Friday, August 07, 2009

Life lessons

Excerpted from a 'first person account' series on Marketwatch by a former Wall Street trader, Todd Harrison.

It was the middle of the trading day and we actively moved merchandise back and forth, steadily filling our coffers with profits. I can't tell you exactly where the averages were, but suffice it to say the mood on the desk was intense as the market slid down a slippery slope.
"Hello, can I speak to Todd Harrison please?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked. After a brief exchange, the bomb dropped. The call was from the Maui Correctional Facility regarding my father, who managed to dig himself into a deep hole. As I sat back in my chair and listened to a person I didn't know, I discovered my father was homeless, abusing drugs and in solitary confinement. It had been 10 years since we last spoke. Ten years. A lot happened in my life during that time and evidently, a lot happened to him as well. As the head trader of a large trading operation, I was intellectually agile and able to make quick, emotionless decisions. On that random day in 2000, I was suddenly numb to the flickering ticks that surrounded me.
Immediately sensing something was wrong, Jim motioned me to his office behind him. I walked into the glass-enclosed room and sat on the couch across from his desk. Jeff filed in behind me and asked what happened. I explained the situation, or at least what I knew of it. Jim didn't skip a beat.
"Go to Maui," he said, "Go take care of what you need to take care of."
I'll never forget that moment. We were in a dogfight in the middle of a financial implosion and the most competitive person I knew urged me to go to Hawaii. By the time I digested what he suggested, he was already on the phone making calls on my behalf.
He contacted an investor in our fund who had connections in Hawaii. By the end of the day, I retained one of the most respected lawyers in Maui and had flights scheduled.
All that was left was to face my father and conquer my demons.
Not wanting to take the trip alone, I asked my brother to join. Two days later, Adam and I landed in Maui and drove straight to the lawyer's office. We had both given up on our dad but felt compelled to do something. He was our father and we were his last line of defense.
The attorney filled us in on the situation. Our father, homeless for years, panhandled on the street and wore out his welcome wherever he went. He was arrested for impersonating a police officer and once in jail, attacked one of the guards, who beat him senseless and stuffed him in solitary confinement. We were told our father smeared blood all over his cell in an act of defiance. It was, and remains, surreal.
The following morning, we sat in the Maui courthouse and awaited arraignment. As the judge called the session to order, the bailiff led a string of defendants into the room. I couldn't find my father. The orange jumpsuits looked the same and the chains that bound them together distracted me. I scanned the group twice and focused on a gaunt man in the middle of the pack with gangly facial hair and tattoos.
His emotionless eyes rose to mine and I saw the man I once knew -- the man who abandoned our family, the man who proudly drove a Ferrari as a sign of arrival, the man who moved to Hawaii to find his piece of paradise. He was broken and had hit rock bottom.
Over the course of the week, Adam and I jockeyed between scattered locations throughout Maui and picked up the pieces of his displaced life. The other side of paradise, we discovered, was a harsh place indeed.
It was a trail of debt, desperation and dereliction, and it seemingly had no end. Our father joined a cult and signed away his life's possessions. Once banished, he wandered the island in search of handouts. He waded through the resorts, pretending to be part of a seminar so he could get hot coffee and a roll. His golden retriever Bubba fetched rocks from the ocean in return for loose change from tourists.
We drove from one situation to the next, like mice in a maze, unsure of what we would find next. Our father had thousands of dollars of debt and owed people favors, many of who looked at us to settle up. We also discovered he was a sick man who suffered through many years of undetected and untreated bipolar disorder. That, more than anything else, stuck out in my mind. He was a sick man. During our last day in Maui, Adam and I visited our father in jail. He had tears in his eyes as he apologized for everything he did and didn't do. My mind wandered to birthdays spent staring at the phone. It had been an emotional week, one that opened wounds I thought were closed.
As we sat in his cell, he broke down and told us he had nothing to live for. My brother took from his pocket a picture of his two children, my niece and nephew, and handed it to our dad. "This is what you have to look forward to," he said, his gesture catching me off guard.
"Yes, dad," I continued, "If you stay clean, I'll help you get back on track, pay off your debts, find a home...I'll help you meet your grandchildren."
I could see the guards watching from the corner of my eye and I wanted them to soak it in. Perhaps they would think twice about beating him if they knew that he was a father and a grandfather.
I'll never forget the last thing he said to me before we left. "Relax, son, you have to enjoy life. You never know when a plane will fall out of the sky and ruin your day."

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