Bruce runs an organic vegetable operation a few miles from me. His farm is bigger than mine, and busier. Flocks of minimum-wage workers toil in the fields while Bruce is inside, striking deals on the phone or tidying his website. He trucks his fruits and vegetables to San Francisco, where the citizens are accustomed to being fleeced, and he asks outlandish prices with a straight face.
In the theater of direct selling, he is a great actor and he has studied every detail. The carefully battered hat, the trace of an English accent, the way he holds a bunch of kale close to himself and makes the customer reach for it, teases her a little, acts as if it is a prized possession with which he is reluctant to part — all these are calculated to give an impression of heightened value. He calls eggplant “aubergine,” which he takes as license to charge three dollars a pound instead of a dollar like everyone else.
Perhaps Bruce has noticed that in our society there is almost no relationship between the contribution a person makes and how much he is paid, and under the circumstances, why not stand in the ranks of the overpaid? Picking the pockets of the rich is a fine old tradition. It can seem almost an act of kindness. Many of his customers use price as a surrogate for value. “These three-dollar-a-pound aubergines must be truly exceptional to command such a price,” they think, and enjoy and appreciate accordingly.
But I have to wonder: If I could be charging three dollars a pound for eggplant, why do I charge only a dollar? I do not have a good answer to this, except to say that three dollars a pound sounds too high. There’s a note of arrogance to it. And it implies a more important position in society than I feel that I have. In the utopia envisioned by B. F. Skinner in Walden Two, citizens earned credits in society according to the onerousness of the tasks they performed. Gardening was awarded hardly any credit, as it was judged to be too pleasurable. I, too, have noticed that the rewards of truck farming are mostly not financial ones. I work at home in comfortable old clothes. No commute, no necktie: that alone is worth $10,000 a year, and defrays a low price on the produce.
Most people do not think of themselves as wealthy. The rheumatologist who is paid $200,000 a year looks at the plastic surgeon down the hall who makes $400,000 and thinks to himself, “I’m not all that well off, not really rich.” And the plastic surgeon looks at the health insurance executive making a million and a half, and thinks the same thing. But I tend to cast my glance downward, at the poor devils toiling in cubicles for a low wage, or slamming together burgers in a fast-food joint, or driving a stinking, vibrating truck for endless miles, and I think, “How lucky I am, how incessantly well off.” If such a one came to my stand and I was offering eggplant at three dollars a pound, how could I look him in the eye?
Bruce runs his business in cash, and I imagine that he has a satchel full of thousand-dollar bills under his mattress. I do not suppose that this makes his bed any warmer on a winter night, nor makes the sun shine more brightly on his fields than on mine, nor makes a peach taste more sweet. Where Bruce has the clear advantage is in the word: “aubergine,” a lovely, musical word, almost a poem unto itself, especially compared to the inharmonious Anglo-Saxonism “eggplant.” I believe that I too will take to calling that lustrous black fruit an “aubergine.” But I will keep my price at a dollar a pound.
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