Teri Orr: One shoe, two shoes — red shoe, no shoes
“I want to get lost again so I can find the next version of myself.” The music producer who was at the party said that to me and it sounded a little new agey and a little mysterious. I wasn’t sure which really. I considered it for a moment, standing on the outside deck on the warm August early evening — happy I had tested negative for COVID in the garage set-up where a nurse-looking person was pricking our fingers and taking our photos, and with the “all clear” we were then free to take our red bandanna and enter the large house recently purchased by Tony Hsieh.
Later, an attractive 40-something woman walked up to introduce herself — said she was coming to town to help Tony set up some arts and culture projects locally that would be amazing! She seemed smart and competent and polished. I asked her why would she want to leave New Mexico to come here (during COVID, I have fantasied about living in Santa Fe).
And then she got a little dreamy and said … ”I want to lose myself so I can find myself again. Maybe become the next version.” I don’t think my head visibly snapped but something inside me did … a mantra.
There was an award-winning chef onsite from Las Vegas and he introduced himself and told me about his restaurants there and very big plans he had for changing up the food scene in Park City and in Salt Lake City. Then Tony’s brother, Andy, came over and introduced himself. You know when you are being worked in a room if you are someone who has had to work a room for a living.
Life is beautiful. That festival director was also part of the mix. They all had been steeped in the idea of “delivering happiness.” As if it was something you could order online — have delivered to your door in multiple sizes and return the stuff that wasn’t the right fit.
Most of the folks in the room I did know because they were all neighbors there — invited to meet the new, quirky, high net-worth owner of the home. I was invited — since a spouse of one of my friends who lives there didn’t want to go and knew I had presented Jewel and thought I would enjoy her promised performance. The hosts had received a guest list in advance and knew a bit about each of us.
I stayed mostly outside on the deck overlooking the pond. (Can we please stop calling the water feature at that house “a lake with a beach”? It is a damn pond.)
There was maybe 30 minutes of mingling and then a little talk about the level of arts and culture the new homeowner intended to bring to our community. And then Jewel played three songs.
In my former life I presented Jewel a number of times in Park City. She is charming, accessible, very self-effacing and a terrific storyteller. When she started the story about her first hit song I knew exactly where she was headed. She had lived in her car and stolen clothing and had an epiphany about her misdirection and her need to reset. I knew the song that was coming next. I had heard her sing it on the radio long before she sang on the stage at Deer Valley. But from the first notes that night there was something different. She was singing the song as a cross between a prayer and a plea. “Who will save your soul?” She was singing to her friend who was damaged and self-destructive and delusional. I didn’t know all the backstory but by this point in the late summer many people knew stories of drug problems and police calls to the multiple homes Tony owned — from Promontory to Old Town. Erratic behaviors reported by locals who had been hired and signed nondisclosure agreements and ultimately some left — felt they couldn’t keep taking the money and turning away from the increased madness. Multiple national news stories in recent days have now reported Jewel left after that night and didn’t have the extended time with her friend Tony that had been planned. She instead wrote a three-page letter that was delivered by FedEx to ensure the digital detox billionaire would be more likely to read it. She was begging him to get help.
Later I learned the COVID tests we had taken were not actual active COVID tests — only tests (perhaps) to show if we had had the virus. The chef who was trying to have Tony purchase a number of linked restaurants here was reportedly let go a few weeks later for talking publicly about the deal. The emergency calls to that house and other houses Tony Hsieh owned in town increased. Police and fire department calls, erratic behavior, increased drug use, hospitalization.
Tony Hsieh was a broken man long before he came to Park City. If his Burning Man tribe talked — they would tell you that. Some of the folks who were concerned about the three suicides in six months that took place as part of his revitalization of downtown Las Vegas have spoken to the press about his growing number of dark days there. And the revitalization? It never actually happened. The park he created with art? The only art is a giant praying mantis from Burning Man that shoots fire out of the antennas.
Sadly, Tony was broken long, long, long before he came to Utah —reportedly at first to seek treatment … before he began his home-buying spree. The sale of Zappos also reportedly included Amazon stock, not just cash. And as anyone who has followed that stock knows, it has grown exponentially since that sale in ’09. It grew to be so much money, maybe too much for a kid who grew up in the Bay Area as Palo Alto and Sunnyvale and all those formerly rural communities became Silicon Valley. The years when his dad worked for Chevron as a chemical engineer and his mother as a social worker maybe didn’t prepare him to one day manage great wealth.
The only “art” Tony brought to Park City seems to be a giant octopus looking thing — rumored to also be a refugee from Burning Man. It is painted in garish colors and is broken in places and it still rests on the front lawn of The Ranch. It looks like it fell off a carnival ride.
I can’t say I ever saw Tony — I was told later he quietly appeared in the kitchen the night Jewel sang and disappeared again.
I did have a possible odd encounter in the late spring.
I was getting my mail at the Main Street post office and decided to make a strategic in-and-out at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. We all have our own survival needs. And I passed a tall, thin, Asian man who was just standing still and barefoot. It was odd. We are all kinds of quirky here but barefoot on a sidewalk in a mountain town has never been — a thing. It stuck with me. In hindsight, it may have been the guy who sold his online shoe company for $1.2 billion dollars … who was known to eschew shoes.
Yes, it is/was COVID and everything is/was confusing and out of order and sad and isolating. And scary. Some folks became unmoored. Dropped their baskets. Mental health issues are/were at an all-time high. But enablers were making serious money from the increasingly altered shoeless king.
It was madness.
Remember last spring when the craziest thing you could stream online was a show about a gay man who raised tigers in Oklahoma? Meanwhile, Tony the Tiger was moving into town and eating up expensive real estate. And feeding raw meat promises to hungry locals.
Neither story ended well.
Park City is not — as it has been reported in the international press — “a playground for millionaires.” Though we are happy if they come here to recreate and even live. We are a small town of hard-working folks who have invested in our schools and churches and nonprofits and each other. We have shown up in miraculous unsung ways for decades for our neighbors and strangers. Long before COVID and all the strange aberrations of human behavior erupted here.
And screaming international trash publications aside — we are gonna keep being kind and smart and open to new residents who want to be a grounded part of our caring community any day — especially Sundays in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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