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By Steve Slavin
Remember the friends you had growing up who drifted away as you got older? Looking back, you’d wonder how you could have ever been so close to some of them?
Harry and I became friendly in high school and maintained our friendship through college. I still laugh at how he often greeted me: “I have so many things to tell you, that I don’t even know where to begin.”
One of his stories truly foreshadowed what would become his life’s work. One spring afternoon he stood on line with hundreds of other boys, waiting for an application for a summer job. He got hungry, so he asked the guy in back of him to hold his place in line while he got a hot dog.
On his way back, several boys along the line asked him where he had gotten that hotdog. Dollar signs immediately flashed before his eyes. “I went back to the store and bought as many hotdogs as I could carry. They gave me a carton of them. I went up and down the line charging double what I had paid.”
He quickly ran out of hotdogs and went back to the store again and again. He made more working the line than he earned for the first three weeks of that summer job.
In high school and at Brooklyn College, Harry and I partied almost every weekend. I’m not sure if I believed many of his stories about his unending string of conquests. Neither I nor any of the other guys ever recalled meeting even one of these women. But his stories were entertaining. And I still don’t believe he did what he said he did in the balcony of the Avalon movie theater.
Harry had an older brother who was in law school when we were in college. Norm tried to recruit Harry’s friends to go door-to-door in the neighborhood, looking for people to buy mutual funds. He would do the actual selling and give us half his commissions. I actually tried it one evening, but no one had any interest—or had even heard of mutual funds. That might have been a good thing, because I knew nothing about them either.
After college, Harry got a job with a major New York City real estate developer. Meanwhile, Norm formed a partnership with a friend from law school. Although kidded by their old classmates who called them “ambulance chasers,” they eventually specialized in high-end divorce cases.
By now, Harry and I had lost touch. I went on to graduate school, which took a while longer than I had planned. When I enrolled at NYU, I was one of the youngest students; when I finally got my doctorate, I was in my early thirties, an army veteran with long hair and a beard, still wearing my old fatigue jacket.
On the day after I had defended my dissertation, I happen to walk by a men’s clothing store that was having a going-out-of-business sale. In fact, the building itself was for sale. There was a sign with a phone number and the owner’s name, Harold M. Gordon.
I went inside, picked out a sweater, and walked up to the man at the cash register. I asked if he knew the owner.
“Of course I know Mr. Gordon.”
“I think I do too. I went to high school and college with Harry.”
“You knew Mr. Gordon? Mr. Gordon is a very wealthy man.” Then, after a glance at my torn fatigue jacket, he asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
As soon as Harry picked up the phone, it was almost as though we were back in college. As soon as he heard my voice he said, “I have so many things to tell you, that I don’t even know where to begin”
He went on and on about all his real estate deals, how much money he was making, and all the important people he knew.
I told him I had finally finished grad school, and invited him to my celebration party.
“You’ll see a lot of old friends.”
“Well thank you, but my wife and I have tickets to a Broadway play that evening.”
Oh my, how formal we’ve gotten.
“So, you’re a real estate developer.”
“Oh yes! We’re doing a property on Third Ave. in the high forties. If you’ve got a couple of million to invest, we still have a few shares left.”
“Thanks, Harry. I’m afraid that’s a bit over my pay grade.”
“Too bad. It’s a great opportunity. So, what are you doing these days?”
“Would you believe I just got a job teaching at Brooklyn College?”
“Too funny! You know, I have a good friend who’s at Columbia. He teaches money and banking. Which is kind of ironic, since the pay is so bad. But hey! If that’s what makes him happy.”
“Yeah, but after you get tenure, you might even make ten grand.”
“That was a joke, right?”
“I hope so, Harry. Well, it was nice catching up with you.”
“Same here. Don’t be a stranger.”
A few years later, I was at a Mensa party and overhead a lawyer talking about one of his cases. It sounded like he was dropping names to impress his listeners.
He appeared to be a few years older than me, and he was with a teenage girl who was probably his daughter. I asked her if her father was a Jewish lawyer. She laughed and said that described him perfectly. “And do you have an obnoxious uncle named Harry?”
“I’m an old friend of your uncle’s, and I met your dad a few times back when he was in law school.”
“So, you go back to the olden days.”
“What do you mean go back?” I’m still living there.”
We joined her father, and when Becky repeated how I described his brother, he had a good laugh.
“Look, I truly love my brother, but I must disagree with you about one thing. Harry is not obnoxious. The term does not do justice to him. Trust me, Harry is far beyond obnoxious.”
We became instant friends.
Norm sometimes regaled me with accounts of his high-profile cases, but I sometimes wondered if he was putting me on. One involved Harriet, a screwy young woman we both knew from Mensa. I had actually heard her say that her ex-fiancé pushed her out of a second story window. While she did not sustain any physical injuries, her fall caused her IQ to decline by over twenty points.
But Norm was able to top that. She had asked him to handle her divorce case, but he shunted her off on a young associate. Norm was extremely busy, so he asked the associate to take careful notes, and not interrupt him unless it was extraordinarily important.
Half an hour later Norm heard a knock on his door.
“Come in!” he yelled.
The young associate entered, with a very sheepish look on his face.
“This better be really important.”
“Sir, I’ll let you be the judge.”
He explained that Harriet wanted to divorce a very well-known British singer, Engelbert Humperdinck.
“OK, but remember that every year our firm handles dozens of cases like that. That’s what we do. Now unless there’s something else… I’m extremely busy.”
The associate left. Fifteen minutes later, there was another knock.
“Come in!” yelled Norm. “This better be good.”
“Sir, she says she is also married to Tom Jones… And to Ringo Starr.”
Harry and Norm loved each other, but they were also highly competitive. Everything became a contest, whether it was playing gin rummy, tennis – or even hitting golf balls at a driving range.
Norm, his wife, Denise, and their two daughters lived in a large coop apartment on the Upper Westside. Harry, his wife, Jane, and their son and daughter lived in a large condo on the Upper Eastside. The brothers argued endlessly over whose apartment was better.
One afternoon, Norm and Denise invited me over. Their apartment was quite large, very tastefully furnished, and had a nice view of Central Park. But there was something odd about the living room. Then I realized what it was.
“This may sound like a strange question,” I said. “But is that wallpaper on your ceiling?”
Denise and Norm both laughed. Then Denise explained that after Harry and his wife wallpapered their living room ceiling, Norm insisted that they do it too.
“Let me amend that,” said Norm. “If we didn’t, then we’d never hear the end of it. I didn’t want my dear brother to hold that over my head, so to speak.”
From time to time, Harry would ask Norm how much he paid for this or for that. After Norm told him, he would invariably say, “I paid much more for mine.”
Norm readily admitted that his own net worth was barely a third of his brother’s. “I’m rich, but he’s richer.”
Indeed, Harry was not shy about revealing that he was worth a good hundred million dollars.
Harry was well aware of his conflicted feelings toward his brother. He decided to share a great financial opportunity that had come his way. Still, he would make a much larger profit than Norm.
He had liquidated his real estate holdings and had invested everything with a friend who was a financial guru, earning his investors a steady ten or fifteen percent return, year-after-year. He plunked down his entire fortune, one hundred million dollars, and watched it grow. He persuaded Norm, who refused to put all his eggs in one basket, to invest five million with his financial friend. For two years, they earned excellent returns.
And then one day, thousands of investors discovered that Bernie Madoff’s investment strategy was just too good to be true. Harry called his brother and asked, “How much did you lose?”
“Almost seven million. And you?”
“I beat yuh by a mile! I lost a hundred-forty million!”