Perhaps I was six or seven years old. I’m not sure. It was at the Standard Club in downtown Chicago around 1960. There was a magic show for the children while the adults socialized. I was sitting on the floor with the other kids watching the magician pull rabbits out of hats. I was terrified. I was terrified I’d be called upon to assist after it became clear he was picking kids to help. I’d made a strategic blunder by sitting toward the front. Show over, I was deeply relieved I’d made it through without having to stand in front of all the sitting kids and risking being laughed at for being stupid.

I loathed front rows. My goal in groups was to be invisible.

My grandparents were members of country clubs and the downtown Standard Club. My mother’s mom and her husband lived in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side and so traveled to Ravisloe in the southern suburbs to relax with friends. Dad’s parents lived in the northern suburb of Glencoe and frequently took my sisters and me to Lake Shore Country Club farther north down Sheridan Road. Lake Shore Country Club had a swimming pool and a hay ride near the golf course. The very hairy pool guy, named Mr. Panther, taught me how to swim. They made cheeseburgers at the cabana by the poolside. Sometimes there were fireworks. Members of the club were exclusively German Jews. The help were Polish, Latino and black.

I was provided a front row seat on how this subset of the wealthy thinks and lives.

Sitting in my best clothes for some event, my grandmother in hushed tones would whisper the names of CEOs and their corporations as dour, balding, overweight men paraded by. I was encouraged to be awed. Didn’t I want to follow my dad, build the family business and be a corporate head?

In hushed tones on numerous occasions, when my parents weren’t around, I was guided to consider sharing Grandma Myrla’s unique world view.

“Jews are the worst anti-Semites.” She whispered this opinion while describing her distain for the bearded, what she perceived as darker-complexioned, Russian Jews. I was invited to share her prejudice while she noted that it was, indeed, a prejudice.

“We respect old money. New money we don’t pay attention to. We are old money.” My grandmother’s father became wealthy printing flyers for Sears and Roebuck and other Chicago firms. My grandmother was old money because it was money she had inherited. The distinction made little sense to me until later, when I realized that the Chicago area’s German Jewish population arrived about a generation before the Russian Jews. In the 1950s, most Russian Jews hadn’t been here long enough to inherit wealth.

My father was a real maverick Republican. He adored westerns, bowling, camping, gadgets and TV–loved Reagan and Goldwater–and worked six days a week running the small, half-floor, West Side family girdle and bra factory. He refused to join the country club. He consciously and unconsciously rejected much of what his parents represented for him. He spurned those things that had to do with respect for arts, religion, liberal politics, flaunting status and wealthy friends. My dad pretty much withdrew from anything his mom embraced. I was not encouraged to think much of what happened at the clubs. I was not encouraged to listen to his mother.

So I focused on the food. Almost all my fond memories of my grandparents’ country clubs revolved around the meals. I remember gold brick sundaes, lobster, shrimp, cheeseburgers on the cabana and homemade potato chips.

We all sit in the front row of our own lives, observing the unique show that is the culture that we live in. Having witnessed family and strangers playing wealthy, I am struck by how difficult it is to perform the role. I don’t mean it is difficult to be rich. What I mean is, like the magician finding rabbits in hats, the wealthy derive astonishing benefits standing on the stage of their society while behaving like their actions don’t have repercussions for those without the benefits of country clubs and lobster.

Indeed, things are often not what they seem. Two years ago, I learned that Myrla’s mother was a Russian Jew, a fact hidden from the family her whole life and for almost twenty years after her life had ended. Truth is a casualty of class war.

We are experiencing a shift. Watching the wealthy on TV, we’ve experienced astonishment and awe. Those emotions are transforming into anger. As a child, I had my father’s support to not pay attention to the show. Soon, watching the collapse of our economic system, it will be revealed how the tricks were done.


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