The Weird Things Rich People Get to Do
I grew up on the poorer side of middle class, so when I married a wealthy older man and became what we semi-jokingly called a trophy wife, my world changed a great deal.
There were the simple and obvious things like, Wow, there’s enough money. Like, I didn’t have to keep a running tally in my head when I went to the grocery store, I could just buy anything. We could — and did — pay off our credit card balance every month. That sort of thing.
I’m talking about the weirder stuff. Did you know that the more money you have (or appear to have), the more people want to give you things for free? It’s true. Rich people are always getting invited to art openings and wine tastings and exotic cooking classes by their financial advisors, or offered free upgrades in hotels and on airplanes, given complimentary bottles of wine and fruit baskets and gift baskets and theatre tickets and so much stuff. I went on a private tour of Buckingham Palace. At one of my husband’s meetings in Lyon, France (rich people also get to have business meetings in Lyon, France), all us wives were given gorgeous silk scarves.
I don’t have that husband anymore, but I still have that scarf. It’s a bright and beautiful thing. I never wear it.
I also learned that there are gradations of “rich.” From my perspective, my new husband was super duper wealthy. He was a partner in a successful business and made a LOT of money. After a while, he left that partnership and went to work for a client: an extremely wealthy family. You are familiar with their name, I promise. His new employers paid him a LOT LOT LOT of money, way more than he’d made before.
Compared to them, though, we were barely scraping by. I mean, we only had the one house, and when we flew international first class to a combination meeting/vacation in Sydney, Australia, we bought the tickets with air miles. Air miles that we’d accrued through saving our credit-card points for two years until we had several hundred thousand of them.
That sure felt rich to me: I’d never before imagined achieving any part of that equation. Flying to Australia! First class! Spending enough in just two years to earn that many miles!
It’s all relative, I suppose.
So one of the things we got invited to do, not long after my husband went to work for this family, was join a small group that was boating to the Farallones one day. It was free, of course (because the richer you are, the more people give you things); but that wasn’t what was special about it.
The Farallones are a group of islands about thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. You can see them from the mainland and from the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days — I always enjoyed catching sight of them.
But you can’t actually go there; they’re entirely off limits, a wildlife refuge, surrounded (for good measure) by a marine sanctuary. You can sail sorta near them, but that’s it.
Unless…you’re a “volunteer” for one of the organizations doing ecological research there…then you may be permitted to set foot on the islands.
This was to be a grand and gritty expedition, rich-people style. We would meet for a light breakfast and coffee at the dock, wearing our expensive technical outdoors gear and our baseball caps with the logo of the sponsoring ecological research organization. We would then take a small fishing boat out to Southeast Farallon Island, disembark (more on this in a minute!), and be given an informative tour of the research facilities (followed, of course, by a fancy lunch with wine), and then we would do our “volunteer” work before returning to San Francisco in time for cocktails.
Seriously, I was all for it: very excited about the trip. Like any San Franciscan, I’d gazed out at the Farallones for years; I couldn’t quite believe I was going to be able to go there for real. And I love being on boats. I’m not a real sailor or anything, but I grew up on a river, I love the ocean, I’ve slept on barges and I love kayaking and riding on catamarans and in rowboats and waterskiing behind speedboats and, oh, all of it.
“The water can be choppy,” we were advised. “It’s a good idea to eat a small meal the night before and refrain from drinking alcohol and take a Dramamine before setting sail in the morning.”
Well, hahaha, I shrugged that off. I’m fine with the motion of the water. Always have been. Doesn’t bother me a bit.
Plus, I was young and athletic and strong. Totally up for this. Never been seasick in my life, even when others were.
It started fine. We met the other rich people in their expensive technical clothing, chit-chatting over coffee, trying to subtly figure out who was really somebody versus who was just somebody-adjacent (as we were, to my husband’s uber-wealthy employers).
Then we got on the boat and headed out.
Just outside of San Francisco Bay is a place called “the Potato Patch.” Maybe it’s called that because boating through it is like boating over a pile of potatoes. Maybe it’s because once you’ve been over it, you never want to eat anything again, even potatoes.
Whatever the case…it was my undoing.
The thing about seasickness is that it’s one of those “gradually and then all at once” things. I was feeling fine. Then I was feeling…a little unsure. I needed more fresh air, maybe. I lost my enthusiasm for small talk, just wanted to sit very still. I needed…more fresh air. I carefully kept my gaze on the horizon, because that’s supposed to help.
And then — I barely made it to the rail.
The other thing about seasickness is that throwing up doesn’t make you feel any better.
I will spare you the graphic details (you’re welcome), except to note that, after a certain amount of time had passed, I realized it was a very good thing that shipboard bathrooms are so small, because the sink is reachable even while you are sitting on the toilet.
Because that’s how it went.
In my defense, it was a very rough passage! Though I was first over the rail, I was soon in very good company. Even most of the crew ended up losing their breakfasts, I was later told. (I was barricaded in the bathroom by then, wondering why I wasn’t just dead already.)
Then we got to the Farallones.
So here’s how that went. Since the islands are basically big raw rocks sticking up out of the ocean, and since they are places that nobody is supposed to visit (except for researchers and “researchers”), there aren’t these fancy niceties like docks or anything like that.
The way you disembark, they explained to me when they managed to drag me out of the bathroom, is…how can I even describe this? So there’s a big inflatable donut, as big as a truck tire — no, bigger. Four people stand on it. The donut is wrapped in big thick wide-gauge netting; the people stand outside the netting, trying to keep a foothold on the donut. Then — the theory goes — a big crane plucks up the top of the netting, lifting the donut out of the water and setting it on the rocky land high above.
But first, the four people are standing on the donut in the water, clinging to the netting. Oh but the donut isn’t holding still; it’s thrashing and churning about in shark-infested forty-degree water up against a bunch of jagged rocks. It’s slippery and wiggly and wasn’t even a solid surface to begin with.
It’ll be a quick death, I thought, weak and trembling and miserable, barely able to hold on. However it goes, at least I won’t be sick anymore.
I don’t even remember how I got down from the boat onto the donut in the water: traumatic mental block, I’m sure. (Even after I found my photos from the trip, I don’t remember that little dinghy at all!) I do remember being lifted up by the crane and set down onto terra firma at long, blessed last. I let go of the cold wet netting and stepped onto the rock and took a bleary, dizzy, nauseated look around.
I saw: birds. Seagulls, cormorants, murres — I don’t know, lots of birds, thousands of them. Nesting birds. Screaming birds. Baby birds. Dead birds. Bird feathers. Bird shit. Bird bones. Bones that were clearly not from birds, except as birds had discarded them after dumpster-diving thirty miles away back on the mainland.
And it stank. It smelled like…well, birds and bird shit and bird feathers and bones and dead birds. It was cold and windy and there were flies everywhere.
And within about thirty seconds of my feet being on solid rock instead of churning roiling rocking sea, my nausea vanished.
I live here now, I thought. “I live here now,” I said. My husband laughed, nervously; a few other of the wealthy “researchers” laughed, queasily.
But oh, I’d never been more serious in my life. I was NOT getting back on that boat, never again. No how, no way.
We walked around the island a bit, being shown the terrain and the little research facility. “I mean it,” I told my husband, I told the others, I told the group leaders. “I will die if I have to go through that again.”
“No one ever died from seasickness,” I was told, which is of course complete BS.
“Can’t we arrange a helicopter or something to take me back?” I asked. I mean seriously, we were a group of crazy-wealthy people. Why this nonsense with a fishing boat?
We were served our lovely little lunch, with wine, in the research facility. After I managed a few bites, one of the group leaders offered me a Dramamine, which apparently isn’t as effective if you don’t take it far enough ahead of time, but I figured, It couldn’t hurt. I managed a few more bites.
But I did not want to get back on that boat.
After lunch, we did our “volunteer work,” finding specimens of a particular type of small endangered plant and harvesting representative samples. When we’d each gathered our little basket of weeds, we were toured around some more, and visited the sea lions.
And then it was time to go back to the boat and begin the journey home.
Hoo boy, I did not want to get back on that boat.
But nobody would listen to me. “You’ll be fine,” I was told. “The wind has died down, the trip back should be a lot smoother,” I was told. “The Dramamine will help,” I was told.
Well, clearly I didn’t die, because I’m here telling you this story; and, well, I have to grudgingly admit that much of that turned out to be true. It was a smoother passage. I didn’t even throw up once on the way home, though I still spent a lot of time gazing miserably at the horizon and regretting even my few bites of lunch.
I convinced my husband to skip the post-trip cocktail gathering and just take me home, where I collapsed into bed and slept for about twelve hours straight.
I was fine the next day, of course, because while it is a slight exaggeration to say that nobody ever died of seasickness, it’s pretty much true. It’s hard to get dehydrated enough to perish on a thirty-mile voyage, especially for a healthy and fit woman in her thirties.
So, on balance, believe it or not, I’m not sorry I partook of this this weird rich-person perk. Anything you live through becomes part of your story. And on the rare occasions these days when I travel back to San Francisco and look out at the ocean and see those little black spots of islands in the barely-visible distance, I think, I’ve been there.