MR. PONZI BOBS UP IN MONTREAL WITH ONE DOLLAR AND BUYS A PECK OF TROUBLE
To have landed in America without money was not half as bad as having landed without the least knowledge of its language. I could not fill an office job because I did not speak or understand a word of English. What I knew of other languages did not help. Likewise, my general education was useless. As a student and a man of frail physique, I was not cut out for manual labor. Still, I had to live. And in order to earn a living I had to work at something.
During the four uneventful years which followed my arrival into the United States, I filled a number of menial jobs. Jobs that I detested and loathed. Jobs at which I was invariably underpaid for my needs and overpaid for what I deserved. I filled them as a matter of necessity. Not of choice. And the net result was that I did not make any headway. I lived and that is all. But to live is to learn. And I learned. Every day served to add a few words to my English vocabulary.
I tried my hand at everything. From grocery clerk to road drummer. From sewing machine repair man to insurance salesman. From factory hand to kitchen and dining room help. In some of the jobs I lasted no time. In others, I lasted longer. Often, I would be fired. Oftener, I would quit of my own accord either disgusted or to avoid being fired. I shifted from one city to another. Sometimes by rail. Others, by foot. Pittsburgh, New York, Paterson, New Haven, Providence, and then â€¦ Montreal, Canada.
I don't know what brought me up there. The summer heat, maybe. Or fate. But one afternoon of July 1907, I alighted at the Gare Bonaventure with no baggage and a dollar bill in my pocket. Now a dollar isn't much at any time. On or off the gold standard. In a strange country, it was still less. It was, however, a sufficient incentive for me to get busy and do something.
I got busy. Within two blocks of the railroad station, up St. James Street, I spied the sign of the Banco Zarossi and went right in. In less than five minutes I was signed up as a clerk. The first congenial job I had struck in four years!
Louis Zarossi and I got along fine. He was a big hearted man, good natured, liberal, jolly and, I dare say, on the level. Much more on the level than many I have met since, although coated with a veneer of respectability. While it is true that later events gave Zarossi a sort of black eye, it is my opinionâ€”my expert opinion of himâ€”that he was the victim of circumstances and bad associations rather than a man of evil intent and dishonest inclinations.
Around that time, Zarossi was well fixed. His Italian bank was doing a land office business. His reputation and credit were of the best. But he was easily led.
The usual run of dimeless promoters and sponges began to buzz and flock around him. The successful man is never without them, if he is easy with them. They can smell a sucker further and quicker than a buzzard can a corpse. They got him to engage in a number of activities. The new enterprises needed money. And he began to dip into his depositors' accounts; the same old story of a lot of bank executives. Some do it less skillfully than others and get caught. Some get away with it because they are either smarter or have more political pull.
To make a long story short, the time came when Zarossi found himself financially embarrassed. I enjoyed his full confidence and he told me of his predicament. He was not insolvent by any means. But some of his enterprises had not proved very productive and he needed some cash. Some new blood, so to speak.
Around that time who should show up in Montreal, but an old schoolmate of mine. He had come to Canada looking for business opportunities. We met, celebrated and talked. I explained to him Zarossi's situation. Brought the two together. And they made a deal. My old schoolmate sailed for Italy and returned in a few weeks with the money necessary to establish him in partnership with Zarossi.
Everything went along fine for a while. Things hummed. Then â€¦ came the revolution! Some of Zarossi's enterprises went under. The rumor got around that he was in difficulties. The banks shut down his credit. His depositors began to withdraw their money.
There wasn't much that could be done to avert a disaster. But what had to be done, had to be done quick. Self preservation being the first law of nature, each party in interest thought of himself first and â€¦ the devil take the rest. Like some of the recent marine disasters. I had nothing to lose one way or the other. Except my job. So, I merely stood by in the role of spectator, but I did not miss a thing of what was going on.
An emergency council was called into executive session to devise ways and means to keep Zarossi afloat. The council was made up of Zarossi, my old schoolmate and another man known as Spagnoli. That was not his real name. It was an alias. We knew not his real name. The police of his native city undoubtedly did. Hence the alias. Being in the confidence of all, I, of course, was the unavoidable fixture in the council room.
This old schoolmate was a peculiar sort of a fellow. Although illiterate, he had managed to amass quite a bit of money. Tainted money, it's true. But money nevertheless. If all that was said of him was true, he should have spent the best part of his life in jail. He probably ended there after I lost track of him. I don't know and I don't care.
In some way he had succeeded in winning Zarossi's confidence. It didn't take much to do that. Zarossi was always ready to welcome even a rattlesnake with open arms. Or, maybe, he had loaned Zarossi some money now and then. The fact is that "wherever Zarossi went, he was sure to go." Like Mary's little lamb.
At the emergency council's meeting, the old schoolmate got right down to brass tacks.
"Louis," he told Zarossi, "you must leave Canada. If you hang around another week, they will put in jail for embezzlement and you'll never get out!"
"But I can't run away!" Zarossi protested, "I can't leave my family. I can't give up a business I have built so painstakingly."
"Don't be a fool, Louis!" He insisted. "This is no time to get sentimental. In jail you would not be any good to your family."
"But the situation is not desperate," interposed Zarossi. "I don't need much money to see me through."
"Little or much, it is more money than you can raise just now," retorted he.
"How so?" asked Zarossi in surprise. "You have told me that you would loan me the money, haven't you?"
"Have I? I don't remember," he replied. "At any rate, I couldn't give you a dime just now. My money is all tied up. I don't see any other way out for you, but to go."
Zarossi, deprived of financial assistance at the last minute, had to give in. He agreed to run away. He made a deal by which my old schoolmate was to appear as his major creditor, petition him in bankruptcy after he had left, then offer to settle with the other creditors at two cents on the dollar. Through that deal he hoped to get ahold of Zarossi's assets which, if properly administered and liquidated, would have paid much more than 2%, and benefit thereby at the creditor's expense.
"You go along and don't worry," he told Zarossi. "As soon as I have possession of your assets, I will go 50-50 with you." And Zarossi believed him. But he was planning all the time to cheat him too.
In fact, a day or two later, while the three of us were having a drink in a barroom up St. James Street, he asked Zarossi to give him a forged note.
"Make out a note to me for a small sum and sign So-and-So's name to it," he said to him.
"But that would be forgery," protested Zarossi.
"Sure. I want it to be forgery," he admitted. "I want to make sure you will not come back to Canada, under some promise of immunity, before I lay my hands on your assets. I've got to protect myself. I'll keep the note, but will not use it against you except in the event you should come back of your own accord and spoil my plans."
Zarossi did as he was told. He gave him the note. I don't remember any more what name he did sign to it. Nor the amount. A few days later, he left Canada and went to Mexico. But before he left, he assigned to my old schoolmate some negotiable property which the bank owned out West. Enough to reimburse him for his investment. To me he assigned â€¦ the care of his family. Wife and three kids. Or were they four? I don't remember. But they were more than I had bargained for.