...Against the advice of people who thought they knew better, I bought shares in AOL before it really took off and in Apple when it was near its bottom. I figured Apple’s real estate must be worth more than the value the market gave the company. I was right. Shares in both companies soared. If I’d shut up and stayed home…but I didn’t. On the advice of these same people who advised me against AOL and Apple, I turned my brokerage account into a margin account for someone else to handle, and I left the country again. A few more dips into the well, a few turns in the market, a few margin calls, and when I went back for another dip, the well was empty. The old proverb drifts back to me on a wisp of memory. A fool and his money are soon parted. My adventures were over.
The story is, of course, more complicated than that—whose story isn’t?—but these are the essentials. It’s unlikely, and it’s not intended, to evoke sympathy. I’d acted like one of those people who win the lottery and squander it on houses, cars, family, and Caribbean cruises. But I hadn’t won the lottery; I’d fallen under the spell of magical thinking. In my opinion, I didn’t squander the money, either; I just spent it a little too enthusiastically—not on Caribbean cruises but on exploring the aftermath of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. I don’t regret it. When my writing was bringing in a little money I had a Keogh plan, and when I was at the Post a 401(k) account. I’d made a little money in real estate and received a couple of modest but nice inheritances, which together, and with Social Security and the pension, would have given me enough income to live on, had I not felt I’d lost the ability to continue writing and had I forgone, or at least spent more modestly on, my work in Europe and related activities, avoided the margin account, and so on. The “so on,” I should add, included a major heart attack that led to congestive heart failure, a condition that greatly reduced my physical resilience and taxed my already-limited income.
There are a lot of people like me, exiles from the middle class who suddenly find themselves on Grub Street....For those who do not have a spouse or children (or other family, as he does) to rely on, this sort of slow drift into poverty has got to come with a slew of negative second and third order effects. Best wishes to the author, and to all of us.