May 05, 2007

Field trip: to the Wizard off Wall Street

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas, not now, not ever.

We are, however, one state over -- a vast plain known for cattle and corn and for capitalism. Alice came to hear the Wizard off Wall Street, capitalist par exellence, the second-richest man in the U.S., the majority stockholder in Capitalist, Inc., a well-known company in which Alice and her mother a own large portion of a fraction of a share.

The Wizard has announced plans, upon his death, for a nonprofit foundation founded by the richest man in the U.S. to receive his shares of Capitalist, Inc., as his own offspring are already well provided for. Making money, good; inheriting it, apparently not so much. Alice has been known to sing a different tune.

Less that half a share was the price of admission, so Alice decided to land in the midst of flyover country (can't get there from Wonderland without at least one change of plane, unless she were to charter a share in a Capitalist, Inc.-owned fractional-airplane-share firm) to see why others make this pilgrimage yearly.

She planned to hear the great man speak and see the wares owned by Capitalist, Inc., some of whose wholly owned subsidiaries offered discounts during what some call "Woodstock for Capitalists" -- the annual Capitalist, Inc. shareholders meeting.

There was no tie-dye, no mud, no drugs, but plenty of port-a-potties and shriekingly wide, bright, casual-clothing-for-the-millennium at this Woodstock. (Black is the color of Wonderland.) The only music was a bad cover band at a reception, blessedly rendered mute by the Wizard's melodic and well-harmonized melodies at the following day's meeting (or circus-tent revival?).

Alice wouldn't want to see most of its invitees naked under any circumstances; still this is Wizardville, a place that shares only a vague semblance of a common language with the inhabitants of Wonderland, and no commonality of place or space. Here, the Wizard's guests amble; none whiz through these flyover country grounds.

The only guests who appear at all like Alice -- those speak who a different language, have a different religion, are conversant with a multitude of cultures, wear the clothing of their home country, walk at a brisk pace without taking up the entire road -- are the international ones, who get their own special reception. Given that Wonderland is off the coast of America, Alice thinks she should be invited as well.

Toto, Alice knows she's not in Kansas. We are in Wizardville. The whole town has tarted itself up and welcomes us with open arms (the better to whisk away our credit cards) for Capitalist, Inc.'s annual festival in this location. Alice has heard that the home state of the Wizard has, in its entirety, fewer than the number of people who inhabit the island of Wonderland. She is convinced all the natives congregated just to see the Wizard, if only on a jumbo-tron outside the main arena.

Here to see the Wizard, and Alice forgot one just one characteristic about herself: she hates crowds. Stays as far as she possibly can from them in Wonderland itself, yet she flew -- door to door -- almost six hours to an incoming crowd of 25,000, which itself takes up all the hotel space in Wizardville, Flyover Land, and fills its Civic Center Auditorium with other shareholders who wish to hear the great man speak.

During the three days during which the crowd descends annually, the Capitalist, Inc.,-owned jewelry store does more business than it does throughout the Christmas season; another subsidiary, Capitalist, Inc.,'s home furnishings extravaganza, sells more of its wares than in any two-month period.

Beside the Civic Center is an Exhibitors' Hall, several football fields of space, where Alice could have purchased anything from discounted auto insurance whose best-known spokesman is a lizard, to cowboy boots, to a books from a store whose selection belies the Wizard's modesty, to some discounted-for-the-occasion children's clothes. Alice dares not send these to her niece, imprinted as they are with the Capitalist, Inc., name.

Last week Alice mailed a T-shirt from her college, considered by Alice and her mother as enough irony to last a 3-month-old baby girl quite a while. Kayanna is less likely to inherit shares of Capitalist, Inc., than she is to go to the brand-name, prestigious college from which Aunt Alice graduated. Kayanna's father is sophisticated enough to understand this slight, although his wife, from Tiny Town, Slow Southern State, is probably not that cosmopolitan.

There were discounts on an encyclopedia Alice remembers from her childhood, or, rather, remembers its overlays of a frog and a human being, with all parts named. (More parts are given names on the human in the 2007 edition than in the one 40 years its predecessor, which Alice owned, and which she was meant to update annually, with "See update, page 123," stickers. The stickers went by the wayside long before the annual updates stopped.)

Then there were genuine Ginko knives, which Alice thought had vanished into TV advertising heaven, but they were slicing and dicing and for sale in sets of eight knives in a wooden block. In addition the floor was filled salespeople peddling all manner of equipment for folks in middle America -- from RVs (sorry, manufactured homes, awnings sold separately) to home-party kitchenware to a $1300 vacuum touted as an "investment."

If the vacuum came with its own operator, 7 days a week, one who also did windows, laundry, changed linens, and shopped, cooked and cleaned up after making dinner, then Alice would give it a call.

Alice knows no one who would buy these items -- neither precision machining equipment nor rug shampoo cleaning products makes her must-buy list, nor does either make the lists of anyone Alice knows, but she is right pleased these middle-Americans, homeowners in flyover country, take such a strong financial interest in her welfare with their purchases.

Not owning a car, she is not sure what Lizard car insurance can do for her, either, but if it can make her a profit without undue harm to the planet, she is too cynical to care much about other aspects of the product. If Gigolos R Us did a land-office business, Alice would look into their stock as well.

The Wizard gives off an "ah, shucks; all my pal and I did was look for the right businesses at a discount to pull together this company here for all of us" air to those awaiting his special secrets. Guess what? He didn't get to be where he is by being any one's fool -- the only way we share in his secrets is through purchasing Capitalist, Inc.'s stock.

Make no mistake: the Wizard is genuine, and Alice will tag along on his coat tails for as long as she's getting a great ride. Toto can tug on no curtain to reveal the Wizard, for he is no con artist. Some call him a Seer; others, the Princely Prognosticator.

The Wizard's successors have yet to be named, but Alice figures, if the Wizard, age 76, anoints them, he will find the best available talent from sea to shining sea and beyond, leaving them to seduce him with their knowledge and business acumen, to follow in his place as Seer of Capitalist, Inc.

About too close to Kansas: strong tornadoes are forecast, on stations available only on local TV news and radio. The Weather Channel does not even mention whatever the largest city is in this state as a place for which to issue a forecast. Saturday night's two-hour thunder and lightning storm, complete with jagged forks of light and thunder to shake the hotel bed, barely makes the news, and doesn't register for anyone who is not trapped in it.

In Wonderland, such a storm would be, at the very least, worthy of a crawl across the bottom of the TV screen. Alice believes she is in the largest city in this state adjoining Kansas: still, its weather is of no consequence or interest to anyone beyond its boundaries, nor, apparently, within them.

Flyover City does yield some surprises: steak prices that would do a New York restaurant proud, albeit with considerably less overhead and considerably more proximity to the animals. If there were a steak sauce praised by the populace, it would A-1, not Bordelaise, Bearnaise, or other popular Wonderland offerings.

Alice couldn't help observing a restaurant salad bar, circa 1971 in the state where Wonderland is situated, circa 2007 in the state next to Kansas. Nor can she avoid mentioning that no lettuce other than iceberg has been seen within the state's borders, and vegetables are what they feed to the animals, not what they consume or attempt to use in the derivation of fuel.

There is novelty for Alice: in strip-mall city, the "coffeehouses" are drive-thrus, which seems to defeat the purpose of their names, unless caffeine is Flyover-City fuel, and even then, Alice thinks self-service has gone too far. Perhaps that concept with the "manufactured" housing, the house paint, the carpet- and floor-covering making companies and its cohorts at the Capitalist, Inc., revival sales hall.

(The Wizard's cohort -- akin to a co-chair -- suggests feeding the corn to the people, not turning it into fuel, in the interest of starting at the beginning. It is a feeling Alice shares, though she had not heard it so succinctly elucidated previously.)

However, Alice does not own a car, and she doubts the trucks that deliver nutrients to Wonderland would be eligible for an ethanol subsidy. Feed 'em first, then sell the cars and fuel and insurance and upkeep. Otherwise, the size of the carbon footprint will remain in the double digits, Alice suspects. She herself wears a size 6.

Alice has owned common stock since shortly after she was born in an L&D room in Hell's Kitchen. Yet this is the first time she has taken sufficient interest to see what a shareholder's meeting is all about. A solid 98% "yeas" for what the directors recommend and less than 2% "yeas" on any shareholder resolutions. She's not surprised. She just hopes the Wizard will keep subsidizing her expenses, and, with that, she is off to sleep.

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Anonymous MetroDad said...

The Wizard has been a great boon to my early retirement plans as well (the erstwhile plans for world domination have been waylaid.)

However, MetroDad is surprised to learn that Alice ventured to the barren tundra known as Omaha. I could not see her traveling to a forlorn place lacking such modern amenities as sushi, espresso, or pain au chocolat.

I'm glad to see Alice has returned safely!

2:59 PM  

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