Mr. Brown’s Monument
I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement lately. A young man dreams of the women he’ll screw; an old man dreams of a little air-conditioned bungalow half-way between a tropical beach and a board certified urologist. If he needs a woman at all, it’s to clip his toenails.
When I was a young man dreaming of the women I’d screw I worked in a hotel on Phuket’s Kata Beach. It was a boutique hotel, only 36 rooms, very high class and expensive, but not so expensive as to appear gauche. The first few years of its operation my little hotel had catered exclusively to wealthy gay Western men. By the time I worked there it had expanded its clientele to include wealthy Westerners of any orientation, but we were still visited now and then by some of our earliest guests, and among them was a thin, dapper man in his 70’s named Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown was born into a very wealthy New York family, and he had been educated in the finest boarding schools on the East Coast. He was erudite, cultured, well read, widely travelled, and he could be very funny, in a sly, dry sort of way.
Mr. Brown travelled with a middle-aged Thai man who he introduced as his “secretary.” They shared a suite. The two of them had been together for a long time. They looked after each other. The younger man would remind the older man to take his pills; he would make their travel arrangements and carry the bags. The older man would pay the bills. What they did in their suite was their own business.
Mr. Brown spent three months each year in our hotel. He always arrived on the same date and left on the same date. He divided the rest of his year between three other hotels, one in New York, one in Paris, and one in Rome. All of the hotels were intimate and expensive, but not so expensive as to appear gauche. He stayed in the same suite in our hotel on each visit, and while it was our best suite, he paid only half the advertised rate since he booked it three months at a time. He was a man who appreciated the comfort of routine, and a bargain.
Mr. Brown had graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in Art History some time in the 1950’s. Upon graduation he came into possession of his trust fund, which at that time included just a little over a million dollars. He was the eldest son, but he was the fairy, so his brothers got the bulk of the estate and his million dollars was in fact a backhanded insult from his father. It came with the implied suggestion that he be grateful for the handout, go far away and stop embarrassing the family. The young Mr. Brown had no great desire to do much of anything, but he thought he would like to take the Grand Tour of Europe and look at all the Art he’d been studying in books. He gave his million dollars to a financial manager, set a budget that would allow him to live on the interest, packed a bag and went to Paris.
His tour of the museums of Europe spanned the next decade and the rest of the globe. In that time he stayed at a broad array of the world’s finest and worst hotels. He strolled through the galleries in the daylight and lounged around the taverns in the moonlight. He ran with the bulls and climbed the Alps. He photographed lions in the Serengeti and lion fish on the Great Barrier Reef.
He became interested in monumental art: Lenin reaching for the horizon in Red Square, Christ the Redeemer looming over Rio, the four American presidents forced to spend eternity cheek by jowl on Mount Rushmore. And of course, the giant Buddhas of Asia. He developed a theory that monumental art is separated from all other forms of representational art because a monument gets its strength, its meaning, indeed gains the power to span the ages not because of the talent of the artist but because of the interest that the audience holds for the subject. He believed that the relative artistic merits of monumental art were inconsequential, the fate of a general’s statue, and its respect among art historians, depended more on the general’s historic legacy than on the sculptor’s deftness with a chisel.
“If the people who drive around that traffic circle continue to admire Admiral Nelson he’ll be welcome to stay on his column until Armageddon,” said Mr. Brown. “But if the people ever stop loving him he’ll be replaced by a tidy round garden of ornamental shrubbery.”
The big Buddhas of Asia were, he said, the proof of his theory. The Leshan Giant Buddha is more than a thousand years old, and in all that time nobody has ever appraised it as Art. In fact the details of any Buddha statue, including the number of curls on his head and the length of his fingers, are dictated by the sutras, and the artist has very little room for personal expression. While the greatest Asian artists of any age routinely make Buddhas, none does it as an act of personal expression, and none signs his work. The giant Buddhas of Asia exist to be worshiped by the masses, and they last for centuries because the masses continue to worship them. Tinkerbell only lives as long as children clap their hands.
Andy Warhol told Mr. Brown he should write a book about monumental art, but Mr. Brown thought that sounded like a lot of work. Easing into his 30’s, Mr. Brown realized that he liked the taverns and the hotels of the world more than he liked the museums.
So he continued to travel, but slowly, spending months here, a year there. He met lots of famous people; it doesn’t matter who, just let your mind scroll back over the people you’ve seen on old Life magazine covers. Mr. Brown knew them all. Any place you’ve seen on the cover of a National Geographic magazine, Mr. Brown was there before the backpackers ruined it. Any drug you’ve heard of, he took it. Any wine you’ve heard of, he drank it. He saw Ulina Gulinova dance at the Bolshoi and he saw the Mets win the World Series at Shea Stadium.
He screwed maybe a thousand of the best looking young men in the world. Sao Paolo beach bums and Hollywood movie stars. Minor royalty and sergeant majors. Even a few straight guys.
That being said, he was always very careful with his health and even when I knew him he was spindly but still hale. He walked miles on the beach and ate mostly vegetables. He never smoked before lunch. He could put away a fair amount of wine in the evening, but in his defense it was always really good wine. His hands were steady and his laugh turned heads on the other side of the dining room. We should all be so healthy.
By the time he was in his 50’s he had settled on a routine. His four favorite places: New York, Paris, Rome and Phuket. He had his favorite hotel in each place, and he had settled on a favorite young man to carry his bags.
Mr. Brown and I spoke often during his stays on Kata Beach. In the heat of the afternoons he would sip chilled white wine and read a book in the dining room. I was the hotel’s public relations manager; it was part of my job to talk with guests. It was natural and inevitable that we would spend hours in conversation. Usually about the theatre; he had seen Bert Lahr in “Waiting for Godot.” He was a man who loved conversation and did it extremely well. He never had any other appointments and gave whoever was at his table his complete attention. He had a wonderful East Coast accent, in fact he sounded like Franklin Roosevelt. But he could mimic the accents of a dozen countries and when he told an anecdote he would play all the parts. He had the gift of making fun of people without being mean. He reminded me a lot of Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey.”
My life being the unorganized mess that it is, I left my employment at that hotel suddenly, without warning, between Mr. Brown’s visits, and I never got to say goodbye. I suppose he must be dead now, so I don’t feel any guilt in sharing his life with you. The last time we spoke he happened to tell me something, a thing I didn’t really care about at the time, being young and preoccupied with thoughts of all the women I was certain I would eventually screw. But what Mr. Brown said is something that comes back to me often now that I’m an old man who spends half his time regretting his past and the other half dreading his future.
As well as I can remember it, and taking out the pauses to sip wine, light cigarettes, and flirt with waiters, here’s what Mr. Brown said to me:
“I’ve spent every day of my adult life doing exactly what I wanted to do, and nothing else. I’ve got a hundred good friends and zero enemies. I started with a million dollars fifty years ago, and I’ve never worked a day in my life, but because I always lived within a budget, and because I’ve been lucky with the financial managers I’ve chosen, now I’ve got two million dollars. I have no living relatives, so when I die my two million dollars will go to a charity that buys books for schools in developing nations. There will be a little sticker on the inside of every book that tells the kids that this book is a gift from me.”
They never throw away books in poor schools. They use them until they’re pulp. A book can last thirty years in a school library in Bangladesh, and the experience of reading that book can live another lifetime in the minds of the last kids who read it. So Mr. Brown’s legacy, his monument, will survive for generations, kept alive by an extremely appreciative audience of hundreds of thousands of people all over the planet.
And he didn’t have to lift a finger to make it happen.
It’s perfectly Buddhist, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve been a hyperactive manic my whole life, jumping from job to job, project to project, country to country. Always with the big plans and the sneaky schemes. I always figured I was the smartest guy in the room; I never took advice and always did it my way. I didn’t get a million dollars on my twenty-first birthday, but I was born a white, upper class male in America, a country designed by white, upper class males to benefit white, upper class males. I was born wealthier than most human beings who have ever lived: I had access to education and medication and I grew up in a place where drinkable water came out of the taps, a place that has never known warfare. I had as many advantages as Mr. Brown growing up, and I always assumed I would die wealthy, handsome and loved.
Didn’t work out that way. I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me, I’m not wealthy, handsome or loved. At the end of things the last grand ambition of my life is an air-conditioned bungalow half-way between a beach and a urologist. Some place I can get a plate of fried rice and a bottle of water for less than a dollar.
Mr. Brown never had a scheme. He never schemed. He wasn’t a schemer. He was a leaf on the stream, a sponge on a rock, delighted with whatever happened to float past. He made no effort, exerted no energy, had no goals. He simply existed, happily, day to day, content with what life gave him.
And somewhere in Bangladesh, and in Nigeria and Nepal and Ecuador and on the Navajo reservation, a poor kid is going to open a book today and see a sticker that says “This book is a gift to you from Mr. Brown.” It happened yesterday and it will happen tomorrow and the next day and the next until the internet comes to Turkmenistan. Some kid in Belarus will go to college because his kindergarten got a big box of books from Mr. Brown.
It’s a hell of a monument, and it was built without chisel or mortar, without grand plan or putsch or revolution, without any effort at all. It’s a monument that will never go out of style, never be pulled down by an invading army, never be compared unfavorably to an earlier iteration. No Ozymandias was Mr. Brown. It’s a monument that a man built by living within his means and having control of his desires. Very Buddhist.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Go ahead. Try it. I dare you.