My father was a frugal operator by necessity, not choice. Pop settled for his bowl of kasha, wolfing it down like the Russian peasant he was.
If I were such a success, where was my yacht and string of race horses? They wouldn’t let his son make serious money. The Theys knew everything and his son couldn’t be in with the Theys.
Pop was wrong. There is no They. Theoretically, Freudians skilled in dream analysis should make great investors, stripping off the tinsel and fathoming the essence of a corporation’s psyche and the sentiment that surrounds the company, its image and the preconceptions of the Street, as to what the facts portend. In practice, few can isolate pivotal variables – reality.
The stock market packages petty and vicarious dreams, each stock symbol another story. If you’re a natural, you can envision tomorrow’s stock tables. Don’t ask me how it’s done. You’re either a money maker or just another quant in the system. There are a couple of dozen operators in the country with capacity to think so abstractly that they know what today’s economic and political pressures mean for tomorrow’s financial markets, worldwide. Nobody gets it all right, but you can come close.
In the sixties, the Dow Jones Industrial news ticker would ring a bell every time there was some good news. It was the custom for some junior analyst to race to the ticker and yell out the story to the research department. “IBM splits three-for-one,” whatever. One day, I heard the ticker sounding off every half-hour like in a firehouse. It was Joe Granville, our market letter writer, now hustling over, first to devour the news. “General Motors declares regular dividend,” the teleprinter jiggled out. “My God!” Joe exclaimed, “They’re ringing the bell for nothing new,” Joe whispered to me. “It’s all over.” He was right on the money.
Mid-2020, I was feeling like Joe. I expected Dow Jones to ring bells that banks were opening for business, regularly, at 9:00 a.m. There were times when I felt like a number, particularly when I contested for control of Caesars World in the eighties. It was Mike Milken on the phone:
“You don’t understand, Marty. Management sees you all the same way. There’s no difference between you and Carl Icahn. No management is going to stand by and let you gobble up their stock. One day it’s 15%, then it’s 25% and then you want it all. You’re like Hitler to them.”
“I’m not Hitler and I don’t have enough money to buy it all.”
“Why should they assume you’re not Hitler?”
“Mike, we’ll have another conversation.”
“It’s heading in the wrong direction,” Mike said. “The lawyers smell fee money.”
I heard some junk bond quotes in the background and hung up.
I had grown up in the east Bronx during the Great Depression. Our family of five lived in three rooms, a walk-up, on the third floor, the rent $40 a month. Don’t ask me why, but all apartments were painted in baby blue and pink. What landlords ordered from their painting crews. How get out of the Bronx, away from pink and blue walls and the 9 x 12-foot bedrooms? Standard ¾-inch gypsum wallboard boxed in the space. Cheap, hollow-wooded veneer doors slammed shut from the slightest of drafts. “Getting out” was the rallying call that lead to Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prizes, billionaires, everything except maybe four-star generals and the presidency – so far.
Thirty-five years after getting out, I was living in approximately the same square footage, but at a better address than 964 Sherman Avenue. The Trump Tower zips up from 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, an elongated glissando of glitz some 65 stories high. For $1 million you got 1,200 square feet there, probably the most expensive residential-square footage in the world. The Beverly Hills crowd made their pads here. Seasoned Gucci-wise Asians, Latinos and Arabs bought these apartments because the boards of cooperative buildings preferred less-peripatetic owners. We called it “The closet in the sky” and it was just about big enough to store all of my wife’s clothes. For a while we considered making it one giant-cedar closet, but the implicit cost – over $10,000 a month in interest lost on our $1 million – made the hurdle rate a bit steep.
The view from the 59th floor was instructive. You saw practically nothing but the tops of other buildings, hardly any Hudson River and just a tip of New York Harbor. New York is a real estate-dominated town, and the pols rarely get in the way of big-time developers who would parcel out Central Park among themselves if given the chance and bid on the air rights over the Hudson River.
We were one of the first owners to move into our closet in the sky, and just so you know that the idle rich have their problems, too, let me tell you what it was like living practically alone in the Trump Tower. The air conditioner was a sometime thing, the toilet flushometers performed like asthmatics and the hot water took 40 minutes to reach our level.
There was no intercom hooked up with the front desk, and elevator service frequently was cut off for several hours at a time. Somebody forgot to order the master TV antenna and evidently the new IBM and American Telephone buildings were muscling us out of clear reception. It was time for me to have a little talk with Donald Trump, so I wrote him about his cold-water flat in the sky and asked him to call me before I ran him over with a limo.
“Marty! I’m so sorry you had to write a letter like that. Marty, we are putting your apartment on Red Alert. Whatever we can do to make you happy, Marty.”
“Donald, I wake up in the morning and I can’t use the facilities. I can’t take a hot bath unless I get up at 6:00 a.m. and then the air conditioning cuts off. The elevator is out of service. The timer on the microwave oven doesn’t work and the dishwasher doesn’t wash with water. Donald, your building doesn’t work.”
“Marty, I wish you wouldn’t say that. We have a fabulous building. How do you like that gorgeous maroon and green decor in the elevators, Marty? And the lobby, Marty – isn’t it fantastic, the marble and the art nouveau decor? How is the view from your apartment, Marty? I bet it’s fantastic.”
“Donald, I look out at the tops of buildings. I am eye-to-eye with huge-neon signs that say RCA and 666 and Newsweek and the time is 10:46 in 22-foot numerals.”
“Marty, how many people can look out their windows and see the tops of such fantastic buildings?”
“Donald, the air conditioning is too sophisticated. It cuts off because not enough people are living in the building.”
“Marty, we are going to simulate a fully-inhabited building so you can have your air conditioning.”
“Donald, I thank you. But what do I do for an elevator? You are always checking them out, so they never run. My wife used the construction elevator and I haven’t seen her for three days. She is being passed around among 200 construction workers, Donald. The last I heard, they made her into a runner peddling football pools between the 30th and 65th floors.”
“Marty, that’s not funny. I will admit that a few nonunion workers sneak into the building from time to time, but the union boys would never do things like that, Marty.”
“Donald, 40 minutes for hot water. Can you simulate full occupancy so the computer will be nice to me?”
“Marty, I already told you we have put you on Red Alert. And don’t forget the party in the Atrium.”
The promoter’s blitz was over and I stared out at old 666. A police siren pierced the 59th story aloofness. That was Tishman’s place – by now, probably fully depreciated by three consecutive owners at higher-resale values with little or no paid taxes to the city, state and federal governments. In fact, the tax laws encourage accelerated depreciation on commercial real estate that never seems to depreciate at all.
But my standard of living had depreciated greatly since the old Bronx days. I missed the smell of baked potatoes on every stair landing in the old walk-up. From a working microwave oven there is only the electronic, odorless beep… beep… beep.
We sold out after a year and moved to a place approximately the size of the Doge’s Palace. I craved for florid grandiosity.