Excerpt from Road Map to Power: Bob
This book is written for people whom society labels as average and refuses to consider as elite. They have neither the family fortune nor the biological endowment that would enable them to achieve power as it is modernly defined. This group constitutes the overwhelming majority of any community. They may openly reject or suffer silently in a culture that values celebrity and materialism and therefore favors the few who can muster seemingly unlimited resources. Its aim is to promote a sense of respect to these individuals’ lives and affairs, allowing them to wield an authentic power that can lead to personal satisfaction.
Although this book has been a lifetime in the making, its evolution gained momentum during a chance encounter. The experience would plant a seed of questioning that would preoccupy my mind and challenge what I had convinced myself to be true.
This story begins modestly, save for an overwhelming heat.
August in Missouri is a devastating formula of 100 degree temperatures and hot, wet winds traveling up the Gulf stream. A stretch of black parking lot trapped my vehicle, glistening golden in the sun, my means home after 10 hours of hard work. As I opened the door, I braced myself for the wave of humidity that accompanies a car baked in the heat. Situating myself in the driver’s seat I felt suffocated. Relief would only come from the turning of the key, the starting of the ignition, and the eventual sweet breeze of the air conditioner. However, the car wouldn’t start. I turned the key over and over again and was barely rewarded with a slight hum.
Every day since I accepted my position as the director of a newly built psychiatric treatment center for children and adolescents, I drove 30 miles each way from my home in Columbia to the small town of Fulton, Missouri. This journey was common among the employees of the hospital that preferred the more urban, not quite metropolitan, feel of this college town over the isolated, if not tranquil, scene of central Missouri. This daily drive was part of the justification for splurging on the gold Audi 5000. Now this car was failing me despite the efforts of a gathering number of colleagues attempting a jump start.
Contemplating my shrinking options, a voice cut through the thick air. “Well, Dr. Husain, looks like I’ll be taking you back to Columbia.”
His name was Bob (not his real name), a mental health worker with whom I had collaborated previously and who I had always naturally liked. Bob was also a resident of Columbia and a fellow traveler. His offer was especially enticing considering the alternative – calling my wife, asking her to make the 60 mile round trip, and spending 30 miles of it hearing the many reasons she knew buying this car was a terrible idea.
It was at that moment that I first noticed his automobile. Bob’s two-door Toyota Tercel was splattered with rust holes that resembled coffee stains on a bleached white napkin. Stepping down into the passenger side, I caught a glimpse of a weathered dashboard with noticeable cracks forming. Despite the obvious physical blemishes, the interior of the car was extremely clean and judging by the long list of digits on the odometer, obviously well cared for. Besides, I was no stranger to “rough” accommodations, having experienced refugee camps at age eight, sharing a living space with ten siblings in Karachi, Pakistan, and more recently, being a penniless medical intern in Harlem. I may have embraced more luxuries in this current chapter of my life, but memories of a more simple existence were hardly difficult for me to access.
Bob had positioned himself behind the wheel and we began our journey down the country roads that dominated the first portion of our journey home. Due to all the effort placed in resurrecting my vehicle, sweat had saturated my shirt while penetrating the thick fabric of my suit coat. Bob’s car had been running long enough that the cooling influence of the air conditioning should have kicked in. However, there was no relief.
Reflexively, I reached for the handle with the thought of rolling down the window. Seeing the dust of the dirt road swirling around us and imagining it rapidly engulfing the cabin of the car, I suppressed this impulse. Instead, I attempted to steal a glimpse of my rescuer to sense if his body language was giving away any signs that he shared my annoyance with the heat and, more importantly, whether he would attempt to do something about it. My observations yielded no tension, anxiety, or motivation to act. In fact, he seemed undaunted by the searing temperature. My glimpse also allowed me to ascertain part of his secret to success.
Bob was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a neatly pressed collar unbuttoned enough to expose grayish-brown chest hair. His pants were thin, light khaki, and a brown covered-toe sandal concealed only a fraction of his foot. I had long ago conceded formality by draping my suit coat over my seat, loosening my silk tie, and unbuttoning the top two buttons of my shirt. Still, I was left with long sleeves, an undershirt unsuccessfully designed to prevent sweat from seeping into my designer shirt, heavy olive dress pants, and a pair of maroon snakeskin shoes that the salesman assured me breathed well.
Bob was smiling now. He spoke measurably, “You’re wondering about my car.”
Hesitating, “No, not at all.”
“It’s okay,” he responded. “It’s perfectly reasonable to question.”
“Seriously, Bob, it seems like a fine car,” I said, trying to cover my true intentions.
“Let’s face it – she’s not much to look at. I bought it used eight years ago with cash.”
“With cash?” I asked, impervious to the idea that people still did such a thing.
“Yeah, it took me several years to save up. I even rode my bike or walked to work before. Of course, my job wasn’t this far away at the time,” he responded.
I was beginning to see the car in a whole new light.
He went on, “It has been very reliable, a good companion to me and my family. Since it is completely paid for, I don’t see any sense in retiring it while it still has legs.”
“That’s very practical,” I said sincerely while contemplating the monthly sting of my sizable car payment.
“Well, I have to admit, it doesn’t seem nearly as practical on a hot summer day,” he said with a laugh.
I was fascinated with an individual who clearly ran counter to the “greed is good” mantra that dominated the era. For the remaining 25 miles of our trip, Bob explained to me the unique manner in which he and his family lived their lives. We started with my top-of-mind issue: Air conditioning was neither cost effective nor environmentally friendly. It was only one of the many examples how Bob, his wife, and two children had learned to live within their modest means. Each was content to own three sets of clothes for each season. They never borrowed money from any lending institution nor had Bob ever applied for a credit card.
Money was saved until purchases could be made with cash. Cash is how they acquired both their car and their one-story home.
“A car paid in cash is one thing, but how on earth could you afford a home?” I was genuinely puzzled.
“Early in our marriage, my wife and I lived with her parents. When our first child was born, we moved into an apartment. Slowly we built up the capital needed to get a place of our own. I’m 46, Dr. Husain, and it has been a long road.”
Bob continued to explain the extent of his commitment to this lifestyle. While believing in not borrowing from any bank or person, he also chose not to lend any money to family and friends. “Lending money does not solve the person’s problem if he has to worry about eventually returning it,” he reasoned.
This statement rang true as I quickly reviewed the myriad of family sessions I had overseen in which relationships were strained due to the obligations of the borrower and the expectations of the lender.
“Any cash we can consider extra, we freely give to anyone in need. We do so without any anticipation of return.”
Bracing for more of his accounts, I was surprised and disheartened to find the car slowing down and coming to a stop. Throughout the conversation, we had paused intermittently for me to point him in the right direction, but I was still taken aback when we reached my house. I exited the car staggering; this seemingly average, middle aged, meager-salaried social worker had clouded my head with a litany of competing thoughts.
After this insightful experience, I made it a point to pay attention to Bob. In meetings, he would usually sit quietly and observe. On the occasion he did speak, I found his words to be wise, pragmatic, and always in the best interest of the client. His superiors mostly ignored him.
Winter was quickly approaching when Bob stopped by my office to say an unexpected goodbye. He told me he was resigning from his position. He explained to me that he was unwilling to compromise his work ethics to please a supervisor who was asking him to cut corners at a cost to the people he had sworn to help. I did not probe into the nature of his conflict, but instead began to feel deep concern about his future.
“Do you have another job lined up?”
With an air of confidence, he replied, “I do not.”
He thanked me for always treating him with respect. I thanked him for his kindness and, of course, the car ride home. We both hoped to run into each other in the near future. Immediately after he left, I tried to come to grips with his decision. Had Bob thought about the implication of leaving one job before finding another? He had a family of four to support. What would he do? How could he live? Then I smiled and realized the folly of my thinking. It was Bob who had enough money tucked away for such an occasion. It was Bob who had no car or mortgage payment that kept him up at night. It was Bob and his family who had no need for the latest fashion trend or new technology.
My anxiety for Bob was what we psychiatrists refer to as projection: I would have been incapable of making the same decision if I were put in his situation. Forced to choose between my career and my values, I would have been overwhelmed by worry stemming from bills, mortgage, car payments, and other extravagances I had accrued by not living within my considerable means. Much like that hot, summer day, Bob had left me in awe over a life that allowed him the luxury of removing himself from a situation that caused him moral and ethical discomfort. In contrast, I found myself trapped by a variety of constraints that would not have afforded me the same freedom.