I got an email from my old friend Dick not too long ago – maybe the smartest guy I ever met, and I've known a lot of smart guys. He was coming through town and we decided to meet at our old hangout, Jay's Bar.
Dick was from California, but he came through Chicago every now and then back in the 90s, and he often joined our cypherpunk hangout in the back room at Jay's.
At the appointed time, I met him in front of Jay's and we walked in together. It was still afternoon and there weren't too many customers.
Jay was behind the bar, making sure everything was ready for the evening rush. His face lit up when he saw Dick. "Hey, mister Viking, I not see you for a long time!"
Jay always called Dick "the Viking," which he really did resemble back then. I left Dick and Jay to talk for a few minutes and sat down at the other end of the bar and ordered a couple of drinks from Jamie, the daytime bartender.
After a couple minutes, some random guy (a business type) came up to me and said, "Hey, isn't that the genius who used to be on the Donahue show way back when?"
"Sure is," I said. "They found out that he knew just about everything, and so they put him on as a curiosity."
In just a minute or two Dick walked over and the guy slid down to give Dick his stool. He talked about the TV shows for a minute, and looked like he was ready to get up and let the two of us talk (he must have seen us walk in together), but then he stopped and looked directly at Dick.
"Ya know," he said, "you answered all those impossible science questions, which was really cool, but you never told us how to get rich."
Dick looked the man over. "You're already rich," he said.
"Yeah, I wish."
"Okay," Dick said, "what do you make, sixty thousand a year?"
"Including my wife's pay, almost a hundred."
"Then you're definitely rich."
The guy looked some combination of angry and embarrassed. "We're in debt up to our eyeballs! And not from buying crazy things. Between the cars, the house, schools and doctors for the kids, we're losing money!"
Compassion didn't always register on Dick's face, but this time it did. And I knew him well enough to guess that this guy's predicament got to him. He nodded his head silently for a few seconds, then swiveled slightly, hunched a bit, and spoke in a serious tone.
"You don't understand me. You're already rich. It's just that you let other people take most of it away from you, before you can use it."
The guy's posture became soft and serious in response to Dick's, but he didn't get it.
"Look at it this way," said Dick. "You get a hundred thousand per year, but your bosses also pay another seven or eight percent for social security, right?"
"Okay, so you're actually getting paid a hundred and seven thousand or so."
Dick reached into his shirt pocket for a pen and a small note pad. (Those old engineer habits die hard.) He handed them to the guy and said, "Here, make a quick list of all your expenses. Round up, 'cause you'll probably miss a few."
The guy said nothing, but complied. Dick and I sipped our drinks as he did. Then he handed Dick the list, which came to sixty thousand.
"You see," said Dick, "You make enough to pay all your bills, with almost fifty thousand left over for investments or whatever. And you wouldn't have to pay all the interest that you do either. The problem isn't what you make – you're already rich – the problem is what you let people take from you."
The guy was actually appreciative, and didn't speak for a moment, and then he said, "but the government takes all that money, what can I do about it?"
Dick turned directly at him and said, "First, stop saying that it's okay. It isn't. You're rich, but they're making you suffer at the edge of poverty. Start holding them accountable for what they do to you. Treat them like organized crime."
With that, the guy had enough. He understood, and he truly appreciated what Dick had told him, but it was going to take him some time to digest it. He thanked us and left.
Jay came over. "So, you chase away my customer?"
"Sorry, Jay," we both murmured like schoolboys. I said something about the other guy starting the conversation and Dick said something about just talking finance, but Jay just waived his hands at us and mixed a drink for another customer.
"Ah, I was right to put you all in the storage!" We said nothing. He was referring to the back room he used to give us. It was really a storeroom.
Then, he smiled. When it was over with, no matter how angry we had made him, Jay always smiled.
* All the stories that I set in Jay's Bar are fictional. The characters are based on real people and the stories are often based on actual events, but the presentation is fictional.