My uncle was a billionaire, but why didn’t I care?
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Having a billionaire in the family is a lot like not having a billionaire in the family.
Growing up in a big, loud Italian family, I had lots of uncles who would joke and guffaw and pick you up off the ground by your cheeks. But Uncle Sal wasn’t one of them.
The family gathered for ball games and picnics and spaghetti dinners on Sundays. But you never saw Uncle Sal there.
The two or three times a year I saw Uncle Sal, it was usually at some stiff formal event like a wedding or a funeral. He would walk in, pick his seat and stay there. Other men would cycle by, smiling and flattering. He rarely smiled. If there was music, he never danced.
He kept a home in town — the hometown where we both were born and grew up, sixty years apart — but his main house was in the big city a couple hours away.
That’s where he made his money, building suburban houses for soldiers coming back from World War II. His father had started the business, but it was Sal who turned it into a well-oiled machine, churning out cookie-cutter houses year after year, neighborhood after neighborhood — over 30,000 homes by the time he retired.
Uncle Sal didn’t really look rich. No fancy Italian suits, anyway. One time I saw him, his fat white belly was protruding under his shirt and his shoelaces were untied.
But his extravagances weren’t hard to spot, either.
He had a personal chauffeur, who may have also been his bodyguard. (My mother swears she saw a peek of a sidearm under his jacket at Uncle Sal’s funeral.)
He loved duck hunting so much that he bought a 750-acre duck club.
And he collected ivory — delicately carved elephant tusks that you would call beautiful if only they didn’t break your heart first.
But that’s just how money was for us, growing up. It was all around us, and it was kind of strange.
Even though my friends and family were all thoroughly middle-class — our parents were plumbers and accountants and schoolteachers — we all knew that on the other side of the hill was another world, an exclusive resort town where one house cost as much as our whole block.
Every summer, insanely rich people would fly in from all over the world for a week of antique car shows and auctions, and you would see Ferraris and Lamborghinis racing down every street.
It was kind of annoying, but also so common, that I thought everyone had rich people like that in their families, far off and rarely seen. And when they went back to wherever they came from, we went on with our lives, back to our ordinary homes and routines and rituals — homework, piano lessons, baseball practice, growing up.
My parents both worked, so often it was my grandparents who picked me up from school.
Their door was always unlocked and opened directly into the kitchen. So friends, neighbors and relatives were always stopping by, and my grandmother would do the same thing every time: put a pot of coffee on and a plate of home baked Italian cookies on the kitchen table.
One thing my Uncle Sal loved was gardening, and I remember him showing up at my grandparents’ house one day and proudly plopping a big bag full of zucchini on the table.
He stayed for coffee and cookies and started reminiscing with my grandparents about the old town. On one of his first projects, he bulldozed the hilltop mansion that had been the home of one of the state’s wealthiest men, then built eight working-class homes over it. My grandmother — his sister-in-law — used to live in one of those homes, and working in the garden one day she found a five-dollar gold coin gleaming in the soil.
On another early project, he was operating a backhoe when the digging teeth started turning up bones. Knowing they were probably Native American remains — and that there were laws against disturbing them that might prevent or delay construction — he gathered them into a garbage bag and dumped them in a storm drain.
Even at ten or eleven years old, I knew that didn’t sound right.
I later learned he had a reputation for bulldozing his projects through, ripping up forests and wetlands, and strong-arming city councils to get what he wanted. Some of the buyers of his homes were less than pleased by their slipshod quality, so they gave him the nickname “One Nail Sal.”
On the other hand, he donated generously to schools and hospitals, and he was an early proponent and builder of affordable housing in an increasingly unaffordable part of the country.
So, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, on balance. Most likely, he was neither saint nor devil. Just a walking mix of good and bad. Not any better or worse than the rest of us. And almost certainly no happier.
That’s why having a billionaire in the family is a lot like not having a billionaire in the family.
I got nothing out of having a billionaire for an uncle, but I got everything out of having a family that taught me that you don’t treat someone differently because of how big their bank account was, or what color they were, or really anything about them that wasn’t your business.
You welcomed them the same way. You talked to them the same way.
You were equals.