Park Avenue to Park Bench
Sharing a bench with a stranger and ignoring each other is not unusual in this crowded city, but something made me look at the man sitting next to me out of the corner of my eye.
As I did, I got the feeling that there was a person whose body was physically present but whose spirit was not. For some reason, I had an impulse to break the silent wall that always exists between people sharing a park bench, and make contact.
I turned toward him slightly. “How ya doin?” I said and smiled.
No response. I tried again.
“How ya doin’, pal?”
It was the word “pal” that did it. He lowered his sandwich onto the paper and slowly turned to look at me, long and hard. What was that something I saw in his eyes?
My work week lunchtime habit is simply that I don’t have one. There are just too many great restaurants in Manhattan and too many different kinds of foods to eat. I see “lunch” as a mini adventure that breaks up the monotony of the office. I do, however, always go out, even in the worst weather. I need to get away, breathe fresh air, and clear my head. On nice days, I usually get something to go and eat in Central Park. I always go to lunch alone. There is no shortage of human contact in the office so I don’t feel antisocial in choosing to eat by myself. I’m also a people-watcher, so I don’t bring a book or a newspaper. I eat slowly and look around, then I usually walk a bit before going back.
The day after my meeting with the lonely man on the bench, I made an exception. I decided to go back to that same spot in the park to see if he was there again – and there he was.
“Hiya, pal – good to see ya!” I said.
“Hi, buddy, good to see you too,” he responded.
I unwrapped the gyro sandwich I had just bought from a food truck.
“What a mess. How am I going to eat this with my hands? I told the guy to go easy on the Tahini sauce and the onions, but I don’t think he understood. Oh well, here goes nothing.” I dug in. It was heavily seasoned, squirted all over the place and tasted delicious.
“Whatcha eating there?” the man asked, watching me stuff my face.
“A gyro. It’s Greek food,” I slurred with full cheeks and sauce dripping down my chin.
“I never had one of those – it smells good.” He looked hungry.
“Why don’t you get one?”
“No, not today – I’m a little tight – I just had a bagel anyway so I’m full.”
“Oh, okay.” For some reason I did not believe that he had eaten yet. I thought of offering to buy him one, but something about him made me feel I might offend him, so I held back.
It was June, with a long stretch of warm summery weather, so I ate outside every day. I kept returning to the bench, and oddly enough I was beginning to develop a comfortable routine with my new acquaintance since he was almost always there to make small talk with. It felt nice to greet him and be greeted. The small talk continued, and after a few days, we exchanged first names, Hal and Mike. More often though we would use terms like buddy, pal, guy, chief and other male-to-male expressions of friendship. Hal, I learned, was twenty years older than I was, and our vocabularies reflected our ages. I liked hearing some of his Bogart-esque expressions such calling women “dames,” and calling bars gin mills, which were reminiscent of the film noir movies I’d watch with my father while I was growing up. One day I repeated a priest/rabbi joke I heard that morning around the office coffeepot and told it to him. Much to my surprise, Hal had a uniquely jovial laugh. Every day I searched for at least one funny thing to come up with when we spoke, just to provoke that happy laugh.
I had to admit that over the weekend I missed Hal and our lunches on the bench that first week, and looked forward to Monday. I hoped he would be there for a second week. Sure enough, he was.
That Monday, though, I could tell something was off with Hal. He looked pale, withdrawn and jittery.
“What’s up, fellah?” I asked gently, concerned.
“Not doing too good, pal,” he said, looking away.
“What’s the matter, Hal?”
“I gotta get off these goddamn pills,” he said.
“All this shit my doctor has me taking for my head. It’s not helping. I think I’m over-medicated. I’m in a fog. I need help.”
“Okay,” I said. I thought, no more small talk today. “So you want to find a new doctor. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, pal. This guy I’m seeing now has me way over-medicated. I need to find a new guy.”
“Well, the good news is that this is New York City and doctor heaven.”
“Yeh, maybe so. But try to find a good one who just takes Medicaid. That’s the damn problem.” I could see he was getting agitated.
“Let me see what I can do,” I said confidently, aware I had just made a commitment.
“I’ll look online tonight and bring a list tomorrow – Okay? “
“Oh, that would be great, pal. I would really appreciate that. My phone is dead, and my landlord is so up my ass night and day that I can’t even think. Thanks, pal – thanks, pal,” he said.
“No problem, Hal. We’re friends now. But I’m sure when I call they are going to ask why you need to make an appointment. What should I say?”
He looked me square in the face. Tears began to well up in his eyes and he bit his lower lip, clearly trying hard to stem the tide of his emotions.
“They’re all gone –all dead. I’m the last one.”
“Who, Hal? Who’s gone?”
“Friends, family, guys I used to work with and hang out with at clubs. There are not even any more funerals left to go to. I buried my last friend in the world just two weeks ago. And the rest of it is gone too.”
“The rest of what?”
“The money, the apartments, cars, women. It’s all gone.”
“Okay, I understand. Take it easy. I’ll be here tomorrow with some names for you. Listen, Hal – there are no problems, only solutions. You hang in there and I will be here to help you tomorrow, same time – Okay, pal?”
“Okay, Mike – thanks, friend. Listen, when you make those calls you need to ask if they are a psychopharmacologist.”
I had never heard that term, but I said “No problem – I’ll make sure to check that out, Hal.”
“Thanks again, pal.” He looked a lot better now, having transferred his burden to me. The funny thing was, for some reason I was happy to help this stranger. I walked back to my office wondering if I had crossed a line. At the same time, I felt more connected and useful in a way that nothing in the working world could offer me anymore.
Finding a psychopharmacologist in New York City who accepts Medicaid was no easy task. It took nearly a month of looking up names on the Internet and making calls to find places where Hal could go for evaluations – not comfortable calls to make, on behalf of a near-stranger!
Eventually, we were successful and the detoxing process to get Hal off prescription psychotropic drugs finally began. The first thing the new doctor did was to immediately take him off three of the eight meds he had been taking for various mood-related issues. The other five were dose-adjusted or subject to a slow weaning-off process. I learned through this exercise into the world of prescription pharmaceuticals that the corner drugstore with its store of little plastic orange pill bottles had replaced the white street powders and dirty needles of yesteryear as the drugs of choice to anesthetize the city population. No wonder there are legally-prescribed, pill-popping zombies everywhere these days!
As Hal’s dosages decreased, a happier and livelier personality emerged. There’s a saying in the world of recovery: “Be careful not to replace one addiction with another.” In Hal’s case, the fewer pills he took, the more gyro sandwiches he ate. I had introduced him to a new habit – that of eating Greek food from the Central Park lunch truck – which he did whenever he had the money to indulge in it. My new friend was a very proud man and would not accept charity from others or from me. On the days he said no to an overstuffed, aluminum foil wrapped gyro or souvlaki pita, he would always say that he had already eaten or was just not hungry. Once I realized what was going on, I stopped offering to buy him sandwiches from the truck.
Most unfortunately, Hal’s living situation was becoming more precarious by the day. The threats and harassment from his building’s super continued. Some days he was illegally locked out of his room, and as a result began spending full days and nights on the park bench until his housing authority case manager could get him back in. All the same, the handwriting was on the wall. Hal’s days in his room were numbered. Lawyer letters began showing up. The formal eviction process had begun. The downward spiral continued.
On good days – meaning when he had slept in a bed, had some food in his belly, and the demons in his head were taking a temporary vacation – Hal began to reveal his past life to me over lunch. Bite by bite, he explained how he wound up in his present circumstances, after owning a Park Avenue condo, an oceanfront summer place in posh East Hampton Long Island, a thriving business empire that included 16 broadcasting stations, commercial property in New York and other cities, not to mention a retreat in Miami to escape the cold Manhattan winters that blew hard and fast against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of his sky-high penthouse, which windows, by the way, overlooking the same area of Central Park, where we now met on a green wooden bench for our lunchtime talks.
For thirty years, Hal pushed an elevator call button that whisked him up to his spacious Park Avenue penthouse apartment.
There was even a special slot on the floor number panel where a key had to be inserted and turned, which then cleared the polished brass doors to open directly, and exclusively, to his penthouse door. Everyone else in the luxurious high-rise building had to walk down a hallway to get to their apartment. On Saturday mornings the doorman would send Hal’s New York Times up to him the same way, hands-free – lobby to Penthouse!
Hal pushed all kinds of buttons that made him all kinds of millions upon millions of dollars. Hal had created a kingdom by the sweat of his brow, along with his cunning wit.
“He has it made,” people would say. “Hal is the man!” He was often described as a genius and even a wizard.
It took a mere four years for Hal’s push-button-elevator-controlled life to hit rock bottom and his street address to shoot up forty blocks. Hal has been telling people that walking up six flights of stairs is great exercise. In fact, it’s the only exercise he gets, living in an elevator-less city rent-controlled, dank and dingy apartment building in upper upper Manhattan. There the streets all have three digits, as in 110th street and higher, as opposed to two digit streets on the Upper East Side’s 60s, 70s or 80s blocks.
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 be 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.
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 were 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 a 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.
The next day I got up as usual, without an alarm, with enough time to drink two cups of coffee and look at the Chrysler Building’s spire, a nice view that I enjoy every day. If I go out on my small terrace and look toward the west side of the city, I can also see a small portion of Park Avenue too, the area near Grand Central Station.
I showered, got dressed and started my walk uptown to the office. I passed the entrance to the park bench and immediately thought of Hal. First thing when I got to my desk was a call to Ray’s cell phone.
I got him right away. The news was good. Hal was subdued but deeply appreciative, and he was liked by everyone at the rehab center Ray took him to.
Six months later, Hal has a new apartment in a decent Manhattan SRO, clean sheets, a tiny but functional kitchenette, and we have become buddies. He loves movies! The other day I took him to see “Captain Philips.” He had such insightful comments that I could see the man he had been – the man inside he was struggling to regain.
Maybe he never will be that person again, but he’s regained some of his confidence, without the arrogance that brought him down.
There’s a famous Greek saying: “Count no man happy until you know the end of his life.” Hal’s “end” could have been a whole lot worse, and I am proud to have given him even a small hand up.
If I ever need it, I hope someone will do that for me.