The Paternal Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

I’m now just 4 months away from becoming a father, and just maybe an adult to boot. The odd consultancy aside, I’ve been a student for most of my life, and the proposition of fatherhood puts my pending financial responsibility into stark relief. So what are the chances I’ll prove halfway competent at earning a real living for once?

My entrepreneurial pedigree is impeccable. In my childhood, my dad owned the largest real estate consulting firm in the country. I had very little idea what that meant, but it was clear that he was someone to be proud of. All of his friends were equally impressive, as were their offspring. I remember hearing about one of his CEO friend’s sons, who had gone to Princeton, started a student business in his “free time,” scaled it up to a 20-man operation during his undergraduate tenure, and sold it for $125,000 upon graduation. He then plowed the revenue back into some other, equally amazing enterprise, I forget what exactly.

My dad has always been a business prodigy. At 12, he started his own business spray-painting address numbers on the curbs of his suburban neighborhood on the western fringes of Philadelphia. Already, he was exhibiting the business acumen that would make him a rich man, reasoning that spray paint and stencils required minimal overhead costs. He also devised a business plan that entailed performing the service ahead of time and then asking for payment, like those windshield wiper urchins in Latin America. He rightly figured this sequence would draw in more clients, as people would feel too guilty to refuse a handsome little preteen who had just spent his own money on a doing them a favor. By the age of 16, he was a stencil pimp with ten other kids in his employ, all pushing their unwanted service on unsuspecting neighbors, as my dad skimmed a percentage off the top for managerial services.

For the sake of comparison, I will now skip 30 years into the future and across the country to Tesuque, New Mexico, where I grew up from the age of eight. I wanted more money but my parents wouldn’t consent to upping my allowance, and my dad cunningly suggested I start a business. I decided that in a tiny New Mexican town north of Santa Fe, the best I could hope for in terms of a client base were motorists passing through, and so I set up a lemonade stand. I stood behind my kiosk for what seemed like days, but was probably nearly an hour. No one stopped. I grew discouraged and impatient. Maybe I was shooting too low, too low-brow. I needed to tap the fat vein of the Santa Fe art market.

I headed with a shovel and pail down to the river, which ran through one end of our property and where I spent many a summer afternoon slopping around in the muck – I was in search of clay. Yes, I thought triumphantly, I would go into the extractive industries. The river would constantly deposit more of my silty gold at my back door, and I would sell it from my front. I scooped my product into re-sealable plastic bags with a trowel and carted them back up to my stand. “Lemonade!” I scoffed to myself.

Shortly, my dad pulled into the dirt driveway and I beamed proudly at him. “Clay?” I asked.

“What?” He screwed up his eyes like he hadn’t heard correctly.

“Would you like to buy some clay?” I repeated.

“What happened to your lemonade stand idea?” he asked. Of course he would ask about the lemonade. My dad never did have much appreciation for art or artists. He almost always prefaced the word “artist” with the qualifier “starving,” which I thought was demeaning, since I fancied myself a bit of an artist (my specialities were eagle heads in profile and certain species of dinosaur). So it was entirely predictable that my father had no vision when it came to marketing to artists.

“No one was buying lemonade,” I explained in my most sensible businessman’s tone. “I switched out my stock.”

“Oh.” He seemed momentarily at a loss, but recovered, reaching for his wallet. “Sure, I’ll take one bag, please.”

“Great. That’ll be five dollars, please.”

“Five dollars?!” He replaced the bill he had extracted and pulled out a fiver. “You might want to think about readjusting your price point, there.”

“Oh. Alright.” I took the five and handed him a dripping bag of river sludge. He let it dribble for a little while, then drew the bag quickly into the car and over his lap, placing it on the current edition of the Wall Street Journal lying on the floor of the passenger side.

“Thanks. See you at home for dinner…”

“Come again!” I chirped. The car rolled off down the hill to the house.

Within minutes, another car pulled over onto the shoulder. Business was picking up! The window rolled down, and an elderly gentleman asked what I was selling.

“Clay,” I responded. His face was blank, so I specified: “Natural clay from the river.”

“Oh,” he said, still no sign of a thought appearing on his face. “Right, well, maybe another day.”

The window rolled up and the car rolled off. Near miss.

The next half hour or so was slim pickings. Actually, no pickings whatever. The sun was starting to fall behind the hills when a biker dude with a badass handlebar moustache and a black leather jacket pulled up on a Harley. He gunned the engine once or twice for my benefit and smiled.

“I’ll take two cups,” he yelled over the growl of the hog. “It’s been a hot one!”

“Sorry, I’m not selling lemonade, anymore,” I yelled back. Then, very slick and salesman-like: “Do you want some clay, though?”

The biker scanned the kiosk and, sure enough, found no lemonade.

“What’d you say you’re selling, there?” he asked, chinning at the limp, oozing sacks.

“Clay. You know, from the river.”

“Who for?”

“Artists. You know, they make pottery and sculptures and stuff.”

“Well, I’ll take your word for it, Buddy, but all’s I know is that I could sure have gone with a couple cups of cold lemonade this afternoon. I’m THIRSTY. You have a good one, now.” And with that, he readjusted his helmet, gunned his engine again, and was off.

I don’t know if it was the fact that he flatteringly called me “Buddy” or that he talked to me in a such a straight-shooter kind of way, but I immediately packed up shop.

It wasn’t until four years later that I would start up another business, this time with my slightly unbalanced friend. We made Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs filled with shotgun shell gunpowder, and throwing stars from stenciled, cut, and sharpened sheet metal. Don’t worry, from what I heard the pipe bombs were only used to blow up mail boxes. I could have been the next Victor Bout, shuttling arms across porous African borders.

Where did that entrepreneurial spirit go?


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