Dear Jeff

An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos (retired)

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 12, 2004, I was in a taxi in New York City. Riding by one of those exclusive high-rise residences, I saw a middle-aged woman standing over to my right. She was well dressed and meticulously groomed. What I’ll never forget was her face: smooth, polished, burnished, perfect. I thought, “Wow. That’s what real money can do.” But she looked sad. That’s why I’ll never forget that moment (time of day approximate), and that’s when I stopped envying the rich.

Jeffrey Preston Jørgensen had much in common with the rest of us. His mother had him when she was 17, divorced after a year with his father, married a Cuban immigrant when Jeff was 4; the step-father soon adopted the child and changed his last name to Bezos. The family moved around a bit: Albuquerque, Houston, Miami. Jeff worked at a McDonald’s. He was the high school valedictorian (no, I wasn’t either, but I’ve known some). When he got to Princeton, he decided his choice of major (physics) was too hard and changed to something else (electrical engineering and computer science). Even if he is a genius, he has limitations. He is a long-time fan of Star Trek. He married, had children, divorced. He named his new company Cadabra at first (as in abracadabra), but it sounded like “cadaver” on the phone. He chose Amazon because it started with an A, because of the river, and because it sounded exciting and exotic. Just as any of us would have done.

On the other hand, there are many things about Bezos that are remarkable. When he was a toddler in his crib, he used a screwdriver to modify it and designed an alarm system to know what his siblings were doing. He was so focused in kindergarten that his teachers would have to pick up his chair with him in it to move him to the next activity. He memorized all the defensive football plays and was put in charge of that side of the team. (An interesting article here.) His maternal grandfather was a regional director for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; his stepfather, an engineer for Exxon. Yes, he and his wife of 25 years divorced, but the Saudis outed his affair and National Enquirer did an exposé. There may be a link between that incident and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Bezos-owned Washington Post journalist. He just donated $200 million to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the largest gift since James Smithson’s founding donation in 1846. If my math is correct, that is about .001% of his fortune, which is like someone with $50,000 giving $50.

While building a business from scratch in your garage sounds average, no retail enterprise on earth comes close to Amazon. Yes, he likes Star Trek. Who doesn’t? But he got to play an alien in Star Trek Beyond, thereby checking that off his bucket list. Chris Pine said this: “I was there for the bit with his, like, nine bodyguards and three limos. It was really intense. … I had no idea who he was. Not a clue. But he was obviously very important.” Important? Incredibly wealthy at least. Finally, he gets to go into space briefly on July 20. On the rocket his money built. Which may change space travel as we know it. Other than that, he’s just a regular guy that Chris Pine didn’t recognize.

At 4 a.m. one day (time of day accurate), I ordered three cable management kits from Amazon. They were on my porch by 7 a.m. How is that even possible? Amazon makes shopping—and shipping— a totally different experience than only a few years ago. I even remember when only books were sold, a boon to my college freshmen. Now, I rarely buy anything without checking Amazon first. I know only one person who doesn’t shop there purposefully; this site and this give valid reasons. Wikipedia has an entire entry (with 237 reference links) titled “Criticism of Amazon.” A few days ago, President Biden signed an executive order regarding mergers and monopolies which will ultimately affect Amazon. And 159,598 people (when last checked) have signed a petition asking that Bezos not be allowed to come back from space. Apparently, lots of people still envy and/or hate the rich.

The upshot of all this is the feeling that I am probably not the one to write Jeff Bezos. I have because I said I would. I hope he and the others make it home safely. Maybe one of you has something more to say to him than I could manage. If you don’t know who Wally Funk is, you need to. She’s our neighbor over in Roanoke. After tomorrow, everyone will know her. The last words below, by the way, are Bezos’s mottoes, the second in Latin—Gradatim ferociter. Maybe instead of all those billions we’re not going to get, we just need to get ourselves a Latin motto. Maybe Excelsior! New York has it, Stan Lee used it, but ever upward is the place to be.

 

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Congratulations on so many things: retirement of a sort, a realized dream of a trip into space, and the service your company gave during the pandemic. Best wishes to you going forward.

Thank you for inviting Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk along on your flight. No one would have said anything if you hadn’t, but so many of us are thrilled that you did.

Recently at a party, someone stretched our perception skills to visualize a trillion dollars. It’s staggering. The prediction, predictably, was that you would be the world’s first trillionaire. What came next, predictably, was the suggestion that no one should have that much money. I defended you, suggesting that it is none of our business how much your business is worth. Some see the economy as a pie, with a limited amount of wealth that must be divided. Mark Hennessey used a different metaphor. He described the economy as a garden that must be tended in order to prosper. The result is not a piece of something limited but a stake in something that can provide for all.

That said, it is also important to share what other people are saying. Some who are bothered by the money (you really did work hard for it) suggest that the money does not give you the authority to set priorities for the rest of us. At times, offering an opinion on the lives of others offends. The phrase “Keep on your side of the street” applies. What you’ve done, you’ve done extremely well. We see; we admire. Anything else is not needed.

Amazon offers excellent pay and benefits. With 1.3 million (and counting) employees, this will always be important. No one can plan for the bad optics of an occasional anecdote. However, when too many people say “I heard Amazon doesn’t give bathroom breaks,” that’s what people remember. Encourage a business culture that reflects caring for the individual beyond pay and benefits.

It is incredibly presumptuous to offer you advice—so many sentences with an unspoken “do it this way.” You’ve changed the world. When you see the Earth this week—the world you’ve changed—you will see in those few minutes a beauty the most of us cannot imagine. By report, those who have find the experience humbling. It’s more than an item off a bucket list. It’s a real accomplishment. As you minimize regrets and tread step by step, ferociously, I and millions of others will be thinking of you.

 

Best regards,

Mary Ann Taylor

The Shirt

The Shirt: n. 1. a person who represents authority and/or special knowledge and/or training/employment and by putting on the signifier of that authority etc. becomes, symbolically, the source of that authority. The actual “shirt” can also be a nametag, hat, uniform, grooming (haircut/facial hair/tattoos, etc.) or any other recognizable identifier. Usually capitalized. Often derogatory. Compare “The Suit.” Origin: Combined form, first attested mid-21st century, southern California. “The Shirt said it couldn’t be repaired and would have to be replaced.”

Not to single out women as victims, of course, but most of us don’t know anything about our cars. Yes, I do know one woman who can change her oil AND install brake pads. I myself have been trained in changing a tire (1990, Relief Society Homemaking Meeting, church parking lot). Still, women are more likely not to know anything about mechanical problems, for example, making us perhaps more vulnerable to whatever The Shirt may tell us.

The Shirt, therefore, implies authority, whether deserved or not. In season 2, episode 13 of Roseanne (“Chicken Hearts,” 1990), we see her working at one of her serial, menial jobs. The boss, Brian (Peter Smith) is a kid, really, just finishing high school. Roseanne has reminded him that she can’t work weekends because she has a family.  As “The Shirt,” he can say the following: “You are paid to follow my orders!” She can put him in his place (her shirt is a yellow and red affair with a stuck-on chicken logo) not just because of their history but because of her one-liner, “You got a big booger hanging outta your nose.” (This clip is bad and ends with Brian’s comment.) He runs off to strong laughter, and Roseanne earns the respect of her workmates. Of course, he gets the last word when he fires her later, citing her bad attitude. He is an example of a bad shirt.

Few of us, however, can think that quickly. Most, when confronted by authority, acquiesce. Last year was different. During the pandemic, stories arose of what might be mandatory-mask attacks on employees. This article from last year includes a Texas story. A customer in our nearby Cedar Hill angrily pushed a young woman employee down when she pointed him to the door when he refused to put on a mask. Sadly, incredibly, people have been killed in arguments about masking.

More common, I expect, were the newly-empowered employees “reminding” customers to mask up. Irritating, but endurable. At the end, I was only pretending to put on hand sanitizer at entrances when “invited” to do so. Power corrupts, etc.

Usually, the guy/gal in the shirt (or with the nametag or in a company lab coat) commands our respect. We assume a certain level of training and expertise. For plumbers and electricians, we know of state-mandated licensing. But we are surrounded by much more daily opportunities. These days, our cars are smarter than we are, our phones have access to the entire world, and articles have to explain why our appliances aren’t designed to spy on us, but hackers can hack them to listen to us. My car had to have a software upgrade for its transmission, my phone knows where I’ve taken it for years (though it sometimes goes missing), and there is such a thing as a smart toaster (on sale at Williams-Sonoma for $299!) Obviously, we don’t know how to rewire or replumb a house or fix most things. Of course, we need The Shirts!

What about the people without the shirt? Lawyers dress appropriately for court, but even in the office, they wear suits and ties or pantsuits and dresses. The series Suits (2011-2019) works from the premise of a man without a law degree posing as a lawyer for years; all he had to do was put on The Suit. Doctors often wear white lab coats. Their stated reasons are to be recognizable to colleagues and to have pockets. Reason 4 is telling: “emphasizing doctor status.” Other winners are “symbol of cleanliness” and “psychological separation.” Some people suffer from “white coat anxiety,” a syndrome in which blood pressure elevates when “the coat” enters the room.

An important side note: Psychiatrists typically don’t wear white coats in order to “maximize rapport” with patients. Pediatricians too. Those of a certain age and sinister memory will recognize another reason. “White coats” were the orderlies in psychiatric facilities, getting an important line in “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” (Napoleon XIV, 1966). This version is just lyrics and music (if that’s what you’d call it). Others, more troubling visually, are available.

How to avoid confusion and and over-dependence? Know some of the jargon. You can learn the basics of fuel injection without knowing how to repair the system.  If you can’t be savvy, at least be leary. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t defer blindly. Be ready to question. And finally, if you’re The Shirt, stay sharp; stay humble; stay honest. In the long run, we want you to be right. We respect your expertise and thank you for it. We can probably go too far the other way with self-diagnosis (new term: cyberchondria), but we’re usually wrong. The Shirt shouldn’t mask; let it inspire.