I saw a man sitting on a bench in Union Square. He was an older, rather distinguished looking gentleman. His clothes looked mismatched, but in a concerted sort of way– the way a professor dresses when he wishes to say: I spend too much time on my mind to worry about my clothes. The man was reading The New York Times. I approached him.
May I take your photograph, I asked.
No, he said. But sit down for a minute, let’s talk.
Talking with strangers on benches in parks. One of my favorite New York traditions.
Tell me your story, he said. So I told him my story. I began with the bond trading.
Well, I traded bonds in Chicago for three years.
I too worked in banking, he said. So I thought I had a receptive audience. So I told him all about bond trading. I talked about the swings. The excitement. The huge amounts of money being entrusted to kids in their early twenties. How late in 2008 markets were moving on nothing but sheer terror. He’s in banking, I thought. Surely he’s interested. He was nodding the whole time, asking appropriate questions. I thought for sure he loved markets like I love markets. And I love markets. But when I finished speaking, he dropped a bomb on me.
You people make me sick, he said.
Excuse me? I said.
You Americans are sick. I listen to you and I realize how much I hate this damn country with your damn love of money and love of capitalism. You people make me so mad. And he was mad. He was riled up real good. (Didn’t he say he was in banking?) It would appear that I was falling victim to a guerilla hippie attack.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I said. I hate guerilla hippie attacks. Especially ones that use the words “you people.” Wait a second, I said. You are sitting in Union Square, in New York City—possibly the most diverse location on the face of the earth. And you are saying things like ‘You Americans’ and ‘You People.’ I assure you, there are no two Americans in this park that have the same viewpoint.
Well, he said, perhaps those words are too strong. But your capitalism is a cancer on the world. Everything about this country is sick. You’re financially sick. You’re psychologically sick. Everything is about money with you people and you try to force your ways on the rest of the world.
I personally am a huge fan of capitalism, I said. And I am. I love free markets. I love nature, and social justice, and Martin Luther King. But I also love free markets. I love to eat psychedelic mushrooms and reflect on how the universe is pure loving energy. But I also love free markets. I think capitalism is a wonderful thing, I said. I said it with the confidence of someone who used to think capitalism was a horrible thing.
It’s ruining the world, he said. Just look at New York. Everywhere it’s a Starbucks. Or a Duane Reade. This place used to have character. When I was growing up, there were Mom and Pop stores, and Jewish fish markets on the Lower East Side. Now it’s nothing but corporations. Look at what capitalism has done to New York. And you Americans go and force your capitalism on the rest of the world.
Right then, out of nowhere, there was another guerilla hippie attack. This one came from behind, where I was least expecting it. You tell him, a voice said. It was a young girl. Maybe 20. She had a paperback in one hand, an Ipod in the other, and a North Face backpack on her back. She looked at the man: I’ve been eavesdropping, she said. And I just wanted to say: I’m so glad that there are people like you to talk to people like him. Then she turned to me. She saw the face of someone trying to keep throw-up in his stomach.
Trust me, she said. You should listen to him. I know what I’m talking about. I study this stuff. I’m very educated in this stuff. Then she smiled at the man, and began to walk away.
Come back, shouted the man. Join us. I haven’t even told him about the tyranny of Reagan yet.
I have to get to class, she said.
You see? said the man. You see now that I was right. He had a big smile on his face.
She was thirteen years old, I said.
She was young, he agreed.
This man and I talked for an hour. There’s so much to write about, because he was an extremely intelligent man. He spoke seven languages, he was so cultured and very kind and I really did respect the hell out of him. So there’s a ton I could write about. But I’m going to jump to the heart of it.
I realize that it’s easy to hate capitalism. It’s easy to point at the sweatshops. It’s easy to read about the railroad trusts, the child labor, the twenty year old bond traders. It’s easy to learn about the excesses of corporate culture and say: Trust me, I’m very educated. I know what I’m talking about. Capitalism is bad. But put down the Kindle and look at the hospitals. The immunizations. The food aid. The technology. People talk as if before Capitalism, life was some sort of party, where everyone got along and there was plenty of food. If these people could spend twenty minutes in the jungles of Mexico during the early 1800’s, I’m sure they’d start blogging about fashion instead.
Capitalism, to me, is like New York. Sometimes it sucks but it’s the best we’ve got. Sure it’s too dirty and too loud and too crowded. The sweatshops, the child labor, the abuses of corporate culture. But every time someone steps on my foot in the subway, I remind myself that there are tradeoffs. For the excitement. The energy. The talking with strangers on benches in parks. The food. The immunizations. The technology. And considering all of the bad. And all of the good. New York is where I want to be. Sitting on a bench, with a man who speaks seven languages, talking about capitalism.
The man eventually did let me take his photo, but I’m not going to share it. Because I don’t think this article did justice to his intelligence. To make this article interesting, I focused on the one area of our disagreement. In reality, the man was very cultured, very well spoken, and we agreed on many things. Like I said, I spoke with him for over an hour. Much of this time was spent listening to his wisdom and knowledge on several issues.