It’s Not About the Gumball

You know those gumball machines where you put in a quarter, turn the knob, and watch the ball roll down the spiral tray into the bottom? You can buy a bag of 680 of those gumballs online for $22.99, or $0.03 per gumball.

Why are we content with such a huge (833%) markup? For one thing, a quarter isn’t a lot of money. One coin for one gumball seems logical. For another, we’re usually buying it for a child and their joy in receiving a gumball is worth much more than a quarter.

But the real reason is we’re sold on the experience. First we’re drawn by the sight of it—a bright machine with a clear globe full of multicolor circles. Some even have lights. It looks like fun to turn the lever, hear the click, guess what color you will get, and most of all, watch the ball spin down the spiral tower and into the metal flap that hasn’t been cleaned since a decade before COVID.

They could just have a grey metal box with white stenciled letters at the top that said “GUMBALLS,” and a coin slot and an opening at the bottom. You drop in a quarter and instantly a white ball of gum clinks out. The end result is exactly the same, but they probably would sell 99% less.

Why will we grossly overpay for lousy gum that’s bad for our teeth and turns hard in 20 seconds?

  1. Pressure from the highly motivated 5-year-old buyer present.
  2. How we present things often makes all the difference, not just in business, but in communication, relationships, accomplishment—even food. Chefs arrange food on the plate intentionally. Even the most common cafe garnishes their plates.
  3. We aren’t always buying what we think we’re buying. It’s not the gum, it’s the 30 seconds of fun.

A Brief Review of “The Power Broker”

Sometime in 2014, I was riding back from lunch with a friend from work and I asked rhetorically, “How does someone build a subway in New York City?” He fired off without hesitation, “There’s a book called The Power Broker that shows you how things like that get done.” I added the book to my list that day, began reading it in August of 2019, and finally finished in September of 2020.

The Power Broker is a book by Robert Caro on the career of Robert Moses, a man who spent his life dreaming and building on a scale so immense it almost can’t be fathomed. He literally shaped New York City, amassing near sovereign power to build through his various roles from the 1920s through the 60s.

By building at that time, when the automobile was taking root in the American imagination and daily life, and by building in that city, which is one of the most difficult places in the world to get something done, Robert Moses influenced the development of all major American cities. Even his worst critic said of him, “In the twentieth century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Not only is it fascinating to hear the stories of how RM orchestrated his plans and maneuvered his way through press and public and politicians to complete his projects, it’s fascinating to ponder why a person ever becomes so fixated on power in the first place. He was a dreamer whose mind was never satisfied.

What exactly did Robert Moses build? 

Major roads, including:

  • Major Deegan Expressway
  • Van Wyck Expressway
  • Sheridan Expressway
  • Bruckner Expressway
  • Gowanus Expressway
  • Prospect Expressway
  • Whitestone Expressway
  • Clearview Expressway
  • Throgs Neck Expressway
  • Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
  • Nassau Expressway
  • Staten Island Expressway
  • Long Island Expressway
  • Harlem River Drive
  • West Side Highway

Bridges, including:

  • Triborough Bridge (Robert F. Kennedy Bridge)
  • Verrazano Birdge
  • Throgs Neck Bridge
  • Marine Bridge
  • Henry Hudson Bridge
  • Cross Bay Bridge
  • Bronx-Whitestone Bridge

Some of these bridges have towers 70 stories high and used enough cable to wrap around the earth.

As the book states in its introduction:

“When Robert Moses began building playgrounds in New York City, there were 119. When he stopped, there were 777. Under his direction, an army of men that at times during the Depression included 84,000 laborers reshaped every park in the city and then filled the parks with zoos and skating rinks, boathouses and tennis houses, bridle paths and golf courses, 288 tennis courts and 673 baseball diamonds . . . Long strings of barges brought to the city white sand dredged from the ocean floor and the sand was piled on mud flats to create beaches.”

Yes, he made beaches. Not small private beaches, but waterfronts vast enough to accommodate the residents of the most populated city in the nation seeking leisure on the weekend. 

“For the seven years between 1946 and 1953, the seven years of plenty in public construction in the city, seven years marked by the most intensive such construction in its history, no public improvement of any type—not school or sewer, library or pier, hospital or catch basin—was built by any agency, even those which Robert Moses did not directly control, unless Robert Moses approved its design and location.

All this he built, and much more, in the hardest place in the world to get these things done. 

Because RM never held an elected office, he was able to push projects through that modernised the city and made way for future generations, even if it meant doing so at the expense of the living. If he needed to build a highway and destroy a neighborhood and evict 1,500 families, he could do so without losing any voters, because he didn’t need any voters. The book poignantly shows just how severe the cost of RM’s projects were, not just financially (they were that too; on a single bridge alone he unnecessarily paid $40,000,000 in interest), but in terms of human lives. 

“To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons—more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville, or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods, communities the size of small cities themselves, communities that had been lively, friendly place to live, the vital parts of the city that made New York a home to its people.” 

The introduction, just as full of nuance and detail as the rest of the book, closes with the question:

“Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? Would it have been a better city if the man who shaped it had never lived? . . . Moses himself, who feels his works will make him immortal, believes he will be justified by history, that his works will endure and be blessed by generations not yet born. Perhaps he is right. It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived. It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.”

Robert Moses made himself an emperor, and the public at large in America didn’t even know his name. Most still don’t. The works he built were on such a mammoth scale that they can only be compared to eras of public works. Only dynasties were able to accomplish what he did, and even they were not remotely on the same scale.

The book is fascinating, not just because it details stories of the urban history of one my favorite cities, but because it is a grand tour of the life of a person gripped by power. Robert Caro, the author, has made writing about power the theme of his career, and it’s a worthwhile subject. 

As I read, I returned to one question over and over again: Why? What makes a person dream, plan, and amass power so intensely, and do whatever it takes to hold onto it? 

RM would work 18 hours a day, often going for a swim off of Jones Beach at midnight after work, swimming so far out that the aides with him would start to fear the worst. They would sometimes send a swimmer behind him as a precaution, but they couldn’t keep up and he would vanish ahead of them. And he would do this even in his 70s!

As you watch his power accumulate and his grip on it tighten, you see it affect him for the worse. It’s this human part that fascinates me so much. Caro didn’t—likely couldn’t—assess why a person yearns for power so completely. It must be something like worship.

Caro says this of the effect power had on RM:

“In the beginning—and for decades of his career—the power Robert Moses amassed was the servant of his dreams, amassed for their sake, so that his gigantic city-shaping visions could become reality. But power is not an instrument that its possessor can use with impunity. It is a drug that creates in the user a need for larger and larger dosages. And Moses was a user. At first, for a decade or more after his first real sip of power in 1924, he continued to seek it only for the sake of his dreams. But little by little there came a change. Slowly but inexorably, he began to seek power for its own sake. More and more, the criterion by which Moses selected which city-shaping public works would be built came to be not the needs of the city’s people, but the increment of power a project could give him.”

***

Reading this tome was a considerable task in itself,  and I would have never finished without listening on Audible. The print book is 1,162 pages long—dense pages with small type—and the audiobook is over 66 hours. I took several breaks from the book over the months and read others in between. I’m glad I finished.

Writing a book like this is as impressive an accomplishment as constructing a bridge or a tunnel across the East River. In the research phase, Caro conducted over 500 interviews and ended up with a manuscript of 1,050,000 words. As a reference, most non-fiction books published today are about 80,000 words. After his editor rejected this, he spent months cutting it down and ended up with the final 600,000 or so words. It won a Pulitzer Prize and shaped biography as a genre in modern America.

So if you’re ever curious about the history of the infrastructure in the most populated city in America, and if you ever want a book that demands so much of your attention and effort to finish that feels like a project of its own, and if you want to ponder the human experience and wonder what would drive a person to obsess over power—the kind of power that would slam the phone on governors and remain impenetrable even from the efforts of President FDR to dismantle it—then I would heartily recommend The Power Broker.

Eons of Lifelessness

Some nights, when I’m taking out the trash and the lunar light beams through an empty sky so brightly it casts my shadow on the lawn, I admire the moon’s gloomy surface as if for the first time. That ancient wonder. I am not surprised that this heavenly body has inspired veneration since the dawn of worshipers. 

As I study again the familiar pattern of craters another thought recurs that threatens to paralyze my mind with awe: we have walked upon that lonely surface.

What was it like, not just to rattle through the stratosphere hoping your vessel will hold up, not just to watch the firmament blacken as if the whole earth was fainting, not just to watch out the window as the only home you and every creature in this corner of the universe has ever known shrinks into a marble and drifts spaceward, not just to witness that silent host approaching and expanding until it fills the window, not just to embrace the vertigo and reorient to a new up and down, not just to hope your module doesn’t smash into the surface and kill you after coming this close, but to finally open the latch, descend the ladder, and push the bottom of your boot into the powder?

Was it like sand? Powdered sugar? Something in between? Buzz Aldrin said it was “fine, talcum-powderlike dust.” 

What did it feel like to step forward, like a child on a yard of untouched snow, and to trespass a surface undisturbed by humans for all eternity? Would you have felt like a guest? This isn’t your home, but whose is it? You can’t be a guest to no one.

Aldrin, in the same interview, says, “I think the visual scene was described by my words on first landing—‘magnificent desolation.’ Magnificent for the achievement of being there, and desolate for the eons of lifelessness.”

Eons of lifelessness. 

I’ve seen oceans, the Grand Canyon, the stars in the wilderness, and I’ve felt the awe that renders you useless for all else but gazing. How long must this feeling have clung to those astronauts, and how difficult was it for them to remember they had come to work and not to worship? “Mission” was the right word, insinuating the ambition of modern man and the reverence of pilgrims.

Imagine tracing over the monochrome horizon with your eyes and telling yourself this isn’t a dream. Imagine the silence. Nothing you do makes a sound in the vacuum. You know the science, you expect nothing, but still you glance up from your work now and again to make sure what you just heard was radio static and not a warning from the haunted farside.

As you romp around the surface collecting samples and snapping photos you see pebbles and rocks and boulders, hills and valleys hewn of violence—furious meteorites that barreled in from who-knows-where, set in motion by who-knows-what. Asteroids from the belt, of course. Still the mystery nags at you. You wonder: how long did they travel before they arrived? Is one coming now, even just the size of a grain of sand, and will it ram through my helmet at 160,000 miles per hour with no forewarning? Unlikely, but who’s to say it couldn’t happen? If this place is anything like home, it’s possible for it be friendly, cruel, and random all in the same moment—friendly enough to welcome you here safely; cruel enough to execute you with a bullet from an impersonal space sniper; random enough to have squeezed the trigger by a collision of asteroids at the far end of the galaxy a thousand years before you were born.

You look over your shoulder into the eternal midnight thinking you might see your destiny before it arrives. Then you remember there’s no atmosphere and there would be no friction or streak of light as it raged toward you. Only a dazzling and silent explosion as it made impact and killed, cremated, and buried you in the same nanosecond.

Back to work. You scoop up basalts to bring back home, the remnants of long-dead volcanoes. As you look across the surface you consider the ugly rubble at which every human has, at some point, directed their gaze. How many eyes have looked upon this dreary rock and hung their hopes and disappointments upon it? How can it be that a thing so common to all of humanity has been touched by only you? For all of the things the human race keeps from each other, this is one thing they have always shared and always will. And here you are, walking upon it, touching it, learning it like a child learns a shoreline.

How can it be that at one time you were a child, comforted only by the embrace of your mother, dependent upon her for every part of survival, and now you stand upon the moon! How can it be that you were the chosen child of a million generations? Billions of hours of scientific pondering, experimenting, revising, and discovering all rest upon your feeble shoulders. How could it be you?

When the shuttle has landed back on the carbon planet and the first interviews are over and you’re back in your house lying in your bed, you look through your window at the celestial light and have a thought you can’t shake:

Was that real?

Do you know it any better now than you did before?

You realize that while you have seen something no one else has seen, you’re not any closer to comprehending it all. You are like a child who, after seeing the ocean only in pictures and going to one beach on one day and feeling the waters of the Pacific around his ankles, clutches seashells and hangs his drowsy head as Dad drives home.

The moon stares back at you through the window, throwing the sun’s reflected rays upon your face, hushing you like a child to sleep.


See also:

  1. Buzz Aldrin interview.
  2. Project Apollo Archive. – The source of all photos in this post. High-resolution Apollo imagery scanned by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, available to the public domain.
  3. NASA’s Asteroid Fast Facts.

3 Habits That Kill Friendships

  1. Interrupting.
  2. Complaining.
  3. Gossiping.

Do any one of these regularly, and no one will want to talk to you.

Do all of them, and people’s heart will sink when they see you coming.

The scary thing is that these behaviors are very easy to do—in fact, they feel great in the moment—and once they become habits they become invisible. But they’re only invisible to you. Others can see them, and if they don’t, they can feel their effects. They have a general feeling that they don’t want to be around you, that you will bring them down, and that they shouldn’t be open with you.

Interrupting makes people feel unimportant.

Complaining shrivels a person’s capacity to empathize with your feelings.

Gossiping informs people, not just of the juicy details of others, but of the fact that their secrets will never be safe with you.

To complicate matters, complaining and gossiping seem to build friendship at first because there’s a certain camaraderie that goes with griping and sharing what you know about other people. Yet, the friendship is built on sand. It will make you worse until the day it finally crumbles.

If you want good friends, you should vigilantly watch for these behaviors in yourself and refuse to use them as a means of connecting with people.

Instead, listen, talk about what you love, and keep all the juicy information about those who are absent to yourself.

$10,000 Every Day

Imagine that every day you wake up with $10,000 in your hand, and from the moment you awake, the dollars disappear at an unchanging pace. You know that at the end of the day they will be gone—all of them. You can’t spend any more, but you also can’t save a single penny. Everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, the bills fall from your hand. They are magic bills, they vanish when they drop.

Every day of your life, you have awoken with another $10,000 in your hand and not a single dollar left from yesterday. Yet, as miraculous as this is, because it has happened so frequently, and because every other person in the world has the same experience, you start taking it for granted. Some days, you watch the entire stack of bills disappear into your phone screen, or into your bed, or into your pantry, and it honestly feels pretty good. Other days you spend a little on friends that don’t really care about you and more still on amusement that could have been free.

One day, without warning, someone you love spends their last dollar, and though you knew this happens to everyone at some point, you didn’t feel it until you saw it happen nearby. Then a thought arrests your attention: what is my remaining balance?

You scramble for an answer. 

Google: “how many dollars does the average person have”

Results: $273,750,000

A half-relief assuages your anxiety just enough for you to sleep at night, and with sleeping and waking and the continual replenishing of the $10,000, you slip back into a fog and dream once again that your money is infinite.

Years go by. Suddenly there’s an area of work or study that begins to demand a portion of your cash, but you’re happy to give it. A little later, you meet someone, and they demand their share too. Then comes a child, and you watch as the biggest portion of daily bills yet begin to fall on that kid’s head. 

By this point you’ve come to see something upsetting. Not everyone has the $200 billion Google mentioned. Your soul rattles under the realization that no one can actually know their balance, and that there have been many days when you spent every dollar recklessly, and though you couldn’t have known it then, you now have things you want to buy, things you wish you had bought already—expensive things that will require every remaining free dollar. A quiet frenzy takes over your mind.

You know you need a budget, so you make one and plan to watch it relentlessly but before the day is over you’ve deviated. You’ve heard there are ways to potentially increase your balance, like eating healthy foods and exercising consistently, so you set out to build the habits but they only last a month. Discouraged, and wanting a little daily therapy, you pour huge portions of your dollars into social media, Netflix, house projects, and friendships that make you worse.

Before you know it the kids are out of the house, the career is over, and you’re unable to do the things you once dreamed of doing. So you sit and watch the last bills drain from your hand, and you wonder when the glorious day will come that your balance finally runs out.

***

We wouldn’t treat money this way, so why do we do it with something infinitely more valuable? There is no “free” time. There is only time spent with purpose and time wasted.

It’s not a waste to do nothing if you’re doing nothing on purpose. On the other hand, some “productive” things are dressed up distractions.

Spend on purpose. You’ll never know your true balance.