I’ve been thinking lately about one of my relatives, now of blessed memory. This woman was gracious and kind. Her clothes and makeup were always impeccable; her home was well decorated and welcoming. When you went over for tea, the cups would be porcelain, and the utensils would be sterling silver. The sweetener would come in white paper packets, embossed with the Golden Arches, most likely pilfered from the nearby McDonald’s where she and her girls would go for coffee, and woe betide the server who failed to offer them the senior discount.
This was a woman who could afford to buy a bag of sugar. But she wouldn’t dream of it. Maybe it was Depression-era thrift, or maybe it was the tiny thrill of a tiny theft, the minute dopamine rush you get when you do something that isn’t exactly stealing but isn’t entirely legitimate either.
Her quirk was far from unique. We’ve all seen (or maybe even carried) pocketbooks full of stolen Sweet’N Low or used a guest bathroom where the towels were Egyptian cotton, the countertops were Carrara marble and the soap was a tiny rectangle from a Holiday Inn Express.
The rich are different. Some of them drop six figures to get their children into a college where they didn’t earn a spot.
And some of them seem to be cheap about the weirdest things. There’s our president, who likes to brag about his tremendous fortune and who has twice served an assortment of fast food to championship college football players who came to call. Maybe Mr. Trump, a fast-food aficionado himself, believed that the spread was exactly what the athletes wanted. And maybe it was.
But we know that Mr. Trump has bragged about underpaying contractors who he has said have done shoddy work and has cut workers’ benefits and salaries, being cheap in a way that causes pain and suffering.
We also know that he pretty much lives to troll. So it’s hard for me not to read the bargain-menu feast as intended, at the very least, to enrage the libs and, as a bonus, keep costs down, too.
But maybe Mr. Trump’s behavior makes a kind of sense when you put it in the context of the billionaire thrift-boast, the 0.001 percent variation on the humblebrag. See, for example, Warren Buffett and his reported $18 haircuts, or how he never pays more than $3.17 for breakfast. Or Jeff Bezos, letting the world know about his $81,840 annual salary from Amazon. The Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, flew coach and bought his clothes at flea markets. Queen Elizabeth II is said to reuse wrapping paper. Stars in jewels and couture scarf In-N-Out burgers on their way home from the Oscars.
See? they are saying. Of course we could afford caviar or a fancy car or a fresh roll of wrapping paper. Fame and fortune haven’t changed us. Deep down, we’re just like you!
Which brings us to Robert Kraft, a 77-year-old billionaire, Donald Trump pal, New England Patriots owner and, apparently, a fellow cheap senior. Last month Mr. Kraft was swept up in a statewide sting operation and charged with soliciting sex in a South Florida strip mall. Mr. Kraft is an undisputed billionaire. If he wants to pay for sex, he could hire the most discreet, professional escorts. If it had to be sex with someone at a strip mall, he could have probably bought the entire strip mall — nail salon, Outback Steakhouse and all.
But according to the prosecutors, that’s not what happened. Instead, they say, for two days in a row he visited a seedy-looking storefront called Orchids of Asia Spa, where he spent less than 20 minutes per visit and paid between $100 and $200 for these encounters, one of which involved oral sex, with women who were, according to the police, prisoners, brought over from China with the promise of legitimate jobs.
These women’s lives sound miserable. They were flown to America. Many were routed through Flushing, Queens, then dispatched to spas all over the country. They would work up to 14-hour days, seven days a week, cooking their meals on hot plates, sleeping on the massage tables, being moved from business to business, sometimes after they’d surrendered their passports to their bosses.
Mr. Kraft wasn’t the only superrich guy who was caught up in this investigation: John Childs, who founded a private equity firm, and John Havens, the former chief financial officer of Citigroup, were also charged.
Mr. Kraft and Mr. Childs have denied the charges. The police say they have taped evidence. But the allegations do present this tantalizing question: If these men are indeed guilty, why are billionaires, with all the discretionary income in the world to pay for sex in a way that’s sane and unlikely to get them in trouble, seemingly looking for intimate companionship and a bargain at the same time? Of all the things to skimp on, why sex?
Maybe the cheapness is part of the fun. Maybe strip-mall sex lets jaded, wealthy men feel as if they’re getting away with something, giving them the same tiny thrill enjoyed by every little old lady with a purse full of purloined Panera napkins.
Maybe it speaks to a puritanical ambivalence about pleasure: The seedy surroundings allow you to simultaneously have your cake and feel bad about eating it, too.
Perhaps it’s the cautionary example Mr. Trump provides. His presidency, of course, has been plagued by revelations that his fixer arranged for significant hush money payments to two women with whom Mr. Trump allegedly had affairs.
A professional escort (or even just a native, English-speaking one) might be tempted to try for a similar arrangement. And even if she doesn’t, her client presumably would still have to talk to her, to look her in the face and discuss terms, negotiate limits or even just say, “Be quiet, ‘Shark Week’ is on.” No matter how skewed the power dynamics, no matter how briefly, the client has to see her as a person.
A woman in a place like Orchids of Asia who might not be in the country legally and doesn’t speak your language? She probably doesn’t seem like a threat in the same way. In the eyes of her clients, I imagine, she isn’t a person you’d have to send your lawyer after to pay off, she is barely a person at all.
If a man, even a billionaire, wants to buy sex, I’ve got no quarrel, as long as both parties are of age and willing. But that same billionaire skimping and paying a relatively paltry amount to a woman who doesn’t want to be there and can’t leave? That’s something else.
Same with the sugar. When your elderly relatives take a few extra napkins from a fast-food place, that’s one thing. But what if they load up at a mom-and-pop restaurant and take the napkin dispenser, too?
Cheap can be charming, and quirky, or at least understandable. But cutting corners at the expense of small-business owners or casino workers or Trump University students who think they’ll be getting an education is different. Helping yourself to free napkins is one thing; underpaying a prostitute or a victim of sex trafficking? That kind of cheap is a lot harder to understand.
Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Hungry Heart” and a contributing opinion writer.
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