Here’s how he did it, in his own words:
“I would find the lowest rated station in a local marketplace – usually in the suburbs where there is competition but not overstocked like in a city or spread too thin as in rural areas.” His eyes brightened as he spoke.
“Remember what I told you that the key to making money in the radio station business lies in the car business?”
“You mean because people mostly listen to the radio while they are driving?”
“No – not that! It’s because 75% of the ad time on local radio is mostly purchased by local car dealerships or distributed by major car manufacturers through large advertising agencies. The agencies are hard to bust into, but once you’re in, the world is your oyster.”
“I see – now I get it.” I was intrigued.
Hal really perked up when he talked about radio stations. I was hoping that a prolonged reminiscence about his good old days in radio wouldn’t trigger some distant memory that would make him stop and go dark, as he tended to do before he ends his stories.
“Okay – now the trick was to pick up an underperforming station with low ratings, as I said, for a cheap price,” he continued. “Once I got my hands on it, then I’d go right after the car dealers and the ad agencies and do whatever it took to get all, or at least a big chunk, of those auto sales ad dollars.”
“Very smart,” I said, encouraging him to keep talking.
“A big problem is that dealerships and agencies pay the stations too slowly. I’m talking 90 days or longer. Without good cash flow, it’s hard to build the stations. And, unless you start generating dividends almost immediately, investors get worried and won't open their pockets any deeper than to dig out enough dough for two or three stations at best. That's how most guys go bust in the radio business – bad cash flow. They can’t advertise in order to expand and bring in new business. You need more than just a few stations to make a decent living – especially in cities like New York, Philly or Boston. Out in the boonies it’s different; you can get by.”
“So what did you do, Hal, to be able to acquire sixteen stations?”
“Ha, ha,” he laughed proudly. That had to be the laugh of Hal, the great entertainer, the schmoozer and boozer who always rose to the top. I loved that laugh. It made us feel good for that moment – the only things we ever really have are fleeting moments that accumulate in our memory.
“I would learn who was in charge of signing off on the checks and….”
I interrupted, finishing the sentence: “and make them your Good Buddy – right Hal?”
“Exactly! You are some fast learner, my pal!”
“I figured as much. I’m learning the radio business from you – prett-eeeey cool!”
Hal beamed with pride. “I got my money in 30 days while all the other poor bastards got paid in 90. I used the cash to grow and to buy more stations. After a year, or maybe in two or three, when the station is up near the top in the ratings I’d sell it. The rule of thumb was to price the radio station at ten times one year’s earnings, and then once it's sold pay off the investors with interest and Bingo, a home run! Everybody goes home happy.”
“Amazing, Hal – what a genius.”
I suddenly felt a chill coming off him. Oh no – what did I say that was wrong?
“Yeah, some fucking genius! Look at me: 74 years old without a pot to piss in!”
I had already grown to know him well. His button was pushed – it was self-pity and end of story for the day. Oh well, tomorrow is another day, I thought.
The next day when I got to Central Park, Hal wasn’t there. Very worried, I waited awhile, then called him on his cell phone. I couldn’t rely on him answering because his service would frequently get switched off for lack of payment. But now, for the first time, he didn’t show. Where could he be?
The next day was the same: no sign of Hal and no phone contact. I began to think the worst and even blamed myself for perhaps probing too deep into his past and setting him off into a seriously depressed state or worse. I was only able to get to sleep that night by holding onto the thought that he just barricaded himself in his room and maybe took a few extra sleeping pills to nod off. Or he might be in a hospital, in which case, he would be getting care. I would have gone looking for him, but he never told me his exact address – he was ashamed.
On day three, as I anxiously approached the bench, I could make out larger than normal shapes from a distance – perhaps there was someone else is sitting on the bench with Hal, maybe keeping him company – even chatting.
As my vision came into focus Hal, much to my relief, was there in his usual place, but what I thought might have been another person on the bench turned out to be a pile of tattered and overloaded cardboard boxes piled on top of black trash bags that were filled with clothing.
Hal was officially homeless. I had no time to waste.
I predict that one day in a distant future archeologists will discover a deep pit, a sinkhole in the earth, at the bottom of which will be a huge pile of bones. Using advanced DNA technology they will be able to identify each and every person and learn all about the lives they had lived. The first thing they will discover is that they were mostly men and that they had once been well-to-do, ate well, but then somewhere along the line, the bottom dropped out of their lives and they descended into the sinkhole, slowly at first but eventually faster until they were sucked all the way down to the murky bottom. More in-depth sociological research will reveal a startling commonality in their lives: Like Napoleon, Alexander the Great and many other conquerors, they could not stop. It was always about more. They ventured too far into cultures outside their empires and spread themselves too thin, traveling too fast and too far.
Hal should have stuck to what he knew best, the broadcasting business. But like so many before him, the false delusion (in his particular case) that because he was great in radio and television, he would be equally brilliant predicting the stock market, trading in real-estate, etc. Add this to the stock market’s volcanic eruptions, a housing bubble or two, and the gyrations of a digitally interconnected global economy, and one can fathom how and why the bottomless sinkhole of the fallen could continue to fill up with these poor souls and their infinitely insatiable appetites.
Hal thought the money would last forever, but hungry beasts took it all away. The beasts were disguised as men in suits and smart-sounding voices over the phone or dressed slickly at parties sipping martinis while dispensing too good to be true deals such as securities that could be bought on margin, investments in buildings where the return can’t be beat, oceanfront houses where the beach won’t be taken away by nor’easters, and girlfriends who become wives who also bought into the illusion that the influx of money will never end. Who could blame them for taking the bait? It all seemed so beautifully endless.
Hal blew it – and not even “his way,” because he was operating in the dark, with no moral compass. When you have no moral compass, you get lost in the jungle of life, and unless you are very, very lucky you find yourself walking in circles, exhausted, ending up right back where you started from, but now broke and lost. It’s never a happy story to hear.
While Hal’s case was extreme, it is definitely a cautionary tale, for sure. Anyway, now one is left to deal with what can be done for this deeply suffering man.
“Hal, what the hell happened? Where were you? You didn’t show for three days. I was really worried.”
“I’m sorry, Mike, but I had a rough time. The fucking super put another sign on my door.”
“What did it say this time, buddy?”
“It said: LAST NIGHT. GET OUT, BUM. OR ELSE!”
“Those bastards. I wish I could…” I held my tongue and let him continue.
“So I figure this is it – I’ll be out on the street. I opened my door and my furniture is all busted up, my stuff is all over the place and there’s this dead rat on my table with a knife stuck in its belly. Disgusting. They even tore up my mail and threw it all over the room – including my-my broadcasters check.”
Hal stopped for a moment, overcome with emotion.
“Goddamn it, Hal, they can’t just do that to you. You have rights. They can’t chuck you out on the street just like that.”
“Yeah, right, but who am I gonna call? I don’t even have a phone – not even a Metro Card to take a bus and hardly any food. I’m fucked, pal. They’ve got me over a barrel and they know it.”
“So what did you do for three whole days?”
“I barricaded myself in my room. I had a little food – a few cans of tuna and some peanut butter. That night they came pounding on my door. Threats. Bum this and Bum that.”
“I put the mattress on the floor and just stayed quiet and tried to sleep.”
“Did you take pills?”
“Yes, pal – I did.”
“The old ones or the new ones from the better doctor we found?”
I knew it. I could tell from his eyes, his expressionless face and wobbliness that he was overdosing again.
He continued in a slow slur. “They left me alone through the morning on the second day, but in the middle of the afternoon – and the hottest part of the day – they turned off my power. My little fan stopped – also no juice to the TV or refrigerator. There’s only one window in that dump – no cross ventilation – so it got hot as hell and I started sweating my balls off. I took cold showers and sat on the fire escape to cool down but then the fuckers turned off the water pressure – so then I’m in the dark, just about out of food and no water. I did the only thing I could do. I slept – just slept.”
“This is horrible, pal – I feel so bad and I’m pissed.”
“I figured they’d be back soon so I collected up my stuff and put it out on the fire escape – I had a few bucks in my pocket. I was starving and thirsty – so I snuck down to the Chinese place to get something to hold me over. Sure enough when I got back the window was locked and the shade drawn. I was out! I spent the night on the fire escape and then I dragged my stuff over here this morning. I’m really fucked, pal. I don’t know what to do.” He began to cry and so did I.
How can this be allowed to happen in this city of wealth? How can people treat other people like this. Where is the justice?
“Okay, Hal, listen to me – we’re going to figure this out. Listen to me. You stay right here and don’t move. I’m going to make some calls. I’ll bring you back a gyro and a cold drink. Okay? You can eat right? Right?”
“Yeah, pal – Thank you, I am very hungry and thirsty.”
“Okay good. Don’t move.”
“Oh, one more thing – promise me you won’t take anymore pills while I’m gone, okay? That’s really important.”
“I understand. I won’t.”
“Good. I’ll get coffee too – good strong coffee.”
“Pal, I can’t thank you enough.”
I was off. Think, think, think! If this were a business problem what would I do to solve it? Okay, Mr. Big Shot with the Golden Touch. No problems – only solutions. Now prove it, genius!
As I walked to the Gyro truck I dialed my old friend, Ray. I could smell frying onions from a mile away. I do love the smell of the city on a summer morning! Ray used to own an Italian Restaurant on 3rd Avenue. I went there a lot. The food was good and they had ample outdoor seating to lounge around on nice spring, summer and early fall nights; maybe just sip wine and shoot the breeze with friends. That’s how Ray and I became friends. I showed up a lot and he, being the owner of the restaurant, was there all the time.
It was a slow, drawn-out progression but Ray eventually became a prime candidate for that same afore-mentioned bottomless sinkhole filled with the bones of too far gone entrepreneurs. His persona and type of business was different than Hal’s but the end result was similar. On top of the usual, Ray's slide contained lots and lots of white powder, vodka and gambling.
Note to the wise: If you have an addictive personality, let me suggest that you do not go into the restaurant business. As a “frequent flyer” to Ray’s restaurant I had a front row seat to his freak show performance and slow slide into Hell. With Ray’s frequent absences from his usual MO meeting and greeting customers and hanging around the bar after hours, it became evident that things were amiss at my favorite “home place” in the city. Soon rough-looking characters began showing up every once in a while inquiring to the bartender on duty where he could find Ray. I minded my own business, but my street radar detected danger in the air.
As it turned out, my radar was correct. In his rampant stage of degeneration into the seedy underworld, Ray had taken on some dubious partners in order to keep his restaurant afloat. You guessed it: the Mob. Those guys are apparently always ready to lend a hand to those in need of cash in exchange for a lifetime partnership and a long-term lease on your property and soul – not to mention the second career they give you where you get to look over your shoulder day and night. If you wish to add an extra-large order of paranoia to your daily life, a relationship with these characters, combined with dubious debt and drugs, would be the perfect appetizer, entrée and dessert.
Ray wasn’t paying his new partners as agreed – a course of action one would hardly recommend. The more they pressed, the longer Ray stayed away. Also, the greater the amounts of cocaine that went up his nose became proportional to the grief and shame he felt over everything, but most especially losing his fourteen-year-old restaurant business. Needless to say, he was also afraid for his life. The food began to taste really bad and the service declined. There was also the possibility of getting caught in a crossfire of bullets over the bar at any given moment if Ray decided to make an entrance while the new owners happened to be there.
While the gangsters hung around the restaurant day and night Ray, accompanied by his only friends left in the world, Mr. Vodka and Ms. Cocaine, took up residence in a neighbor’s closet. He had become a trembling drug addict whose life shrank to one of complete isolation – a common side effect of his bad choices.
The race was on as to what would kill him first, the drugs and booze or the gangsters.
Eventually, gangsters simply got tired of hanging around waiting for their money and just took the business, knowing there would be no contesting it from Ray. Now that they got their money back by taking over the restaurant, they figured Ray was doing a good enough job slowly killing himself, so why interfere with the good work already in progress?
When the closet door was violently kicked open one afternoon Ray closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his face as if he might cushion the impact of a bullet crashing into his skull, but that scenario never happened. Instead two sturdy grips grabbed him by the upper arms and dragged him from the closet, bottles clanking behind. In his wake, bags filled with white powder fell apart. Ray was dragged bump, bump, bump down four flights to street level. The sound he heard was of a car door opening – and then, like a sack of potatoes, he was tossed into the back seat, head first. They slammed and locked the door and sped off – northbound up the FDR.
Today, this is what is known as an intervention. Ray’s two loyal coworkers, men he hired as teenage dishwashers over ten years ago when they were illegal immigrants, who worked hard and became trusted headwaiters, came to save their former boss and mentor. Thanks to those men, Ray was on his way upstate for 90 days to a rehab facility and the start of a new life. That was 14 years ago. These two and others at the restaurant had pooled their resources to save his life because they cared about him. He was a drowning man; they pulled him out before he could go down for the third and last time.
I pushed some buttons on my cell phone and got a ring.
A young woman with a pleasant voice answered the phone.
“Good Afternoon. May I help you?”
“Yes – Ray please.” I must have sounded impatient.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“His friend Mike.”
“Thank you.” Ray, please be there!
“Mikey boy, how the hell are you?” Ray boomed.
“I’m fine, Ray. But I need your help. I mean a friend of mine needs your help. Well we both need your help. Can you help?” I might have sounded just a bit incoherent but all I could think of was Hal back on that bench, waiting for me to save him.
“Whoa, whoa, slow down, Mikey. Slow down – tell me what’s going on.”
I told Ray my tale about Hal and his despairing situation, and that I felt I was in way over my head. Ray agreed immediately to meet us at the bench in Central Park after he closed the new business store he owned. He instructed me not to leave Hal’s side until he arrived because, he explained, it’s a dangerous time for someone in Hal’s condition and anything could happen. “Try to keep him talking – give him all the food he can possibly eat and plenty of water or get him soda if he prefers that. Pick up some candy too.”
“Okay, will do,” I said quickly. All he had to do was tell me what to do and I would gladly do it. Ray had just thrown me – us – a lifeline.
“Also, Mike, try to find out what he’s carrying.”
“As in what Ray?”
“Drugs – booze – weed – pills – powder – you know.”
“I know he has lots of prescription pills.”
“Try to get those but don’t fight him over it. If he needs to take a few to make it through the day, let him. But keep a close eye on him and don’t let him slink away to where he might swallow more. You got this?”
“Yes, I got it. Thanks, buddy – I can’t thank you enough.”
“No problem – that’s what I’m here for!”
I felt better. Whenever I play lawyer, CPA or doctor, I screw things up. So, having taken that to heart I had decided not to be a pretend drug or mental health counselor and had gone to Ray, who could do that for real.
I returned to Hal with a big fat gyro, two cans of Pepsi and a large bottle of water and a bag full of miniature chocolates.
“What took so long, pal?” He wasn’t complaining, but had obviously been worried that I might not come back to him.
“Those food trucks are getting very popular, so there was a line. I’d be pissed if I owned the restaurant across the street,” I lied.
“You said it,” Hal replied, clearly relieved that it was not about my having second thoughts. “They got no overhead – it’s a good business!”
As I watched Hal wolf down his sloppy Greek gyro, down a Pepsi in record time and then let out a long, satisfying belch. I had to laugh to myself at his last remark about the good truck vendors – once mogul always a mogul.
“Hal, why don’t you close your eyes and try to sleep?” I suggested, hoping that he would.
“I am beat,” he agreed.
“I know,” watching him as he immediately nodded off in the sitting position and began to snore lightly.
I used this opportunity to rummage through his bags and boxes, looking for his meds – which I knew he had from the unmistakable rattle and shake of the pills. I found his stash in no time – a miniature CVS pharmacy department. I could just imagine that one night with all this going on, being alone and uncomfortable, outdoors, in public, humiliated, trying to keep himself unconscious on a park bench, that could easily become his last night. Popping extra sleeping pills in a familiar room behind a locked door is one thing, but here in this park at night, in his perilous physical and mental condition – No way!
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” I said as he stirred awake.
“Shit, man. What the heck time is it?” Hal mumbled.
“Almost five. You’ve been asleep for a long time, my friend. You needed it.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
I gave him the water bottle and he chugged on it greedily.
“I got to take a piss so bad.”
He went behind a large oak tree.
“Hal, do you trust me?” I asked when he got back.
“What?” He was taken aback by the abrupt question.
“Listen, Hal, you need help big time, and I’m going to help you. I ask nothing in return but only that you trust me and do what I suggest. Otherwise you’re not going to last out here. You know that. Right?”
“I’m dying, pal,” he murmured.
“That’s right, you are.”
Shortly after seven o’clock, Ray arrived on foot.
“Hal, this is a good friend of mine. His name is Ray.”
“Hi,” said Hal, cautiously.
Ray chimed in with a cheery demeanor. “Hey, Hal. Nice to meet you. Any friend of Mike’s is a friend of mine.”
What a beautiful icebreaker! I felt the ball already beginning to pass from my inexperienced hands to Ray’s. He was completely knowledgeable and capable, able to offer compassionate care to people with major problems like these.
“So, Mike, what’s going on?” Hal asked me. He was dazed and confused.
I looked at Ray for the answer.
“Listen, Hal,” Ray began. “I know about your situation. It’s bad – it sucks and it’s getting worse. But it’s not hopeless. You just can’t stay out here. I have a place to take you. Don’t worry, it’s safe and people will take care of you. I was there years ago – 14 to be exact.”
“For how long? And I have no money.”
“Don’t worry. They take Medicare and Medicaid and you will have a place to stay for three months at least. It’s a rehab place, Hal. You have to get off the meds or at least get them straightened out before you O.D. or get mugged out here. Do you want to go to sleep on a park bench and never wake up?”
“Right now, that doesn’t sound like such a bad option,” Hal said.
“Bullshit. Pardon my French, but it’s talk like that, Hal, that’s the reason you need to put your life – right now and for a while – into the hands of others. Do you get that?“
Ray had struck a nerve in Hal and his tears flowed, but this time they were tears of relief. A tremendous burden had just been lifted off his spirit.
“Come on, buddy, let’s go! Follow me,” Ray said. He put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“What about my stuff? And Mike, aren’t you coming too?” He looked back longingly at me.
I thought it was best to let Ray handle the situation, as he was perfectly suited to, without me tagging along.
“Hal, you go with Ray – and don’t worry about your things. I’ll take good care of them until you get back.”
“Okay, pal,” he said, reluctant to part with his possessions and his friend and maybe even the security of our park bench, which had become such a familiar place to both of us over the past weeks.
I watched as Ray slowly led my unsteady partner out from under the trees, past a few squirrels and onto the city streets, and then they were gone.
I sat in Hal’s spot for a while, surrounded by his belongings – just thinking. My thoughts turned away from Hal and toward myself. Now what was I going to do?
I hauled Hal’s bags and boxes to the curb on the avenue and hailed a cab. A few yellow cabs drove right past me after suspiciously eyeballing what appeared to them to be the mobile cartings of the homeless, which, in fact, they had almost fully become. Finally one stopped. I loaded the garbage bags into the trunk and gave him my midtown address. When we got to my building, I paid the fare and threw in an extra five on top of the normal tip for having the humanity to stop for me when others would not.
My doorman saw me struggling with the unwieldy luggage of sorts and came out with the building’s mobile cart to lend a hand. I love these guys – they are great. Doormen have a difficult job. Taxicab drivers too! In truth, nothing is easy.
After stowing Hal’s stuff in a closet I decided to lie down and take a nap. I called the office to let them know that I would not be returning. I put my cell phone on silent and almost immediately fell into a deep, sweet sleep.
I hung around my condo that night, rented a movie and ordered in roast chicken with rice, beans and avocado slices from Pio Pio, a Peruvian chicken restaurant on East 34th Street across from the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. They serve this fantastic green secret hot sauce to dip the chicken in. They won’t ever tell you what’s in it.