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Published July 17, 2013

Right-Wing Detective

Meet Dick White, Right-Wing Detective. Armed with a worldview that prevents him from observing facts, using deductive reasoning, or empathizing with others, he is often dead wrong—and dead certain he’s right. 

 
STAY OUT, STAY ALIVE
 
The creek was moving fast today, and I watched as a stick, caught up by the torrent of water, was forced against the iron grate. For a long moment I stared at that stick, pinned there, powerless to resist the currents pushing it forward, unable to remove the bars holding it back. On the concrete spillway were words of caution stenciled in red paint: Stay Out. Stay Alive.
 
It was a crisp fall day in Walnut Creek, California. I waited for Dwight to park the car next to the Crate & Barrel, then we made our way down Main Street, past Neiman Marcus and Tiffany’s. The town had done well for itself; the handful of blocks surrounding us contained hundreds of millions of dollars in storefronts and merchandise. 
 
As we rounded the corner, I spied a sullen Mexican power-washing the sidewalk. 
 
“So that's why these sidewalks sparkle,” I said. 
 
Dwight nodded. “Civic pride.”
 
The reason for our stop: Dwight needed to pick up a new loofah from The Body Shop. On our way there, we passed the Apple store. That’s where the trouble began.
 
WASTED GENIUS
 
I love the Apple store. It’s an American success story, like GM in the 1950s, but without all the union baggage. Inside, it’s always bright and clean. But not today. There, lying smack dab in the middle of all that negative space, was an Apple Genius, dead in a pool of his own blood. A gun in his limp hand. 
 
It was time to put on my detective hat and gather the facts. I started with one of the Geniuses who was still alive, a weedy kid with a full beard and suspicious earring.
 
“So, why'd he do it? Wasn't meeting his sales quota?”
 
“What?” The kid looked stunned that someone would care to get to the bottom of this. “No. No, he was our top producer.”
 
“How much are we talking?”
 
“Well, he sold over a million dollars this year, if you must know.”
 
Dwight cut in, “Bet he got a fat commission.”    
 
“We don’t get commissions,” answered the Genius. “We get $11.25 an hour and the admiration of our peers.”
 
At that moment, Walnut Creek’s finest rolled up, sirens blaring. I hate to see government workers stinking up a place, especially such a glorious shrine to free enterprise. 
 
The usual police tape went up. Shoppers were moved along. 
 
I leaned close to Dwight. “I don’t know about you, but I could really use a fancy coffee drink about now.”
 
“Yeah,” Dwight agreed.
 
THE APPLE DOESN'T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE
 
We hit up Starbucks. I got a doppio macchiato and Dwight an extra-whip white chocolate mocha. Those baristas write your name on the cup so, of course, we used fictitious names to remain incognito. My cup said Reagan. Dwight’s said Santorum
 
“You think Al Gore could be behind this?” Dwight mused. “He was practically best buds with Steve Jobs.” 
 
“You’re keeping an open mind, Dwight—good job. That’s the key to solving cases.”
 
We walked back to the street and looked into the Apple Store. A man knelt over the dead boy. No doubt the father. We couldn’t hear him through the glass, but his body convulsed from sobbing.
 
We sipped our drinks and watched as the father began arguing with the officers. They tried to calm him, but he turned and went for the door. He opened it and began yelling.
 
“Were there any witnesses? They say it was suicide. I think it was murder. Did anyone see?”
 
We approached. I handed the man my card. “I’m Dick White and this is my partner Dwight Knight.”
 
He scanned the business card, then looked up at me. “I don’t think my son would shoot himself.”
 
“The security cameras will probably show what happened. But it may be a while before we can see that footage. In the meantime, perhaps you can tell us more about your son.” 
 
APPLES AND ORANGES
 
The father’s name was Kurt Reynolds. He took us to his home, your basic three-bedroom, two-bath rancher. He told us his son, Ryan, lived there with him. In the hallway I eyed some pictures from an earlier time. A young Bill and a younger Ryan smiled, posed arm in arm in front of a GM assembly line. 
 
“I used to work for the General. Retired five years ago.”
 
“Bet you got a nice UAW pension,” said Dwight, but only I could detect his sarcasm.
 
“It’s something.” He offered us oranges, but we declined.
 
He showed us Ryan’s room, 10 feet square with a window facing a wall of the house nextdoor. 
 
“He got his degree last year, and I told him he could stay here rent free and start paying off his student loans.”
 
“How much did he owe?”
 
“A little over $50,000.”
 
“What was his degree in?”
 
“Engineering, but he couldn’t find a good job on account of the economy.”  
 
“Did he have many friends?”
 
“Well, he was on Facebook a lot. But sometimes it just made him sad. He thought everyone else had a better life than his.”
 
I could tell it was beginning to dawn on Kurt that his son might’ve had some reasons to kill himself after all. I steeled myself. 
 
EPIPHANY TIME
 
“Mr. Reynolds, I've seen this story before,” I told him. “Your son was the top salesman. He sold over a million dollars worth of iStuff. And yet, he thought life was hopeless. Why? Because he simply didn’t know that we Americans don’t see ourselves as exploited workers, but as”—I set my jaw—“temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
 
The father just stared at me, mouth hanging open.
 
Dwight added, “Yeah. If only this young Genius believed in the American Dream, he would've simply worked harder.”
 
More staring. Ah, this was hopeless. Sometimes I wonder why we bother. The father turned his face to the wall, as tragically unenlightened as his dead son.
 
We said our respects and went our way, driving in silence for a while, until Dwight remembered something. 
 
“I almost forgot—my loofah.”
 
We returned downtown, and Dwight ran into The Body Shop. I stood on the bridge with a cigarette. Down in the swift-moving creek, the stick was still there, caught between the currents pushing it forward and the bars holding it back.   
 
 BULLET POINTS: FACE FACTS
 
  • Apple stores take in more money per square foot than any other U.S. retailer—nearly double that of Tiffany.
     
  • Electronics and appliance stores typically post $206,000 in revenue per employee, according to the latest figures from the National Retail Federation. Add up Apple store revenue, divide by total number of employees—including non-sales staff such as technicians and shelf stockers—and each employee brings in $473,000 per year. These employees earn around $25,000 a year on average.
     
  • In the 1950s, over a third of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today fewer than 7 percent do. As a result, the typical American worker no longer has the bargaining clout to get a sizable share of corporate profits. Apple’s CEO is one of America’s most richly compensated executives. In 2011, he received stock grants worth more than $570 million.
     
  • A half century ago, America’s largest private-sector employer was General Motors, whose full-time workers (like the father in this story) earned an average hourly wage of $50 in today’s dollars (when you include health and pension benefits). Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour (but a third of Walmart’s employees are employed less than 28 hours per week, so they don’t qualify for benefits). Walmart earned $16 billion in 2011. The wealth of the Walton family now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.    
     
  • Percentage change in the past five years in the share of new U.S. cars sold to people between ages 18 and 34: –42.
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