I'm a two-time casualty of crashing U.S. markets

I was a self-made stockbroker nailed by 9/11. Then I got into mortgages and it happened again!

Published October 20, 2008 9:54AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

I am traveling on personal business so the column will be dark on Tuesday and Wednesday and will resume Thursday.

Also: In Friday's column, I started out by saying I was not trained or qualified to diagnose anyone, and then I diagnosed someone. You've probably heard all the clever excuses supposedly smart people make for the stupid things they do, so let's just say I don't know what I was thinking.

And now, on to something I know better -- the glorious, doomed romanticism of the American gambler.

Dear Cary,

I have wanted to write you for a while, but I felt that my problem was just so average. Then, you wrote today asking people to discuss the difficulties they are having managing the stress related to the collapse of the financial markets. Well, I am one of the many casualties.

I have always considered myself a self-made man even though I am still relatively young. I come from a large, poor family and have had a job since I was 15. I never had any help from my parents and I put myself through college while working full-time. I won't lie and say that I wasn't envious of my peers who had all the breaks in the world. But I am still proud of my accomplishments. I was one of the youngest stockbrokers ever to get hired at the firm where I worked straight out of college, and I even made a pretty great name for myself there. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. When the stock market fell apart last time (post 9/11), I was a casualty of the rampant layoffs throughout the industry. I was without work for longer than I care to remember.

At the time I was ready for a change. I decided to get into the mortgage business as an independent loan officer. So once again, I was starting completely over in an industry I knew nothing about. I went into some pretty serious debt to get my business started like so many other small-business owners. Feeding yourself and keeping the lights on cost money. I had to work extremely hard to get where I was, and I never resorted to the duplicitous trickery of so many in my industry. I had quite a bit of success after a few years and was really starting to think I had a career and a future. I finally had become debt-free and socked some good money away. Then the ground started shifting. Alas, here I am in the middle of another financial meltdown and the savings are almost gone.

I am really lucky, though. I have an amazing girlfriend who loves me more than I ever thought possible. I have a close-knit and funky group of friends who love and support me. I have my faith that brings me much respite. My parents and siblings, although not perfect, are beautiful and caring in our family's clumsy way. I am a part-time trainer in a gym and that keeps me healthy and vibrant. I really do feel extremely fortunate and happy.

So despite all of the amazing pieces of life, I can't stand the unbelievable bullshit that I have had to put up with TWICE now. I know that there are things that are beyond my control. But I worked hard, very hard, paid my bills, and wasn't greedy or sinister. I didn't take advantage of anyone in my community. How come I am getting screwed again? I have applied for so many new jobs, but there are just too many people with my qualifications. And in some respect I don't want to give up on the business I have tried so hard to build.

It seems so selfish and immature to ask "Why?" at no one in particular. I know there are many more out there in the exact same boat as me or worse, but that doesn't make it any better. I wanted my little piece of the American dream and it keeps getting snatched from my hands.

I know I probably am putting too much stock in money and professional satisfaction, but it's more than that. Now that the savings have been used, there is no work in sight, and I am in danger of losing my own house, I am starting to worry about my little family. I have seen the crushing despair of financial insecurity up close and personal. I don't want to put them through it. I truly feel like a failure as a man. Of all the patriarchal junk that I have discarded over the years, my desire to provide for my family is as strong and palpable as ever.

I guess deep down I know if I lose it all, I will just have to start over again. Things are just that: things. But dammit ... I didn't ask for much. Why does it have to be so hard to hold on to it? Why do I seem to be repeating the same career arc again and again? I am getting to the point where starting over isn't an option. Getting a job in the financial industry used to mean you were set for life. Now I worry about making it through the month.

Broke but not Broken

Dear Broke but not Broken,

You're not a failure for all this. It doesn't mean you are less of a man, or that you will not be able to provide for your family. You can give your family what they need even if you cannot always give them what they want. They may want more shiny stuff. Maybe you won't be able to give them more shiny stuff for a while. But they don't need more shiny stuff. They need love and support and food on the table. I do believe you can provide them that. And you can also provide them an example of how a man takes adversity. You can provide them what they need.

Now I may need to apologize to you for the long piece that follows because I have sort of taken you as an emblem of something that you perhaps do not consider yourself to be an emblem of. I am a writer and we sometimes end up where we did not expect to be, because we are in the end telling our story and no one else's.

But as I see it, this economic carnage is tragic and unfortunate but it is also  part of our nobility and our strength: We are dreamers. We are gamblers. And sometimes the shiny, amazing, intricate things we dream of and build, sometimes they come crashing down in spectacular fashion. The desire to build these shiny, amazing, intricate things is deeper in the American spirit than just the desire for security. I want to say that amid the financial carnage we can still celebrate. We are dreamers. We are gamblers. We go for it. We will always go for it.

So this is what I wrote, before rereading your letter. You are welcome in a little camp of crazies and dreamers if you feel you belong, and if not, you are welcome to heckle us from a well-lighted platform. To all who have been hurt by this calamity: I do not mean to celebrate a disaster. 

What I mean is, we're typical Americans. We will climb too high and get into trouble. That is what we do. We will take the money and run until the money runs out, and then we will hitchhike back to town, broke but grinning. We could have kept our dreams small. We could have driven 55. We could have counted every penny. Maybe we should have.  And certainly you, my friend, really hit the double whammy. First the stock market, then the mortgage market. You obviously have a nose for the big upside and a weakness for the big downside. But let's not weep. We were drawn to the dazzle and the fire and the bright lights, and now it's crashing all around us. Grab a blanket and wait out the storm. Let's keep our spirits up.

There are times when things are nuts and you need to put on a song. There was a time when that song would be "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen. You could put that song on and turn it up loud and for a few minutes there wasn't complexity or ambiguity or even a future; there was just a very loud now.

I like the very loud now. The very loud now is an oasis inside of hell where we go when our brains are fried.

This very loud now that seems to keep us sane in periods of woe was invented by American dreamers and gamblers and vagabonds on the road. Who knows how many anxious teens were saved by rock and roll? Who knows what anxious, rigid, self-denying people we might have turned into if we could not have had those few sacred moments in adolescence making our ears bleed in a bliss of wattage? Who knows if we would have survived the terrors of the 1960s without frequent doses of ecstasy, chemical, sexual or otherwise, to inform us of the value of being human, to remind us that there are certain benefits to remaining conscious. I wonder.

I wonder about those chaotic 1960s because we are in another period of spooky strange vibration, like during the Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, a period of unstable passion in aging leadership that makes you worry, like a child, if grandpa is going to lose it completely and burn down the house. It's not just the economic thing that seems to make you nervous; it's the prospect of more crazy old fuckers with their fingers on the button.

Again we watch with horror the pitiful bluster of obsessional weakness amid declining power both physical and national; we would look away but they have the power. So we impotently observe their insane grasping at insane strategies, unable to quiet their hungers, unable to see their own absurdity -- which we see so plainly! (I feel very much as I did as a high school kid, watching all the adults go insane.)

I am not a member of "the youth" anymore and yet I still see these old men as a youth would see them; I see their metallic ignorance, their bomb-stunted salutes, their robotic lurching, their damage worn like medals, tragic and yet not as tragic as they would perhaps like us to believe. That is, there are many old soldiers in the world. We must guard against their claims on our sentiment. We must cooly say that, in certain instances, their heroic damage is a shame and it is tragic but it is not persuasive.

So anyway, about the whole mortgage thing, this guy from Vegas comes to our house last year with a big bag of money. He says, look at all this money. I consider the offer but want to see some numbers. When are we going to have to pay this back? I ask. He says, you borrow the money on your house, then you put it in stocks. I talk to a stock guy. He's all like yeah, you just take this money out of your house, you put it in stocks. If it comes due, you just refinance it again.

It's that simple. You just refinance it again.

Yeah? I'm like, where's the paperwork? Let me see the numbers. What are we talking about here?

He says you just refinance it again. OK. In the future sometime. OK. And, uh, we just keep doing that? And it never actually comes due at all?



In the end, I was sort of prudent, believe it or not. Plus I asked Andrew Leonard of Salon, and Ken Howe, the business editor at the Chronicle, two people who maybe knew something. I said there's this guy from Vegas with liquor on his breath who wants to give me a big bag of money and all I have to do is sign over the house. They were kinda, um, maybe not. So I said no. I was starting a business at the time. And I had this idea, based on what I'd seen on TV, that when you start a business you actually work out the numbers. So I expected numbers, not just a big bag of money. But that's not to say I am normally a prudent person. That's what I'm saying: I identify with all the folks who took the money. That's the natural thing to do.

So if you got screwed by recent events, sure it's bad. But we're emotional people. We saw stuff we wanted and we went for it. And it wasn't just hedonistic stuff. We saw the opportunity to help others, take care of our families, put kids through college. We saw some really great things that money could do and we went for it. We opened restaurants and remodeled houses. Of course we did. Who wouldn't? We saw the things we wanted and we tried to get them. Who wouldn't? What else were we supposed to do?

We could say that we're careful, thoughtful people who just went a little astray, and perhaps some of us were, and we could say that we were bamboozled by unscrupulous dealers, and some of us were, but, in a larger sense, this is who we are, we Americans: We are dreamers and gamblers. We have a well-documented tendency to just go for it for better or worse. In investing money or borrowing money or managing money we're always dealing with the devil, that is, we're always stirring up the full range of human capacity for greed, duplicity and theft, and while we don't have to like the calamities that result, we should not be surprised or indignant because this is who we are. This is how we do things.

We are reckless. But we are  we'll get through this. Being dreamers and gamblers, we're flexible. We'll come up with something.

You have to think that way. Otherwise you're screwed. If you start thinking because you made a bundle that you're set, history's going to take its bite out of your ass. It's a fluid situation. We're all hitchhikers. We're all standing around in the hiring hall. You don't know whose number is next.

Don't get cocky but don't get depressed. Just keep your equilibrium.

It's the price you pay for freedom. No, really: This is the real price. That other stuff they talk about as "the price of freedom," that's duty. The real price of freedom is this: blessed consequence.

There's this, too: Chinese immigrants, Mexican immigrants, Filipino, Vietnamese, all my friends in the neighborhood from Russia, China, Taiwan, everybody: Listen. You are just like us, too: Like us before you, you left family and cherished lands behind. You had that glimmer of a notion of something new and better. We English immigrants to Virginia from way back in the 1600s, we had that same idea. You must be gamblers and dreamers too, just like my ancestors were.

We're dreamers. We're gamblers. We'll get by.

So sure, we have to be more responsible. But I'm just saying let's recognize that part of what makes us great, how we made jazz and rock 'n' roll and rap -- is that we are roguish improvisers, we are a rhythmic people, a passionate band of gamblers and pickpockets and hucksters and song-and-dance men, we are roving preachers and Bible salesmen, we are pitchmen and impresarios. We are damned entertaining. And we are children. We see shiny baubles, we grab for them. We saw a shiny bauble called America and we grabbed for it. We see houses, farms, penthouses, we see money, shiny and new, we see mountains to ski on and waves to ride, we see beauty and we grab for it.

We are gamblers.We are dreamers. We'll keep going.

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