Back on Track

We were ensconced in the corner booth back by the men’s room in a little greasy spoon downtown, swilling Coca-Cola, staring at the rubberized remains of our Mexican omelets, and trying to figure out how to salvage what was left of my modest investment portfolio.

“Timmy, my boy, I’m afraid you’ve become the poster child for the feckless American retail investor,” Harry said. “Once proud as a peacock– some might even suggest arrogant— now humbled by the collapse of the equity markets and a breathtaking failure to diversify.” He shook his head sadly. “Ah well,” he said, “the path to riches is littered with the shattered dreams of the true greenhorn.”

If he hadn’t been my best friend since grade school, I’d have popped him.

“Thanks,” I said.

Scribbling as he spoke, drawing a series of neat little rectangles on a festive cocktail napkin, pausing now and again to suck another lungful of noxious gas from the damp end of a bent Winston, Harry coaxed the outline of what we hoped would become my salvation from the gooey blue interior of a 19-cent disposable pen.

“I really shouldn’t be your financial advisor, Timmy. You need someone with a fancy office and a fresh perspective.” He rotated the napkin 180. “What do you think?”

There amid speckles of egg yolk, dollops of salsa and the occasional cigarette ash, appeared a plan which argued in favor of index funds.

“You’re an exciting man, Harry.”

“‘Famous both for its low cost and low risk, the index fund should serve as the cornerstone of every nutritious portfolio.’ John Bogle, circa ’93.”

I ordered a slice of cherry pie. “What’s Junior up to?” I asked.

“Ah, Junior’s Junior,” he said. “Now he says he wants to become a taxidermist.”

 

That evening Harry tagged along with me to the high school booster club’s annual alumni dinner. The formal program opened with the usual litany of excuses by the coaching staff, followed by garden variety whining from the alumni.

Delmont Bartow asked if somebody would please explain the mysterious disappearance of the screen pass from the team’s playbook. “Gotta keep them D-backs honest, coach.”

Jimmy Del Rio piped up. “And how come we can’t find a decent kicker? It’s the new millennium, ain’t it?”

It went on and on, and then the lady who was head of the parents committee unveiled our new uniforms — they’d dropped the traditional navy and gold in favor of mustard and teal with eggshell piping. Well, I guess that settled it– next season our boys would look like Menudo! and be lucky to finish at .500.

I dropped Harry off at his house; he had to leave town early the next morning. “Industrial fasteners need to be sold, Timmy, and, by God, it’s me that’s gonna sell ’em.” Which meant he’d spend the next two weeks on the road, meeting with straightforward men in short sleeve shirts and tragic neckwear, each trying to weasel an extra penny or two per thousand out of poor Harry.

That night I looked over the battered remnants of our portfolio. I felt like a M.A.S.H surgeon on the Chosin Reservoir. I decided to follow Harry’s advice and try index funds.

Why not?

I drifted off to dreamland under the easy undulation of my son’s lavender lava lamp. As the relentless purple goo slowly ascended and descended inside its glass cone, I groped for insight into human nature, and a better understanding of the mechanics of gain and loss.

Instead, random images came to mind– the dog-eared ledger of an unbalanced checkbook, wet autumn leaves caught between the pickets of an unpainted garden fence, the hazy profile of a childhood friend. It was late in the evening, late in the game.

At some point, the cat came in and started chewing on the venetian blinds, and a moment later I heard Letterman’s intro on the TV down the hall.

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