The better-off should set a better example

    Somewhere along the road recently traveled, noblesse oblige became "No, bless me as I please."

    Or at least thatís my observation in this dispatch from Darien, Connecticutís 2nd  most wealthy town. It would probably be number one, but New Canaan has David Letterman.  No town is a monolith of course, and quite a few charitable souls reside here, but still . . .

    The well-to-do used to have an unwritten rule against the conspicuous display of wealth. Oh sure, there was the verbal equivalent of a secret handshake Ė a casual reference to having gone to Choate or the family "cottage" on the Vineyard, but these signs were exchanged only between members of the club. Lesser-off people were left in blissful ignorance.

    I grew up in Hartfordís best neighborhood where along our streets resided the Governor, the Catholic Archbishop (when we were little we thought it belonged to a family named the Bishops and wondered why they didnít have kids), and a whole slew of doctors, lawyers, judges and corporate executives.

    And I attended a private high school where many of my classmatesí patriarchs held similar socioeconomic status. My pal Shafer grew up a few doors down (he would say up) from me and attended the same high school. He and I were recently trying to recall how many fathers drove Cadillacs or Lincolns Ė nobody had BMWís or Mercedesí in those days except maybe some escaped war criminals living in Argentina.

    There were a few, but generally the most flashy automotive display was a top-of-the-line Buick or a Ford Country Squire station wagon.

    Times have changed. Of the roughly 17,000 vehicles registered to Darienís 6600 households, 1000 of them are BMWís. In round figures, there are 750 Mercedes, 460 Lexusí and 450 Audis. A mere 180 Cadillacs cruise the local boulevards. So much for the pride of Detroit.

    But a more significant figure in terms of an insouciance to the needs of the common folk is the number of giant-sized SUVís. Not your relatively mid-sized Ford Explorers or Jeep Cherokees, but the vehicular Delta Burkes and Mama Cassí Ė Suburbans, Expeditions, Tahoes, Land Cruisers and their upscale counterparts from Lincoln and Lexus.

    1000 of these 3-ton monsters are erranding about this town, often wielded by cell phone-chatting mommies. Iíd feel safer wearing the wrong colors to a Bloods or Latin Kings convention than I do crossing the street. Ask a motorcyclist what he fears the most.

    Especially styliní are the ones equipped with brush guards to protect the front grill and headlights from tree branches when off-road around here at most means a gravel driveway. Suburban "offroaders" make me think of surfers, who apply the term "hodads" to folks who donít actually surf but like to pose around the beach with their boards.

    Some people like the "sitting above traffic" aspect to these vehicles, but if you can see over everyone else, they canít see around you. Itís hard to come up with a better example of violating the Golden Rule, but thatís not the main thing.

    If you were to ask the drivers of these vehicles if they would voluntarily join an organization that extorts $100 or $150 every year from Connecticutís lower-income families, they would of course vehemently decline the offer. But that is, at least to an arguable extent, exactly what they do.

    According to a report recently released from the Consumer Federation of America, the biggest factor in gasoline price rises in the last decade is the increase of miles driven in low-mileage, big SUVís. Households with incomes over $75,000 spend less than 2% of their budgets on fuel, while poorer families spend up to 10%.

    The study claims that struggling families have to come up with an extra $150 for gasoline that they could have spent elsewhere, on things like food, a couple of years ago.

    Now, all of us do some things that negatively impact our fellow citizens, but it certainly does no harm to ask how we could cut back on some of these preferences. A mini-van, for example can carry as many kids as a Suburban and does so at a higher fuel economy.

    In my more optimistic days, I compare the popular pageant of prodigality to that urban fad of toting enormous portable stereos around on the shoulder. Only the people who did it didnít find it intrusive (or maybe they did). Eventually though, the practice passed from fashion.

    People can and do become better and smarter -- with their own lives and consequently in the ways they have an impact on their fellow human beings. Most of the robber barons eventually turned to philanthropy. Better late than never.

    To the manor born Ė or elevated Ė should always include a obligation to think about plain old good manners as well.


July 20, 2001