One of the things that’s sure to salve your self-respect, is finding some people who have also gone bust and examining their stories. It’ll be especially gratifying if these fellow indigents were pompous and bombastic swells who became indigent through their own venality and corruption.
Such was the case of Mister Warmth, a fellow telephone consultant I knew way back when. His real name was Stuart, but due to his almost sociopathic personality, we called him Mr. Warmth. Anyway, Mr. Warmth had a deep and abiding hunger for wampum plenty. As a telephone consultant, he did all right (especially when he absconded with money due his people) but he didn’t do spectacularly, and he desperately wanted to do spectacularly. Like some other people we won’t mention, he even bought a Mercedes-Benz.
Anyway, after many years toiling for what he considered insufficient gain, Mr. Warmth hit on idea. He would build a computer system – hardware and software – to help customers manage call centers (the places where your 900 calls are answered). He told me of the idea and I thought it excellent, if not outrightly brilliant. The next thing I knew, Mr. Warmth was working on a prototype and looking for an anchor customer. He soon had some gee-gaws assembled into something that looked like the original concept, and Mr. Warmth went a-looking for investors.
And he found them. This wasn’t a surprise, for Mr. Warmth had been born into some old money, and that money was well connected. Mr. Warmth found some New York venture capitalists and flummoxed them into sinking several million bucks in his outfit. The next thing you knew, Mr. Warmth had a new suite of offices, upgraded to a newer Benz, and hired at least fifty people. A mutual acquaintance told me Mr. Warmth even planned to erect a big, blue, sign atop his office building, a sign that could be seen from the livingroom of his oh-so-tastefully decorated mansion on the shores of Lake Washington.
A few years went by and one day my phone rang. It was Al, one of Mr. Warmth’s retinue of toadies, lick-spittles and hangers-on. He asked if I’d be willing to appear at Mr. Warmth’s offices Tuesday next, and explain the concepts and technologies behind Mr. Warmth’s prodigiousity. A group of “interested people” were coming in from the east coast and wanted to hear from an objective party. Sure, I told Al – for a hundred bucks. Al swallowed hard but agreed.
On my way over, I began to wonder what was up. Mr. Warmth and I weren’t exactly buddies, but I did know my shit and maybe . . . Ah, I’ll be there in a few minutes and find out.
I was shown into a conference room in which the air crackled with menace. A white board had been set up for me at the head of the room. Al accompanied me to a podium, introduced me, then took a seat in the first row, next to Mr. Warmth.
Immediately behind Al and Mr. Warmth, sat a good half dozen men in severely tailored suits. Their faces were angry and all had their arms folded tightly across their chests. One raised his chin and glared at me, almost challenging me to speak.
The previous day, Al and I had gone over my comments. Knowing it was the rascally Mr. Warmth with whom I was dealing, I wasn’t about to say anything I didn’t know to be absolutely rock solid. I think Al was hoping I might stretch things a bit but he agreed to my comments. I took the podium and began. I explained the concept, the theories and the technologies Mr. Warmth planned to use, and talked some about the size of the potential market (it was vast). At that point, one of the suits spoke up: “Mr. Sprague,” he growled, “Have you ever seen the contraption actually work?”
Mr. Warmth turned white.
“No.,” I said. “The last time I saw it was a couple of years back when it was in the very early stages – basically, a collection of unassembled components. Why?”
“That’s what I thought,” the suit nodded with narrowed eyes.
I had lunch with Al about a month later and got all the juicy details. It seems Mr. Warmth’s dohickey was nothing but an empty black box; it had a bunch of wires going in one end, another bunch coming out the other, and nothing in between but air. Mr. Warmth had taken these guy’s money and blown it on rent, office decorations, furniture, art, and those fifty-odd people who sat around picking their asses for lack of anything to do.
The New York types in my audience had gotten hosed but good. According to Al, they weren’t to be trifled with and were getting even; two days before our luncheon, a process server handed Mr. Warmth a summons, just as he was getting into his Mercedes. Fun and games.
I’d forgotten about Mr. Warmth when, several years later, Jo had some business in an area not too far from Mr. Warmth’s exclusive community. I told Jo I’d pick her up in three hours, then headed for Mr. Warmth’s place; we could catch up on old times and I could drink some of his Scotch. Maybe he’d even tell me what happened with the New York boys.
I pulled up into the semi-circular drive, parked, went to the door and rang the bell. A woman who was not Mrs. Warmth answered. She was the new owner; Mr. Warmth, she said, had moved away quite some time before. I asked if she had the address. She hadn’t, so I drove to a payphone and looked it up. Heading over to what I assumed was an even more exclusive community, I drove around looking for Mr. Warmth, but the address I got from the phone book wasn’t turning up. I widened my search and finally threw in the towel; pulling along side a fellow washing his Mustang, I asked if he knew where I could find such-and-such an address.
“Yeah,” he said pointing to a shabby apartment complex down the hill. “It’ll be in there.”
Oh, joy! Oh. Bliss!
I drove to the apartment complex and, sure enough, there was a mailbox emblazoned with the address I sought, with Mr. Warmth’s name on a little slip of paper taped to the lid. I parked and walked to the staircase. The sign for Mr. Warmth’s address pointed down a concrete stairwell to a sub-surface garden apartment.
Could it really be? Sure could; for there, propped against the door jamb, was Mr. Warmth’s trademark – a golf umbrella in two shades of brown that matched the colors of his little Mercedes. Back against the retaining wall sat an old refrigerator and a couple of empty cases of Scotch. I rang the bell. When the door opened, Mr. Warmth acted like he’d seen a ghost. He was at a loss for words, but only for a few seconds. Then, with surprising grace and aplomb, he greeted me like a long lost brother an invited me in.
So! What Al had told me was true; Mr. Warmth got his socks sued off. He’d lost the lakeside mansion, the Mercedes, his business, and about everything except the shorts and clogs he was wearing. Only the Good Lord in His Heaven knows when Mr. Warmth will finally pay off the judgement.
Being below ground, the apartment was gloomy with a musty odor. As expected, Mr. Warmth offered a drink and we sat in the “livingroom,” an area with a sliding glass door overlooking a small patio with cars roaring back and forth on the road beyond.
Making Mr. Warmth as uncomfortable as I could, I began to quiz him about the last several years, though I mercifully omitted all reference to his former business and its legion of unhappy investors. Mrs. Warmth, his long-suffering wife, hid in the bedroom throughout my visit, steadfastly refusing to come out and say hello (probably didn’t want me to see any fat lips or black eyes.)
All too soon, the visit was over; it was time to fetch Jo. Draining the last of my Scotch, I stood, took another look around his bleak apartment and thanked Mr. Warmth again for his hospitality. He walked me to the door where we shook hands and agreed to “do lunch” one of these days. He closed the door hard behind me and threw the bolt. Mr. Warmth couldn’t get me out of there fast enough.
Whenever my indigence starts getting me down, I often think back on the Mr. Warmth episode, and I am consoled.