[NB: I am not David Brooks’s son, prodigal or otherwise. I am really 56 years old, and my father is not a NY Times columnist. If Brooks has a son named Sam or a grandson named Doug, then that is a coincidence for which I apologize in advance, although, if he does, I will agree in advance that I could have used Aloysius or Boniface and avoided the coincidence entirely, but Sammy and Dougie have such a nice ring. But I will change it if this regrettable possibility turns out to be the case.]
My dad really surprised me this time. I figured I’d come home to a real shit show, you know, a long I-told-you-so about the necessity of self-restraint, and then an even longer period of icy silence while he made me read The Wealth of Nations. Because really, a dad who does the marshmallow experiment—the one where you put a marshmallow in front of a kid, and tell him he can have that one now or, if he can wait until you return, he can have three later—on his own three-year-old, and uses not just marshmallows but those irresistible pink Hostess Sno Balls, and then, after the kid snarfs the Sno Ball the second his dad walks out of the room, waves a sheaf of papers in his face, reciting statistics about SAT scores and income and body mass index, how the kid who can’t resist the Sno Ball is doomed to be a fat unemployed slob, always a taker, never a maker—I mean, that’s not the kind of dad whom you expect to greet you with open arms after you’ve done what I’ve done.
He repeated the experiment at six-month intervals until I was eight, and the outcome was always the same, even though the Sno Balls got less and less satisfying, while watching Dad get all apoplectic never did). And just as the scientists (and Dad) predicted, I flunked out of college. Well, not flunked out exactly. After I booted my first sophomore semester—no surprise, I’d barely made it through prep school and freshman year, wouldn’t have without all that tutoring and Adderall, plus a couple of well-timed calls from Dad—the college would have had me back (we were paying retail after all), but Dad gave me a choice, or as he put it, an “opportunity to make good choices.” He told me he was giving up on trying to influence me, that it was high time I made my own mistakes and lived with the consequences, so he was just going to give me what was left of the money he’d put away for my college to use as I saw fit. But that was it, he said. When it was gone, it was gone, and I’d be on my own. So I’d better start making good choices.
The account had about $150K in it. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, but I knew I wasn’t going to use it for college. I wasn’t going to be like Sam, sitting there all smug and self-righteous doing math problems while his Sno Ball attracted flies, and then, when he got his promised three, making sure to eat them slowly and right in front of me, sometimes stretching it out for a couple of days, walking around with a little coconut chip stuck on his lip the whole time, like he just had to rub it in, the same way he rubbed in going to Yale and getting tapped for Skull and Bones and on to Harvard Law and his job in a Washington firm and the house he bought right next door to Dad’s. I’d rather die, I thought at the time.
I did come pretty close, more than once. That night with the eight-ball of blow and the hooker sitting on my face and the other one fellating me and it felt like my heart was going to jackhammer its way out of my rib cage and the next thing I knew I was on the floor, no girls, no coke, no money in my wallet. That guy who said he could turn my 10 grand into a hundred overnight, but then he disappeared and when I went to get it back, he pulled a gun on me. The time I got into a drinking contest with a surfer dude in a club in Ibiza and didn’t come out of the blackout until three days later, had to trade my watch to some nasty Spaniard to take me over to Mallorca in his leaky tub so I could go to the consulate and replace my passport and phone and scrounge up some cash until I could get my new ATM FedExed. I had to get Dad’s help that time, hated to do it, but it sure made the guy at the consulate move faster when he figured out whose son I was. I ignored his calls and emails for months after that, just didn’t want to hear it.
Of course, that lousy $150K wouldn’t have lasted these five years without a little help. About two years in, right after the trip to the Balearics, I ran into a guy I’d known back at Sidwell Friends. He’d actually finished there, went on to Swarthmore, but the whole Quaker thing turned out to be only a phase. He ended up in subprimes, then when that deal went south, sat on his money until real estate finished tanking, and then started buying properties in places like Atlanta and Phoenix. More than once, he told me, he bought houses or apartment buildings that he’d sold CDOs on for a tenth of what they’d been hocked for. The best kind of double dipping, he said.
My friend had some kind of database that let him see which areas had the most distressed properties. He wanted to buy them up in bulk, a block or street at a time. My job was to scout out the neighborhoods, and look for the places where houses were still occupied, where the pipes hadn’t been looted or the apartments totally trashed. These weren’t the cul-de-sacs full of abandoned McMansions that you read about in Dad’s paper, but places that had been marginal in the first place, where people were most pie-eyed at the prospect of home ownership. “The best of the worst,” he called it, and when I found him a good spot, he’d give me a vigorish off the purchase price and then, if the thing panned out, a piece of the take when he flipped it.
My strategy was to hang around these places for a few days or a week at a time, looking in windows and drinking in the local bars and chatting up the residents to see if I could figure out more than what the real estate agents were telling me. I’d buy someone a round or two, tell them I was thinking about buying the place they were living, see if I could wangle an invite into their house by implying they would most likely be able to stay after the purchase if they were nice to me. Word would spread, and by the end of my stay, I’d have been in maybe half the houses, and I’d have a pretty good idea of whether we could buy it, kick the people out, do some cosmetics, and flip the place in less than four months.
Of course I felt bad about this sometimes. I’m human, right? I don’t exactly know what Dad would think, because we were mostly out of touch during that time. But I would read his column from time to time, and he talked a lot about bad choices, and I have to say that these people I was meeting had made some doozies. And it wasn’t just the pregnant 16-year-olds and the deadbeat dads drinking on the street corner and the kids running dime bags. It was the real estate itself. Here they were, living in the places they’d bought—signed their names to the mortgage and everything—and hadn’t paid a dime on in years. Or evicted from one house up the street and living in another house that someone else had been evicted from, and doing it all over again when the bank caught up with them. They’d ask me how much their place might go for, and when I told them they’d whine about how come the bank would leave them in limbo for three years, or, worse, kick them out and then let someone else have the mortgage they could have afforded. I knew they meant me, but I didn’t take the bait, and we stayed pretty friendly.
And then one night in Orlando, after a few rounds, this guy pointed out that the banks would have been better off if they’d just negotiated that price before the pipes got stolen or the taxes went delinquent, said it didn’t make any sense to wait three or four years to get the same financial result and put a family out in the street in the bargain. Unless, of course, the whole point was to punish people like him, to teach them a lesson about who is in charge, about who needs forgiveness and who should dole it out, and in what form.
Once that guy got started, the rest chimed in, and that’s when it dawned on me. These people were like I had been with the Sno Ball. They wanted it all now and when they ended up with nothing, they were angry with everyone else in the world except the people who were responsible for their trouble—themselves. Especially the government. They seemed to think it was the government’s job to protect them from “predatory lenders,” as they called them (and I wonder what community organizer gave them that line) and to mete out justice to the people they held responsible for decimating their neighborhoods. They wanted to know why unemployment benefits had been cut off, food stamps reduced, school programs slashed, their neighborhoods left to the vultures, while the bankers got richer and the hedge funds hedgier, as if, now that they’d gobbled the Sno Ball, the government should step in and deliver three more on a silver tray.
Those people in Orlando didn’t seem to understand that the reason the government had forgiven the bankers and not them was that the bankers would know what to do with the forgiveness, while they would have probably just squandered it on their little families. They didn’t get it that the government stood ready to welcome them back to the fold, but only if they were ready to get the chip off their shoulders and pitch in, which they could do by working hard to strengthen their companies, or if they didn’t have a company, to rebuild the infrastructure, or if there weren’t any infrastructure rebuilding jobs to be had, by strengthening their church or embedding themselves in their community projects. “You have no idea what you are talking about,” the guy in Orlando said. “Not a fucking clue,” and took a swing at me. I ran out the door, hopped in my car and beat it out of that place, vowing to give it a big thumbs up so that we could kick those people out of their houses tout suite.
I don’t know if I would have gone crawling back to Dad right then, because maybe I was too stubborn and proud, but I knew already that the voice in my head was his. And then, just a couple of weeks later, my old Sidwell buddy stopped returning my texts. Not only that, but my bank account, to which he had access because I let him run cash through it, turned up empty and my credit cards, all of which were his company’s, were canceled, and all I had was the few hundred dollars in my pocket and my Beamer. I was 25 and nearly broke, and I had no other place to go.
It was a Friday night when I rang Dad’s doorbell. I figured Sammy and his wife and kids would be over for Shabbos dinner, and I heard them at the table, but it was Dad who came to the door in his stocking feet. He was still wearing his tie, but it was loose at his throat. He was holding a glass of scotch, and he looked wan and tired. (Later he told me he’d just come home from squaring off with E.J. Dionne on NPR, which I guess is harder than it sounds.) He blinked at me through his glasses, gestured me in. Right there in the hallway, I told him about the ungrateful man in Orlando, how I finally understood the lesson he was trying to teach me: that the world really didn’t owe me a living any more than it owed him one, that a man, no matter his race or creed or temperament or economic background, no matter how impoverished his neighborhood or how exploited his labor or how modest his desires, makes his own luck, and I begged his forgiveness. I got down on my knees and told him I was ready to go back to school if that’s what he wanted, that I’d earn my way by proofreading his columns or running his schedule or even shining his shoes. He reached down, pulled me up and into the biggest hug he’d ever given me. He told me that of course he’d welcome me back, and how there was probably a job for me on the Times business desk. We wept together.
Over Dad’s shoulder, I saw Sammy. His face was black with rage. “You’re going to reward him?” he said. He was nearly shaking. “Dougie just failed the Sno Ball test for the third time, and I’ve been using this idiot as the example of what happens if he doesn’t do better. What kind of message will this send?”
“The only message that is worth sending,” Dad said, and beamed at me. “That the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart. And when you finally realize that the problem is in that divided heart, that this world, or at least this society, offers everyone, regardless of circumstance, the CEO or son of an influential newspaperman the same as the chronically underemployed or the teen mom, the same opportunity to be good, and that it is our job to seize it—then you can be welcomed back to the fold.” Dad draped his arm around me. “Now, let’s eat,” he said, “and I’ll explain to you why I have become a Christian.”