You Shouldn't Have

Commentary: In Exile

A billionaire talk show host had a psychotic episode on national television, and then everyone got Pontiacs.

Everybody gets a car! Everybody gets a car!

Strangers embracing. Tears of literal joy.

I didn’t catch it, myself, nor did I witness Tony Danza pony up 140 free trips to Miami Beach on his show (though this feels somehow fitting), or our own sweet Ellen set sail her audience members on a heterosexual-themed cruise.

But I’ll bet that every studio audience since has been none too amused, leaving perplexed and empty handed, departing in their boring old cars with nary a sparkly freebie.

“I kept waiting for her to say, ‘Reach under your chairs, everyone. It’s a big surprise!’ but she never did,” they lament to friends later. “Some guy in a headset came out and thanked us all for coming. No gifts! What a gyp.”

Indeed. Recent television is all about giving and receiving. Millionaire husbands, apprenticeships and plastic surgery are all being given and gotten on TV.

Consider The Apprentice, a fantastic program very much about giving and getting. Getting fired, getting silly little prizes and, of course, getting some sort of faux-management position in the season finale, which airs live tonight.

All of these things are doled out by Donald Trump — he is both asshole and benevolent benefactor. He has what you want and maybe he’ll give it to you if you’re willing to endure intermittent humiliation. Unlike Survivor, where undesirables are voted away in democratic fashion, Donald Trump unilaterally decides your fate. And Donald Trump is not a giving man.

Donald Trump, in these and other ways, is New York City. Many people here, true to stereotype, are as mercury-blooded as the man with the wonderful hair. But when it comes to giving — literal, charitable giving — New Yorkers give surprisingly liberally. (Not so with Trump, a billionaire whose annual charitable giving usually wallows in the low six-figures.)

A whole segment of New York’s economy relies on people giving money they’re not required to give. Street performers can rake in a couple hundred bucks on a good day in Battery Park. The magazine I work for recently ran a story on panhandlers, in which one of them professed to frequently receive $20 bills. While working on a story about lottery addicts, one of the people I interviewed bought me $30 worth of Quick Draw tickets.

And giving is on the upswing in New York this season. Everyone seems stuffed with Christmas cheer, despite what the glut of poorly conceived cynical Christmas movies would have you believe. Badder Santa, Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas — such a tired concept. Oooh, crazy families, crass consumerism, drunk Santas. Next you’ll be telling us that the suburbs and Disney are evil, as well. How edgy.

But as much as everyone’s radiating holiday cheer, there’s still that whiff of the Donald in the air. The Wall Street holiday bonuses are treated as hard news and greeted with citywide anticipation. Will they be higher or lower than last year’s? What will they do to the real estate market? We’re on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear how much richer the people who are already richer than us are about to become.

Needless to say, when it comes to holiday bonuses, everybody does not get a car. Some of us get unpaid vacation. Most of the people on Wall Street could get a car right now if they wanted one, bonus or no bonus. I’d like to be rich enough to wake up in the morning and say, “What to do, what to doÂ… I think I’ll buy a car.” I’d go for a hybrid or a spunky little Mini Cooper.

On the subway right now, in addition to people who will not be getting cars this holiday season, there are ads for the annual coat drive for the city’s homeless population. The ads say something to the effect of, “Homeless people are cold. You should give them your coat.” On one of these ads, someone has written with a Sharpie, “How about homes instead?” I’d like to imagine that an actual homeless person wrote it, though chances are it was an economically liberal NYU undergrad.

I think, if it were me with the Sharpie, I would have written, “How about cars instead?” How about 276 cars for the homeless? Think of the publicity, Oprah! I’m not an exceptionally giving person. I’m a mediocre tipper. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of public broadcasting and never sent any of their relentless fundraising goons a dime. And when I do give — when I drop a day-glo coat that went out of fashion around the same time as the trickle-down economy into the donation bin — I probably feel a bit gratuitously philanthropic.

But here’s an open memo to Oprah, who I believe is a genuinely giving person: Let the studio audience wail their affection for you without the free cars. Instead, ask Pontiac what they can do about some leather interiors and automatic transmissions for the good people of New York who are down on their luck, because you look like a self-serving publicity whore anointing yourself America’s official Mrs. Claus on national television like that.

And Trump: I love your show. I loved watching you fire Stacy simply for being an unlikable spaz. I love the way you continually reinvent yourself after every failed venture, like a phoenix from the ashes. I love the hair (everyone does). I love your architectural choices, like mutant Swarovski crystals. But Trump, you’re on notice, too. You owe the city of New York some back pay, and ’tis the season. Oprah doesn’t live here, but you do. So come on. Tonight, look into the camera and say it:

“Everybody gets a car.”

Will Doig writes bi-weekly from his exile in New York. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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