, I said.”
“I’ll give you $600 for that. You wanna see my money?”
“No. Why don’t you just go buy one in Best Buy. They’re still open!”
“I don’t wanna walk over there. I’ll pay you $600 for it.”
“I don’t want your money.”
He looked baffled. I was baffled too. He seemed really interested in showing me his wad of cash, and in any equipment I had.
“You wanna see my 6 <bookz? wasn’t sure the word>?”
“What’s a <bookz>?”
“It’s a big stack of bills.” [Whatever his word was, I couldn’t decipher it using the internet and the uban dictionary. But this post was interesting and related]
“I can show you $10,000 right here.”
“I’m not interested in your money,” I said, turning back to my book and burrito.
“I’ll pay you $600 right now, in cash, if you give me that thing.”
“I’m not interested in money. I wouldn’t sell my kindle for any amount.” Yes, I meant it too.
He was utterly surprised. The kindle wasn’t so important or valuable, but I was in the middle of a good book and wasn’t about to give up my books. I also assume anyone offering way too much money has got some scam figured out (counterfeiting, or using my Kindle credit card to take even more money from me).
“You got a smart phone?”
“You’re really interested in my equipment,” I said, laughing. “Sure, I got a $30 cheap chinese phone.” I took it out and talked him through all its wonderful features. Dual sim, unlocked, and I can get all the text messages I want from Kenya for free on it.
We wasn’t interested.
Eventually the two of them split, obviously disappointed I wouldn’t sell any of my equipment even for ten times what it cost. I felt awkward with no witty things to say back to these preposterous questions and offers. Like, most people would have taken the money no questions asked, but I had absolutely no interest in any amount of money, if it was offered in this way from a complete stranger who knew nothing about a kindle in a world where everybody knows everything about kindles and ipads. If it doesn’t compute and isn’t rational, I don’t care what kind of money someone offers – it is ill-gotten-gains at best or part of a scam to defraud me at worst. So in the worst case scenario, the other guy is playing me for the fool, by acting like such a fool himself.
I wished I’d said this: “You and I are alike. We both don’t care about money. If you did, you wouldn’t be offering me so much of yours for something you can buy new across the street.” But I don’t always think of the best things to say on the spot.
Some clear racial stereotypes surrounded my mental process of making sense of this episode later. Here you have two kids in the city with ridiculous amounts of money trying to throw around cash for stuff they claim to have no knowledge about. What else am I suppose to think? That they are not drug dealers? It’s so stereotypical it could have come from TV. I had wanted to turn the conversation in the direction of encouraging the moneybags kid to broaden his worldview. I mentioned the Kenyan cell phone number deliberately to try and start a conversation about whether he’d ever left the country, or even the city. Neil Degrasse Tyson once talked about growing up in Brooklyn and never seeing the country. These kids (ages 17-20) are probably no different.
Or I gladly would have discussed it if they’d asked “what are you reading?” instead of “what is that device and does it do X,Y and Z?” Whatever these two experienced in the past, they are very much a product of a culture that looks at devices and not ideas now. Capabilities are provided by products, and designed by invisible people who shape our capabilities. The designers are my kind of people; the consumers, not so much. I was actually reading about using evolutionary processes to optimize algorithms – a topic about building impossible and invigorating new stuff, not consuming stuff spawned by some other person’s idea. And even that $10,000 wad of cash was the child of someone else’s ingenuity, most likely. The first drug dealer was creative. The Nth one is just a factory worker in an assembly line life waiting to be told what the next big thing is.
I share this not because I am good person – but quite to the contrary – it makes me more aware of my internal assumptions: If someone half my age approaches me with wads of cash and no curiosity about anything beyond the financial value of devices, they are probably up to no good (and possibly a drug dealer?). I share this because the episode defies a explanation explanation, and maybe you have one.
In this moment I was certainly “minding my own business” in a restaurant I eat at every week, having just gotten rid of my stuff. I found I still had stuff that was worth way more to other people than to myself. I wonder if the kid with all that cash can even conceive that his $10,000 is fifty times more than what the poorest two billion people earn in a year, and how lucky he is…