Memoirs of a Minyan: Foul Play
The purpose of the journey is the journey itself.
Chapter 13: Foul Play
Following the dislocation after September 11th, our makeshift offices were located next to a small airport in Rye Brook. Every time a private jet took off, we instinctively ducked as the engines reverberated our temporary trading desk.
It was an anxious and tenuous time but there was no quit in us despite the freefall that occurred in the market and, by extension, our performance.
I wrote all day, every day, while at the same time, trying to steady our fund. Jeff never said a word about my dual role -- he knew Jim wanted me to write and perhaps that had something to do with his patience.
When I wasn’t trading, I wrote; when I wasn’t writing, I thought about what to trade or what I should write.
I told my readers that we would get through it together and carried both roles for a few weeks before the load was heavier than I could bear. I slept three or four hours each night, if that. Given my persistent nightmares, I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing.
I had a fiduciary responsibility to my investors and that, more than anything else, prompted me to pick up the phone. I called TheStreet.com editor-in-chief, Dave Morrow and told him we needed to talk; I desperately needed to make a change.
“This is difficult for me to say,” I said, “But I can’t write ten to twelve daily columns anymore. I give you my word that I’ll do whatever I can but that probably means no more than four to five columns each day.”
“No problem,” he assured me with a southern twang, “We understand and appreciate whatever you can do.”
I hung up the phone and felt relieved yet guilty as I knew my readers would be upset. I went home that night and wrote a heartfelt, honest column called “The Passing of the Torch.”
I wrote hundreds of articles for TheStreet.com but that column was a particularly tender message. I spent hours manicuring the vernacular, combing through each word so that the message would come through loud and clear: I’m here for you but I will ask for patience as I get my life, my firm and myself to a place of relative balance and stability.
The column carried a difficult message with truth and trust. I sent it to the editors and prepared for the influx of emails that would surely arrive the next day. But the article never posted, the first time that ever happened.
I called Dave and he told me the readers couldn’t handle another loss. “They already lost Bill Meehan,” he said, referring to my friend and co-columnist who was in the North tower and died in the attack, “they can’t afford to lose you as well.”
Bluffing with Jokers
Jim wrote in his first book, Confessions of a Street Addict, that I was wildly emotional except when there was money to be made, at which point I was as cold as Saturn. The same mindset applied to this time in my life when despite valid reasons for incoherence, I was as lucid as I’ve ever been.
I gave my heart and soul to TheStreet.com and expected some latitude in return. Given where my head was at the time, I was in no mood to play games. I explained to my editors “This is life -- this is the world we live in -- I want my column posted as it was written and the readers deserved to hear it.”
It wasn’t simply a function of respect; it was the right thing to do. I forged trust with my readers through good times and bad and prided myself on my name and word. I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in a year and a half without communicating it to my readership.
Morrow wouldn’t budge and repeatedly told me that the column wouldn’t post. My patience wore thin and I told him that he had two choices -- post my column as it was written and I would continue to write whenever I could. Or he could sit on my column and I would tender my resignation immediately.
After a tense exchange, Dave would not relent. I watched the crimson array of flickering ticks on my screens, weighing his words.
“Dave, this isn’t about my ego or page views. This is about trust. If I go, I’m not coming back.”
I didn’t want to leave and secretly hoped he would back down.
I could tell the pressure was beginning to get to him. As the editor-in-chief, he was responsible for content and measured by the traffic it generated.
For me, in the midst of million dollar swings, nervous employees, stressed partners and lost friends, bartering with an editor -- who had no leverage because I never signed a contract -- wasn’t a source of stress.
“You won’t resign,” he said boldly, “you want to be the next Jim Cramer!”
“No, Dave,” I said matter-of-factly, “all I ever wanted to be was Todd Harrison.”
The phone sat silent as he weighed his options. “Listen Todd,” he said, “don’t make an emotional decision. This has been a rough few weeks for you.” He was right but I didn’t respond, opting instead to wait for his next move.
“We’re not going to run the column. I’m the editor-in-chief, it’s my decision and this is what I’ve decided.”
“I quit,” I told him without missing a beat, “I wish you the best of luck.”
His response was one that I’ll never forget.
“Congratulations, Todd,” he said, “you’ll never write in this town again.”
He slammed down the phone as I turned to Jeff and locked eyes. I was a pure trader again and a part of me was considerably relieved by the lesser load.
Somewhere in the back of Jeff’s mind, I’m quite certain he was as well.
The Jedi Mind Trick
I only wrote for a year and a half but the process was part of my daily routine. No matter the mood, regardless of circumstance and without interruption, I shared my thoughts each day on TheStreet.com.
Some days were easier than others but there was steady consistency. Every move I made and every shift in my outlook was communicated with the world.
My photo remained on the website above the words “Todd Harrison’s Trading Diary” for weeks after my resignation. It bothered me but I had bigger fish to fry in the form of a bleeding book that suddenly gave back the better part of our year.
I missed writing but there was plenty to keep me occupied. White powder found in a post office, fresh threats of imminent attacks, those damn planes shaking our office every fifteen minutes. It was a surreal sequence of events during a dark time for the world.
My inbox filled with emails from concerned readers. I had an unwritten rule that if someone took the time to write, I would give him or her the respect of an answer. As it turned out, that was my only connection to the audience, a microcosm of the subscribers that read me daily. I was silenced without so much as opportunity to say good-bye.
My readers forwarded me exchanges they had with TheStreet.com where the editors assured them I was on sabbatical and would soon return.
After digesting my earlier discussions, I understood why they did what they did. They made decisions they believed to be in the best interest of their company. It’s not what I would have done but it wasn’t my business and I normally wouldn’t get involved.
But this was different -- these were my readers and I viewed what TheStreet.com did as ethically unacceptable and morally askew. I didn’t want to be associated with their brand.
Not with regard to my name and not when it came to my word.
I called Dave Morrow to vent my frustration and found a new attitude on the other end of the line. “You just need some time to relax,” he told me, “take that time and come back when you’re ready.” I could tell he was catching heat for the rift but it was a moot point.
“I told you Dave, I don’t work with people I don’t trust.” I left it at that, despite the nagging realization that my readers were getting the short end of the stick.
Jim was still a central player in our fund, which continued to struggle in the wake of 9/11. Not once during this period did he and I connect. We were still up for the year but the slow, steady grind of the fourth quarter took its toll, both on the fund and its stewards.
I didn’t discuss TheStreet.com with my partners. They, like I, had more pressing responsibilities. I tried to let the situation settle despite my growing unease with the way it was being handled.
Each time I saw an advertisement that promoted “Todd Harrison’s Trading Diary,” I looked the other way.
With every email I got from a concerned reader who asked for the date of my promised return, I internalized the aggravation.
I actually convinced myself that I had put the entire experience behind me until I dialed into TheStreet.com conference call after they reported earnings.
After discussing top-line results, CEO Tom Clarke, fielded questions from the audience. Marc Cohodes, a well-known hedge fund manager and a large holder of TSCM stock, finally asked the question that everyone seemingly wanted to hear. “What happened to Todd Harrison and is he ever coming back?”
Tom paused before answering as I sat up in my seat and pressed the phone to my ear.
“Todd went through a lot and is experiencing emotional difficulties. We hope to have him back soon.”
I was managing a $400 million dollar portfolio through a tsunami of terrorism. The last thing I needed was the CEO of a publicly traded company telling the world I was emotionally unstable.
I tried to focus my energy on trading which was a battle unto itself; the frustration was palpable as we clung to single digit returns. After eleven months, we had little to show for our efforts. I still had a hefty base salary to fall back on but that was supposed to be a buffer.
That’s the fatal flaw to the Wall Street persona, the personal high water mark. Once you make five million dollars, anything less feels like a failure.
It’s outrageously silly with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of experience but at the time, the mindset was gripping.
The junior staffers on our desk weren’t as secure with their financial standing. I took that personally as most good managers do and promised them they would be taken care of.
Insiders at TheStreet.com whispered to me that subscriptions were considerably lower after September 11th and I couldn’t help wonder if some of them wrote letters to my grandpa.
I felt guilty -- not happy, not validated, not vindicated -- but guilty. The welfare of those around me -- my traders, my readers and my family -- weighed heavily on my psyche.
I missed my column but didn’t admit that to anyone. I set out to explore alternatives, another venue that would take the place of my once stable stage.
I was in need of a solution, a new beginning, something to stop the intense pain.
I wanted to create an alternative reality as an escape from the pain that seemed to saturate my soul and spirit.
Click here for next chapter of memoirs, "The Genesis of a Dream."
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Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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