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Memoirs of a Minyan: Inmates in the Asylum

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The purpose of the journey is the journey itself.

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As with any journey, the path we take is more important than the destination we arrive at. My particular route included climbing the corporate ladder and chasing the trappings of success. Once I got to where I thought I wanted to be, I realized net worth and self-worth were entirely different dynamics.

That was distinctly different than what I was programmed to believe as a child and it facilitated a professional and spiritual rebirthing. In life, as with the markets, the big picture is made up of many smaller pictures.

To fully appreciate where I was, we must first understand how I got there.

Bagel Boy

My parents divorced when I was three years old. Looking back, their marriage was doomed from the start, a fast-tracked union facilitated by the Vietnam War during a time of extreme geopolitical uncertainty.

We moved from New Jersey to Great Neck, Long Island and lived in a small apartment overlooking a park. My brother and I shared a room and adapted to life without a father. Our mom took a job in Manhattan and her income allowed us to enjoy a solid middle-class existence.

We lived in an affluent town, though we weren't in the wealthiest of neighborhoods. Great Neck was a place where children measured each other by the logo on their shoes and labels on their shirts. That was my first taste of money, having some, but seemingly never having enough.

When I visited friends on the other side of town, I marveled at the sprawling lawns and fancy cars. I asked my mother why we lived with such modest means, unaware of how painful it must have been for a single parent with two young boys to field such questions. Her response was always the same-"If you want more money, get a job."

It was the single best piece of advice she ever gave me.

At the age of 13, I began working at the local bagel shop. I awoke at 5:00 AM on Saturdays to prepare for the mad rush of customers, many of whom were the families I aspired to emulate.

I never forgot the symbolism of that counter, a divide representing the chasm between the "haves" and "have nots" as money changed hands for goods and services. Little did I know that I would experience life on both sides of that cash register.

Coming of Age

My father moved to California and our interaction was limited to infrequent visits and occasional summers. I used to stare at the phone on my birthday waiting for it to ring, looking for a semblance of normalcy or an inkling of paternal acceptance. It rarely, if ever, did.

My dissatisfaction manifested in many ways. I gained weight, got into fights and lashed out at whoever got in my way. I was the child who looked for validation at the bottom of a milkshake and acted out to get attention.

My mother had the foresight to harness my aggression and guide me towards sports as a positive outlet. I excelled as an athlete and thought I finally arrived and conquered my demons. How wrong I was.

High School is a vicious place, particularly in Long Island where you're measured by possession. My self-esteem was fragile as a function of my father's abandonment but I continued on a productive path. I held several jobs, following the advice of my mother that if I wanted to get ahead, I had to work for it.

My grandfather Ruby was my best friend but the void left in my father's wake was powerful. I began to communicate with him to understand why he left and how I played a role in it. I decided to find out what the man was all about and moved to Woodland Hills, California at the beginning of my junior year of high school.

My father's energy vacillated from one day to the next. Every encounter was random-one moment we were tossing a baseball, trying to recapture lost time and the next, I tiptoed through the house because he was so angry I didn't want him to hear me. I thought he was moody but would find out years later that something entirely more disturbing was afoot, something beyond his control.

He worked as a post-production executive and seemingly found his calling. One evening, he pulled into our driveway in a flashy red Ferrari and announced he had been promoted. I'll never forget how much he loved that car-he washed, waxed and incessantly detailed it as if it, alone, was symbolic of his success. I would witness that stretch for status many times over when I eventually arrived on Wall Street.

I also bought a car, a red Nissan 200SX, as I was anxious to emulate him. My father co-signed the loan with the understanding that I would be responsible for the monthly payments. I worked several jobs to make ends meet. On weekends, I traveled to Simi Valley and picked weeds for $50 per day. My mother's advice played often in my head. "If you want money-get a job."

I missed playing sports but was willing to make the sacrifice if it meant having wheels. California was a lot different than New York and if you didn't have a car, you were socially disadvantaged. It simply wasn't an option.

One night, my father walked into my room and said he was fired from his job and sold the Ferrari. He told me he needed my car to go on interviews but I still had to make the payments. If I didn't like it, he said, I could move back to Great Neck. I agreed to help, hoping to help him get back on track.

When I graduated high school in 1987, I returned to the east coast and worked as a short-order cook in Times Square. I watched the well-dressed professionals as they paid their way and rushed to work while rarely, if ever, making eye contact. As I readied for a fresh start in upstate New York, it was hard to contain my excitement.

My lone goal was to be on the other side of the cash register.

R.P.

Click here for the next chapter of Memoirs, "Animal House"

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