If you’re old enough you may remember some of the “light bulb” jokes. I think there is some underground cadre of joke writers who hit on a topic and suddenly, as though through spontaneous generation, jokes on that subject proliferate quickly.
One of the light bulb jokes that I liked most asked the question, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer, “Only one – but the light bulb has to really want to change.”
When I first began trading stocks from an office at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, as I previously mentioned, I did very poorly. A year and a half later (and many thousands of my own dollars down the drain) I finally turned the corner. It was as though a signal beam had gone off and a group of seven homeless people suddenly picked up on my incipient success. (It would be many months before I made back the money I had lost – but I was headed in the right direction).
Each of these men was black and each of them had an interesting “street name” – as though they were characters out of “Porgy and Bess”. There was “Wee Willie” who was very diminutive in stature; “Sammy Snake Eyes” – who I gathered had gotten into his present situation because of his love of shooting craps; “Absolute Al” – who was an authority on any and everything; “Jivin’ Jerry” – I never understood how he got his name; but most of all I remember “Walter Two-Bits”.
I remember how my father would never refuse to give some money to a street person who asked for a handout. So, despite the fact that things were still tight financially, I would always make sure that I had a couple dollars in quarters in my pocket when I left for the day. The group appreciated this little contribution which brought them a bit closer to making a purchase at Cal’s Liquor and Package Goods Store which was only about a block away.
Meeting these guys on the way to get my car became a daily ritual. And as I started to do well on a consistent basis the quarters turned into dollars. It was as though I were a rock star and these men were my groupies. Most of my fellow traders thought I was just “getting milked” and commented, “They’re only going to buy booze with your money.” I replied, “Once I give them their dollar, it’s theirs to do with as they choose.”
It was a beautiful spring day and outside my office building there were all sorts of brilliant flowers that had been planted inside the marble areas where people used to sit and unwind from the day or perhaps eat their lunch. By this time I had made an arrangement with each of my guys – rather than handing them a dollar a day, we agreed that I would give them five dollars each Monday and that would be it for the week.
Several of them, but “Wee Willie” in particular, tried to hustle me for an extra dollar here or there with stories about how it was his grandmother’s birthday (the third one in only a month) and all sorts of fabrications that would have made Corporal Klinger of M*A*S*H fame envious in his effort to try to get a Section 8 out of the Army. I stood firm with our arrangement.
So on this lovely spring day I sat down for a moment to recap that day’s events – and as it was Monday I had my small wad of five dollar bills ready. All of the men came over and the last one in line was “Walter Two-Bits”. He was by far the youngest of the group as he seemed to be either in his late twenties or perhaps early thirties – all the rest being well over fifty years of age.
He sat down next to me and I gave him his five dollar bill – thinking that would be the end of my seeing him for another week. But he decided that he wanted to talk. So we sat there for about a half hour and he told me his story and asked for advice.
Walter was obviously a very bright young man – but he had made a mistake. He had a job with a major company in Chicago, working in their accounts payable department when he realized that the company had very poor internal controls about how they paid their vendors. He decided to try an experiment.
He prepared a voucher payable to himself in the amount of seventy-five dollars – and sure enough the check was printed. He tried this twice more with slightly larger amounts and those two checks were also issued. But he was afraid to cash these three checks which he had generated over a several month time period. The total of them came to less than four hundred dollars.
The company’s internal audit department happened to be conducting a review at the time and found these three checks to be outstanding and started investigating who was the payee and what services had he provided. In that process they discovered that Walter was one of their employees. He was fired and the company decided to prosecute him for theft – even though he had never cashed the checks.
I remember a bit of wisdom that grandma imparted to me as a child, “A thief and a liar are both cut from the same cloth,” so I certainly didn’t condone Walter’s actions. But on the other hand, considering the fact that he had not actually stolen anything, I thought that in his case, the “justice” which he received – four months in Cook County Jail – was overly punitive.
After that conviction, it was difficult for Walter to find a new position and so he had joined the ranks of the homeless and lived on the street. His former girlfriend had found another beau and Walter had pretty much given up on himself. So we talked that day, and a few days later and almost every day after that for two weeks.
I encouraged him not to give up on himself. Sure he had made a mistake – we all do – only some of us don’t get caught as he had. But I told him that he was too bright to give up on life and accept his new style of living. I asked him if he wanted to be on the street for the next thirty years. That statement apparently struck a chord with him.
Well, my group of guys continued to meet me every Monday. And Walter was among them. Each Monday I would remind him of our conversation and ask him if he had made any decision about wanting to live the rest of his life on the street.
Walter told me that he had applied to The Salvation Army which had a rehabilitation center and a training program – and he was waiting to hear if he had been accepted. I was delighted that he had taken that step and told him that I would gladly provide a reference for him if he felt that would help.
Two Mondays later my group, without Walter, assembled as usual. I asked “Sammy Snake Eyes” where Walter was. He said that he had started the program at The Salvation Army and had gotten a room in their dorm while he completed the four month program. I was delighted – and said, “See, if Walter can do it why can’t you guys?” But the rest of the group just took their five dollars and headed over to Cal’s.
I kept asking the group each week if they had heard anything about how Walter was doing. But apparently he had dropped out of sight. It was a Monday, about a year later when I next saw Walter. He had completed the program and had gotten a job and already received one promotion. I scarcely recognized him as he was nicely dressed, sporting a shirt and tie and a nice pair of trousers.
He had asked to leave work early that Monday because he wanted to show me how the program had changed his life and to thank me for my encouragement. He was sharing an apartment with two other guys from the program and was saving up money so that he could get a place of his own. He truly was a different man than the one I had met a little more than a year earlier.
Light bulbs and people can change – but they really have to want to. Walter (no longer “Two Bits”) demonstrates that fact..