Thursday, February 28, 2019
Call it implicit bias. Maybe it’s profiling. The fact is I can’t tell one billionaire bald guy from the next. It’s a bigger problem than you might think.
Early Sunday morning, two weeks ago, I was shopping at Smart & Final on Gutierrez Street. I was stocking up on beans and beer and enjoying a little Sabbath solitude. But there in the aisle where pink pastries are sold, I encountered none other than Thomas Barrack II — investment mogul, owner of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, and most infamously, friend, advisor, and consigliore to Donald Trump and the chair of Trump’s inaugural committee. The guy had Barrack’s signature chrome dome; he had the same telltale squint lines, common to all visionaries who stare off into the future. And even on a cold, gray Sunday morning, the guy exuded all the gracious masculine ease that makes Barrack so irresistible.
Still, it seemed a little improbable that a guy whose company, Colony Capital, oversees in the neighborhood of $44 billion would be wandering the aisles of a low-end bulk food store. I checked again. He looked the same age as Barrack — 71 — and was fit and trim like Barrack. He wore black athletic warm-up pants and was sporting a ball cap bearing some horse-related logo. Barrack, as everyone knows, is nuts about polo. He plays all the time; he owns his own team.
An intimate moment was taking place in front of me involving a man and his pastries. I didn’t want to intrude. Had I known then what I’ve since learned, however, it might have made more sense. Barrack has hit hard times. In fact, he just put Michael Jackson’s famed Neverland Ranch — which, in light of resurgent allegations of the pop star’s pedophilia, they’ve attempt to rebrand as the “Sycamore Valley Ranch” — on the market for a scant $31 million; that’s $69 million less than the asking price just a few years ago. In recent months, Barrack has been dragged in front of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquisition chambers, where he was questioned about foreign agents seeking to curry favor with the Trump administration by making big donations. On that Sunday morning, Barrack had recently shocked the planet by trivializing the bloody bone-saw assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a great irritant to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. “Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal, or worse, to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia,” Barrack said, thus generating a wind storm of outrage and backpedaling that could power Melbourne, Australia, for three weeks. One day after, Barrack clarified that Khashoggi’s lethal communion with power tools was both “atrocious and inexcusable.”
Barrack’s initial remarks should not have surprised anyone. Barrack was the one, after all, who in 2016 introduced then candidate Donald Trump to then political consultant Paul Manafort to briefly run Trump’s presidential campaign. That’s the same Manafort who got puppets of Vladimir Putin “elected” in Ukraine and the very same Manafort who so softened the Republican Party’s denunciation of Putin after he invaded Ukraine. Manafort is now pleading for leniency from the judge who could put him behind bars for 22 years for multiple counts of tax fraud and lying to investigators. For more than 20 years, Manafort was part of something known as “The Torturers’ Lobby,” representing some of the bloodiest dictators in the world. He was proud of it. I would say it’s a little late to talk about mercy with the likes of Paul Manafort.
Just as I was getting ready to shout out, “Hey, Tom!” at Smart & Final, I panicked. What if the guy in front of me was really Jeff Bezos, the famously shiny-pated executron of Amazon? I froze.
Amazon, not coincidentally, is about to lay down some heavy footprints in downtown Santa Barbara in the Saks Off 5th building, emerging as State Street’s savior only after its online sales machine has laid waste to Santa Barbara’s retail core and that of thousands of other American downtowns. No one knows if a fulfillment center will go on the ground floor. But the upper floors will be occupied by hundreds of highly paid Artificial Intelligence geeks figuring out new things Alexa, Amazon’s omniscient android help-mate, can do for us that we should be doing for ourselves.
The good news? Downtown could soon be hopping with warm young bodies with lots of spending power. The bad news? With a sudden influx of young, eager-beaver Alexa acolytes making up to $150,000, get ready for Santa Barbara’s ambient rents to escalate.
As you know, Bezos — owner of the Washington Post — has just declared war on the National Enquirer — Trump’s personal newspaper and one of only a small handful of papers aside from the Santa Barbara News-Press to actually endorse Trump. The Enquirer outed an affair Bezos had been having with a television news star named Lauren Sanchez. Coincidentally — and more to the point — the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, recently published a glossy, expensive-looking magazine extolling the visionary virtues of the new Saudi regime. This coincidence prompted both the Saudi government and American Media to deny that the Saudi government had any role leaking news of the Bezos affair. That, of course, confirms that it did. The Post has spared little ink denouncing the Saudi government for the mutilation of its columnist.
Not wanting to embarrass myself by confusing Bezos for Barrack, I bit my tongue. Two homeless guys pushing a shopping cart in the checkout line next to me did not. They let me know they approved of my choice in beer. The bottles, they said, were especially heavy. Just 30 of them could fetch $7 in recycling money. And the beer, they said, was good too.
And as it turns out, they were right.