Monday, April 12, 2010

Elegance Moves People

Last week I was privileged to visit the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. My wife and I took our son, who is nuts for trains and anything related to trains. The equipment in these photos looks ancient to us in 2010, but some of it was in use as recently as the 1970s. To me, this environment doesn't just look old; it looks more comfortable than anything I've traveled in.

The people who worked on these trains dressed for success, even the men who shined shoes in the toilet compartment. Believe it or not, there was a time when Americans dressed well. Granted, these employees were forced to dress well, but the benefit was the same.  Everyone contributed to the atmosphere of competent service. Always and everywhere, it helps to look like you know what you're doing. 

Their dishes. It hardly seems possible, does it? I flew first class once. I appreciated the service, but it was a backyard barbeque compared to this royal table. 

All this beauty reminded me of a surprising facet of modern life. Today, by every important measure, most Americans are better off than the people who rode these trains. We have more resources and better choices than they did. Nevertheless, we often live poorly. We wear ragged, farm hand clothes. We eat bland, stale food from styrofoam containers. 

I'm often accosted by people who are upset over "the gap between rich and poor," as though I could influence it. I heard this harangue while working at Burger King for $2 an hour.  If you are upset by this gap, a casual stroll through The Superficial may cheer you up. You will see recent photos of young hollywood stars and starlets, sucking sugared coffee from the same paper Starbucks cup that you and I get for $1.70. Despite their millions, they often look like they were released from prison just yesterday, and slept on the sidewalk last night. Equality of income may elude us, but equality under bad hygiene is within our grasp. 

I don't know why we've slobbed out in our abundance; could be pure laziness, or something more complicated. I do know our disheveled personal environment contains enormous opportunity. If you offer people any reminder of elegance, they are nearly helpless. They are powerfully driven to follow you and give you what you ask for. Recently an attorney friend of mine was hired at a law firm in southern California. After a few weeks, the partner who had interviewed him confided that other candidates presented better credentials. The principal reason for hiring my friend: he was the only candidate who arrived at the interview wearing a suit. During the 1940s, the suit wouldn't knock out the entire competition, but today its a magic bullet. If you have the misfortune of getting "displaced" from your job, you could spend $70,000 on a Masters program, or you could go shine your shoes, and see how far that gets you. No, you can't shine flip-flops . . . . 

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