Monday, January 19, 2009
(Not) Finding Room for Obama
Little boys crave taking sides for battles and banding together into little gangs, yet whenever I begged my father to tell me which side we wanted to win in football games on television (about as far as my notion of being a warrior extended then), he would shrug his shoulders. “I just want to see a good game,” he’d announce.
He served as a black-robed judge for a quarter century, and seemed to think that professional ethics bound him to maintain a strict judicial neutrality even on the Minnesota Vikings versus the Chicago Bears. “No, dad, come on! Who should win?” Who do we want to inspire us? Who should we give ourselves to?
“As long as it’s a good game, that’s all I want.” He’d eat some peanuts.
I hated that he left my brother and I so unmoored about our loyalties. We could have cheered for the local team and found solidarity with everyone else, or picked a division rival and defined ourselves as iconoclasts. We sat out.
Because I never had practice either immersing myself inside a crowd or fighting upstream against a crowd, I never understood crowd dynamics as a child, especially what makes people band together and willingly commit to someone or something. What inspires them? Why do they cheer? Willing commitment became an oasis for me, but like most oases it had qualities of a mirage. After undergoing such torture with my father, I never could judge if people were genuinely passionate about “their” team or just posing.
And this shouldn’t be dismissed as a trivial case. Trivial cases are practice for real life.
My inability to connect with crowds is reflected in my business skills. I am neither timid nor reckless with money, am good at math, am capable of head-shrinking people pretty well one-on-one. What I’m stumblingly bad at is grasping what moves people en masse. I know my own tastes and motivations, but cannot translate, not at all, from my psychology to mass psychology. It’s debatable if I’m charming; it’s impossible I’m charismatic.
As proof of my ineptitude, I tried to rent out my central-DC apartment for Obama’s Inauguration, and I couldn’t drum up any interest. An open apartment during this Inauguration was like Google stock options circa 2003, or an “in” in a point-shaving scandal. The softball was on a tee, and I whiffed.
I planned on moving within DC in January and knew I’d have to pay double rent at my new and old places. The new place was therefore open and happened to be furnished with a bed, couch, dishes, and other furniture. That, and its location four blocks from a Metro, a mile from the National Mall, and six blocks from Whole Foods (Obamophiles loves Whole Foods, right?) justified my asking $1,600 o.b.o. for three or four days. I sandpapered away every bong-resin blemish from the old tenant, and figured out how to game Craig’s List to post nearly identical ads in multiple cities. I actually contemplated getting an auction going. Should I share e-mails among people and tell them what price to beat? Or just allude to “higher offers,” and see how high they jack the price on their own? Hee-hee!
The gods don’t find hubris humorous. The only response for my grammatical, succinct, and non-creepy ad (with pictures) were from Nigerian scammers who first posed as Scotland-based housing agents for the Siemens Corporation with the doubtful email address email@example.com, and next posed as Canadian EPA officials who very much wanted to honeymoon in my new apartment (right ...) and just needed my bank account number to wire me the down payment. Even they stopped returning my e-mails when I said what the hell and upped my asking price.
I wondered fleetingly if an Obama real-estate bubble was forming, but I checked Craig’s List again and rediscovered what everyone else “knew”: Rental prices were absurd, up to $1,000 per night in my neighborhood. Washington’s mayor had signed an executive order making it legal for people to play landlord without a license and sublet during Inauguration Week, and city officials expected four to five million people to descend. Do the math: People were told to not even bother looking for hotel rooms, and I was undercutting private renters by hundreds. Yet I got not a love-bite of interest. It was a Euclidian proof of my inability to connect with and motivate the masses.
Except ... I couldn’t quite shake a shadow thought that maybe we were indeed floating in an Obama bubble. What if? Confused, I raised my rates to $800 per night—maybe people would think there was something wrong with my place otherwise. A few days later, I overheard strangers behind me at a play discussing their own rental frustrations. I shook them down for anecdotal evidence. This was around December 15, and one of them (a McCain man, from his comments) assured me, “Once the big donors get tickets from the various Senators’ offices, you’ll hear from people.”
I wasn’t so sure. Senate offices started handing out goodies, but still nothing. And as soon as I let myself think the full thought, uncensored, it became depressingly convincing. There was a bubble. There had to be. Four to five million people were supposedly coming, but what kind of subprime math were those figures based on? How could anywhere near that many people be willing to pay so much just to say they’d been relatively near Obama, within a few blocks at best, on a probably brutal day in January? (W’s inauguration was among the worst days of weather on record here, I’m told.) Were even a million willing? And how would they find me? Not on Craig’s List. I fell back into my old prejudices, my old ruts, assuming most people really couldn’t be that passionate about something. I stopped reposting my ad, stopped hustling, stopped hunting for ins and angles—the certain death of an entrepreneur.
A week past New Year’s, I finally got an e-mail, but of an unexpected, unwelcomed stripe. Beyond Craig’s List, I’d posted a notice on a housing database featured in USA Today called AirBedandBreakfast.com. AB&B informed me that my business mistake hadn’t been undercharging but vastly overcharging. The average successful rentals for Inauguration were $80 per night for a couch or shared room, $105 for a private room, and $195 for an entire flat. A few days on, less than two weeks before Inauguration, another e-mail told me that prices had dropped below $100 per night.
I don’t know enough econ to classify the phenomenon, but like everyone else posting a costly ad, I’d sat down at my computer utterly disconnected from reality. I wasn’t basing my price on the mutually corrective interplay of supply and demand but on what my fellow gougers seemed to be charging. We wannabe landlords were price-fixing or colluding, but in a delusional way.
And those paltry sums roused me from my dogmatic slumbers. Newspapers breathlessly reported that people had asked $25,000 for homes in NoVa and suburban Maryland, but no reporters thought to inquire whether houses were in fact renting for that much. And once I got my head grounded with figures and numbers, I realized it maybe wasn’t a lack of willing people that was crumbling the official estimates of crowd size hour by hour (last I heard was 1.5-million). Nation-wide, people had built up Obama with tip-jar money and stray hours of volunteer time—and those are exactly the sort of people who don’t have burn money for a week off in Washington, especially not in a financial market calving jobs like glaciers do ice. It turns out I was right about there being a bubble, but for the wrong reasons.
What really bothered me, though, wasn’t being wrong. (What the hell did I know about how people think?) It was that I had been too, too ready to believe no one could be inspired enough just to want to be here, even if it sleets, even if it hails. I’d misjudged the crowd again because I had never learned how to give myself to something bigger; more accurately, straight from the days of restraint in front of the football games, I learned very early on how to not give myself. If anything, I had cost people inspiration by demanding way, way more than they could afford, locking them out. It seems no one learned anything from the meltdown of the housing market. If four to five million don’t show up for Inauguration, it will have been the collective greed of Washingtonians, the prices we demanded for a couch and pillow, that served as the kryptonite to inspiration. To put in treacly but true terms, it could have been about opening up. It was about money.
Nevertheless, no need to be jealous, real America! Few of us actually got rich on Obama’s big welcome. If you factor in opportunity costs and time wasted, I managed to lose money.
I have a local, DC friend I’ll call Rumit, and when I’d confessed my suspicions of an Obama bubble, he implored me, as most people did, to do the math. We both voted Obama, but he’s the one who threw himself behind him. Eighteen months ago, after he heard Obama speak and shook Obama’s hand at a small rally in a Washington parking lot, Rumit revised his list of political heroes from JFK at No. 1 to John F. Kennedy and Barack H. Obama at 1 and 1a. On Election Day, Rumit kept pronouncing every collected electoral vote “historic, historic, historic,” and I knew logically he was right.
Coincidentally or not, during the Super Bowl last February (I’d silently hoped, gulp, to see a good game), Rumit had cheered and cheered hard for the 18-0 New England Patriots to complete their perfect season. Why cheer for a crappy Giants team to win?—we can see that any year. True excellence is rare. Generational. (It’s a rather Roman notion of virtue—virtue as fulfilling one’s potential—and archaic today.) Rumit isn’t intimidated by seeing someone far superior to him as long as he gets to share in the excellence, to be in the crowd, too. Another non-coincidence, maybe: Rumit found people to host during Inauguration Week. Family.
I can’t say if it’s my genetic makeup or the environment my parents raised me in that pushes me away from crowds and towards the windows from which to watch them. (Since my parents names are Gene & Jean, I guess this amounts to about the same thing.) Do I produce fewer of the mirror neurochemicals that swell when I hear my thoughts reflected in other people? Or do I respond to the neurochemicals less? And is that because I clenched down and conditioned myself not to respond and built up a tolerance? Probably it’s one of those tricky cases where susceptible genes only find expression in certain environments, cases geneticists will never be able to tease apart. Regardless, I take it as a character flaw I’ve never given myself to something mass like Rumit has.
Obama was elected on my thirtieth birthday, and he threw a hell of a better party in Washington that November 4 than anything I could have scrounged up. I saw the inspiration of the masses first hand all over DC that night. More than once inspiration almost ran me over. That one long night is the one small way I feel linked to the Obama movement, since Obama and I crossed a threshold together.
I’m going to try to remember that tomorrow morning. I’ve got tickets for the Inauguration, and I plan on walking down to the Mall and Capitol quite early. I’m hoping for good weather, and for more than a good show. And hoping that after everything winds down, I can meet up with some friends and not have to walk directly back to my new and very empty apartment.
Posted by Sam Kean at 12:00 AM | Permalink