I was sitting watch in the corner of a distant gate in the Atlanta airport. Across from me sat a guy wearing expensive denim, bright pink socks, a blazer that was beautifully, almost comically, blue, and a white belt. There he sat, laptop hinged upon his folded legs, arms up on the seats next to him as if he were embracing two invisible pals. He’d slipped his shoes off, tucked them beneath his seat. Eating pistachios and watching Braveheart — so relaxed, so unstressed by the terminal bustle, that it looked like he owned the world, or at least the little part of it that concerned him. All that, and the backs of his hands were conspicuously tan. After a while, I named him, as if he were a character in my movie: He was the yachtsman.
It was just the two of us in the corner. Eventually we made eye contact, and I asked him: “What do you make?”
The yachtsman jerked an earbud free. “Excuse me?”
“How much you make?”
“You mean money?” He narrowed his eyes. He tilted his head. “What kind of question is that?”
“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“Are you talking to me about money? Are you actually asking me about money?” the yachtsman said. His other earbud fell out.
“Just asking,” I said.
He sniffed and then sighed, and leaned forward. His shirt pocket was monogrammed. (The yachtsman!) “Are you kidding?”
I was not. In fact, it was the only thing I wanted to know about him.
“The fuck with you,” he said. He punched his space bar, folded the computer, packed up his stuff, and left. He went to the opposite gate, to stare at me. Then stood and went to the gate agent and complained. I could hear only snatches of what he said. He used the word solicitation. He called me “this guy” and “that guy” both.
Way more than half a million, I figured, or something less than 75K.
Ask someone about their job and they’ll gladly say, I’m a schoolteacher. A systems analyst. I sell ad space. I make drums. Whatever. It’s a bland and familiar conversation starter. Ask “What do you make?” — not do, not craft, not produce, but make, as in pull down — and people smile wryly or look at you like you bit them. It’s a violation of code, mores, convention. But the response, or more often the lack of one, tells you something. And there’s always an answer, for every one of us. Standard or surprising, humiliating or completely secret.
Last month I was approached about a job. Out of the blue, the way it goes. We started talking and next thing I know, we’re all the way to the salary discussion. The number. I took it in, pretty certain I was supposed to be happy. Not bad at all, either. But hold on, I thought. Should I be happy? The number seemed good, but that was only relative to myself. When it comes to salary, my entire frame of reference was me. One person. What I make now, what I’ve made before, what I think I should make. How do I even make a judgment on what that should be? Not enough data. So I did what you would do. I made a couple calls — to friends, former colleagues — and tried to weasel some hard numbers. But then one afternoon, I asked a kid at a car-rental counter, got an answer, then turned to his boss, who was my age, and asked him. With that, I just started asking everyone. “How much do you make?” is a question — maybe the only question remaining — that you’re not supposed to ask. It poses a risk for both parties. But if there’s really power in knowing things, certainly there’s power in knowing another man’s salary. And when it comes to money going into my bank account, I like as much power as possible.
Lots of people answered with rules.
“You don’t ask a woman what she makes,” a colleague at my university declared. “It’s just rude. That’s just locker-room talk, where you guys compare dick size and that stuff.”
“Never ask a friend what he makes,” a guy I play cards with told me. “Never. You can ask your family. Your brothers. Your mother. But otherwise, no go.” He was looking at a cribbage hand, dropping a card in the crib. “Unless they’re retired. Then you can ask.” Why’s that? “Because it’s helpful then,” he said. “Because then we’re all in that together.”
“My father never told me what he made,” a plastics-plant manager said to me. “And I’m never going to tell my daughter. That’s the family thing.” And then he told me: “But I make a $90,000 base salary plus a programmed bonus structure based on a performance and safety record.”
How much is the bonus?
He goosed his eyebrows and gave me a rule. “Never tell your bonus!” he declared.
A golf pro said, “Isn’t there a saying? ‘Assholes and elbows’? Something like that.” No, I said. There isn’t a saying. “Still,” he said, “assholes and elbows about gets it, right?” He charged me sixty dollars for the next hour.
Nine-seventy an hour, plus tips,” a barista told me in Houston.
“Thirty-four five,” a fireman said. “Minus my freaking union dues.”
“Depending on overhead,” a contractor told me, “I might make a quarter million. But I always say might. Might. I might make eighty. Depends on weather. Everything is might.”
“You can find out online,” said a woman at the DMV. “There are no secrets here.”
“I make a lot less than you think,” said a high school teacher in Boulder, Colorado.
“I make a lot less than you think,” said a nurse practitioner in Indianapolis.
“I make so much less than you think,” a pulmonary specialist in my hometown told me while I was getting a breathing test. “Breathe.”
“How much do you think?” a guy painting curb stops in a parking garage asked me. “I’m down on my knees here. It’s about killing me.” Ten bucks an hour? “Not even,” he said, shaking his head.
At the interstate exit near my home, I asked a guy holding a sign saying he’d work for money. He looked up the off-ramp to see if he had a moment, answered me with an algebra equation. “When someone gives me a twenty, I usually double up and call it a day.” I was sorry to ask, I told him. “It’s all right,” he said. “I get asked that a lot. I get asked that probably more than anyone you know. People want to know. It’s natural.” He held his hands out helplessly. “None of it lasts long, right?”
But I gave him a twenty and said, “Can you quit for the day?”
He squinted at the thought. “Not hardly,” he said. “I gotta fill a prescription. I mean, I just got out here. And I have to be in New Mexico to meet my daughter by Wednesday.” I asked what he meant — did he have to get moving, or did he have to get more money?
“What do you make?” he replied. I thought it was quid pro quo, but it might have been a threat. I didn’t say. Then he asked for a ride to the pharmacy.
There are ways to goose the question so people are more likely to answer. Take out the particulars. Lose the you. Couch it in terms of a job, a career, an employer. What’s this sort of job pay? Or, Could I make a decent living working for Nordstrom? Often enough, people will answer with what you really want to know — the number. Conspiring is always more fun than confessing.
“I make thirty-two thousand,” a science teacher at a private boarding school told me. “It’s really criminal. I have a master’s degree. But I tell myself I don’t care about the money. But really. It’s pretty shocking, no? Thirty-two thousand? You wouldn’t do it, would you?” Right. And maybe not. But I got the number. At least I thought I did, until he said, “Luckily, I have the Air Force pension.”
“What’s that make?” I asked.
This time he shrugged. “Enough,” he said.
The most common answer of them all, this foot in the door, the exclamation point of limits. Enough. It is a kind of command to stop with the questions and a declaration of being okay with the world. True or not, it ends things, every time.
Of course, it didn’t always work. Many people simply refused. A few people walked right past me. And more than once I lost my nerve. With the richest people I asked, I was often the least bold, because it always sounded like I was asking out of envy. I tried to be bloodless and anthropological, but I know it wasn’t a scientific, nor even particularly persistent, study. It’s a question people never hear. Most often, the response becomes a question: Are you crazy? Why would I tell you that? Why do you want to know?
At a valet-parking stand at a hotel in Cincinnati, I asked a woman. No particular reason, no apparent clues other than a decent pantsuit, nice shoes, and a laptop slung over her shoulder.
“Don’t you mean What do I do?” she said.
“No,” I said. “What do you make?”
“I don’t make anything,” she said. “I work for a health-insurance provider, running program checks for in-service compliance of home health-care workers and blah, blah, blah…” Not what I asked. “So, what?” I said. “Like thirty-eight?”
She looked at me when she realized I was talking about money and said exactly what we were both thinking. “You’re really annoying.”
“I’m just asking.”
Her car wheeled around, bags loaded. She set her coffee on top of the car, driver’s side, took out her phone, and texted someone. “I created a proprietary program,” she said. “I own it.” She plucked her coffee and hipped down toward the driver’s seat. “So it’s more than that.”
“More than what? Owning it?”
“More than thirty-eight,” she said before she ducked away. She rolled down her passenger-side window. “A lot more.” Really annoying, that answer.
Is it a smart question to ask? A smart one to answer? Yes and no.
Years ago, I was asked by a colleague at a job I loved. He was sheepish, even apologetic with the ask, but I didn’t care. We were in a cab, returning from a burger place he liked, which turned out to be not all that good. He’d contritely offered to pay. And maybe I was left with that, the pose of modesty, but I’ll admit that it seemed refreshing that he would inquire, kind of honest and clear. So I answered with my number after he promised to tell me his in return. It all felt silly to me, like a big exercise in You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.
He made more than I did. Two and a half times more. But since I wasn’t working full time and he was well established, I didn’t think my number was all that bad. And I thought it was gracious that I didn’t get upset. It may seem weird that I was happy enough with the knowledge that I made so much less. But I was. He, however, spent the rest of the ride speaking mostly to himself about a set of inequities I did not quite understand. “I’m going to have to speak to someone about this,” he said. “Thanks, man, that really helps me.”
What a mistake. I knew that before the cab stopped. He walked in and got a raise that year. He had his math. I spent years trying to forget his number, and for a time became consumed by mine. Truth is, he asked an excellent question, which I answered like a blind goat. So: Is it a smart question to ask? A smart one to answer? Yes and no. Those are my exact answers. Respectively. Precisely. Yes and no. And this is how rules are born.
I didn’t take that job, the one that set this whole experiment into motion. I became so obsessed with the offer — whether the job would pay me enough compared with some phantom determination of good money — that I lost sight of what the job would be. In another state, for one thing, and requiring administrative duties I didn’t want. It wasn’t for me. I looked at what I already make. And I looked at the life I already live. I didn’t want to change things for a better number. I like my life. There is no number that would describe it.
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