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Roderick Spencer Headshot

Notes on Where Some of the Money Went

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I was at my son's freshmen football game a few weeks ago. They were playing a road game against a high school in the North San Fernando Valley. It was homecoming weekend, with floats, home-cooked food and a big crowd of local supporters. Our boys were outnumbered, outweighed, and out of their element.

Their school has a smaller student body than most of their opponents. It's an exclusive private school with a huge endowment and limitless opportunities compared to, say, a parochial high school in the North Valley. So, naturally our team, with its gleaming chartered bus, flattering uniforms, and whiffs of celebrity, made a perfect opponent. It's not hard to imagine the sweetness of victory for a middle class Latino high school, over a bunch of rich kids from the Westside.

I arrived early and sat in the home stands by mistake. The sun was hot with streaks of cool shade and a dry, gusty wind. Loud top-forty music blared from tinny speakers. Families arrived and filled the stands around me. They cheered when the home team, a huge squad, took the field for warm up. Our boys -- all eighteen of them -- emerged and jogged to the far end-zone. It reminded me a little of the Spartans against the Persian Hordes.

I stood up and spotted the rest of our team's parents, in a nervous bunch, hurrying toward the visitors' bleachers on the opposite side. I followed, around the end-zone past the homemade Kielbasa stand and hand-painted floats fitted onto a couple of old convertibles and a flatbed truck.

When I sat down, I caught the last of a discussion of an "incident" in the parking lot a few years back, after an upset win by our Varsity team. Apparently some punches were thrown, and the ensuing rivalry remains hot. But the talk sounded more fraught than of a years-old scuffle in a parking lot. "We need to get out of here as soon as the game is over." One mom said, "There's no telling what might happen." She looked around and bumped her eyebrows as if no one from these parts was beyond suspicion, and chaos could erupt at any moment.

There are many celebrated alumni and parents at my son's school, and a recent face-lift of the campus is said to have cost many, many tens of millions of dollars. Even one of our team's volunteer assistant coaches is a bona fide movie star. Fortunately he is also a good coach, so by their second game the boys were over his fame and complained about him as much as they did about the other coaches. But ours was the only team in the league that traveled with a cadre of security guards. I mention this because -- "incident" or not -- the notion that "there's no telling what might happen", to supporters of the team with its own security detail was, by any reasonable standard, preposterous.

Which is exactly the problem when it comes to the people who have benefited most from the latest round of gilded thievery in our nation's history; there are no reasonable standards. The thick, gaudy bubble of privilege has so distorted the view from inside that for some, no amount of control, comfort, security, and entitlement seems enough.

Our movie star coach is not the problem. He's done an admirable job of just being a coach to our boys, and on this day he remained focused on his job as, along the front rail of the visitors stands, a few dozen local girls wielding cell phones, called his name and squealed happily if he glanced their way.

But one of 'our' moms found the situation intolerable. Out loud, within easy earshot of the girls, she called out, "Can security please come and get these girls out of here!?"

A few of them turned and stared, less hostile than amazed.

"We are guests here!" I hissed in her direction.

But if she heard me she made no sign, and kept craning past our group, like a red carpet wannabe looking for her publicist. The real world, it seemed, was too close.

It occurred to me that she is so accustomed to the money bubble that almost everyone frightens her, and she only feels safe in places where her entitlement has been paid for in advance. If only one could create a futures market for Platinum Level Peace of Mind. Some serious money could be made before the government could figure out how to regulate that!

She might still feel safe on the newly refurbished campus, with its' gorgeous architecture, manicured lawns, and exquisite facilities, including dozens of rehearsal rooms, with a fresh piano in each one. Buildings bear the names of the most generous donors, some of whose children are still young enough to lug their backpacks into class every morning. Call me old fashioned but mightn't it have been better if mom & dad had waited until after graduation to put the family name on their kid's school? When does C+ equal A? That's easy; when your folks paid for the chemistry lab! Hey, I'm kidding! I'm sure that kind of thing never happens.

I am, of course, deeply envious of those who can give a building to their kid's school, and I know that many of the gifts were made discreetly, with the best of intentions, by people who earned their money honestly. But just as many were, I suspect, made in order to purchase a 24/7 VIP pass to the whole world, by people who have taken cynical advantage in this latest round of legalized plunder.

My wish for them, in the New Year, is a heaping helping of real-life anxiety, and no velvet rope to hide behind. May the security guards that they beckon be forever on a coffee break, and may they have to walk, unguarded through life's big scary parking lot, forever and ever, amen.

In the immortal words of John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown, "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Here's hoping that respectability doesn't come too quickly to those trying to buy it on the backs of the millions of Americans who have already lost their jobs. Let the rich thieves' blameless children and grandchildren actually be respectable in their own lifetimes, after their wicked forebears have been forgotten by history.

It's not likely, but one can dream.

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