The Expenses of Life

January 29, 2009
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The Expenses of Life

The golden rays of the afternoon sun stream almost vertically through the kitchen window, landing in tight circles on my lap and keeping my legs comfortably cozy. For a moment my heart also feels a surge of warmth, as the four children sitting around the kitchen table giggle happily, glancing at me with adoring smiles. 'Grandpa, you won again!'
They are such beautiful children. The two girls, looking so different from each other, yet both sharing my wife's compassionate, all-knowing eyes. The boys remind me of two of my brothers, one broad and stocky, with blue eyes crinkled in a permanent smile; the other wiry and dark, constantly fidgeting in his chair. Alfred and Paul? No, those were my brothers' names, what are theirs? Did they say 'Grandpa?' How could I have such grown up grandkids?
I survey the cards on the kitchen table, observing with satisfaction the perfect row of suits and numbers spread before me. I could still count cards. I could still show the children that their grandfather is a winner'.not through luck, but through brains and strategy.

'Let's play another round,' the younger boy pleads. I look into his dark eyes, surrounded by a tall forehead, high cheekbones and olive skin, and see the family resemblance. 'Sure, kid, why not?' I notice that he casts a quick look at the girl next to him. He must have guessed. I forgot his name. A minute ago it was on my tongue, but now it's gone. My head cringes with pain as I search for it.

Suddenly, I see the fear and concern in their eyes as they look at me. Why are they scared? People always respected me, but never feared me. What's so scary in my appearance?
The sunlight has shifted slightly, bouncing off the glass kitchen table in a single, focused white stream. It's blinding. I have to shut my eyes. Yet I could still sense that beam of light on my closed eyelids, pulsating like a drumbeat. One short beat, then a longer one ' a constant rhythm created by the electrical impulse of my pacemaker, followed by the beat of my own heart.
Short-long, short-long, short-long. My body rocked to the rhythm, as the rising sun skipped in and out of the train window, at times disappearing behind a tall apartment building that glided past. We sat around the table attached at one end below the window ledge, holding our cards close to our chest, so the other passengers could not see them. Ours was a serious game, and even a fleeting grimace by an innocent bystander could give away a clue. The four of us ' all successful businessmen travelling from stately homes in Westchester to towering steel and glass offices in midtown Manhattan ' played poker every morning, sitting in the same booth, facing in the same positions, on the 7:30 Express. The game was challenging; after all, we lived and worked by our brains, our facility with numbers, our memory.
We played for money. After all, there is no better measure of success than money, no more effective incentive than cash. It's the thrill of the wager: putting at risk that which you hold dearest, using all of your skills to turn Lady Luck in your direction. As a child, dad would always remind me that you make your own luck; that you have to seize luck through your diligence and talent.
Starting the day with a game of cards was a great mental exercise. It woke up our minds and instincts to the day's challenges. It aroused our aggressive, competitive instincts and reminded us that life is win-or-lose proposition. Only one player could win the game, and he would do so at the expense of the others.
I loved playing cards on the train. I was the best card counter. I had the best strategy. I could read the others' faces and know when to bluff and when to fold. I made my own luck. And mostly I won. It was not for big money. But when the train arrived at the station and I felt the newly won coins jingling in my pocket while bouncing down the steps of Grand Central, I was ready for the day.
The walk from the train station to my office was always invigorating. At six foot five and over two hundred pounds, I could confidently push through the throngs crowding the street, avoiding both the aggressive beggars and the clueless, wandering tourists who blocked my way. The city pulsated with an intensity that I anticipated every day. This powerful energy was echoed in my office, the brokerage floor where I conducted all of my business ' trading stocks and buying and selling real estate - for nearly forty years.
The phones rang incessantly. Unless you were used to it, you couldn't tell whether the strident tone was your own phone or one of your neighbors' . It was even harder to understand the caller and what he wanted ' even though there could be millions of dollars at stake. Was it GM or PMG? Was it buy or sell? Later, all calls were recorded and could be confirmed, but many years ago you had to rely just on your sensitive hearing and keen understanding of your client.
I never missed a call. 'Joe, I knew it was you,' I would say; 'I knew you would call about your General Electric stock. I was thinking of you and was just about to pick up the phone.' Through all the cacophony, the constant ringing, the audio (and later TV) announcements from the stock markets and the yelling and imploring of my colleagues, I always kept my cool. Cajoling, threatening, pushing well beyond the limits, I always got the best deal - better than anyone expected, or even could hope for.
One ring; two rings; three rings. Maybe I should pick that up. 'Hello?' A familiar voice answers: 'Hey, grandpa?' 'Who is this?' I ask; it's the best I can do. 'It's your grandson. I got some action for you.' My response spills out: 'Oh, well then'uhhh' son, what have you got?' 'The Red Sox are playing the Yankees today. Sox favored by a run.' I respond with well-rehearsed conviction: 'What kind of bookie are you listening to? I want a touchdown.' I hear the quiver in his voice: 'Grandpa, this is baseball.' I recover: 'Fine, give me five points'. my final offer.' The boy despairs: 'Grandpa, the odds are one run' I could go to Vegas right now and get a better bet.' My negotiating abilities can't resist: 'Fine, two points'final offer, I'm not going any lower.' The boy sighs, 'Alright, deal.'
I feel uncertain again. 'Well, I feel like you're cheating me on this one' who's my team again? What time's the game?' He responds: 'It's 8:00 p.m. tonight and you have the Yankees.' I fake my displeasure: 'Uh, that junk of a team? Well, I think you got me on this one. Talk to you later. You gave me a touchdown right?' 'No, Grandpa it's baseball. Two runs, ok? Talk to you later. Bye.'
Who was he? Only one of my grandsons calls me to make bets. Shouldn't I know his name? And why did I think I should get a touchdown? I know all of the teams, whether football or baseball, and carry all of their stats in my head. I could beat the Las Vegas bookies when I put my mind to it. Shouldn't I know that we're talking baseball? Shouldn't I remember my favorite team, the Yankees? The striped jerseys, the perfect green diamond, the cheering crowds'.those delicious Kosher hot dogs slathered with mustard and ketchup that you can only get at Yankee Stadium.
My very first baseball game ' I still remember the date, September 4, 1929. It was a Yankees- Red Sox game. I went with my dad and my three brothers, Alfred, George and Paul. The Yankees won that game 3-0. Babe Ruth pitched a complete game and hit two homers. The crowd went wild. From the bottom of the fourth inning until the top of the ninth, no one sat down. In the stifling heat of that early fall afternoon, amidst the mass of standing bodies. I could hardly see the pitcher. I felt, though, the excitement and energy of the winner. 'How much do you think Ruth gets paid?' I asked my dad. 'A thousand per game?' My dad just smiled. 'Babe Ruth is the best. He gets many, many times more than that.'
The warm raindrops started to soak my T shirt in the middle of the fourth inning. I was scared that the game would be rained out. My dad had already taken off a day of work to take us to this game, so I doubted that we could go to a make-up game. My father was a poor Russian immigrant, so my family had very few luxuries. My dad, however, promised that when I, the youngest son, turned ten, he would take all of my brothers and me to the Yankees game.
It's funny. The part I remember clearest about that game was an angry Red Sox fan behind me. He got into a fight with my father and began saying unspeakable words to him. Pop calmly and rationally responded to everything he said, without ever cursing or raising his voice. Then, he turned to me and said, 'Bernard, make sure you do not turn into this kind of man. Make something of your life. We're counting on you. Maybe you can make as much money as Ruth.' I could only respond by muttering out a small 'I'll try dad. I'll try.'
My daughter (for a moment her name escapes me'is she the older or the younger one?) keeps prattling on about college education for my grandchildren. She says I should put money into a special account, so they could save on taxes. Why should I worry about that? I will take care of them when the time comes, slipping them a few hundreds here and there, and make them work for the rest. No one paid for my education. It cost a lot'. at least $600 per year. I bet it's twice or three times that much now, but my kids can cover that. I don't understand what my daughter is talking about; what's the big deal?
Even at my young age, my whole family knew that I was the smartest of my siblings. Over time, I realized that my family would count on me many times in the future, and it would be up to me to come through for them. All I could do was to try as hard as I could to succeed. And did I ever try. Every evening and every weekend, I worked into the depths of the night, only resting for Shabbat dinner. I had a few friends, but I quickly realized that friends don't help a person succeed, they just distract you. I isolated myself during my high school years, only focusing on my main goal ahead: college. During this time, my father became very ill, and it was not a fair fight. He died in his own bed, unable to afford a hospital bill, after just three months with cancer. This unfortunate event made me struggle even harder to get into college, and finally, in 1938 at only sixteen years old, I was accepted into Harvard University.
The letter came in a red envelope, with a large Harvard insignia in the top-right corner. It was addressed to 'Mr. Bernard F. Prashetsky.' This was the first time I had ever been addressed as 'Mr.', and even though I was the youngest son, I felt like the man of the family. My older brothers were poorly educated, and other than Alfred, they were not bright men. I knew that I would have to support my family, and that Harvard would supply me with the tools needed to succeed. I graduated in 1941, first in my class, with a prosperous future ahead of me.
Then, just when everything seemed like it was going right, I was drafted into the army. I don't remember much of Germany. I returned there only once since the war, trying to jog my memory about what happened during those times, but it didn't really feel like the same country. The only thing I could remember was Auschwitz. The war was coming to a close and I was part of the recovery unit, attempting to get all of the Jews out of Auschwitz. I just remember walking through the big black door, the light flooding into a room full of mentally and physically tortured people. Class did not matter. Money did not matter. This, right here, is what mattered. That's all. I swore to myself that day that I would never again judge people by their financial status.
What's with all this noise? 'Muriel, why are all these people here?' Wow. There's um David, and my other daughters, I think. Who's that over there? And there? Why is there a raw bone and an egg on my nice tablecloth? Why are all these people in my house? 'Everyone leave right now. I do not know who you are, or how you got into my house, but leave this instant or I will call the police.'
'But Grandpa, it's Passover. We do this every year. Remember the story of the seven plagues? C'mon Grandpa, it's almost time for the four questions, listen up,' said a young boy to my left. I recognized him, was he my grandson maybe? To refrain from embarrassment, I muttered, 'Ok son, go ahead.'
Just as the young boy began chanting in Hebrew, I began to recognize his voice. This was 'Passover,' apparently. It was all coming back to me now. I could remember the um' Sedar plate on the table many years ago. How long had it been since I had really celebrated one of the most important Jewish holidays? Last year? I can't remember. 2006? Not sure. No, I think the last time I celebrated Passover with my whole family was a long time ago, when the country was just recovering from World War II, television was just becoming popular and the race to the moon was officially 'on'. I remember so clearly how I felt that day when I discovered the Jews in Auschwitz, and how I swore to myself that I would always take time off from any occupation to spend time with my family and reconnect with my religion. But I made that promise when I was boy, when I did not know how much time a job actually occupies in your life, especially if you want to succeed.
After I got back from the Army, I began working in my father's clothing store, which he had left in my control after his passing ' to the displeasure of my brothers, who all thought that they should have been left a share of our father's only property. I was making good money in that store, and I hardly spent any of it. I opened my first checking account in 1953, and by 1960, I had almost $70,000 in the bank'or actually, banks. After the Depression, I did not exactly trust any bank, so I made sure not to keep more than $10,000 in each, just in case one of the banks went broke and lost all of my hard-earned money.
That's when I got the offer that would change my life forever. On July 31, 1960, John Parker Wilson, a real estate broker, casually walked into my father's store. John was a frequent customer, and we often chatted about real estate, Wall Street, and other financial topics. He was the only person outside of my immediate family who knew how much money I had.
'Bernie, I have an offer for you that you just cannot pass up!' he exclaimed.
'Well, what is it then?' I said skeptically, as I was well aware that real estate brokers often used clever ploys to find buyers for their properties.
'It's a building at the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue. It's six stories high, right next to Broadway, and the current owner is retiring. I always like to give people I know the first word when a place like this comes up for sale, and I know you have the money to buy it.'
'Well John, how much is it then?'
'It's only $60,000! The owner is out of his mind, and he said he will sell it to the first person who makes him an offer at his asking price. Come on, I'll drive you there.'
I was a very conservative, frugal person, but I knew that in order to make it big, you sometimes had to take a chance. This place at least deserved some consideration. It didn't hurt that John drove a convertible Cadillac, and that the weather outside was perfect for a ride with the top down. 'Alright Mr. Wilson, let's go.'
I decided to buy that building on that very first visit. But after considering how my father treated my siblings in leaving me his store, I decided to give my brother Alfred a call. Alfred was only two years older than me, the closest in age of all my brothers, and, in my opinion, he was also the smartest. We split the cost of that first building, 80% for me and 20% for him, and that first purchase started us on an amazingly successful financial road.
The building was in the Diamond District of New York City, and I first rented out the place to a brand new company called Luxury Diamond Jewelers, or LDJ. In the first year, LDJ was struggling to survive, and was barely able to pay the $5,000 yearly rent. But I saw potential in this small company. I bought the company in 1961, again sharing the purchase with Alfred, but still keeping majority control. I was 43 years old; I was on my second company; and I owned one of better buildings in New York City. And the best was yet to come.
Over the next four years, I earned over $500,000, and LDJ became the top jewelry store in the Northeast. Famous movie stars and actresses came to my store to buy diamonds for premieres, parties and big social events. But to me, achieving fame as a successful business owner did not matter. It was all about the money. I discovered that what everyone said is true. Once you make some money, it just keeps multiplying and multiplying.
I learned that the best way for me to make the most money was to buy real estate. I bought almost every building on my block, along with many others on the streets surrounding Broadway. I owned over 40 buildings, collected millions in rent, and I was still not done with my plan.
In 1965, the Ernie Davis building became available for purchase. This building was 20 stories tall, the largest building in the Lower East Side. The asking price was $20 million. I had $30 million in the bank. I decided that I would buy this property, but felt that I needed to consult with Mr. Wilson first.
'Yes, John, I would love to buy this building, but I'm not sure if I should split the deal with Alfred. This would make me so much money, and I found the deal in the first place,' I told him.
'Do you have the money yourself?'
'Well yes, but Al-'
'Listen Bernie. Alfred will understand. You started him. You are responsible for everything he has today. It's business. He knows that. Just buy it yourself - you can't pass this up.'
Alfred didn't feel that way. When I told him, he just said, 'leave.' I tried to explain myself, but he just said, 'Family or money. Every man must decide. It seems as if you have made your choice. Now goodbye.'
'Muriel!' I scream. 'Muriel!'
'Yes, yes, what is it,' my wife yells as she comes into the room.
'What's his number?'
'Whose number?'
'Al. Where is he? I need to talk to him about a business offer.'
'Alfred's dead.'
'When did this happen? How did he die? I'll save him, I'll give him his 20% of the Davis building.'
'Are you feeling ok?' she asks.
Alfred died? When? She seems pretty sure of it. 'Oh ya, I was talking about a different Alfred. Don't worry Muriel, I'll give that Alfred a call, I remember his number.' She leaves. Everyone has left. No, I let them. Alfred was my only connection to my family back then. My dad was dead. I hadn't talked to my other brothers in years. What had I done with my life? Well, it's not all my fault. Alfred was never very smart. I started him! He would be nothing without me! But how about that kid' something with a D. My oldest grandson. He purposely decided to marry that Christian girl, that shiksa, just to make me mad. What other reason could he possibly have? I must make sure that this doesn't happen to my only loyal grandson. He's just a kid, whatever his name is, but I know he has potential. He always calls. Always gets good grades. He's really the only person that hasn't isolated me. No. That I haven't isolated. He is the only connection to my family, that kid.

I remember when I used to watch football with my children. I would sit in my chair, with them on my lap, and recite hundreds of statistics. My son was always interested in the game, one of my daughters calculated percentages for me, while the other would just laugh when the quarterback called out colors and numbers. I could remember every stat and every game; I could predict every result and win every bet.

Now, I bet one dollar on 41 games with' oh it's Michael! That's my grandson's name! Well, in 41 games, I'm down twenty-one dollars. 31-10. I was beating the smartest sports minds 30 years ago. Now, I'm losing to a young kid.
Does Michael know I'm faking it? That what I told him about my values, my priorities, was betrayed by my actions? And that my mind is now abandoning me?
Just last night, I said that I wanted a touchdown in baseball. Throughout my whole life, I thought that the most important thing to me was family and religion. I knew that's how life should be. But the only thing that ever really mattered to me was money. Why am I realizing this just now, so late in my life, when there is almost nothing I can do to change? I've burned all my bridges, except the one to my bank accounts. Oh, and the one to Michael! He still talks to me, calls me every day. And then he comes to visit me, begging his mother - my daughter - to drive to New York.
But I can hear it in his voice. Michael is starting to figure me out. Once he, the last important person in my life, has figured out my true colors, it will complete my mind's betrayal. I know what's happening now, but I can't recall what happened yesterday, or this morning, or an hour ago. Will I remember what happens today or tomorrow? Is this the last time I could have a conversation with my grandson, the last real connection to my family, and to the real world?
One, six, one, seven' um, three, six, nine, and then it's' three, zero, one, one. 'Hello, Michael? It's your grandfather.'

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This article has 5 comments. Post your own now!

The Dark Shadow said...
Mar. 2, 2009 at 1:41 pm
The cat purrs at death.
kellyg said...
Feb. 27, 2009 at 3:00 am
hey mike, great job! i hope you get in!
Monka said...
Feb. 26, 2009 at 11:51 am
I read it three times, not because I did not understand....because I loved it.
Rodney K. said...
Feb. 25, 2009 at 10:41 pm
this shorts story is the best i heard all day this kid Michael G. is an amazing writer. Sounds like a cool kid
Clough111 said...
Feb. 25, 2009 at 10:32 pm
hey mike, this is a good essay. I like how it keeps me interested through out the story. This is clearly an peice about your grandfather who is looking at you, and that is very interesting to me.
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