21 SEPTEMBER 1991, Page 12


Michael Lewis on

a town which symbolises the richest and worst in American society

Aspen ASPEN, Colorado, is one of those white, middle-class American towns where ignor- ance is considered a virtue. People live there because they've decided they are happiest just not knowing — and they may be right. (They are certainly happy.) All news of the outside world is confined by the local paper to a tiny box headlined, `The Real World'. Local conversation tends to occur on the level of 'I'm OK You're OK' animal signs (`Heeyyy! Howyadoin! Great!'). I met people a week after the event who did not know that there had been a coup in the Soviet Union. I met others who didn't know the name of their state's governor. And no one seems to know anyone else's last name. People are simply known by their first name and their town of origin, a little like Italian quat- trocento painters: Tommy of New Orleans, Marvin of Minneapolis, Veronica of Vail and so on.

This studied ignorance makes Aspen an ideal place to diagnose the American mood. Only the most intrusive, persistent outside influences are able to run the local gauntlet of enlightened idiocy; only the most powerful flash registers on this highly insensitive photographic paper. in the past 30 years there have been exactly three changes in the spirit of the town. In the Sixties it became one of America's great long-haired love-and-drugfests; in the late Seventies it was briefly overrun by granola- munching technocrats who dreamed of gluing solar panels onto every home; and in the Eighties it was sacked by the new American rich, who had selected the town' as the site for their annual winter tourna- ment of conspicuous consumption. The jousting debtocrats — Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, the Bass Brothers, and other, lesser visionaries — somehow trans- formed large sections of a tranquil ski-town into a neurotic alter-ego of Manhattan.

Now Aspen is once more having to adjust in a way that reflects how America itself is having to adjust. Work has stopped on the half-finished Ritz Carlton hotel in the middle of town (a late 1980's exception to Aspen's strict zoning laws) allegedly because the builder's funds came from BCCI. A famous financier named Boyd Jefferies, convicted and fined for helping Ivan Boesky to break securities laws, has, as part of his penance, set up a school on the Aspen golf course to instruct middle- class local teenagers in the finer pbints of the chip shot. Ivana got the Trump Aspen pile in the settlement, so Donald skis elsewhere. One overhears tales of woe on the streets of Aspen that could be inserted unchanged into a modern social satire. A friend of mine was very nearly moved to tears as he listened to two young ladies in a hot tub at Aspen's most fashionable health club discuss father's upcoming prison term: Teenage blonde: My father keeps put- ting it off and putting it off, and my mother keeps saying, 'Why don't you just go and get it over with'.

Late twenties blonde: Yeah, 1 mean two years really means only 18 months. Teenage blonde: Yeah. (Talk drifted away from white-collar convict strategy but the tone remained as surprisingly knowing.) Teenage blonde: I can't decide whether to ask my parents to shell out the money to send me to school in Switzerland, or, like, just cave in and agree to stay here. Used-looking blonde: The trouble with these Swiss schools is that they are for spoiled rich girls, and you don't have enough money to be a spoiled rich girl. [World-weary sigh.] I've been pretending to be a spoiled rich girl all my life. [Long pause.] It's not very becoming. The various come-uppances of a handful of the loudly rich are very tragic, in their way. But they have not affected the new social structure of the town. The defining event of the Eighties in Aspen — as throughout America — was the redistribu- tion of wealth from everyone else to the rich. That pattern has not even begun to reverse itself. The 1980s may be over. But to judge from Aspen, that doesn't mean very much. Whereas Aspen up until about ten years ago was as classless as any place in America, the town now is divided clearly in two. There are those who own property and those who don't.

The West End of town, once occupied by local tradesmen and ski bums, is now firmly controlled by absentee landlords a rentier class who collect no rent. They came, they bought, and they left. Most of the multi-million-dollar homes are vacant for all but the few weeks around Christ- mas. The owners have inadvertently cre- ated one of the most expensive ghost towns in history. In summer Aspen consists of whole square miles of immaculately kept emptiness. The porch lights and lawn- sprinklers run on timers, and there is the recurring, creepy sight of the water coming on in the middle of a rainstorm. Aspen's children no longer trick-or-treat on Hallo- we'en because there is no one to give them candy. Which isn't as sad as it sounds, since there are hardly any children left in Aspen. Few who actually work there can afford to live there. The increase in property values has forced most of the 7,000 locals to move down the valley. Workers commute from 70 miles away. Each morning the highway threading the Colorado wilderness is jam- med with traffic-miles of dusty trucks in the middle of nowhere. The air in the valley is turning hazy with smog. The locals can no longer afford to eat in their own res- taurants, or shop in their own shops, or play on what was once considered com- munal property.

The 1990's Aspen experiment is very much the American experiment: how far can the rich antagonise the middle class before the middle class revolts? A real- estate developer recently assembled a tract of land in the most beautiful valley near Aspen and wants to stretch a fence across it that would cut the valley off from the town. Slightly further out of town Saudi Arabia's US Ambassador, Prince Bandar, defaced a pretty hill with a palace the size of the White House (55,000 square feet), then fenced off the road leading to some of the best cycling in the area.

In exchange for being more or less muscled out of their magical valley the locals at least have the pleasure of hurling disdain at interlopers, and of gloating at the bad taste of the conquering rich. A team of cleaners came twice a week through the house we rented for a month in the West End. With their long hair, torn jeans, earrings, distracted manner and legible clothing (Just Say No To the War on Drugs, read the shirt of one) they were throwbacks to another age in Aspen. Now they lived 60 miles down valley, and commuted to sweep the floors of the rich.

One day these men arrived, when I was alone in the house, and made a beeline for the backyard. Fringing the neatly clipped lawn was a line of large rocks. I had sat on the back porch for two weeks and never noticed anything strange about them. The mountains of Aspen are speckled with quarries of similar grey stone. The men began to lift the rocks and bounce them off each other's heads. They were plastic imports from Manhattan, or somewhere.

`Can you believe this shit, man?' said one of them. 'We have a whole state full of free rocks and these people buy plastic rocks. Can you believe it?'

Somehow I could.

Michael Lewis's latest book, The Money Culture, is published this month by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99)