What Do You Do? Part One

Posted on August 17, 2019

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Years ago —in 1979 or 1980—I went to a black-tie banquet at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan—where a Cabinet-level Secretary of Something or Another spoke.

The table where I sat was sponsored by W. R. Grace & Co., then with headquarters in New York City. I happened to be one of the invited guests, a small-time historian from Alabama with few credentials, but with a borrowed tux and some well-placed friends in the company.

I had an amazing, really astonishing, encounter with someone who represented a value and a point of view so foreign that it left me dumfounded, wondering how innocent of the world I really may be. I was 39 at the time, and not so innocent, a Navy veteran, a traveler across the Americas and Europe, a professor, a Ph.D., a person who grew up in Lima, Peru and just outside of NYC, and with credentials that on the surface spoke of some cosmopolitan formation. But I wasn’t ready for what I heard that night at the banquet, not from the speaker who I forget, but from a fellow diner sitting next to me.

I had come to New York in June of 1979 to work on a history of W. R. Grace & Co. in Latin America. That book was published later in 1985.

Periodically, the company “bought” a table at a big banquet somewhere—usually in some fashionable hotel midtown—when some big wig was in town. Dick Moore, the director of public relations at Grace, thought I would enjoy going to these events since he never could get enough volunteers to fill the table

So it was that one evening, in my black tie outfit borrowed from Dick , I found myself sitting at a table with eight or ten other guests of the company, surrounded by a fabulous setting of silver and flowers and other stuff that make people feel important like name tags, little gifts and the like.

To break the ice, I asked my neighbor at the table, “what do you do?”

He looked at me as though I’d interrupted something, perhaps thinking a great thought or simply meditating on his salad or the wine being served, or his latest investments, or meeting his mistress later at her apartment, and responded “I facilitate mergers,” and returned to his wine or fork.

I thought about it a second, and continued, the social scientist in me, “what do you facilitate merging?”

Again, a quizzical look, kind of like some scientist looking at a specimen through his microscope.

“Companies,” he said with a shrug, no doubt confused by the rube—me—sitting next to him. What the hell else would I be doing on Wall Street? he must have thought.

“Ah,” I said, and following my thread of inquiry, and being polite, “it sounds like a fascinating job,” and “how did you get into it?”

Again, the look, now moving from condescending to contemptuous.

“To make money,” he answered. “And what do you do?”

“I teach history.”

That ended our conversation.

I never forgot my dinner companion’s answer to “and what do you do?”

I make money, and I could tell that he enjoyed making money, lots of money, and that making money, getting rich, gaining wealth, was an end in itself for this man.  Acquiring wealth to him was not a job, like others practice law or medicine, or farm, or build homes, or teach, or take care of their family, but the reason for his life. Or as intellectuals snobbishly like to style it in French, the raison d’être

In 1987 Michael Douglas made a movie Wall St. in which he starred as a ruthless stockbroker whose motto was “greed is good.” The movie pared him against a young, idealistic stockbroker played by Charlie Sheen who had to reconcile the same love for money with his background that stressed other values.

After the banquet I followed my normal routine and headed for the nearest subway stop, in black tie, on my way downtown to my digs in
Greenwich Village with other late-night straphangers. Nobody paid me the slightest attention. Black tie, rap, hip hoppers, late night disco denizens, people going to work, people going home, the subway clientele is a mélange of democracy in the city.

I wondered about my values. Was I so unrealistic and innocent in my views towards riches and wealth? Was that guy I met—even in a grossly exaggerated fashion—closer to the truth of the matter than I? Was that a legitimate “profession?” Make money? Was there another reason for work? The questions eventually led to a book, Work and Wealth in Scripture (2015), and I worked through this question in the second chapter. As many of you will already suspect, God’s definition and value of work is rather different from that of my dinner companion. We’ll revisit the subject in some future columns.

Published as “What do you do–and why,”in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, June 23, 2019.