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December 16, 2009

Travels with Uncle Chet: Sharing wealth could help


COLUMBUS _ We filed into the brightly lit school lobby on a chilly Saturday night, and the rush of warm air felt good on my hands and face. The sounds of bouncing balls, heavy feet and dozens of voices echoed through the building.

A knot of people gathered before the gatekeeper, an old woman at a student’s desk, selling tickets. They moved on, then we stepped up. She had a pile of programs, a little strongbox on the desk and a handmade sign that read: ``Children under 12, $1; Adults, $2; Senior Citizens, $1.’’ ``How old is a senior citizen?’’ Uncle Chet asked.

``Oh, I don’t know.’’ She looked at him in mild surprise. ``At least 60, I guess.’’

``Then we’re in luck.’’ He handed her a $10 bill. “I’m 69, those two are 60 and he’s well under 12. How old are you, Buddy?’’

``Eight,’’ the boy said. ``There. Four half-priced admissions and only one full-fledged adult, his mother, with us,’’ Uncle Chet said.

The woman looked at Alice and me dubiously, and Alice said, ``I don’t mind paying full price.’’

``But she really is 60,’’ Uncle Chet said and took the $4 in change. We murmured thank-you and continued on.

``Well, that was embarrassing,’’ Alice confided as we hiked the tiled stairs. ``You told all the world I’m not an adult anymore.’’ ``Just looking after our business interests,’’ he said.

``I don’t feel like I’m past it,’’ she said.

``You’re retired, aren’t you?’’ he said as we sidled past the food stand and entered a spacious gymnasium. ``Well, I’m not,’’ I said.

``You never were an adult,’’ he said. The music was thumping, and the players were going through their layup drills. We sat in the front row, took off our coats. Hon got out her camera and checked the light.

``Can I have a hot dog?’’ Buddy said.

``You’d know better than I,’’ I told him.

``I mean, may I have hot dog?’’ ``That’s up to mom.’’ I looked at her.

``Let’s see what they have,’’ Hon said, and handed me the camera.

``Maybe they have pizza.’’

They headed back out the double doors as more people were filtering in, filling the bleachers.

``In a way, it’s demeaning to pay less,’’ said Alice, who has long silver hair like Emmylou Harris.

``Like being on food stamps,’’ I said. ``Yes, an admission of frailty,’’ she said. ``It seems you’re taking charity.’’

``Listen, I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to. But wasn’t it a logical question?’’ he asked. ``They put up a sign for a senior discount and don’t tell you what a senior is. Of course, not all seniors need a discount and plenty of juniors do, so if I were in charge, I’d admit people on a sliding scale, from free to five bucks, depending on their means.’’

``The socialist approach,’’ I said, watching some crisp passing during the warm-ups.

``Yes, because at root, this country has only one problem: the lopsided distribution of wealth,’’ Uncle Chet said. ``The tick has all the blood, and it’s killing the host. And the bigger it gets, the tighter it hangs on.’’

``Who’s the tick?’’ I said.

``The billionaires. They’re bleeding our society. They own the government, the media; they own a controlling interest in everything and they control it to their advantage. If it’s to their advantage that we go to war, we go to war, and anyone who doesn’t get in line is branded. If it’s to their advantage to bail out Wall Street, we do it, even though no seems to want to.

It just gets done, because money flows mostly in one direction in this country, toward those who need it least.

``Amen,’’ I said.

``Of course there is a remedy, if anyone had the guts to propose it,’’ Uncle Chet said. ``Bring back the tax rates we had under Truman and Eisenhower, where the top bracket paid 90 percent. Then phase in a tax on assets more than $1 billion and use that money to fund health care.’’

``Do you have a target on your back?’’ Alice asked him.

``I’m sure I do,’’ he said. ``But this one senior citizen who isn’t going to shut up.’’