KNOW-NOTHINGS

 

Pity the poor stock broker.  Like a cleric, he must pretend to know answers to the unknowable.  And he must do this for commercial gain.  His livelihood does not depend upon maintaining a congregation that is programmed to believe.  Rather, he must constantly convince new investors to become followers, while tending to a flock that inevitably becomes skeptical.

I used to tend towards atheism in replying to the question of belief in God.  Ironically, it is through experiences with stock brokers that I have moderated to agnosticism.  After all, stock brokers have shown me that absolutely no one knows anything.  I am certain there are exceptions among them, but I have never experienced anything except complete incompetence.  Nonetheless, my first-ever stock broker eventually showed me that it is possible for redeemable human characteristics to shine through even the thickest money-losing fog.

My “professionally guided” investment career began one evening in the 1986 when I wandered into a storefront Dean Witter office seeking advice.  Manning the front desk was Vinnie Santangelo, a dark-haired fellow several years older than I.  I introduced myself.

“Stuie,” he said, coming around the desk to shake my hand.  “Can I call you Stuie?”

“I guess,” I said, without enthusiasm.  Only people aiming to become familiar too quickly or to annoy had previously called me that.

“Have I got investments for you?” he asked.

I waited for him to continue.

“Do you believe I do?” he asked.

“Yes?” I answered, assuming he was asking rhetorically, but now less certain.

“Definitely, Stuie,” he answered.  “I have incredible opportunities for you.  I can turn your mountain into a mole hill, or your mole hill into a mountain!”  He looked confused for a moment.  “I always mix that up.”

I wondered if the use of that metaphor was his own or something suggested by Dean Witter.  Probably, I should have found an excuse to leave immediately, but Vinnie’s quirkiness was somehow intriguing.

“Sit down right here,” he said, placing me in a chair.

Vinnie piled the desk in front of me with glossy brochures.

“These are funds,” Vinnie explained, indicating the literature.  “You get the benefit of people with lots of wisdom.”

“What’s in the funds?” I asked.

“Stocks, bonds, all sorts of stuff,” he said.

“Can I start with a couple thousand dollars?  I’ve only been working a few months.”

“Sure,” said Vinnie.  “I’ve been working for five years, but I only have a couple thousand dollars, too.”

I appreciated Vinnie’s honesty but his admission did not indicate investing prowess.

“How long have you been a stock broker?” I asked.

“Investment counselor,” he responded, with mock gravity.

“Yes, investment counselor,” I corrected.

“Actually,” he looked at his watch, “about eight hours.”

“Um,” I said.

“I was assistant manager at Silver’s Gym.  Before that, I was an athletic trainer.   Stuie, you wouldn’t believe what some of the girls there will do after hours.”  He made an insinuating gesture towards his crotch.  Then he winked at me, the first person to do so in my adult existence.

I sensed strongly that Vinnie was not going to make me rich.  Yet, his openness was refreshing.  He had none of the guile I had been accustomed to in law school or in my first months of practice.  Perhaps, there were areas of life where Vinnie could teach me things.

“This stuff,” he said, indicating the brochures, “is boring.  We should go out and get a drink.  I’ll show you the life of a young financial analyst.”

“You were promoted from counselor?”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

The life of a financial “whatever,” I soon realized, involved attending happy hours at somewhat sleazy bars with Vinnie’s co-workers and crashing Dean Witter in-house presentations.  “Just wear a suit and act like you belong; you can eat all the free food.”  There, between mouthfuls, I learned that the prime expectation for a stock broker is to sell company products.  Yes, independent funds could be sold, also, but the highest commissions were earned by pushing Dean Witter funds, regardless of how appropriate they might be for the customer.

Without fail, Vinnie would nudge me at some point during such meetings and point at a waitress or one of his few, female co-workers.  “Not bad, eh?” he’d say, in a salacious tone.

I should assure the reader that Vinnie’s attitude towards women was not something I embraced.  Yet, I was significantly younger than my brothers, so I had not learned anything from them in this arena.  My father was not of an age or temperament to impart wisdom about girls.  And my friends at college and law school were even more sheltered than I was.  Thus, from a purely sociological viewpoint, Vinnie was helpful to me.

Besides gorging on Dean Witter food and placing my modest nest-egg in underperforming investments, our friendship consisted of occasional terrible golf and lunches at a local Italian restaurant, where Vinnie provided examples of flirting technique.

“Come here, honey,” he would say to a matronly waitress twenty years older.  “You look so lovely today.”  Amazingly, to me, most women enjoyed his banter.  As soon as they were out of earshot, Vinnie would whisper something awful and profane:  “I’d do her in a minute, but I’d keep my eyes closed.”

“Vinnie, I could never talk to a woman like that.  You’re leering at her.”

“What’s that mean, Stuie?  Is that bad?”

“Well, it’s not respectful.  Would you want a guy to look at your sister like she’s a piece of meat?”

“They love it,” he proclaimed.  “You should try it.”

I could never imitate Vinnie’s carefree aggression, but I did learn how far a simple smile can go, accompanied by a compliment, however insincere.

“There is no way I could treat a girl as just another notch for my belt, like you do,” I scolded.

“You’ll learn, Stuie,” he said.

Vinnie shared his deeply felt philosophy:  “Women are made for being chased.  They wanna be pursued!  It’s their thing!  It’s us guys who can’t ever get pinned down.  You and I are just gonna disagree on this one.”

I was shocked, therefore, when Vinnie called one day to say:  “Stuie, I went to a teeth cleaning and found the love of my life.”

“The dentist?” I asked, waiting for a punch line.

“The hygienist,” he said.  “I’m totally in love — for real.”

I did not know what to say.  My exemplar of male chauvinism was smitten.  My instructor in cavalier behavior had turned to mush.  The Italian stallion was broken.  Suddenly, my infant bar-hopping phase was over as quickly as it had begun.  We still had lunch together, but our only evening activities were double dates.  In less than a year, Vinnie married the lovely Gina Mangano and settled delightedly into domesticity.  I met my wife one year later and moved to another town.  We shared occasional dinners as a foursome and celebrated together the anniversary of meeting our wives which, coincidentally, was October 10.

What was still unresolved was the reason I had met Vinnie in the first place.  He was my stock broker.  My business was successful and my account growing.  However, it was not growing as quickly as the overall market, and I did not know what to do.  Vinnie’s fund choices were mediocre and his ventures into individual stocks were worse.  A rare profitable pick was RJ Reynolds, a stock Vinnie added to my account despite my stated desire not to own cigarette stocks.

“Money’s money,” Vinnie said.  “We could just buy chocolate or toy companies, if you want, and lose money.”

“We’ve done that,” I reminded him.

One day, Vinnie called to suggest we sell my 200 shares, which had increased in value by $2,000.

“They aren’t going to run any higher,” he assured me, affecting an authoritative tone.  I agreed to sell and enjoy a rare profit.

The next day, the business world was shaken by news that RJ Reynolds was merging with Nabisco.  The stock nearly doubled.  The ill-timed sale cost me thousands of dollars.  I knew Vinnie did not have pre-knowledge of the deal (though the idea that his Dean Witter manager was accumulating shares for the company account did cross my mind) but I was still disappointed.

“We should not have a friend as our stock broker,” said my wife.

“I know, I know,” I said.  “But how can I fire Vinnie?”

The conversation was repeated several times over the ensuing months, and I struggled with how to find the words to fire Vinnie whenever I thought about my account.  The issue was like a ball and chain.   I felt nearly ready to explain my move to Vinnie, however painful it would be, when the telephone brought another shock.  Between sobs, Gina told me that, after enjoying a typically wonderful Italian dinner, Vinnie had developed a headache.  When it did not go away for two days he went to the hospital.  There, the doctor told him it was a migraine, prescribed medicine, and sent Vinnie home.  Two hours later, Vinnie suffered a brain aneurysm.

“He will live,” she said.  “But it’s really bad.”

Over the next six months, Vinnie recovered the ability to speak and to walk, with a cane.  However, his vision was impaired.   As a tribute to his personality, Vinnie was surrounded by family and friends.  When we called or visited, it seemed like a party was going on.   I never talked about business.  My account seemed trivial under the circumstances.

“Are you angry about this?” I asked once, amazed by his apparent carefree attitude.

“It’s nothing, Stuie” he said.  “You just gotta go with whatever life offers.”

Later, I asked my wife:  “Could I ever be as optimistic as Vinnie if something like that happened to me?”

“You’re not even that optimistic now,” she said.

One day, the office administrator called, and said:  “I’m so sorry, but you will have to move your account to another manager.   Vinnie is going on total disability.”

My conscience was torn.  Moving the account was my desired outcome, and I also avoided telling Vinnie it was my idea.  Yet, my two-pronged relief resulted from my friend’s personal tragedy.

“I feel awful, but I also feel a little lucky about the account” I confided at home.

“Yes, it’s not the way you wanted this to go.”

“That’s for sure.  I hope I don’t have a curse for thinking such a terrible thought.”

Perhaps, my superstition became prophetic.  In the ensuing decades, I have never befriended my stock broker.  Each time I fire one, it becomes easier and more of a relief.  Unfortunately, Vinnie’s poor investment choices were merely a prelude.  Subsequent performances by my stock brokers have rendered Vinnie’s level of mediocrity the best I’ve ever experienced.

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