The Millionaire Wore Nine-Dollar Shoes

The telephone rang with its usual cricket peep. I liked it better when telephones actually rang. Those fat old black-plastic phones with the dialing wheel had an urgent, spurting ring that could jolt couch potatoes right out of their recliners. Telephones make insect noises now, katydids, grasshoppers, the cricket beneath the kitchen counter that keeps one awake all night. You want to get rid of it, but you can't because he's hiding and can't be found.

I answered the phone. Mom was calling from the Northeast. I was to go to the airport on Friday and collect Uncle Jonathan who was flying in from Texas. He would be staying for two weeks in Mom's Florida condo while it was vacant.

Who was Uncle Jonathan?

"Your father and I have known him for years," came the reply, the irrelevancy of the week. I was to go to the airport and meet a relative whom I had never seen. Was there anything special I should know about him?

Uncle Jonathan dislikes barbers, came the reply. I couldn't imagine what barbers had done to land on Uncle Jonathan's black list. The fact was, Uncle Jonathan liked to cut his own hair.

I had to think about that. How was it possible to cut one's own hair and not look like a prisoner of war?

I asked Mom how Uncle Jonathan did the cutting. He stood in front of a full-length mirror and held a hand mirror behind his head. He reached back with a pair of scissors and hoped it turned out all right.

This made no sense. Uncle Jonathan was from Texas. He owned oil wells, a condo or two, a luxury car here and there, and yet he stood before a mirror and cut his own hair using Kentucky windage and Tennessee elevation? A picture formed in my mind: a cowboy wearing a 10-gallon Stetson and a salad-bowl haircut.

In any case I was to collect Uncle Jonathan at the airport and be nice to him. What did he look like? He was tall and slim, and had eyes like a deer. I asked my mother to repeat that. Eyes like a d-e-a-r? No, she replied, d-e-e-r. This was crazy. Bambi in a cowboy hat?

I located him at the airport, the last one off the plane. There was a slap on my shoulder, and a "Howdy son, glad to meet ya!"

He wanted to take me to lunch. I was thinking seafood platter, steak, filet mignon. Wrong: burgers and fries. Uncle Jonathan liked fast-food places; the 99-cent menu was for him. He wanted me to get the food while he found a table. He took out this roll of bills with a rubber band around it and peeled off a 50. No traveler's checks, no credit cards, just this wad of currency. I hoped no one else had seen it.

I came over to him with our tray of food, my pocket stuffed with change. For fun I looked at my uncle's hairline in back, above his collar. It wasn't quite straight. The hairline rose about 10 degrees on the right.

Uncle Jonathan was a smorgasbord of knowledge about worlds I had never been in. He knew about industry, finance, big business, precious stones, antiques, valuable art. He was an expert haggler. He would walk into a luxury-car dealership and emerge with a new car that cost him $5,000 or $10,000 less than the dealer had wanted.

He knew about gold: watches, rings, nuggets, coins. He knew exchange rates in many countries around the world. Uncle Jonathan was a mixture of Howard Hughes and Goldfinger. He liked jewelry stores, and liked having a ring "built" for a special someone. The jeweler would start with a plain gold band, then decorate it with rows of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, turquoise, opals, aquamarines, and garnets until he had the most gaudy finger ornament that could be created.

My uncle liked walking on the beach. He didn't want to get sand and saltwater all over his new boots. But when he walked barefoot he discovered that shells and sharp stones were not exactly ouchless. He wanted to buy some sandals.

So we went to the mall to look for a pair. Discount shoes were to his liking, and he surveyed every aisle as though looking for lost treasure. There was a sale: $19.95 sandals had been reduced to $9. This was heaven to him.

He put the sandals on and strode around the store, eying the prices on the shoe boxes he passed, to make sure there wasn't a pair at a lower price.

He had a bit of kid in him. He liked to play games, this Texan who paraded up and down the store aisles wearing his bargain-basement sandals that squeaked. Uncle Jonathan loved finding a bargain. His eyes dazzled at the prospect.

HE could buy the whole shoe store if he wanted to, but finding an item on sale was the highlight of his day. He liked the price of his sandals. He took out his roll of bills and had much difficulty finding a 20 amid all those 50s and 100s. I tried encouraging him to use credit cards, but I never got very far. Now that he had his beach shoes, squeaks and all, he spent the rest of the vacation looking for the perfect shark's tooth.

I saw Uncle Jonathan a couple of times after that, but the two of us hail from - and operate in - separate worlds. He loved to talk about wheeling and dealing, playing golf with doctors, lawyers, politicians, and closing a deal on the putting green. But the man who had everything had this thrifty streak in him, 99-cent menus, discount stores, and $9 shoes.

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