Sunday, June 7, 2009

Death of a Millionaire

(The following is an imaginary conversation that, to our knowledge, has never taken place at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.)

Fred sat down on the bench and watched the other prisoners exercising. At the age of 60, he only felt the need to stretch his arms and legs a bit. Beyond that, exercise was just another thing he had lost interest in. Especially now, when after three days in prison, the stark reality of confinement was sinking in.

The older man on the other end of the bench turned and gave Fred a half-smile.

“How are you?” he asked.

“I’ve been better,” said Fred.

The older man nodded and said, “I know what you mean.”

Both men fell silent. Since things at the Metropolitan Correctional Center didn’t change much from day to day, there wasn’t much to talk about. But Fred figured that maybe this older guy, who seemed rather congenial, might be helpful.

“Say, do you know how to get something to read?” asked Fred.

“If you can find a guard who likes you, you might be able to spend extra time at the library,” said the older man.

“I’ll have to work on being pals with the guards, I guess,” said Fred. “I don’t find looking at walls very entertaining.”

“They’re not good conversationalists,” agreed the older man. “I tried looking out the window. It’s small and the bars get in the way. But I gave bird watching a try.”

“How did that go?” asked Fred, desperate for any diversion.

“After you learn to spot the pigeons, sparrows and the occasional hawk, there wasn’t much to see. I saw a seagull once or twice, and maybe a crow. That was the high point of bird watching for me.”

“I try to follow the little bit of the news I can learn,” said Fred. “But it all seems kind of irrelevant. In this place, it doesn’t matter what I think or feel about anything.”

“Oh, now, don’t think that way, uh, . . . what’s your name?”


“Hi, Fred. I’m Bernie.”

Fred looked at the extended hand, and after a moment gave a brief squeeze. It was funny how in prison social customs like shaking hands were still followed. Never before in his life had it seemed like so little mattered. But decorum remained.

“Listen, Fred, you can’t be negative. You have to keep your chin up, even in a place like this.”

Fred gave Bernie a puzzled look. But the older man kept the half-smile on his face, and gestured upwards with his right hand, as if he were lifting something.

“You’re not kidding,” said Fred.

“No. I always try to look at the bright side of things,” said Bernie.

Fred turned away, and slowly said, “So did I, once.”

“What happened?”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that,” said Fred. “I still don’t know exactly what happened. I thought I was doing everything right. I mean, not exactly everything. I started college, but then dropped out after a couple of years. That was in the late 60s, and I was kind of rebellious, a free thinker. I dabbled in the counterculture. Went to a commune, but that was too weird so I left within weeks. I got a bunch of dead end jobs, lived in cheap apartments, and had a bunch of girlfriends; didn’t keep any of them for long. I got by, until I got tired of just getting by. Then I went back to college and earned a bachelors degree.”

“Good for you,” said Bernie. “You see, finishing college is an investment for the future, and investing is an act of optimism. You were an optimist when you did that.”

“Except that the economy was going to hell. That was in the 70s, when we had stagflation and malaise and disco.”

“I’m glad to say I never got into disco,” said Bernie.

“I'm sorry to say I did. The 70s were the Me Decade, if you remember,” said Fred.

“I don’t remember that,” said Bernie. “I was busy trying to build a business and support a family.”

“I could see job opportunities for college grads weren’t good, so I went to law school,” said Fred.

“That’s great. You became a professional man,” said Bernie.

“Yeah. I became a lawyer. I did well in school, so a big law firm hired me. They paid a lot, but I had to work day and night and weekends. That and the office politics got old real fast. So I took a job in a small firm where the hours and people were sane. Then I got married and bought a house in the suburbs. Had two kids, two cars, one dog and one cat. My life became normal.”

“Sounds like everything was going well,” said Bernie.

“It was,” said Fred. “My marriage was happy, the kids were smart and well-behaved, I became a partner at the firm and we traded up to a larger house in a better school district. Everything was going well. But, as I look back, I realize I had stopped thinking.”

“How so?” asked Bernie.

“I just began doing what everyone else was doing,” said Fred. “Going after a fancier lifestyle, trying to get all the symbols of success—big house, big cars, private schools for the kids, vacations in Europe, all that stuff. I even began to collect art—primitive folk art because I didn’t want to compete against the hedge fund guys. I borrowed against my house--for cars, tuition, clothes, you name it. Everyone was doing it and with housing values going up every year, it seemed like a winning bet. I didn’t forget about my retirement. I had a retirement plan, and invested in stocks, just like all the advisers told us. “

“Then, it all fell apart,” Fred continued. “My retirement plan took a beating when tech stocks collapsed in 2000. I thought my house would save me, and for a while it did. But then Wall Street blew up the housing market with these derivatives, which I still don’t understand. After that, the rest of the stock market collapsed, taking my retirement plan with it. The economy went to hell, and law business with it. My partners and I couldn’t agree how to salvage the firm, and it just fell apart. At my age, you can’t get anyone else to hire you. So I was unemployed and likely to stay that way. I couldn’t pay the mortgage and the home equity loans, so the house went into foreclosure. I had to move into a cheap apartment. It was like my life had gone full circle and I was 22 again, using an orange crate for a coffee table.”

“Life is funny,” agreed Bernie. “You can be king of the world one day and here at MCC the next.”

“The damndest thing is I was only doing what everyone else was doing,” said Fred. “I got an education and built a career. I bought the house in the suburbs and funded the retirement plan. Everyone said you had to be in stocks, so I put my money, and faith, in stocks. Between the house and the stocks, I was a millionaire just a few years ago.”

“Congratulations. You had the American Dream,” said Bernie.

“And then lost it. For reasons I still can’t wrap my head around. I mean, the Wall Street banks and hedge funds didn’t want the markets to collapse. How could they have done all the crazy stuff they did? The regulators didn’t want the chaos and panic they now have to deal with. How could they have let things run amok? I’d like to blame somebody besides myself. I only did what all these smart experts said I should do.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself,” said Bernie. “A lot of things are out of your control.”

“I kind of went out of control. I went to Washington and began screaming outside the White House.”

“Is that what you’re in here for? Threatening the President?” asked Bernie.

“No. When the guards found out I was just mad about losing my house, my job and my retirement savings, they took me to a shelter for the homeless, where I got a hot meal and a place to stay for the night. I couldn’t stay angry after that, so I came back to New York. But I got mad again in New York and went to the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan. I began screaming at the regulators and blockaded some of their limousines as they were trying to leave.”

“So you’re in here for interfering with the operations of the federal government?” asked Bernie.

“No. When a Fed staffer found out I was pissed off because I was broke and out of work, he took me to a deli for lunch and listened to me complain for two hours. After he was so nice, I couldn’t stay mad at the regulators.”

“So how come you’re here?” asked Bernie.

“I regressed. I went back to being 22. With no job, no house and no money, I was in the same place I had been when I was 22. The millionaire me was gone forever. I did a juvenile thing. I took a picture of my bare ass, loaded it onto my computer and e-mailed it to every bank, mortgage lender, brokerage firm, investment adviser and anyone else who had any connection to my now ruined finances. I must have sent it to 50 places. The FBI arrested me and charged me with 50 counts of Internet porn.”

Bernie’s half-smile grew ever so slightly wider. “You must have gotten some satisfaction from doing that.”

“It was a childish thing to do, but, yes, I did feel better,” said Fred. “I’m still a bit rebellious, a bit of a free thinker.”

“I think you’ll get out pretty soon because you’ll have the sympathies of the judge and jury,” said Bernie.

“Maybe so. Then, I’ll have to figure out what to do. One thing I know is I have to start thinking for myself and stop doing things just because everyone else is doing them. With my working life almost over, and the financial and real estate markets a mess, I’ll never be a millionaire again. I have to find a new focus to life, maybe do something for the homeless or disadvantaged.”

“Attaboy, Fred. That’s the way to think. Optimism makes the world go around,” said Bernie.

“Why are you so cheery?” asked Fred. “You’ll never get out of prison.”

Bernie’s half-smile disappeared abruptly.

“I’m sorry,” said Fred. “I realized who you are when you told me your name is Bernie. You’re the guy that operated a $64 billion Ponzi scheme. They’ll never let you out.”

“I’ve always been an optimist,” said Bernie. “I had to be one, to start a firm in a cutthroat place like Wall Street. Then, when I began stepping over the line, I had to believe that somehow things would get better, I would be able to straighten things out, and make everyone whole. Later, when I realized that I would never be able to unravel things, I had to hope that I would be able to keep juggling all the balls and somehow not get caught. Most of the time, I was right to be optimistic. The markets kept going up, and my investors were like you—they didn’t really think about things. They just did what everyone else was doing. It was a helluva time while it lasted.”

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