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Onto a Good Thing

‘Ron?’ he asked. ‘Ronnie Rosenberg?’ Rosenberg hadn’t a clue who was asking, and the man who had must have sensed this, for he quickly added, ‘Nathan, Nathan Klein.’ Rosenberg still didn’t remember. ‘Camp Ojibwa,’ the man said. ‘Eagle River, Wisconsin, 1956.’ Natey Klein, of course. Skinny kid, talked with a lisp, wet his bed, the cabin goat. Everyone in the cabin was ten years old. Ojibwa was a sports camp, all Jewish, with a bit of arts and crafts added: lanyard-making, wood-carving, that sort of thing. But athletics was at the center of things—softball, basketball, tennis, boxing, ping-pong, canoeing, swimming—and Natey had been a lousy athlete, uncoordinated, a slow runner, couldn’t catch, terrified of the water, really awful.

With nothing to do but play games all day, eat good food, and learn about the world from the older campers and junior counselors, Rosenberg had been in heaven. Natey Klein had gotten nowhere near so much out of Ojibwa. Small, scrawny, pale, his curly-kinky hair always unruly, he had sometimes sobbed at night in his bed, Rosenberg recalled. Every so often the junior counselors had to hang out his wet sheets in the morning. Natey’s parents, Rosenberg had heard, were wealthy. His father was something called a liquor distributor, which, Rosenberg later came to understand, probably meant that he or his family had been bootleggers during Prohibition. Natey was an only child, and had to have been a disappointment to his old man, Morrie Klein, who in the 1960s made the Chicago papers because of his connection with the Boys, as they called the Mafia in those days. Mr. Klein must have sent Natey to Ojibwa in the hope of toughening him up. It hadn’t worked.

“Of course I remember you,” Rosenberg said. “You look nothing like you did when you were a kid.” Natey was still short, but now portly, wore rectangular black-framed glasses, had a comb-over hairdo, with hair of a suspicious darkness, resembling a little the tint of oxblood shoe polish. When Rosenberg asked him what he did for a living, Natey replied that for much of his working life he had been a stock-broker but in recent years had been running a hedge fund. He looked prosperous.

They were at the bar mitzvah party for Lou Roth’s grandson, Tyler, at a hotel called The Public that used to be the Ambassador East. Lou had gone into the family business, Roth Textiles, supplying linen to Chicago hotels and restaurants. Rosenberg and his wife, Arlene, Natey and his wife, Rochelle (very high-maintenance, from the look of her), and two other couples were at the same table. Lou Roth and Rosenberg had played basketball together at Senn High School. Natey Klein mentioned that he had been Lou’s stockbroker and, as he added with a confident smile, had done well for him.

For the party Lou and Sheila Roth had hired a disc jockey. “Six grand, he charges just to plug in CDs,” Lou told Rosenberg, “and his schedule’s so crowded we were lucky to get the son-of-a-bitch at all.” The four-piece band Rosenberg’s parents had hired for his bar mitzvah party had been led by a man named Phil Lind. Held at the Ridgeview, a residential hotel in Evanston, Rosenberg’s dinner had been catered by a heavyset middle-aged woman calling herself the Duchess, who also served as mistress of ceremonies. The Ridgeview is today a halfway house for the mentally ill, but in those days, under the direction of the Duchess, it might to a stranger from another country have seemed a full-out madhouse. The Duchess led the room in singing “The Old Gray Mare,” and forced everyone out of his and her seats to do the Mexican Hat Dance. Everyone, that is, but Rosenberg’s very formal grandfather, who spoke very little English and was a leading figure in Hebrew education in Montreal.

Still, it had been a party for adults. Not this one. All the music played by the DJ at Tyler Roth’s party was for kids, and noisy and obtrusive it was. No real chance for dancing, not to the music the six-grand DJ was playing, not for grown-ups, that is. Not much chance for talking either, at least not in a normal voice.

“So what’ve you been doing for a living, Ron?” Natey asked.

“I went into my father’s business,” Rosenberg said. “Office furniture. We’re on Lake Street, near Wabash.”

“Interesting,” Klein said, though he didn’t look in the least interested.

As the evening progressed, Natey revealed he was a member of Bryn Mawr Country Club, had a winter home in Palm Springs, drove a Bentley, had a son who had gone to the Wharton School of Business and was running a software company in Silicon Valley, and a daughter who had married a cardiologist and was living in Los Angeles. He and his wife had sold their house in Glencoe five years ago and moved into a co-op at 219 E. Lake Shore Drive, a very expensive address.

“You golf, Ronnie?” Natey asked.

“No,” Rosenberg said. “I assume you do from your mention earlier of Bryn Mawr.” Never having taken up golf, Rosenberg felt, was one of the few completely sound decisions he had made in his life.

“Love the game,” Natey said. “Not that I’m so hot at it. Rochelle, in fact, frequently beats me.” Here he patted the back of his wife’s bejewelled hand. “We’re thinking of buying a condo on a golf course in Scottsdale.”

“Sounds lovely,” Arlene, Rosenberg’s wife, said, looking at her watch.

“Shame you don’t golf, Ron,” Natey said. “I’d like to have taken you out for a round at Bryn Mawr.”

“Maybe we can meet one day for lunch,” Rosenberg said. Why did he say that, he thought, for the fact was that Rosenberg had heard all the bragging about his wealth from Natey Klein he needed.

Before they left, Natey and Rosenberg exchanged business cards, and Natey promised to call sometime the following week.

“What a dreary, boring little man!” Arlene said on the drive back to Wilmette.

As promised, Natey Klein called to invite Rosenberg to join him for lunch at the Standard Club the following Friday. Rosenberg said yes, sure, glad to, looked forward to it, then wondered what the hell they would find to talk about.

When Rosenberg was a kid, the Standard Club might as well have been the Union League Club in New York, or White’s in England, or the Jockey Club in Paris, so remote had it been from him and his family and most of the people he grew up with. In those days the Standard Club’s membership was purely German-Jewish, and the Rosenbergs and almost everyone else who lived in West Rogers Park were Jews from Eastern Europe. In Chicago, the Jews of Rosenberg’s caste had had the Covenant Club, which his father, Sam, joined in the early 1960s when his business became more profitable. In a small room off one of the dining rooms, Sid Luckman, the legendary Bears quarterback, long retired from football and by that point in the cardboard-box business, used to play high-stakes gin rummy. Later in the evening you could hear Luckman swearing in his strong New York accent.

Most unlikely that you would ever hear anyone swear at the Standard Club. Rosenberg had been there once for a fundraising event for Soviet Jews, and was impressed with the general feel of the place, its vast rooms, solid furniture, heavy draperies. He imagined its regular membership as dark-suited, solemn, solidly wealthy, humorless, not likely to be impressed by the accomplishments of Sid Luckman.

But when Rosenberg entered the Standard Club on Friday and told the young woman at the reception desk that he was a guest of Mr. Nathan Klein, he was struck by the view in the lobby of the large number of men in sport shirts, sweaters, chino pants, and even jeans. Several members were wearing those five-day growths of beard called, Rosenberg recently learned, double-stubble or perma-stubble.

When Natey entered the club lobby on the Plymouth Court side, ten minutes late, he was wearing a dark blue suit, a gray silken necktie, and highly polished black shoes with a single line across the toes. He gave off a strong whiff of men’s cologne.

“Ron, good to see you,” he said. “You know this joint.”

“I know only that fifty years ago neither of us would have been able to meet here for lunch.”

“Yeah,” Natey said. “The old joke was that the only Jewish event ever celebrated at this club was Kristallnacht. The place always had a great kitchen, though. Still does.”

When they were seated, Rosenberg asked Natey where he had gone to high school.

“Same place you did: Senn,” he said. “I was a semester behind you, but you obviously never noticed me. You were at the center of things—on the basketball team, in the best clubs, and all that—and I was out on the periphery, a nebbish. I didn’t have very happy high school years, or for that matter a very good adolescence.”

“I sometimes think I peaked back then,” Rosenberg said, “and it has been pretty much downhill since I was eighteen.”

“You were all-city in basketball, no?”

“Actually, all-north section. I had a ride to play at Bradley, but decided I had got all I could out of basketball. I went to Illinois. What about you?”

“Michigan. Started out as pre-med. My old man’s idea, my becoming a doctor. But he died my sophomore year, heart attack, so I switched to economics before organic chemistry, and boredom completely crushed me.”

“Looks like it was the right move.”

“I’ve had my share of good luck. How about you, on the money front, I mean?”

“I guess I do all right,” Rosenberg said. “My daughter has an autistic child, and a husband who deserted her, so I’m pretty much supporting two households, which wasn’t in what is nowadays called ‘retirement planning.’”

Rosenberg rarely told anyone, even friends, about the condition of his grandson, Zachary, or about his daughter Sarah’s loathsome ex-husband. Why was he telling all this to Natey Klein, whom he scarcely knew?

“Sorry to hear it,” Natey said. “If there’s any way I can help out, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Rosenberg thought to say that, since you asked Natey, how about letting me have half a million or so. “Nice of you to ask,” he said instead.

“I wasn’t trying to be nice,” Natey said. “I have something in mind. Let me ask, Ron: How liquid are you?”

“By liquid you mean…?” Rosenberg was one of those men who, even though he ran a small business, could never bring himself to think for long about money outside the confines of the office-furniture business. Debentures, leveraging, buying on margin, selling short, capital appreciation—it was all Hungarian to him. Not that he thought he was too good for it. On the contrary. When Rosenberg saw some of the dopes he grew up with having made fortunes in the stock market, or through investing in real-estate development, putting them safely out of the financial wars, he felt woefully inadequate.

“I mean how much money do you have that’s not otherwise tied up in long-term investments?”

“If I scrape a few things together, maybe a hundred grand or so,” Rosenberg said. “Why?”

“Because I think I can put you onto a good thing. I can turn it into a lot more than that for you, and fairly quickly. That is, if you’re interested.”

“Really?” Rosenberg said. “Let me think about it and get back to you, Nathan.”

“Natey, please, like in the old days, Natey, will do fine.”

“Onto a good thing.” Rosenberg remembered some years ago, asking his friend Norm Brodsky about the sudden wealth of a guy they had known in the Sammy house at Illinois named Earle Pollock. He was no genius, Pollock. In fact, he flunked out his freshman year; couldn’t do accounting. Norm told him that someone Pollock knew who worked in the commodities market had put him “onto a few good things,” which made him a rich man.

What did Natey Klein have in mind by his “good thing?” He assumed a killing on some fast-rising stock? How much of a killing? How quick a turnover was involved? When Rosenberg said that he could scrape together a hundred thousand, he was lying. The only way just now that he could get together a hundred grand was to borrow on his 401(k). And why trust Natey Klein, with his bragging and his oxblood comb-over, with the money?

Rosenberg decided not to talk it over with Arlene. She was even more cautious about money than he. Besides, he knew what she would say. “Put a hundred thousand dollars in the hands of that drip! You must be crazy!” is what she would say. So often the little decisions in life get lots of attention, and the big ones are made on impulse and instinct. It was purely on instinct that Rosenberg decided to trust Natey with his money.

When Rosenberg called Klein at his office the following Monday, Natey said that a certified check, either sent by FedEx or delivered in person, would be best. Rosenberg decided to bring the money himself, just to make sure that Natey wasn’t operating out of a boiler room.

The Hawthorne Fund, Natey’s firm was called, and his office at 110 N. LaSalle was impressive. The layout was similar to that of a successful law firm: comfortable reception room, long corridor, expensive-looking art all along it. In an office with large windows on three sides sat Natey, behind a large uncluttered desk, on which was a laptop and two pictures of his family in silver frames. On a credenza behind him, three large computers were flickering with lit-up numbers. His suit jacket off, his rounded shoulders, the softness of his chest and potbelly evident, Natey seemed even less impressive.

“Ronnie,” he said, “good to see you.” He got up to shake Rosenberg’s hand and motioned him to one of two chairs in front of his desk. “I think we’ve found something for you that will produce a substantial profit in a fairly short time. We’re going into it in a big way here at Hawthorne, and I thought maybe you could pick up a few shekels going into it in a smaller way. I have to tell you that we usually don’t deal with accounts of less than five million dollars. I’m doing this for old times’ sake.”

“I’m grateful,” Rosenberg said, though the truth was, with the certified check for $100,000 in his coat pocket, he was a lot less grateful than nervous. A hundred grand may have been petty cash for Natey Klein, but for Rosenberg it was a serious sum.

“Don’t mention,” Nate said. “And speaking of old times, I was thinking about our days at Camp Ojibwa. I spent only that one horrible summer there. Did you keep going?”

“I went for three more years,” Rosenberg said, “and then I went to Ray Meyer’s basketball camp.”

“Ray Meyer? Coach at DePaul, no? When they produced winning teams.”

“The last time they did, in fact.”

“Getting back to Ojibwa, that summer, 1956, I was friendless, with tormentors everywhere. I’ve never felt so lost and lonely.”

“I hope I wasn’t one of those tormenters,” Rosenberg said.

“You weren’t. On the other hand, you weren’t a protector, either. No one was. It would have been a help to have the best athlete in the cabin on my side. But then I suppose it would have been unnatural if you had been.”

“My memory is that I was having too good a time to worry about your or anyone else’s troubles. Kids, I guess, are pretty thoughtless.”

“I wonder at what age a child develops a moral sense,” Natey said. “Eight? Ten? Twelve? I suppose it differs from kid to kid. I came to mine early because I had a tough father, who didn’t hesitate to show his disappointment in me. I craved justice, especially at home, where I didn’t very often find it. But back to business.”

With a tremulous hand, Rosenberg reached into his suit jacket and took out and handed Natey his certified check for a hundred thousand dollars. Nate picked up the phone—“Malcolm, need your help,” he said—and ten seconds later a young man, very well turned out, came in to take Rosenberg’s check.

“See that Mrs. Lindstrom prepares a receipt for Mr. Rosenberg to pick up on his way out,” Natey said.

When the young man left the room, Natey returned to Ojibwa days: “You remember a kid named Barry Dobrin? He taunted me without letup. He used to come over every morning to check my sheets. He once nailed a blue ribbon to my bed with a sign attached to it that read, ‘Congratulations to Natey for not wetting his bed six days in a row.’ I begged my father to let me come home, but it was no-go. ‘Be a man, Nathan,’ he told me. ‘Stick it out. Don’t let them push you around.’”

“Do you think about this stuff a lot?” Rosenberg asked.

“When I saw you,” Natey said, “it all came back to me. But I’ve more important things to think about, like earning a few bucks for you and my other clients.”

Back on the street, Rosenberg realized that he hadn’t even bothered to ask Natey Klein what, precisely, the “good thing” was that he was putting him onto? He supposed he could call Natey when he got back to his own office, but then thought doing so might reveal him for the financial idiot he was. He’d just have to wait it out.

Rosenberg gave Natey the hundred grand out of a simple enough motive: He had a strong hunch that he could make some easy money that way. The fact was that Rosenberg had never made any easy money in his life. Everything he’d earned he had to work for, to grind it out. His father had been no different. Rosenberg remembered when he was a kid his father had a fairly large chunk of AT&T stock, blue chip it was called in those days, when AT&T had the monopoly on the phone business. Then in 1969 the stock market took a serious dip, and every night his father would come home, open the Daily News to the stock-market pages, and note that he had lost another five or six grand. It made him almost sick with worry. After less than two weeks Sam Rosenberg sold off all his AT&T stock, put the money in CDs, and never went back into the market.

Rosenberg recalled his father explaining at the dinner table that the stock market wasn’t for little guys, small-time investors. It chewed them up and spat them out. What he most disliked about having his money in stocks, his father said, was that it wasn’t in his control. His inventory of desks, file cabinets, chairs, lamps, and the rest, he could change the prices on; hustle around to find outlets for them; lay them off on another supplier. He had the whip hand.

His father wouldn’t have been proud of him, Rosenberg thought, turning over so large a sum to a stranger. As he walked back to his office, he wished he had the nerve to call Natey and tell him that he had had a change of mind, and would like to have his money back, though he guessed that by now Natey had already put it into play in some investment or other.

Over the next weeks, Rosenberg scarcely thought about anything else. The worry became so intense that life before Natey Klein suddenly seemed wonderfully simple and placid and manageable—sad daughter, autistic grandson, and all. What the hell was I thinking? Rosenberg asked himself. Ten or twelve times he picked up the phone to call Natey to ask how the “good thing” was going, but each time he hung up. To show nervousness about his money would seem unmanly.

Rosenberg also began to wonder why Natey Klein was doing Rosenberg this grand favor. What was in it for him, apart from showing what a powerful operator he was? And then a frightening idea occurred to Rosenberg. What might have been in it for Natey was, just possibly, revenge. Nathan Klein was going to take Ronald Rosenberg for a hundred grand for not coming to his aid during his summer of torment at Camp Ojibwa.

Hadn’t he all but told Rosenberg that this was what he was doing—with his rehearsal of his misery of those awful days, mentioning that he didn’t usually take on small-potatoes clients like him, not bothering to fill him in on the good thing he had lined up for him? A hundred grand down the crapper! God! How was Rosenberg going to explain this to Arlene?

The more Rosenberg thought about it, the more certain he became that Natey had decided to bilk him out of his money. In bed, sleepless, he imagined different scenes in which Natey told him that things hadn’t worked out, that the good thing turned out to be a rotten thing. He imagined Natey, behind his desk, with a sly smile, saying, “Way it goes, Ronnie. Sorry. Better luck next time, pal.”

Roughly five weeks after he had handed over his certified check to Natey, on a Tuesday morning, a little after ten o’clock, a woman’s voice asked him to please hold for Mr. Nathan Klein.

“Ron,” Natey said, “some disappointing news. Can you drop over later this morning? I’ll explain.”

Well, thought Rosenberg, the shoe had fallen; hell, make that the guillotine blade. He hailed a cab, and on the way over to Natey Klein’s office wondered just how much of his money had been blown away: a third, half, all of it?

Natey didn’t get up from his desk this time when Rosenberg entered his office. He had his suit jacket on. Behind his black-frame glasses he had a dour look.

“Sit, Ron. I’ll explain,” he said.

“How much did I lose?” Rosenberg asked.

Natey didn’t answer but took an envelope from the top of his desk and handed it to Rosenberg.

“Open,” he said.

The envelope contained a check. Rosenberg put on his own glasses to read the sum. The check was made out for $100,287.26. He exhaled.

“Pathetic, I know,” Natey said. “I was hoping it would be a check for at least a hundred and fifty grand, maybe two hundred. The action we had figured on for the stock never turned up. It was a fizzle, a wash. Sometimes happens.”

Rosenberg was trying to hide his relief. Everything ventured, at least nothing lost, he thought. After the anxiety of the past weeks, nothing lost felt like pure triumph.

“I was hoping to make a nice little score for you, Ron,” Natey said. “First because I sensed you could use the dough. And second I guess because I wanted to impress you, to show you that the pisher from Cabin Three at Camp Ojibwa was now a serious player.”

“Don’t worry about it, Natey,” Rosenberg said. “I appreciate your effort on my behalf.”

“If another good thing turns up, I’ll get back to you pronto. Promise.”

“Sure,” said Rosenberg, “that’ll be great.”

Natey stood up, leaned over his desk, and held out his hand. Rosenberg shook Natey’s small soft hand, noting the clunky Rolex on his wrist.

Out on LaSalle Street, Rosenberg felt himself grinning. He touched the left breast of his suit jacket, the inside pocket of which held his check from the Hawthorne Fund. $287.26 profit for five of the worst weeks of his life: For all his anguish that came to a little more than fifty bucks a week. Easy money! Back at the office, he instructed his secretary that if a man named Nathan Klein should ever call, she was to tell him that Mr. Ronald Rosenberg had died.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein’s new book, Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, co-written with Frederic Raphael, was published last month by Yale University Press.

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