MR. PONZI OPINES THAT, IF GAMBLING IS A SIN, HE'D BETTER HAVE THE CHURCH ON HIS SIDE
The average man is never satisfied with what he has. He does not realize when he is well off. If he has a shirt, he wants two. If he is single, he wants a wife. If he is married, he wants a harem. (I hope wifey does not read this). He is always reaching for the moon and stepping off into space. Just like I did.
My affairs were then in fairly good shape. No, I won't say that, either. They were in a bad shape. I was heading toward bankruptcy with the speed of a cannon ball. But I did not know it. Ignorance is bliss.
At any rate, they were not so bad, but that they couldn't be worse. I had plenty of money. And, apparently, the opportunity to clean up a few shekels for myself. But I lacked judgment and caution. I thought I'd reach for more. It was there in plain sight. I did not look beyond it. If I did, I did not see. I must have been blinded by ambition and conceit.
Boston was then coming through gorgeously. Just like a little drum major. The returns were exceeding expectations. That was flattering. But it was becoming a dangerous flattery. It made me vain and reckless. It made me dream of wealth, power, popularity and what not. Oh, what fools we mortals be!
I decided to expand and open branches. In my mind, my venture certainly justified expansion, if any venture did. I was dealing in the most essential commodity of all. I dealt in money. The world was my market. The whole of mankind my clientele.
A contributing factor to my decision to expand, was the obnoxious presence in my office of an old acquaintance. He was in my employ.
Apparently we were friends. Actually, I was in his power. And he was my most dreaded enemy. I feared him. I feared him not for what he could do to me. But for what he might have led me to do to him. Yes. He fully deserved to be "taken for a ride." And I was surely tempted to buy him the ticket for the journey.
He and I had met before. We had met in a past of which I could never think with either pride or pleasure. We had met in prison. In Canada. In the St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary. Where he was doing a three year stretch.
When we met again in Boston, several years later, he knew me at once. And remembered. I did too. But he had the drop on me. I was going straight. He was still going crooked. Under the circumstances, I had to capitulate. And, later, give him employment.
The whole thing came about without the least indication of blackmail. He knew better than to make any open, or even veiled threats. His friendly interest in my affairs conveyed to me a clearer message than words. It would have been folly on my part to give him an opportunity to show his hand. That would have precipitated a situation from which I could not possibly have emerged the victor. So, I did the next best thing. I posed as a philanthropist. As a retriever of lost souls. I gave him advice and a job. A pension would have suited me better. But that would have been an acknowledgement of fear.
My employee was a crook by inclination and pursuit. He was one of those prowling, petty, sneaky thieves, whose counterparts in the animal kingdom are the hyenas and the jackals. He would pilfer a poor-box in a church. Pick a drunkard's pocket. Lift anything that wasn't nailed down. Occasionally, with some confederates, he would play a "con" game on some unsuspecting foreigner. The envelope or the handkerchief switching trick.
At the time I offered him a job, he had just returned from New Jersey, where he had "swindled" a Polish immigrant. The deal had proved somewhat of a financial boomerang. Everything had gone smoothly up to the division of the spoils. These gave him and confederates heart failure. When they opened the envelope supposed to contain their victim's wealth, they found bank notes of various denominations. â€¦ But all in German Marks, Russian rubles and Austrian crowns! The whole thing wasn't worth 25c a ton! While the envelope they had substituted on their victim contained a few genuine green backs.
He was fit to be tied. In the peaceful atmosphere of my private office, he cursed a blue streak. He cursed the victim, the war, the foreign mints. And everything that was cursable, except himself. He was broke, disgusted and despondent. Perhaps, he was even on the verge of making some rash request. But I anticipated him. I offered him work and a modest salary. Sugar-coating the offer with some fatherly advice as to the errors of his ways. The offer upset his plans, whatever they were. He accepted.
His acceptance may have put an end to his problems. But it only marked the beginning of mine. From then on, I had to find excuses to keep him away from the office as long as possible. A close contact with him was the last thing I wanted. I would rather have hugged a high tension wire any day.
Between fool's errands and wild goose chases, I managed, somehow, to engage his attentions elsewhere than School Street. Once I even sent him to New York to buy me some choice Hennessy "Three Stars" off the French Line. The "noble" experiment was on.6 My cellar was dry. And I wanted the stuff badly. But, badly as I wanted it, my fondest wish was that he might get caught with it and "sent up." No such luck! I even bought him a car. Hoping that he might break his neck. He never did. But he did smash the car occasionally. And I footed the bills. That man was as everlasting as sin!
He became my "advance agent" by force of circumstances. I did not want him around. I had to send him somewhere. The further he went and the longer he stayed, the better I liked it. So, I used him to open branches.
People have often commented about the dinginess of my offices. Wondered at the absence of display. At the utter lack of pretentiousness. Some have argued that there was method in my madness. Some have attributed the modest appearances to super-salesmanship. To a keen sense of psychology. But they were all wet. He was my chief reason.
I didn't need branches. I did not want them, I wanted him still less. Since the branches furnished me with a good pretext to keep him out of town, I had to have the branches. But I didn't care to pay for the pretext more than was necessary, hence the dinginess. That is the whole thing "in a couple of nutshells," as between Andy and the King Fish.
Incidentally and accidentally all my branches turned out to be "gushers." Their very dinginess contributed to their success. Psychologically their modest appearance was a stroke of genius. But I claim no credit for it. I never thought of it in that light. It just happened. Like everything else.
My methods, of course, made State Street see red. Some "buccaneers" of finance are still burning up today at the thought that I stole a march on them. With all of the millions they had invested in the paraphernalia of the "paper hanging"7 trade, they had to play second fiddle to a "damned little wop" who used ten-penny nails for a coat-rack!
Some of my branches were "knock-outs" right from the start. Others had to be coaxed. From a financial standpoint. I didn't care whether I got any returns or not. But from the standpoint of personal pride, I couldn't stand defeat. If a branch was recalcitrant, it was my job to give it a push.
My pain in the neck had dropped in one day to tell me that he had landed one of such lemons. The exact locality does not matter. It was a fairly large community. Within the range of a "Big Bertha" from the Boston Common. Fight that out, if you can!
A branch had been opened there. Everybody in the neighborhood knew it was there. Yet, nobody went near it, and my employee was at his wits' end. So, I drove up there with him to look things over.
I paid a few calls and soon discovered the trouble. Nothing serious. Just a case of the "badger game." "Big Business," in the form of a few storekeepers, wanted a "cut in." They had decided that if my proposition was a racket, it should pay for protection. These storekeepers were Genovese. And we have a saying in Italy that it takes seven Gentiles to get the best of a Jew and seven Jews to get the best of a Genovese. The odds were therefore 49 to 1 against me that I would have to come across. I did. I appointed each one of them a sub-agent on a 5% commission. Since they wanted a finger in the pie, I saw to it that they stuck it in up to their knuckles. The deal did not cost me a dime.
My salesman and I finished the day with a social call. I was parched from talking. Dry. "Nobody knows how dry I was!" I was drier than a Methodist conclave.
"Let's go and have a soda," he suggested.
"Nothing doing," I said shaking my head. "I have too much respect for my palate."
"Get yourself a glass of water, somewhere, then," he said.
"Water?" I repeated horrified." No. I guess not. I see enough of it on Saturday nights. I want some beer."
"Go to Milwaukee," he wisecracked. "It's the nearest place I know of."
"Go to Hades. Do you mean to tell me that you have been in this town a whole month without running across a 'blind pig8' yet?" I asked him.
"Well," he stated. "I haven't come across any 'blind ones,' if you want to know."
"What have you been drinking all this time?" I inquired.
"Coffee," he said.
"Oh, yeah?" I sneered. "You look it. What's more I wouldn't believe you if you were under oath. You are holding out on me."
"Holding out nothing," he denied. "The only glass of wine I have tasted here, I got it at the rectory."
"You mean from the priest?" I asked.
"Sure," he admitted. "Who else would be at the rectory? A rabbi?"
"Listen, boy," I told him. "If you know what is good for you, you lead me to him. Who is he, anyway?"
"Father â€¦ So-and-so," he replied, mentioning a name I immediately associated with my boyhood.
We called at the rectory. We experienced no difficult in being admitted. In fact, we were received with open arms. The priest and I had never met. But an exchange of data on our respective families disclosed that we were almost related. From then on, we got along first rate. A bottle of the choicest wine made its appearance to help celebrate the event.
In the course of the conversation, it became evident that Father Xâ€¦ (let's call him that) was interested in my proposition. Even a priest is not above temptation. He wasn't. He pressed me for details and I gave them to him. I described to him the process through which a little dollar could start on a journey across the ocean and return home in six weeks, married and with a couple of kids.
Father Xâ€¦ was an educated man. What was Greek to others, was just plain English to him. In fact, while I was talking, he was even a step ahead of me. He almost made me gasp for breath with an unexpected remark.
"That would make it exactly $1,350 in three months," he said out of clear sky.
"Would make what?" I asked, not knowing that he had been doing some mental figuring of his own.
"Thirteen hundred and fifty dollars," he repeated.
"As yet, I could not see any connection in his remark. I did not know what he was driving at. I looked at him. He appeared perfectly normal.
"Hold on a minute, Father," I urged him. "You seem to be exceeding all speed limits. Where are you at?"
"I am about a mile ahead of you," he replied with a grin. "I have been figuring that with an initial investment of $600 I could make a profit of $750 in three months."
I nearly swallowed my Adam's apple when I heard that.
"You! You mean that you want to invest some money with me?" I asked him, still refusing to believe my own ears. A side kick on the shins from my troublesome employee was not even enough to bring me back to earth.
"Is there any reason why I should not invest with you?" Father Xâ€¦ asked blandly, while I was still struggling to recover my balance.
"No â€¦ none at all," I assured him promptly. "We have investors in all walks of life."
Further conversations disclosed the fact that Father X â€¦ did not have any ready cash of his own. But his church had a little nest egg of $600. The fund had been collected for painting and repairs. It was not to be used for three or four months. So, reasoned Father X â€¦ , why leave it idle, while Ponzi was around to duplicate the miracle of the fishes and the bread?
"You understand that I cannot afford to gamble that money," Father Xâ€¦ said to me. "I can only invest it in a safe thing."
"Of course," I agreed with him.
"But that is not all," he continued. "Supposing I need that money before maturity of the note, what could you do for me?"
"I would return you all the principal upon surrender of the note at any of my offices or through a bank," I assured him. "That is my standing agreement with all of my note-holders."
My assurance proved convincing. Father X â€¦ handed over the $600. No one can blame him for that. The temptation was too strong, even for a clergyman. Errare humanum est!9
What happened to that money â€¦ I am not telling. Maybe it multiplied! Maybe it dwindled! What difference does it make now? Sooner or later, the church was repaired and painted anyway. If it had to wait, it could wait. Besides, Father X â€¦ and I are still good friends. Amen.