On Being Elite

A few thoughts about the use of “elite” as some sort of slur.

The other day, I was accused by a troll on Twitter of being part of the “rich elite” because I owned a helicopter and went south for the winter.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. You see, I’m not ashamed of what I am or what I do with my time and money. I earned all of my possessions and my lifestyle.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

The only things I had going for me at birth was that I was born in the United States, I was white, and I had a good brain.

My parents were not rich. In fact, when my father left us when I was about 13, my mother very nearly applied for welfare. Our financial situation qualified me for free lunch at school; every day, I’d go to the school office and retrieve a small kraft envelope with 65¢ in it — government money to pay for my cafeteria lunch. I’d spend as little as possible and save the rest. When I got home from school, I babysat my younger sister and baby brother while my mother worked as a waitress to put food — mostly hot dogs and pasta — on the table. My grandmother would bring us groceries once in a while and slip my mother a $20 bill to help out.

I started working at age 13 when I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Evening Record after school on weekdays and the Sunday Record before 7 AM on Sundays. There were 54 homes on my route, which I had to walk, and I netted 20¢ plus tips per week per house. In those days — the mid 1970s — 10¢ was considered a generous tip; many of the homes did not tip at all. Collection day — Wednesday — was unusually long since I had to stop at every single house to try to get paid. One Wednesday in September, which coincided with the first day of school, my mother used my collection money to pay for our school supplies because she wouldn’t have money until payday.

Our financial situation qualified me for a summer job working at the high school. With three other girls, all a year or two older than me, I scraped rust off an old chain link fence that ran between the school property and the railroad tracks. The wire brushes we used had to be replaced every few days because the bristles would fall out. The gloves they gave us did little to prevent huge blisters on our hands. When it rained, they let us into the school where we went from classroom to classroom, washing the venetian blinds. The wash water had to be changed every 30 minutes or so because the blinds had likely never been cleaned before.

My mother remarried and I won’t deny that my blue collar stepfather brought us quite a few steps up from our dismal financial situation. I got a chance to see some of the better things in life. He took us to museums and restaurants with real cloth napkins. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life at age 15. I was even able to accompany my grandparents on a trip to visit family in Germany. And, for the first time, I started thinking about college.

College was possible with two academic achievement scholarships, financial contributions from my parents (they each paid 1/3 of the net after scholarships were deducted from tuition), and a school loan. And work. At one point I held down three part-time jobs while handling a 15 or 18 credit load. I worked hard to maintain good grades and got a BBA with highest honors in Accounting in four years. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.

Within two weeks of graduation, I got my own apartment. I paid rent and utilities and furnished it with my own money. It was in a rough neighborhood and a few of my friends didn’t like to come visit. My mother bought me a sewing machine as a graduation gift and I used it to make about half the clothes that I wore to work, so I could look nice without spending a fortune.

I started my first job right away: an auditor with the New York City Comptrollers Office. In just two years, at the age of 22, I became the youngest person promoted to Field Audit Supervisor.  After five years with the city, I started a new job with ADP in New Jersey.  I did my time in the Audit Department before becoming a Senior Financial Analyst working on special projects directly for the CFO.

By the age of 29, I was earning more money per year than my father ever had. But that didn’t stop me from leaving my job to pursue an uncertain career that was more in line with what I wanted to do for a living: write. I built a career as a tech writer and computer trainer from the ground up. I was completely self-taught and worked without an agent. I wrote books and led hands-on computer training classes all over the country. I quickly learned that I needed to write a lot of books to make a living so that’s what I did. When I was on a book project, I’d work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I wrote books and articles and eventually authored video training courses. I was very good at what I did and it paid off: within 10 years, I had two bestsellers; their periodic revisions were bestsellers, too.

By the age of 40, I was earning more money than I’d ever thought possible, but instead of pissing it away on a bigger house or fancier car, I socked money away for retirement and invested in rental properties: a condo, a house, a small apartment building. And between book projects, I learned how to fly helicopters.

And yes, I did buy a helicopter. Why not? It was my money that I had earned through my efforts. I had covered all my other financial responsibilities and set aside enough money for my future. Why shouldn’t I invest in something that would make me happy?

I flew as often as I could and started a helicopter business to help bring in some extra revenue to cover costs. I managed the fuel concession at the local airport. I became an aeronautical chart dealer and ran a small pilot shop. I worked for a season as a pilot for a Grand Canyon tour operator. I sold that first helicopter and bought a slightly larger one. I jumped through hoops with the FAA to get required certifications for charter work. I created advertising material, maintained a website, handled social networking needs, did all the accounting, met with clients, did local and long distance flights. I networked with other pilots about other flying jobs.

All while still writing up to 10 books and dozens of articles a year for my publishers.

When tech publishing went into decline, I ramped up my flying work. I got contracts to do agricultural work in Washington state during the summer. I’d live in a trailer, working on various book projects, waiting for a call to fly, for two to three months every summer. Over the years, I built up the number of contracts I had until I couldn’t handle them all alone; then I brought in other pilots with helicopters to help me, managing work and billing for as many as four subcontactors every season.

I was 52 when the man I’d spent more than half my life with decided he needed a mommy to hold his hand while he watched TV every night more than a life partner to actually enjoy life with. He tried to take half of everything I owned in our divorce, but I fought back to keep what was rightfully mine, what I’d earned through my own efforts while he floundered, failing at one job after another. I went into the fight with a war chest of cash I’d saved while he was pissing his money away on a plane he never flew, a Mercedes he didn’t need, and a condo that was sucking him dry financially. His greed, harassment, and courtroom lies didn’t score many points with the judge and he wound up paying me and his lawyers far more than he could have spent if he’d settled for my offer. His downfall is a great example of someone getting what he deserves.

I’ve spent the last four and a half years rebuilding my life in a new place, working hard to build my flying business, expanding into other work in California and now possibly Arizona. I don’t write much anymore, but I make a good living with the helicopter the Twitter troll I mentioned at the top of this piece criticized. I’ve learned how to take my skills and assets and turn them into money. And unlike so many other people, I live within my means. Yes, I go south for the winter, but it’s not as if I’m living it up in some fancy condo or hotel. I’m roughing it in an RV often parked out in the desert. 

It's Mine
Just about everything I own was bought and paid for with money that I earned through my efforts. Why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I worked hard and smart and I succeeded. Is there any reason I should be ashamed of that?

So yeah, if making a good living and owning a helicopter and wintering in the south makes me part of the “rich elite,” I’m okay with that. I earned it.

And to the people who troll me with their jealousy-driven comments: What’s your excuse for being a loser?

11 thoughts on “On Being Elite

  1. Impressive life story. My grandfather went through something similar (except for your marriage troubles and buying a chopper) when growing up but around 50 years before you. Which is why he absolutely hated the filth that never cared for education, lived on welfare their whole lives, and use up a growing part of our tax money and expect free handouts.

    • What’s interesting to me is how many Trump supporters are whining and crying about social programs to help people in need yet have their hand out anytime they can to get their “fair share.” What they don’t seem to understand is that the best way for us all to get ahead is to invest tax dollars in education, healthcare, and infrastructure that benefits all of us. A rising tide raises all boats.

      • I am all for investing in education, healthcare infrastructure, transport infrastructure as a common good. After all thats how I got educated. But the government should not be providing rent, food, phones, and university seats for anyone. That feeds a vicious cycle

  2. An interesting biography. You have worked hard and done well.
    I had a much easier start in life, but like you, I have worked hard, doing all sorts of jobs others would consider demeaning. At 18 a building contractor put me in charge of five men (17-54). He knew I would try to get things right. The others could not care.
    ‘Elite’ is a word in transition. It used to mean ‘of the best’ a superior group or class. No one would mind being called an ‘elite’ athlete or intellect.
    But post Trump and Brexit, ‘elite’ has become welded to the implication of privilege and metropolitan isolated arrogance; ‘the progressive metropolitan elite’ is a sneer phrase which now means “posh and protected” from the ‘real world’.
    It is usually uttered by those who feel ‘left behind’, outside the “American Dream” (whatever that was?). Such people exist and might well have a case to put. We should listen.
    But something tells me that the guy who tried to insult you was just jealous that you have a helicopter and he doesn’t.

    • I think a lot of the reason why some people get ahead of the others don’t is because of attitude. My ex-brother-in-law, for example, had probably the worst work attitude of anyone I’ve ever met. He felt entitled to raises and special treatments just because he showed up for work. But he was bitching about his boss and his work and everything else all the time. It’s no wonder that the last time I saw him he was unemployed, on disability, and sponging off his mother and brother.

      At 18, you probably had a great attitude and your boss knew it. At the same time, you were lucky to have a boss who cared about his business and the good people who worked for him. So many bosses don’t.

      The changing use of the word “elite” is interesting. (I am definitely a word nerd.) I think you nailed it. And I think you’re probably right about that Twitter troll being jealous about the helicopter. ;-)

    • Thanks Barbara! When I think back to the days I scraped the paint off that fence or got up to go to a corporate job I hated, I marvel at how far I’ve come. I’m not rich and I don’t need to be, but I am happy. And that’s all that really matters.

  3. How is the overhaul coming along with your helicopter? I remember an incident here in San Jose that I witnessed. A police helicopter was just overhauled and put back in serviced and was taking off from the San Jose airport. I was coming home from work and saw it in the sky and it was like a pinwheel spinning out of control. Both police on board died. Hope you have a great day.

    • Nearly done! Can’t wait to fly it.

      Too bad about that overhauled police helicopter. A good preflight probably would have caught and problems.

      And thanks! Every day is a great day!

  4. Great story!

    I hate it when people just assumed that all the nice things come without a cost. They never thought about the extra shift at work, budgeting wisely, and living within your means.

    You’ve done great and I’m sure it’ll keep staying that way.

    • Thanks. Too many people are looking for handouts when it’s often within their power to do even better for themselves and be able to feel good about it. Living within your means and making smart financial decisions is key.

      As for me, well, I consider myself semi-retired now. Just riding the last wave until it gives out.

What do you think?