Last Friday Bill Gates of Microsoft plus entourage and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw plus entourage breezed into the little prairie town of Watertown, South Dakota for coffee with the locals. The Gates Foundation has sprung for some computers for the local library, and NBC "calming force" Brokaw was doing the promo.
The coffee drunk, the interview in the can and the caravan starting to pack up, Gates and Brocaw rise, and leave. Without paying.
The waitress is, according to a Register spy who frequents the establishment, incandescent. But not incandescent enough to go chasing after either royal representative. She pursues the crew, saying, ""I've got a news bulletin for you. The richest man in the world just stiffed me for $6.00!" They look, roll their eyes, leave, the $6 still unpaid.
Not of course that one should be particularly surprised. Billionaires (even some quite marginal billionaires) are habitually oblivious to direct financial transactions of any description. You could put this as them - like our own dear Queen - not carrying any money, but actually they carry along in their wake teams of arrangers with clipboards who generally do the bill-settling for their swings through expensive stores. It's the self-reliant billionaires you've got to watch, as The Register knows to its cost - they don't have money and don't bother with the bill-settling entourage either, so you only figure out they didn't pay for dinner after they left.
Therefore, as a service for potential victims of very rich people pretending to be normal people doing normal things in real places, we offer the following suggestions. Make a quick assessment of the coherence and competence of the entourage(s). You're looking for a harrassed but authoritative-looking person, possibly with a clipboard, barking orders - she (it quite frequently is she) may well order someone to give you $50 in order to get rid of you. In the case of the particular Watertown incident our guess is that the Gates entourage probably was not the one to approach; we've noted that Microsoft entourages, though frequently quite large, tend toward the uncoordinated.
NBC, however, ought to have been a shoo-in. The packers of the leads, obviously, were not about to hand over any money, but somewhere in the wake of Brokaw there was surely one or more of the desired clipboards. Don't hang around, don't hassle them, be firm and clamp yourself onto whoever they nominate to get rid of you. Don't take promises - cash only.
And what do you do if a billionaire blows into your coffee shop and orders a mocha, says he's got no cash when you say "That'll be $3 please," and tells you his people will settle it? Easy. Call the cops, tell them there's a guy in your store pretending to be Bill Gates. ®
* Partially in the interests of balance, but largely out of sheer wonder, we should point out that it has now been alleged to us by a Microsoft employee that the above story is untrue. Trivial, pointless, not worth bothering about are words we'd have deemed more appropriate, ourselves, but we presume he is acting in a personal capacity, rather than representing the full weight and strategic rigour of the Microsoft marketing machine.
Anyway, he tells us he called some colleagues in Watertown, who called the store manageress, who "said that when Bill came in she offered him a cup of cappuccino and had no plan of charging him for it. She said she got a call yesterday from CNN and told them the same thing - that the story is wrong."
Not wishing to make further trouble for the waitress (who indisputably seems not to have got a tip), we do not intend to pursue this ridiculous matter further. Nice to see CNN deploys its resources on the big stories though...