A Philosophical Ride

“When a man says money can do anything, that settles it: He hasn’t got any.” – George Bernard Shaw

Question: What would you do with your money if you had all you could ever need?

I was asked that question, strangely enough, by the limo driver who was taking us home from the Miami airport at the end of our trip to Asia.

I didn’t tell him that I was in that happy position … and that I was still grateful every day for my good fortune.

I didn’t say any of those things because (a) I didn’t want to sound like a jerk and (b) I knew he wanted to talk about it.

It’s an interesting question. What would you do?

What would you do with your life if you had, say, 10 (or 20 or 50?) million dollars tucked away, earning you all the money you needed to pay for everything you wanted … with plenty left over?

When ordinary people get lucky with wealth by winning the lottery or coming into an inheritance, studies indicate that the majority of them keep their jobs but increase their spending. Bakers continue to wake up early. Plumbers continue to get their hands dirty. And postal workers continue with their daily rounds.

Why do they keep working?

It could be the attention they receive from their fellow workers. (People whose lives remind them of what it “used to be like.”) It could be the force of habit. (“What else am I supposed to do?”) It could be the fear of falling backward. (“At least I’ll always have my job.”)

That last line of thinking isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A significant percentage of people who come into wealth quickly end up broke in a relatively short period of time.

My philosophical limo driver and I mused about these facts for a while. And then he reminded me that I hadn’t answered his question. “But what would you do?” he asked again.

I sat back in my seat and thought about it.

“I would definitely stop working,” I said. “At least for money. I’d write books, work out, do a little painting, and spend time with my family and friends.”

“What would your perfect day be like?” he asked.

And so I thought about that too. I imagined myself waking up in an apartment overlooking a sunny plaza. In Paris? Rome? Buenos Aires?

After taking a leisurely shower, I stroll, bathrobe-clad, to the porch, where breakfast has been served. Eggs Benedict and coffee. Silver and fine table linens. I read the International Herald Tribune and then take a walk to my studio by the sea. I write or paint until I get that Hemingway-esque feeling of having “done good work.” Then I head to the local cafe, where my friends await me. We eat and drink merrily, and then I take a short walk to my secret apartment, dark and cool, where I enjoy a postprandial siesta.

Revived, I meet K at some auction house or art gallery where, after looking over the new arrivals, we successfully bid on a small but exquisite pencil sketch by Jules Pascin. That evening, we dine with our three boys and their spouses, who have flown in to celebrate Mother’s Day. Before turning in for the night, I write a note to an old friend who’s working in Japan, read a poem by Ezra Pound, and knock off The New York Times crossword puzzle in just under 15 minutes.

“That’s a beautiful dream,” my driver said. “I hope that some day you will achieve it.”

“Me too,” I said, thinking about the ways my current life is like and unlike my fantasy.

“So,” my driver said, after a while. “You didn’t ask me.”

“Sorry? What did you say?”

“You never asked me what I’d do if I had all the money I needed.”

A pang of embarrassment. “I’m sorry. You’re right. What would you do? What would you do if you had all the money you could ever need?”

He looked at me through the rearview mirror and smiled. “I already have all the money I need,” he said.

I was taken aback. Was he pulling my leg? I took a good look at him and noticed that he was wearing a fine cotton shirt and sporting a Rolex.

“Really,” I said. “That’s great. Wow.”

His smile had widened into a Cheshire grin. “You’re surprised, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. I mean, no. I mean, I’m not sure what I am. So what are you doing now that you’ve made it?”

“I don’t write books, I can tell you that,” he said, laughing. ” But I do spend lots of time taking my friends to sporting events. That gives me a lot of pleasure.”

My limo driver philosopher was a season ticket holder to the Miami Heat, the Miami Dolphins, and the Florida Marlins. “Watching sports is a big part of my life,” he admitted. “I don’t have a family of my own, but I have nieces and nephews – and they have become big sports fans. So that’s good.”

I sensed that my interlocutor was a tad bit disappointed with his life. I asked him why, if he was financially independent, he was driving a limo.

“I don’t do it for a living,” he said. “I drive a couple of hours a day. That’s it. But I like meeting people and finding stuff out about what they do and what they think. It keeps me thinking. And I get a kick out of it when my customers find out that I’m richer than they are.”

I wondered if he was, in fact, richer than me …

He exited I-95 and drove at a leisurely pace east on Atlantic Avenue. “Like you,” he said, “I used to think about what I’d do if I had all the money I needed.”

“And how close is your life to what you imagined?”

“That’s the interesting thing,” he said. “I think I am leading my perfect life right now. But it’s nothing like what I thought it would be.”

“How so?”

“Like working as a limo driver,” he said. “I never imagined I’d be doing that.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“And yet I love it.”

“It sounds like you do.”

“And do you want to know something else?” he asked.

I definitely did.

“I wash and wax this baby myself. By hand. I could afford to buy six car washes. Yet I go to the supermarket, buy the Turtle Wax, and do the rub-on, rub-off thing myself.”

I thought about the pleasure I get from gardening. “I think I can understand that.”

He turned north on Ocean Boulevard. “That’s our house up there on the left,” I told him. He looked at it with evident appreciation. “Nice,” he said. “Really nice.”

“It’s kind of low key,” I found myself saying.

“Hey, you don’t have to apologize to me,” he said. “I’m a limo driver!”

I was not surprised when, after pulling into my driveway, he hopped out of the car and helped us with our luggage. The fare came to $42. I gave him a fifty and said, with embarrassment, “Keep the change.”

He gave me a business card. Just his first name on it – Harvey – and a phone number. “I live up the road, only a couple of miles from here,” he said. “Call me next time you need a ride to the airport.”

An expensive shirt. A Rolex. A business card with only his first name and a phone number. If Harvey wasn’t the richest limo driver in the world, he was at least doing a good job impersonating him.

He had said he lived “a couple of miles up the road” from us. That meant Gulfstream or Manalapan. Could Harvey own one of those $20 million homes on the beach? If so, he would have to have a minimum net worth of $100 million.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get Harvey out of my mind. Was he really rich or just a bullshit artist? And if he was rich, how rich was he?

If nothing else, I concluded, he got me thinking about what I want from my life and what I’m doing about it.

Today’s Action Plan: My conversation with Harvey raised some interesting questions:

What would you do if you had all the money you needed?

What parts of your present life would you keep?

What parts would you change?

And what entirely new things would you do?

Think about it. And, if you like, e-mail your thoughts to me at ReaderFeedback@gmail.com. Include your name, hometown, and state… and we may run your response in an upcoming issue of ETR.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]