Nobody goes broke for just one reason. There is always a long, dirty laundry list that accompanies all riches-to-rags-stories. You name it – the stock market, getting wiped out in a divorce, getting into real estate when one has no business being there, the recession, booze, broads, cocaine, etc.
Eventually, Hal had to admit to all of the above and more. That took time and a lot of pain, seasoned with extra-large doses of regret, anger and self-pity. Hal finally had to come clean and face the man in the mirror: he had done it to himself. He had lost control and self-destructed. He home-brewed a BIG ego! The worst part to live with was the realization that he could only blame himself, not others or external forces, and this was killing him. People had no idea, he said. Hal blew it all. He just never thought the money would ever run out or that the party might not last forever.
“How the hell did this happen?” he obsessed. “How did I go from Park Avenue to the looming possibility of winding up on a park bench?” This single thought tortured him twenty-four hours a day. Sleep was his only escape – and it would only come by pill or capsule.
One day, when Hal had finally huffed and puffed his way up those flights of stairs to his tiny rented room, toting his dinner, a take-out chicken and broccoli Chinese food special in a plastic shopping bag, the “welcome home” greeting him was a nasty-looking torn piece of standard copy paper taped on his door. The message, written in scrawled black magic marker letters, read: “PAY YOUR RENT OR GET OUT, BUM.”
The 74-year-old skeletal-thin former broadcasting executive, a mogul, a man who had been in great demand years back, who had even interviewed heads of states at the White House, now stood outside his door trembling with anger as he clawed at the cheap insult from the building superintendent. He crumpled the note up in a tight fist and tossed the paper down the building’s grimy, cracked-tile, pre-WW II stairwell. Then he opened the thick, century’s old, chipped-paint door and slammed it shut, leaving four corners of tape on the door from what would be his final warning before his rock bottom got even rockier leading him inexplicably to the park bench he himself had prophesied for his future.
That bench is where we met. I sat there to eat a deli sandwich during my work break. He sat at the opposite end, quietly nibbling on a bagel, cream cheese oozing out of the side and onto the crumpled wax paper on his lap.
Hal was born in Chicago to immigrant parents. His father put himself through college in night school, getting an MBA while working factory jobs during the day. To assimilate faster to his new and beloved country, he even took classes to try his best to modify his European accent, and eventually took a job in finance. He moved the family to New York City where he worked on Wall Street, rising to become a successful trader.
Hal grew up in well-to-do Park Slope, Brooklyn. Despite his hard-working father’s acumen, work ethic, and ability to make money in the markets, his mother was the real operator in the small family of four. Hal had an older brother Steve, a.k.a. “The Doctor,” as Hal began to refer to him in our conversations. His mother, had she been born thirty years later, might have become an elected politician, Borough President or even the first woman mayor of New York. But back then, for a woman in this city, instead of aspiring to be King she had to settle to being a King Maker. Any ambitious man desiring to hold elected office in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s had to be a friend of hers.
It became crystal-clear to me that his mother, more than his father, had become the main driver of measuring up as Hal grew into manhood, attended top universities and then began competing in the business world. He needed to show his mother.
The seeds of success were implanted in Hal’s character through the classic second generation’s New World immigrant drive to succeed, coupled with an indoctrination he inherited through osmosis, observing his parents operate in the rough and tumble world of the stock and bond business, as well as behind the curtain of politics in America’s Empire State and ambition-fueling city. The theater of his youth was played out in the parlor of his family’s Brooklyn brownstone, where his mother held afternoon parlor court with power brokers over tea and cookies; and then, in the evening, when his father crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and returned home to discuss the world’s movement of capital at their dinner table.
His parent’s accomplishments would prove to be tough acts to follow later in Hal’s life.
I don't know if it was from the drugs wearing off, exhaustion, hunger or from some painful buttons of his past being pushed, but the chapter of the day always ended with Hal saying something like “There all gone, pal,” or “I can’t believe shit turned out like this for me,” or “I had the world by the balls and now I’m 74 years old and can’t even get a job as a security guard in a shopping mall or as a night watchman in an empty warehouse.”
Nevertheless, the informal park bench talk-therapy sessions seemed to be doing him some good. With time, as the saturation of chemicals began evaporating from his brain and the words poured from his lips, I began to notice his eyes become clearer and his speech sharpen. I sensed from day one that there was a good guy and an intelligent mind lost in that fragile body, yearning to come back to life. It warmed my heart to see that person adrift begin to reemerge. As I listened intently, I began to fathom that Hal and I had much in common. My heart had grown cold; I too had suffered from burnout and trying to fill my own material things to fill the gap for too many years. Conceivably, I was competing with mirages. What was the temperature of my own humanity? Was I also in the early stages of heading for a park bench? Or was my soul almost already there and my body soon to follow?
Who was helping who here?
I decided to not return to the office after lunch that day, though I did call to let them know I wouldn’t be back. Good thing I’m the boss! I spent the remainder of the day walking Central Park’s nature trails and paths, and twice walked slowly and thoughtfully around the Jackie O. reservoir.
Often people’s strengths propel them up ladders of success, but those same strengths can be viewed as character defects as they relate to other areas. One does not have to look any further than the daily news to learn about story of politicians, actors, rock stars, athletes or business people and others, who experienced dramatic, and most often heartbreaking “falls from grace.”
Hal was the greatest schmoozer the broadcasting business had ever seen. When he was a young airtime salesman right out of business school, he worked for one of the major television networks. He dazzled the upper echelon by getting his foot in the door of prestigious advertising firms which typically only hired from within exclusive insider pools, therefore their walls could not be breached. Hal was able to breach them.
I asked Hal how he was able to accomplish that. His answer, plain and simple: “I did whatever it took to get the business.” Having been in the sales business myself for over 25 years, no further questions needed to be asked. I understood the language of the sales trade.
Hal had a knack for zeroing in on the sweet spots within the labyrinth of company’s organizational charts and for buddying up with the people who mattered. He inherently knew, most likely from his mother and father, that power is elusive. Sometimes it flows from the top down, but mystically, it can also rise from the bottom up. Hal’s wide range of friends throughout his long career ranged from CEOs and Vice Presidents to clerks, workers in the warehouse or the front desk receptionist. Once again, whatever it took.
“Hey, pal–where you been,” I said with concern. This was the first Monday Hal was not already at the bench when I arrived at our usual time. Hal looked haggard and was toting a large hefty trash bag with a double plastic knot that served as a knob to carry the heavy load. I thought I heard the rattles of many pill bottles inside the bag, which disturbed me.
“I’m afraid those bastards are gonna lock me out again, so I wanted to take some of my important shit, just in case.”
The dreadful move to the park bench had seriously begun. I was actually witnessing, firsthand, the horror and despair of homelessness in America. It was no longer a possibility for the future or an abstract last resort. This was the real deal, happening to a person I knew and had grown to care for. At age 74, my buddy Hal was on his way to living more like a stray dog than a human being. My stomach hardened as if I had swallowed a brick.
How do strengths become weaknesses? During one of his more lucid moments, Hal chronicled for me how that paradox applied to his life. Somewhere along the road, the line between schmoozing and boozing with clients became murky. Corporate parties on summer Friday nights in The Hamptons led to weekend-long booze, drug and sex orgies. To his credit, ingesting substances was not his primary drug of choice. Hal loved the ladies, and there was no limit to the exhilaration of feeding a sex addiction by playing Casanova. This included shopping on Fifth Avenue for furs and diamonds and taking the Concord to Paris for the weekend. What beautiful and impressionable young female buyer, trying to make it happen in the flashy world of television and entertainment, could resist such lavish charm and gifts bestowed on her by a rising and handsome media mogul such as Hal? At the same time, what man who grew up in a conservative yet successful insular immigrant family could resist the temptations that came along with his meteoric rise to the top in an industry that rewards debauchery? It was akin to a caged zoo animal being set loose and released into the wild.
It all became one big endless feast. In the Fortune 500 jungle, the aphorism “only the strong survive” was proven time and time again.
“What are you going to do now, pal?”
“I don’t know – I’m fucked.”
“You can’t stay out here; it’s starting to get cold at night.”
“Yeah, and what are my goddamn options? Don’t you get it, Mike?” He began to go to that dark place I had become so familiar with:“I’ve got nobody – I buried them all. Nobody is hiring 75-year-old guys either – especially in this shit-storm economy. I get a small stipend from the Broadcaster’s Association, and Social Security, but that isn’t nearly enough to live off here in the city. Everything is so crazy expensive. I’m screwed, pal.”
“You have me. I'm your friend.” It was all I could offer at that moment.
For the first time Hal’s eyes welled up with tears. This proud man looked away from me as little rivulets of regret, fear and loneliness streamed down his face.
This simple wood and metal park bench was putting me to the test in ways that were causing me to rethink my life. How could this casual encounter with a total stranger have unleashed so many pent-up emotions? Strangely, I felt like Rip Van Winkle – awakening to a strange world after a decades-long slumber, and finding everything unfamiliar. But did I need this responsibility? Could I really allow this lunchtime park drama to upset the apple cart of my routine, albeit largely unsatisfying existence?
Why not just walk away now?
The voice in my head said, “Go back to work and forget this ever happened. It’s crazy. Leave this guy alone and mind your own business.”
But it was too late.
Once again, I did not return to the office, and instead walked through the park again. I watched couples row boats in the lake near the Boat House and then I went to the Central Park Zoo. The polar bear was entertaining himself with a large blue exercise ball. He gleefully tossed it around his refrigerated pool. Such a giant behaving like a small child, enjoying himself with no sense of time.
“No problems, only solutions. No problems, only solutions,” I repeated to myself.
That dumb saying haunted me as I followed the frolicking polar bear without a care in the world in his temperature-controlled environment. Nothing is Easy? Except perhaps for a polar bear living in Central Park.
Hal would not last long on the park bench. Something had to be done.
Had he stayed with the major network that he went to work for right out of college, Hal most assuredly would have become one of the big bosses. Even before age 30 he was on a fast track to the top. But he had the proverbial entrepreneurial fire in his belly which makes a man impatient, restless and difficult for top management to reign in. On a planet where oceans and mountains have been discovered, explored and charted, striking it rich in business is the modern man’s trek into uncharted territory – a heaven for risk takers. In other words, Marco Polo in a suit sitting, in recent years, in front of a computer.
The seeds of discontent had already been planted and germinated inside Hal for years. He put out feelers for opportunities to make his break out of the corporate world, which he came to view as stifling. Even the parties were getting stale. At the same time, his personal life had begun to unravel. His first of three failed marriages had just ended in a contentious and costly divorce over his philandering, and he was no stranger to the waiting rooms of abortion clinics to help out a young intern or two. White powder up the nose to make it through long days at work was also becoming an issue, not to mention a few “reward martinis” at day’s end, a liquid pat on the back.
For the most part, Hal kept the work week partying to a manageable level so it wouldn’t interfere with his drive and talent to succeed. Of course, he should have saved more of what he earned, since the winds of fortune can shift directions with great speed. The stock market crash of 1987 and The Great Recession of the New Millennium were not in the textbooks yet, and Hal lived like there was no tomorrow. He believed that making money was his right and his gift. He was a winner, not a loser, and those were two worlds that would never intersect. He was blinded to the eternal truth, in law of physics and inevitably in life, that somehow, someway, in some timeframe, what goes up always comes down, and Hal had no safety net.
Dollars were good, but compared to what a Brooklyn Cowboy like Hal could make on his own in the heyday of radio and TV broadcasting, those dollars were small potatoes. Hal wanted a piece of the bigger pie, and in that pursuit he seemed to always have more than enough money, the right connections and large doses of luck, so he was always able to patch up the wreckage that was beginning to build up in his personal life. The years-long process of sweeping problems under the rug had begun. But that didn’t matter. Money can be a forgiving higher power, until it runs out.
As fate would have it, the straw that broke the camel’s back came at the end of another three-day Hampton's orgy. All the big bosses and heavy hitters like Hal and his peers excused themselves from heading back to the city in order to nurse hangovers on the beach or poolside at their luxurious palaces. Those were the monuments to their personal status ranking, and the spoils of war to these modern-day adventurers. When it comes to showy real estate in the world of Big Business there is a definite pecking order. A Vice President can’t have a house with more bedrooms and bathrooms or a bigger swimming pool or nicer ocean-view than the CEO. A manager like Hal, though he was also a top earner, couldn’t have a similar disparity in property next to a senior V.P. All eyes were watching.
Although Hal’s Hampton house was demure compared to the CEO’s place, they just happened to be next-door neighbors. However, Hal saw his investment out there more as a crash pad and love nest rather than an ego house. He was in between wives, with no kids and a sultan's selection of girlfriends. Hal’s house just happened to be in the shadow of the Great Gatsby of his industry. This Big Wheel of the Network Empire also happened to be a dictatorial, my way or the highway egomaniac who had come up the hard way. A graduate of City College, he took a distinct pleasure in reminding his many Ivy League subordinates, including Hal, who the man in charge was, on the job and off. He insisted on always being called Mr. D, and only his closest inner circle could refer to him by his initials - as in “Yes, H.D. – Oh, that was hilarious, H.D. – You’re a pisser, H.D. – Brilliant idea, H.D.” God help the junior executive who thought he might be equipped with balls big enough to test the contentious waters of loyalty by experimenting with his first H.D. to see what side of the circle he might be on – and guessed wrong.
To Hal he was still Mr. D in spite of the tremendous cash that was pouring into the network as a result of Hal’s brilliant marketing and sales skills. Maybe he was still a Young Turk in the eyes of H.D. or, more diabolically, was perceived as a threat to H.D. Alpha Dogs, such as Mr. D, can sense threats to their pack leadership. H.D. probably saw some of his own traits in Hal, while Hal was beginning to fantasize about having his own empire.
The morning after the big orgy, H.D, knowing that Hal had received one of the largest bonuses in the history of the network for landing the Super Bowl and the Olympics accounts in the same year, presented Hal with a proposal of sorts. As they met over the fence, H.D., while wearing a monogrammed silk robe and sipping black coffee from fine China declared to Hal, “A young man in your position should have a bigger house out here so I’d like you to consider buying mine for [an enormous, but undisclosed amount of money].”
“Mike, let me translate to you what H.D. actually meant with those words,” Hal said to me. “I was a small timer compared to this kind of power brokering and megabucks politics, so naturally I was intrigued and all ears. Mr. D wasn’t asking – he was ordering me to buy his enormous house for an inflated price because, as I now know, he was bored with his house and knew I had the money and the greed to want it. The implication was, Now it’s yours – or else.”
All I could say to Hal after that revelation was, “That bastard!”
“You got that right, pal.” Hal agreed.
“So what did you do?”
“Well, figuring he would not get pissed off at me right then and there because he wanted too much money from me for his twelve bedroom ego hotel, which by the way I thought was the ugliest mansion in the Hamptons, I took my chances. I dropped the Mr. Bullcrap and said “Thanks, H.D. Let me think it over and I’ll get back to you in the city.”
“He seemed satisfied for the moment and we went our separate ways, although I did notice a distressing raise of his eyebrow when I called him H.D. for the first time.”
‘’Well, as expected – he calls me into his office first thing Tuesday to close the deal, never imagining that anyone would have the nerve to turn him down. I basically I told him to go fuck himself. My seven figure bonus check had cleared the bank, I had a shitload of stock in the company; all they owed me was my pay, and I left.”
“No kidding? You quit? Hal, that’s a great story. You are The Man. You’re my Hero.”
We both laughed – I was treated to that patented infectious laugh of his that I loved hearing. Now I wanted to hear the end of the story.
“Then what? What did you do next? You weren’t even 35?”
“Yup. Well, I married my girlfriend, moved down to Miami and took a job as the Director of Marketing for a local TV station – sort of like our NY Channel 9 or PIX 11 – you know, “as local as local gets.”
“How’d that work out?”
“I made a killing. Radio is all about car dollars so I got the entire local car dealer commercial business. The station moved up the ratings from last to first in suburban Miami in no time at all. When I took the job, they were a rinky-dink outfit and didn’t have a lot of cash, so I got stock options at a ridiculously low price. Once we hit the top, the owner took that station public. My single digit options went to $40 per share. I cashed out and made millions. The best single deal of my life.”
“Yeah. But then I got caught cheating on my wife with my former secretary. In the divorce, she and the lawyers ended up getting the biggest chunk of the dough. She stayed in Miami with the money. I came back to the city. I also buried both of my parents in Miami within a year’s time. I didn’t trust the doctors down there – they're not like here – not the best in the world like New York. So I paid out of network for the best care in South Florida that I could afford and used up the money I had left after the divorce. That was a nightmare; it wore me out and tore me up.”
“Oh shit,” I said. I could feel deep love in him for his mother and father because they raised him with love. Hal was a good person from good stock. He was The Salt of the Earth with many of the same overwhelming human weaknesses that are all too common in successful people who can’t handle their success. I could see that the pattern of unmanageability in Hal's personal life had begun early on. The big picture was coming into focus. Hal was a brilliant creator – all at the same time– of wealth and havoc.
It would take a few more decades of rollercoaster insanity, but the die was already cast. The only force that could take Hal back up in life was Hal, and the only force that could take him down was the same. The stories of his past foretold the lonely teary-eyed wreck of a good guy suffering from a lifetime where his impulses had run rampant. That near homeless person slumped on a park bench before me was indisputable evidence of the downward spiral.
With barely two nickels to rub together, Hal came back to the city. His biggest financial breakthrough was still on the horizon as he finally started his own business empire. At the same time, dark storm clouds gathered and thunder rumbled off in the distance.
What to do now? Life on a park bench would kill him. He was already dying.
Famous last words – shoulda, woulda, coulda!
How many times in our lives have we looked back after the fact at the bad occurrences in our lives, and uttered these words? To be perfectly honest, I’ve said or thought these words too many times. Regrets aside, here was the much older Hal, with no money, no family, no job, about to have no home and just one friend in the entire world – me.
In good conscience, I could not justify brushing off this man and his problems as none of my business because there is no one else but me to make it his business. I could not walk away with the rationalization that my problems were more important than his desperate ones because that would be a boldfaced lie. I have all the things in life that my new friend lacked. Judgment day had snuck up on me in middle age. I was being presented with a rare and special opportunity to atone for my selfish ways and own regrets. In short, it was time for me to man up, get off the pity pot and do whatever it takes to save a life – the life of a good person in need who I believed was worthy of salvation. No problems, only solutions. Time to fish or cut bait!
The contract with myself was sealed. Hal was not going to die a miserable death on my watch. It was time to spring into action.
But let’s finish Hal’s story. Hal's final act in the business world would become his greatest achievement. With years of experience in his field under his belt, Hal was able to convince some people to invest in his dream, which was to build a conglomerate of radio stations.
One thing any good businessperson needs to be able to do, first and foremost, on the most basic level is to “buy low and sell high.” If you can’t grasp this basic principle and apply it, then even an MBA from Harvard Business School won’t be of much value to you in getting ahead. You’d be surprised how many super smart people don’t get it and freeze up when it comes to negotiating like a horse trader. I prided myself on being good at it but Hal was a lifelong master, born into it, as they say. He could sell snow to the Eskimos in winter. He applied the buy low, sell high strategy to acquiring radio stations in the New York Metropolitan area in ways no one had done before. In the process, he made a ton of cash. Those of his investors smart enough to take a leap of faith were happy as clams with their returns. In five short years, Hal had taken sole ownership of an astounding sixteen independent radio stations and turned profits that made his combined wealth from his TV Network and Miami radio station stock sales and bonuses appear like small potatoes in comparison.