Worship in the cathedral of wealth

Scotland on Sunday diary column, April 18 1988

From a distance, it is just another traffic jam, walled in by the usual grimy tower blocks. Only when you get closer and you see yourself reflected in the smoked glass windows with the gilt trimmings, and find yourself bumping into pedestrians who are coated in fur from top to tail, catching the scent of Havana cigars and Chanel No 5, only then do you know without doubt that you have finally arrived in the most expensive street in the world. Bar none.

This is East 57th Street, running between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue in Manhattan, the local shopping centre for one of the wealthiest communities on the planet, where you can pick up a soup tureen for $32,500 or a porcelaine owl for $16,500, where it costs your chauffeur $6 just to park the air-conditioned stretch limo for 30 minutes, where the rich and famous stop to peck each other’s cheeks on the street corner.

Never mind Wall Street crashing, or Jesse Jackson whining about the poor, or the beggars who litter the sidewalks all over the rest of town, life is getting better for the Manhattan millionaires.

Last year, this was just an Ordinarily Expensive Street along with Bond Street in London or the Rue de Faubourg St Honore in Paris. Now this year, according to a new property survey, the surging fortunes of New York’s elite have carried it to the top of the league, measured most clearly by the fact that annual rents here have shot up from a mere $300 a square foot to a record-breaking $425, easily the highest in the world. And the runners-up are just around the corner – Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue.

Here on East 57th, you can buy your diamonds from Tiffany’s, your raincoat from Burberry, your hand-stitched shoes from J.M.Weston – where “our leather is tanned for an entire year in central France” using tannin squeezed from quebracho trees in Argentina – and you can pop in to Bonwit Teller for some “stabilised placental proteins” to rub the wrinkles out of your skin. It is an open-air cathedral for those who worship wealth and who truly believe that when you buy, you go to Heaven

There goes Harry Belafonte wading by in a huge green raincoat. And now a man who looks like a caricature of a capitalist from a Russian revolutionary cartoon, old and grey and grossly fat with a face like a toad and a cigar like a baseball bat. Now here is a nice couple, the father pushing the little boy’s pram, the mother scampering alongside to wipe the toddler’s nose, all smiling and enjoying themselves and playing happy families. It is Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, out shopping for a few household essentials.

The message from East 57th Street is clear – the rich are getting richer. There are now four times as many millionaires in America as there were ten years ago. In 1976, there were only 4,560 American households whose income exceeded $500,000 a year. Now, there are 58,419. But the poor, of course, remain poor – a staggering 33.1 million Americans live below the poverty line. That is 14% of the population.

Americans have just been nudged into analysing their never-ending love affair with money by a new book, Money and Class in America, written by the editor of Harper’s magazine, Lewis H. Lapham. His point is that in the absence of a genuine aristocracy, where prestige and snobbery are granted by birth, Americans have invented an aristocracy based purely on wealth: the rock-star and the boxer have just as much kudos as the banker or the teenage heir or even the mobster. To claim their status, they have only to flaunt their wealth.

Lapham believes that Americans, more than any other society, idolise “the glorious name of profit”, and “no matter what their income, a depressing number of Americans believe that if only they had twice as much, they would inherit the estate of happiness”. So it is not just the Manhattan millionaires who have adopted consumption – what Lapham calls “the arts of the higher shopping” – as their civil religion.

A few weeks ago, the mail man delivered through my door an unsolicited catalogue from a store called Hammacher Schlemmer (established 1848). This turns out to be the Bible of the ordinary conspicuous consumer, dedicated to finding more and more ingenious commodities to soak up the rivers of cash that are apparently flooding the middle class suburbs of American cities.

How can I have struggled this far through life without a solar-powered ventilated golf cap?  Particularly when Hammacher Schlemmer will sell me one for only $29.95, post paid. “This is”, as the catalogue points out,”the only golf cap with a built-in solar-powered fan which directs a constant breeze toward your forehead to cool you on hot days.” My comfort matters to Hammacher Schlemmer.

For that reason they have designed a water-cooled car seat cushion to plug into my car’s cigarette lighter, a pair of heated slippers which will massage my feet while I watch TV, an alarm clock which will stop ringing when I wave my hand at it, an electric tie rack which will rattle round displaying 72 different ties in only 25 seconds, an electric golf-shoe cleaner, a telescopic ostrich-feather duster, a robot to clean the bottom of my swimming pool, a pair of spectacles with right-angled mirrors so that I can read a book while I lie on my back and a clock which projects the time in enormous letters on the ceiling. They are really too kind.

They are even kind to animals. If my dog gets wet in the rain, then for only $630 (post paid) I can buy the Veterinarians Warm Air Pet Dryer.  It looks suspiciously like an oven. But Hammacher Schlemmer calm my fears: it has an automatic thermostat to stop it over heating and it is used by “top breeders and kennels”. If the thermostat should fail, baking the dog beyond repair, then for $1,350 they can sell me a rechargeable robot dog which can be programmed to “walk about randomly” using its infrared sensing system to avoid walls and furniture, and to bark warnings at strangers with its allophonic digitized speaking voice. Allow ten weeks for delivery.

The world of Hammacher Schlemmer is the one we used to read about in children’s comics when they tried to imagine what the future would look like. Here, for $899, is the telephone video monitor which allows you to see the person at the other end of the line, or the voice-activated phone – “Call my office,” you shout and it dials the number. You should try the facial sauna – a sort of face mask out of Star Trek which boils and belches steam up your nostrils.

It is all too much. I can’t choose between the illuminated rechargeable pepper-mill which shines a light down on your food while it grinds out a measured amount of peppercorn at the touch of a button, and the exclusive bun-warming frankfurter steamer for the painless preparation of hot dogs.

On second thoughts, I don’t think I’m buying.

***

Whatever happened to Robert Bork, President Reagan’s choice for the Supreme Court whose ultra-conservative views provoked a Congressional rebellion last autumn? The answer is that his notoriety appears to have made him irresistable. Instead of slaving away over a hot gavel in the dreary old Supreme Court, Bork is marketing himself as a martyr to the cause of Reaganism, flying around the country delivering lectures at $15,000 a shot, pulling in a lucrative job with a conservative think tank, and preparing to write a book for which the advance is said to be in six figures. At the best guess he is earning roughly ten times the $100,000 annual salary he would have received as a humble Supreme Court judge.