I first learned that certain rich people had telephones in their cars from a short-lived TV series called Burke’s Law. Gene Barry, the star, played a wealthy Los Angeles homicide detective who was chauffeured to and from crime scenes in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II that was equipped with a phone. I was seven years old when Burke’s Law made its debut on ABC in 1963, so the fact that Amos Burke had a phone in his Rolls must have made a huge impression on me, since I had no doubt thereafter that a car phone was the ne plus ultra of luxury.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York in 1985 that I first got to know a person, William F. Buckley, Jr., who had a mobile phone in his stretch limo. Even then, I still found it to be fantastically ritzy. Had you told me in 1963—or 1985—that such phones would become obsolete long before I reached middle age, much less that I would live to see a fully mobile phone in every person’s pocket, be he rich or poor, I would have laughed in your face.
I’m sure I would have felt much the same way about the long-unimaginable prospect of owning a home videotape recorder. The Sony CV-2000, the first such device to be commercially marketed, cost $695 in 1965, the equivalent of $5,600 today, which put it far out of reach of people like my parents. Nevertheless, I bought my first VCR eighteen years later, and I soon took its life-changing existence for granted.Most people see the present-day ubiquity of such devices as a chapter in the fast-moving history of technological change, which has transformed the daily life of the average American family almost beyond recognition. It’s easy to forget that as late as 1940, 45% of all Americans did not yet have “indoor plumbing,” meaning a flush toilet, a sink with a faucet, and a bathtub or shower. Today, by contrast, virtually all of us do. We can also eat all the caviar we want, the once-exorbitant price of that quintessential luxury good having been cut in half by the coming of cheap Chinese caviar that reportedly tastes just as good as the Russian kind. It is also, however, an example of how quickly our personal definitions of luxury can change. When I was a boy, I had no notion that ordinary middle-class folk could own fine art of high quality by famous artists. (I was as yet unaware that Sears, the catalogue store where my parents bought most of my clothes, also sold prints by the likes of Picasso, Rembrandt, and Daumier that had been selected by none other than Vincent Price.) Yet the walls of the modestly appointed New York apartment where Mrs. T and I now live are covered with just such works of art. For us, of course, they are spiritual necessities, not luxuries, but the point is that we aren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. Even so, we do own etchings and lithographs by Morisot, Degas, Bonnard, Matisse, and Morandi, and until fairly recently we also spent two or three weeks each January in a small but comfortable bungalow located a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico. I know full well the unbridgeable differences between the privileged life we lead and the infinitely more privileged lives of rich people. While Mrs. T and I have spent several nights in a number of houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there is no possibility whatsoever that we will someday live in one of them, any more than we will own a private jet or a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II. But our lives are already so full of delight that I simply can’t fathom lashing myself to the bone-breaking wheel of ambition in order to acquire anything that we don’t already have or can’t rent, at least for long enough to slake our transient longings.
In Chinatown, J.J. Gittes finds it impossible to understand why Noah Cross would be willing to do anything, up to and including murder, to corner the market on Los Angeles’ water supply. “Why are you doing it?” he asks Cross. “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” To which Cross famously replies, “The future, Mr. Gittes—the future!” I’m not absolutely certain what he means when he says that, but I do know that whatever it is, Noah Cross’ future isn’t something I care to have. I’m content with the present—and the partner with whom I share it. Next to that pleasure, all others pale to the point of invisibility.
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“Mobile Telephones,” a 1949 promotional short for the Bell System’s newly inaugurated Mobile Telephone System:
A 1962 training video made by Vincent Price for Sears in which he explained to the company’s salespeople how to market the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art: