“No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.”
“No State shall . . . grant any Title of Nobility.”
Article I, United States Constitution
The Founding Fathers could not have been more explicit. The encrusted privilege of the Old World was to be scraped away, and men would be distinguished only through their own efforts. That was the theory, at any rate, and in practice the effort has proven largely successful. There are “old” and respected families, but their ascent from rapine to respectability is well‑documented, and new families come to the fore. The sources of Rockefellers’ and Kennedys’ power are not dimmed by distance, and its exercise is not hallowed by long usage. There are older lines—Cabots, Lodges, the First Families of Virginia—but without an official status they have receded/faded to a genteel irrelevance as other social forces have asserted themselves. Official honors such as the Congressional Medal of Freedom acknowledge work, not birth, and do not pass on to heirs; a year after the White House ceremony/photo‑op, in which the President attempts to bask in the recipients’ reflected glow, the latter are no more remembered than last year’s Nobel laureates in physics.
The ground rules are clear enough, and there is a chance, if not always a good one, to change one’s place in the world. And in this regard the coin of the realm is, conveniently enough, money—which sometimes even measures things other than the ability to amass wealth.
Still, uneasy rests the head that wears no crown. To achieve distinction means constantly doing something, and there’s often no telling if it stands apart from others’ something, or even if it’s the right thing. The burden of even an imperfect meritocracy is to forego the pleasure of simply being. (The upsurge of identity politics marks a reaction to this cultural pattern as much as it does a call for any particular set of reforms.)
This tension, at least as old as the Constitution, surfaces in a variety of places. Huckleberry Finn’s traveling companions included the Duke and the Dauphin—no more nobly descended than the logs on which they floated—who had figured out how to work a short con by tapping their victims’ weakness for associating with the “well‑born,” even in reduced circumstances; by the same principle, a fashion empire would later be born when Oscar Renta interpolated “de la” into his name. The antebellum and Jim Crow South produced a simulacrum of the feudal order, though the organizing principle was less proximity to the crown than distance from slavery. In the North, during the 1970s, I saw grade-school classmates pathetically, if valiantly, protecting the “von” in their last names against the mediocritizing onslaught of the public-school bureaucracy/system. And some seek status, at a long remove, through the bloodlines of their horses and dogs. Strangest, saddest of all may be those American Anglophiles who follow an inbreeding completely beyond their control.
The absence of hereditary ranks in the United States never troubled me much, even in adolescence, when I, among others, wanted a permanent identity almost as badly as my first real drunk or sexual encounter. I tried and discarded several (identities, that is), and the only certainties I had to show for the process were that I had stopped growing at the age of thirteen and, my name notwithstanding, I was possessed of an ancestry that was diverse and tangled, and painfully dull to anyone but myself.
None of that ancestry bore a coat of arms. Like the vast majority of Americans, I descended, on both sides of my family, as far as I knew, from a long line of no one in particular. But modest birth was only one of the cards dealt me, and a higher one than deuces such as differently shaped feet, an annoying food allergy, and a tendency toward depression. Humble origins would not necessarily disqualify me from earning my stripes in the form of degrees or money, with corollary benefits such as a tract mansion, a boat, or a second wife. I believed my native intellect and my energy, provided I wasn’t struck by an asteroid or something equally likely, would carry me as far as I needed to go.
Being identified as royalty at the age of twenty‑four, then, found me totally unprepared. In June of 1988, I was between years of graduate school, like most of the Junes in my twenties, living on the savings from a teaching assistant’s pay and, far more important, my parent’s forbearance. I hadn’t found a summer job, but this was because I hadn’t looked for one. If my life had been a Venn diagram, preferable to the three-dimensional version at the time, I would have been found in the shaded area where the circles of aimlessness, depression, and student poverty overlapped.
Miraculously, or foolishly, if there’s a difference, none of this kept me from going on a road trip when the opportunity presented itself. Instead of helping to build homes for the poor, and storing up karma in case I became one of them, or studying for the GMAT and applying for an MBA program, where I would be inconvenienced by neither karma nor the poor, I took my friends up on any invitation to see the sights of Milwaukee, both of them, or Dixon, Illinois, with its entry arch, other assorted Reaganalia, and a medium-security prison. We were connoisseurs of the American Midwest, imperfectly level, like the society itself, savoring the distinctions between river towns and landlocked ones, and picking out favorite stretches of interstate between truck stops, knowingly swirling their vistas and terrains in our conversation the way we would later roll a cabernet in our mouths to obtain the full effect.
We also collected college towns the way some collect the souvenir spoons that are identical except for the places named on their cloisonné handles. We passed through Dekalb, because it was close, and because we didn’t have to stay. We could kill a weekend in Madison, Berkeley’s Midwestern sister city, with its doughnut topography around three lakes. We covered Iowa City’s mix of bohemia, ruralia, and Chautauqua. We covered the corporate training ground, and suburbs of nothing in particular, that are Bloomington and Normal, Illinois.
Sometimes we even had a purpose for our trips, like going to Champaign and Urbana, the bivalve cities that clasped around the University of Illinois. Our friend Jamie was getting, finally, his B.A. in psychology after a progression through the semesters that had been, well, in a matter of speaking, unhurried. There was some concern that he might be now sucked into the now‑mythic vortex effects of that land‑grant institution. Close by was at least one 24-hour coffeehouse that made espresso, even in 1988 when most people were still pronouncing it with an X. There was Acres of Books, which nearly earned its name. There were record stores—they were still called that then—filled with bands hatched and incubated in the local rock clubs. There was enough cheap eating and drinking on Green Street to make the massive Greek letter system tolerable.
Others had had trouble weaning themselves, or so it seemed. Some were rumored to have started school in the sixties and were waiting to declare a major after several hundred credits. Others graduated and stayed for more degrees, or took menial jobs to stay in town. Like recidivists, or military lifers, they couldn’t handle the outside world.
And some, with no apparent ties to the university—or anything else—converged on the town for reasons that may not have been clear even to themselves. One of these men—and they were all men, in a distinctly male lostness—entered my field of vision on the night before the commencement ceremony. I had split off from my traveling companions to meet with another friend, Rich, who was in the middle of his only graduate program. We had just finished a beer and set out walking in no particular direction—it was still early, on a warm Friday night—when a tall, unshaven man came up to us. At the gut level, I knew he did not belong to the mainstream of society. A man who seemed to be in his mid or late forties wouldn’t usually be standing around in a college town. What turned my vague impressions into the knowledge that he was homeless was his heavy army jacket—he had nowhere to leave it. We knew what was coming.
The homeless are, to a man, defeated people, and at some level even the most mentally disturbed among them know it, and pose no physical danger. This man simply panhandled us. Rich politely declined. The youngest in a family of seven, he had no parental largesse to fall back on. The younger of two, I started to deliberate on what I should do. There wasn’t much genuine drama in my life at the time, so I was willing to manufacture a moral crisis to give myself a sense of significance. Before I could arrive at a decision, the graduate‑to‑be and the friends I had traveled with appeared quite unexpectedly and spotted us. My whole calculus changed.
It was no longer just a matter of whether to give and, if so, how much. I might have chosen rightly or wrongly, but I could have chosen soon. I was a soft touch then—or at least softer than now. This may have come from the idealism of youth. It definitely came from the youthful sense that I had a promising if undefined financial future that lay ahead, and somehow more money would appear to replace whatever slipped through my hand. Only the amount would be in question.
With five friends now standing around, and having stood around too long to politely decline as well, I was faced with a new set of dilemmas. I didn’t want to give alms loudly, ringing a metaphorical bell before me in a paved stretch of the prairie, but it didn’t seem right to let my scruples deprive the man of a meal. Another dilemma folded in on the first. It was bad enough to keep a stranger waiting while I dithered, but keeping my friends waiting, who had seen me dither repeatedly, and knew better than to take me to Baskin‑Robbins, was another thing altogether. Getting the transaction over with, a small donation in exchange for a little salve on my conscience, was imperative. Or maybe I felt less a Talmudic conundrum than a simple case of peer pressure. I would have given him an egg laid on the Sabbath just to close the deal and get on with the rest of the evening.
Instead I peeled three dollars out of my wallet for some reason—not two, or four, or fifty cents—and handed them over in an attempt to purchase a bulk‑rate indulgence for the whole group. At that moment, and I’ve had no more than a few like it, my theology was no less confused than my economics. My other friends, like Rich, declined for their own personal and clearly thought‑out reasons.
This should have been the point when we could have passed through the customary panhandler tollbooth and stepped into the rest of the night after the man said “Thank you,” “God bless you,” or “Have a nice evening,” and raised the gate. This wasn’t San Francisco, where the panhandlers critiqued the size of their donations.
Being congenial and egalitarian Midwesterners, we waited for his acknowledgment, and this wasn’t unreasonable; Midwestern beggars usually kept up a level of courtesy as well.
Our waiting was rewarded, in a manner of speaking. After an increasingly uncomfortable interval, in which he stood still, and in his stasis acquired a kind of presence rare for people in his position, he let the thoughts take place somewhere in his over six feet of height, and he spoke.
“Do you know what rey means?” The rolled r, though a little slurred, was unmistakable. He did not mean “ray” as in gamma, X, or sun, and he did not mean short for Raymond.
The rhetorical question seized us by our metaphorical lapels, and we could not speak. I was forming a thick‑tongued question, much less rhetorical, of my own. Why did this man, clearly a native speaker of English, and apparently not Hispanic, want to test our Spanish?
At least three of us knew fully well what “rey” meant. Henry had been born in Havana and lived there until his family, feeling Castro’s grip tighten, found it advisable to leave Cuba. Jamie and I came by our knowledge through the usual white‑boy routes—high-school language classes and a bit of travel. Though it did not take a fluent Spanish speaker to know the word, nothing in our conversation would have indicated that we knew even that much.
Our interviewer took the non sequitur further, on a course that he alone could steer.
“Rey means king.” What he said was correct, as far as that went, but why he wanted to tell us this still eluded us.
His next long pause, from hunger, fatigue, or the gravity of his thoughts, gave us time to think. If groups can experience collective delusions, or hysteria, they might also experience shared moments of clarity. No one moved, no one spoke, and no one breathed loudly enough to be heard, in spite of our proximity to a stranger, possibly a mentally disturbed stranger, who had nothing to lose and might have wanted more of what we had, or at least what he could take from us. (Our youth, our education, and our supply of still unsquandered chances weren’t fungible.) We just knew, as if our perceptions could move faster than events, that what we had just heard—whatever we night hear next—would stay with us for a long time.
“All you big people,” he began, “would not give me anything. You wouldn’t help me out.
“But this little man,” he said, and pointed to me, “this king”—he punched the word like a trained actor—”was man enough to give me three dollars.” Wondering what I could have purchased if I had kept the money, or how much screw‑top wine he could buy with it, I stood straighter to add height, and maybe bulk, to my cumulative five feet and two inches. My only chance of avoiding the spotlight lay in creating some confusion as to who was, in fact, the little man.
This worked as well as could be expected. The much larger man kept pointing at me.
“He is a man among men, a king.”
In comparison, campaign contributors who hoped to purchase posh ambassadorships were getting a bad deal. For three dollars I had became not just a knight or courtier, but a very sovereign.
If more power had come with the title, I could have called my subjects to attention and announced my first official act—abdication, effective immediately. My child-prodigy years, and their scholarship-student sequel, had deadened a nerve in me. Being made the center of attention without a really good reason—and paying someone off to go away didn’t qualify—made me feel like an insect in a jar, and with no airholes punched in the lid.
The power behind the throne saw things differently. He kept talking, or so I’m told; I have experienced a providential lapse of memory. Others have reported out‑of-body experiences at times like this. I believe I had an undeniable in‑body experience, my senses drawn closed around me like an armadillo’s shell.
The panhandler went on for another five or ten minutes, dispensing praise and invidious comparisons that placed me on the winning end, all in swelling, loose‑limbed oratory. He clearly had no other commitments. A better man, or one who wasn’t temporarily autistic, might have stood up for his friends. I simply took up space until the homeless man and ourselves parted ways, as we must have done, though I don’t remember, and went on with the rest of the evening, which I don’t remember either.
My ascension proved as permanent as Jamie’s degree. Before the weekend was out, I was addressed repeatedly as “king,” and not a few times as “rey,” now that everyone knew what the word meant.
Worse yet, I had no plausible deniability. Too many people, drawn from different circles, had witnessed the exchange. I could not lie, or shade, or leave out uncomfortable details. Too many pairs of eyes could contradict me, and the details belonged to them as much as they did to me. Depending on the account, I might come off as a holy fool, something sketched out by Dostoyevsky between spins of the roulette wheel. It was at least as likely that I would come off as a fool of no particular sanctity.
Objecting when the story came up did not help, and asking others to put themselves in my place proved just as futile. There was too much fun to be had. No one was willing to hand over the sentimental equivalent of my three dollars, no matter what praise came their way.
There was no choice left but to take an aikido approach—yielding before the blow, turning into the skid—and letting the momentum dissipate. This approach had only one flaw: I had chosen the wrong metaphor. My friends were in fact building a structure edifice of custom and reference that reinforced itself like well‑fitted fieldstone.
Several years later, Henry was choosing the suffix for his new telephone number, and on a whim he chose the sequence 4REY. (The same sequence can also be read as 4SEX, but there are things about even your best friends’ lives that you simply don’t want to know.)
Rich went even further. Almost eight years later, he gave me as a groomsman’s present, in front of several dozen people at the rehearsal dinner, a flask engraved with the words, “A man among men, a king.”
The words were set in pewter, if not stone, and I had to take the situation on its own terms. I was beaten. I was king.
What this means is a work in progress. I hold far narrower sway than Elvis, or Jesus, or B.B. Neither red carpet nor entourage greets me, and I am still most often on the outside of velvet ropes. Wearing a shirt or jacket with a crown, or title, was out of the question, even as a joke. In too many places such regalia might mark me as a gang member, and better men have died for smaller mistakes.
But it would still be mistaken to say that my rank has no meaning. My egalitarian, Walt Whitman breaking bread with Carl Sandburg side may rankle at this, but distinction is inevitably a distinction from others. I have been coronated, if shabbily, and nothing I do can change that. I may invest badly, or not at all, or drink away whatever I might gain, but I am still rey. Of course—and it’s something we Americans often have the luxury of forgetting—not all disasters are self‑inflicted, or reflect a failing of character. If an anvil falls from the cartoon skies and shatters my feet, I still have the comfort of knowing, with some certainty, who I am. From this perspective, others’ attempts to hold on to a shred of distinction, even when the means and the social order behind it have collapsed, begin to make a great deal more sense. Not all insurance comes through a policy.
While my royalty cannot be taken from me, I am still growing into the role. When I board the bus, or wait in line at the grocery store, I sometimes find myself wondering “How would, or should, a king go about this?” Juan Carlos of Spain, unfortunately, is not there to help, nor a current Gustav or Olaf of Scandinavia. I have to make things up as I go along. At this point the question becomes less of protocol, or holding court, than an overall approach. In a life of no spectacular actions I can strive only to avoid acting in a matter unbefitting a king. To be distinguished, if only in my own mind, is to be a little above the fray. It is not necessary to rush into an elevator before others have stepped out, or take the best table at a restaurant. Having those things won’t enhance my position, and missing out on them on won’t diminish it. It is better to say “please” and “thank you,” keep my posture straight, and kick candy wrappers off stairs where someone might slip on them.
Being king has, if nothing else, made me well‑suited for being a citizen or, harmlessly for the most part, no one in particular. I have barely scratched the surface of noblesse oblige.
© J.D. Smith