How much do you make?

esq-qI 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.

Read more: How Much do you Make? – Esquire
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  • behind da barz

    --------the chemicals R identical, we're one & the same / with 7 letters in all 3 of my government names / walked on water, nah, neither did jesus / its a parable to make followers & readers believers--------i gave her my honorable discharge & she took it like a soldier--------what's a black beetle anyway, a fuckin roach-------she told the director she tryna get in a school-he said "take them glasses off and get in the pool"---------what ya'll call swag to me is faggotry-------my outfit so disrespectful / u go 'head n sneeze let my presence bless u--------its quite amazing that u rhyme like u do / & how u shine like u grew up in a shrine in peru-------its hard fuckin with niggaz u hope u can trust / ure a fool if ure main bitch is easy to fuck--------beyond the walls of intelligence life is divine / i think of crime when im in a new york state of mind - ------THE WAY SOME ACT IN RAP IS KINDA WACK / IT LACKS CREATIVITY & INTELLIGENCE / BUT THEY DON'T CARE BECAUSE THEIR COMPANY IS SELLING IT / ITS MY PHILOSOPHY ON THE INDUSTRY--------From days I wasn't "Abel/able", there was always "Cain/caine-------know how to leave anything in 30 seconds / when you feel the heat coming & flee with the murder weapon--------ayo my silent moments' loud as the crack of thunder / my hunger like the crocodile that attacked the hunter-------i'm something between platinum & flop, underground & mainstream / conscious, backpack, scratch dat; same thing---------this phiscal year im'a stay hot, buzzin / wit dudes that help me shoot like a-rod's cousin-------i fight chicks who bite dicks / give 'em lock-jaw then make 'em fight pits ------all we see is terrorism on telievision ------i'm da illest nigga alive watch me prove it / i'll snatch your crown with your head still attatched to it ------slap your face till your head ache your neck break / the next day slash your throat thru the neckbrace ------ I'm ahead of the game, ahead of these lames / I'm a head case, the head nurse gets me better with brain ------ure now dealin with da kid who heat-holds & reloads / like god gave him a gta ammunition cheat-code ------once upon a time i used to grind all night / with dat coke residue that was ipod white ------ --i took trips with so much shit in the whip / that if the cops pulled us over the dogs would get sick (sniff) ------ i put my lifetime in between the paper's lines / i'm da quiet storm nigga who fight rhyme ------brain cells are lit ideas start to hit / next the formation of words dat fit / at da table i sit making it legit / when my pen hits da paper...aah shit -------i save money while u spendin ure doe / i must stash like da hair between your lip & your nose ------age don't count in the booth / when your flow stayed submerged in the fountain of youth -------when i'm writing i'm trapped in between the lines / i escape when i finish da rhyme - ------if we can't eat together then u aint my mans / so when u see me in da streets dont shake my hand- -----money is da root of all evil / dats why u always gotta now where u stand with your people--------i can show u how to gamble your money, handle a gun / & be a family man & go home to your sun- -------black diamonds in my jesus-piece / MY GOD-------its like da ball be over the plate & they dont call it a strike- ------i'm a gangsta & a gentleman, show you both sides of the coin / knife at your throat-gun at your groin- --------my testimonial be "death to a phony mc / you wanna impress me, show me a ki--------lord knows what homey would do if i showed him da 9 / a one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind--------on da road to riches & diamond rings / in the land of the blind a man with one eye is the king--------you lack the minerals & vitamins, iron & the niacin--------stares get exchanged then the 5th come out / the tough guy disappears then the bitch come out--------if you got a bith you dont argue with dat bitch / you dont listen to dat bitch all you do is fuck dat bitch-------know da bitch b4 you call yourself lovin it / nogga wit a benz fuckin it------went from $20Gs for blow to $30gs a show / to orgies wit hoes i never seen befo'-------i'm intelectual; passed more essays / than police motorcade parades thru east l.a.-------DEAD IN THE MIDDLE OF LITTLE ITALY LITTLE DID WE KNOW / WE RIDDLED SOME MIDDLE-MAN WHO DIDN'T DO DIDDLY-------visualizing the realism of life in actuality / fuck who's da baddest; a person's status depends on salary-------mechanical movement, understandable smooth shit / that murderers move with-the thief's theme--------DEEP LIKE "THE SHINING" SPARKLE LIKE A DIAMOND / SNEAK AN UZI ON DA ISLAND IN MY ARMY JACKET LINING / HIT THE EARTH LIKE A COMET - INVASION / NAS IS LIKE THE AFRO-CENTRIC ASIAN; ½ MAN, ½ AMAZING-------& why certainly i'm squirtin / bust a nut then get up & wipe my dick on your curtain-------walk by your casket & spit in your face--------i know how to get my peers off me / make 'em cry & die from high blood-pressure cuz tears are salty-------i'm not trying to give you love & affection / i'm tryna give you 60 seconds of erection / then im'a give you cab fare & directions / get your independent ass outta here - question?---------black cat is bad luck; bad guys wear black / must've been a white guy who started all that--------either you're slinging crack-rocks or you got a wicked jumpshot--------all us blacks got is sports & entertainment--------2 many athletes, actors & rappers / but not enough niggaz at nasa - ------why did bush knock down the towers?--------I REACT LIKE MIKE / ANY ONE TY-SON, JOR-DAN, JACK-SON / action, pack gunz, ridiculous--------all the teachers couldn't reach me & my mom couldn't beat me / hard enough to make up for my pop not seeing me---------kings from queens, from queens comes kings / we're raising hell like a class when the lunch bell rings---------excuse me miss, can i give you a minute? / may i buy you a glass of ice with liquor in it?--------what goes around comes around i figure / now we got white kids calling themselves nigga / the tables turn as the crosses burn...---------YOU LOVE TO HEAR THE STORY AGAIN & AGAIN / OF HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED WAY BACK WHEN--------i guess they got a grudge cause i won't budge / playin tough, staring down the judge with my hands cuffed---------A CHILD IS BORN WITH NO STATE OF MIND / BLIND TO THE WAYS OF MANKIND--------who shot biggie smalls? if we don't get them they gon' get us all / i'm down to run up pn them crackers in their city hall----------its kinda hard to be optimistic / when your homey is laying dead in a casket----------they say the blacker the berry; the sweeter the juice / i say the darker the flesh; then the deeper the roots---------i took your breath away then we'd perform cpr---------there's no real way it can be explained / i guess its just the way i smile when i hear your name--------CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME / C.R.E.A.M. GET THE MONEY, DOLLAR DOLLAR BILL Y'AAAAALL------------see I’m a poet to some, a regular modern day shakespeare / jesus christ the king of these latter day saints here / To shatter the picture in which of that as they paint me as / a monger of hate and satan a scatter-brained atheist--------i remember marvin gaye used to sing to me / he had me feeling like black was the thing to be------------this be that put-you-out-your-misery song / that makes you ask your man 'is this the joint he's dissin me on?'---------foul all your life now ure 90 / on ure death bed u regret being grimey---------INDUSTRY RULE #4080, RECORD COMPANY PEOPLE ARE SHAAADYYYY / so kids watch your back cause i think they smoke crack---------society's a weak excuse for a man-----------planet earth my place of birth / born to be the sole controller of the universe---------the mic had my prints, on on it was a body---------a squealer tells, but the dealer still sells---------some young male put in jail / lawyer so good his bail was on sale----------i'm just takin a piss......unless you're gonna do it----------fuck street clothes, we thug it out in tuxedos / stomp niggaz with hard bottoms in casinos--------people higher up have the lowest self-esteem / & the prettiest people do the ugliest things-----------IF YOU ADMIRE SOMEONE YOU SHOULD GO 'HEAD & TELL 'EM / PEOPLE NEVER GET THE ROSES WHILE THEY CAN STILL SMELL 'EM-----------goddamn, what a nigga gotta do to make a million / without the fbi catching feelings--------i got a story to tell / in these streets we got drugs & guns for sale---------we keep the nine tucked chop dimes up rap about it / wild out fuck niggaz up laugh about it---------- read between tha lines of ya eyes and ya brows / ya handshake aint matchin ya smile---------what the fuck i rap for? to push a fuckin rav-4?-------fuck all the glamour & glitz, i plan to get rich / i'm from new york & never was a fan of the knicks----------the white boy blossomed after dre endorsed him / his flow on renegade-fuckin awesome...applaud him-------before i start you know i gotta / pay homage & respects to afrika bambaata---------DRUGS IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS / MONEY IS THE KEY TO SEX------i pimped my crib so i must exhibit------- I - WILL - NOT - LOSE !
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