It seemed like summers lasted forever when I was a kid. We ruled our world from the seats of our ten-speed bikes, zigzagging our way through the streets of the hood looking for excitement. We’d have our baseball gear, golf clubs, basketball or football in tow, looking for a game. If we couldn’t find one, we’d invent some kind of minor trouble, usually the kind that wasn’t serious enough to warrant LAPD involvement.
By the late 70s our bikes morphed into used cars, which gave us enough self- assurance to persuade a few girls to hang out with us. Our enhanced modes of transportation allowed us to escape the oppressive summer heat in the Valley. We staked out a small stretch of sand just north of the Santa Monica Pier. We claimed lifeguard station number 11—and the adjacent volleyball court—as our own.
The summer nights on that beach were magical. There was no end to the simple good times we had as we played volleyball, dug for clams and chased grunion. After most of our energy was spent, we’d dig a big hole in the sand. Then we’d sit there, well past midnight, talking shit and drinking the beer I’d liberated from the liquor store I worked at. Those nights on the beach and the long, hot summer days in the Valley were fruitless, but they always put a smile on our stupid faces.
Our tightly knit group of friends and those good times were everything to me, but that carefree period of my life slowly vanished along with the 70s. By the end of that brain-dead decade most of my friends waved goodbye to their adolescence, and to me, and headed off to college.
Bill Mazal was my best friend. I met him on a basketball court just before my first year in junior high. He was a year older and a few inches taller. Even though the other kids towered over me, he still picked me for his team. Mazal and I had been glued to each other’s side since age thirteen, so when he started college, I was a little lost.
By July of 1982, I was twenty-one, and couldn’t rightly masquerade as a kid anymore, but that somber fact hadn’t discouraged me from trying to milk a little more depravity out of my vanishing innocence. On a scale from one to ten, the hangover I was nursing rated a nine—ten being a near-death experience. The origin of the hangover was a weeklong binge with Mazal and the rest of our high school buddies who were back in town, on break from college. My banging headache rendered me acutely aware that it was time to dry out and get back to work.
I dragged my ass out of bed and threw on a semi-clean dress shirt and a wrinkled tie. I wheeled my Olds Cutlass onto Roscoe Boulevard and snapped on the radio. I needed to take the focus off of my banging coconut.
The deejay apprised the listeners of the Monday morning weather—as if there were actually weather in Los Angeles—stating that the “low-lying valleys” would be pushing past a hundred degrees. The low-lying San Fernando Valley was where I’d spent my lackluster twenty-one years up to that point. The Valley is situated north of Beverly Hills and Hollywood and south of places you wouldn’t normally visit if you had a full set of teeth.
Supposedly, some hearty Spanish and Mexican explorers with a hundred donkeys in tow discovered the Valley in 1769. Those brave pioneers probably didn’t envision that the Valley would become the soft pornography capital of the free world and a haven for purveyors of inexpensive Mexican weed and twice-cut cocaine. At the tender age of twenty-one I was beginning to notice the darker underbelly of my birthplace.
The Valley was a poor-man’s version of the more affluent life available over the hill. The temperatures were higher where we lived, but the rents were far cheaper. The other upside for anybody with something to sell is that there were several million people dwelling in the low-lying piece of real estate. Any entrepreneur with a dream or a scheme could set up shop quickly and cheaply and they’d have an endless supply of eyeballs. I sold stuff for a living so the bulging populace worked for me.
Starbridge Financial Planning was on the upper floor of a two-story building in Sherman Oaks. I slipped into the front door hoping the residual alcohol in my body wouldn’t be noticeable. I reached into the small mail slot that bore my name, Tony DiBona, and I grabbed a stack of envelopes and pink phone memos. I sat down in my tiny cubicle and stared at the pile of stale messages.
Thanks to my recent bender, I was out of money. Well, I wasn’t out of money completely; I had seventeen bucks in my checking account. The dismal condition was part of a habitual cycle. I’d close a few deals, collect the commissions and pay some bills. I’d play as much golf as I could and then party away whatever cash was left over. The moment a spare dollar settled in my bank account, I found no need to go into the office. I could usually be found at one of our favorite dive-bars or at one of the local municipal golf courses. I’d wake up a week or so later, realize I was down to rock bottom in my checking account and repeat the sequence.
The reckless routine was becoming more frequent and my gaps of attendance at work were growing longer. It was emotionally draining, living from commission check to commission check, while lying to my parents about how hard I was working. Yet it hadn’t changed my ways.
Starbridge wasn’t a bad place to work, if you called commission-only insurance sales real work. I’d followed a couple of other agents over to Starbridge after we all bailed out of Pennsylvania Life. Penn Life was my first job out of high school. Starbridge was a half-step up from my previous gig but most importantly, it was a place that would hire a person without a college education, a guy like me. Starbridge had one actual Certified Financial Planner on staff. The place was a life insurance mill, and one of the most successful in California.
I followed Rex Logan over to Starbridge from Penn Life. Rex was a hippie in his late thirties. He concealed his round face behind a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and a pair of oversized prescription sunglasses. Rex never looked comfortable in business attire. His sport coats were always too small and his ties always dangled at half-mast. He escaped chilly Ohio in 1974 for the temperate climate of L.A. Rex was a closet wake and bake—the kind of guy who woke up to a bong hit instead of a cup of coffee. He spent most of his spare time smoking good weed and listening to a non-stop soundtrack of Zeppelin and Floyd.
Rex became my mentor by default. Nobody else wanted the job. I liked his style. He was astute enough to reap the maximum commission out of the least amount of effort. It was an art form and he was expert at his craft. I was captivated by his ability to produce enough to get by with little effort. I believed he had few motivations beyond making enough money to pay the bills; keep his wife Linda off his ass, and keep his bong full. He was also a keen judge of people, a proficiency I hadn’t yet refined.
My career path had not been well-charted. I opted out of college life. Surviving high school had been strenuous enough for my parents and me. We quickly reached a mutual decision that the small amount of money they’d set aside for my schooling would be better spent on a reliable vehicle and a few new suits for whatever job interviews I could find.
I answered a blind ad in the local newspaper the summer after I barely graduated
high school and was enrolled in the insurance license school the following week. Selling insurance had never proven difficult for me. I could cruise and still post decent production numbers. The label “underachiever” had been tattooed on my forehead since first grade in Catholic school and that hadn’t changed as I entered the work force.
I was blessed with two dutiful parents. My father, Buzz, had been an aerospace engineer for more than twenty years but was exiled into the automobile industry after the government ended the space race. My mother, Helen, was a homemaker. There was an older sister: Regina, the smart one. I was the guy who barely got by in school. We grew up in a post-World War II tract home in Van Nuys: an archetypical and Sixties nuclear family.
After I began my insurance career, I started to grade my parent’s financial acumen. They were doing okay financially; but they were not rich, never going to be rich. Wealth wasn’t important to them. I’d often hear my mom say, “There’s a lot more to life than money.” I’d reached the conclusion that this was code for, we’ve settled for this level of mediocrity. I wondered if my lot in life would be similar to theirs, making most of my lifestyle decisions based on money, or the lack thereof.
With my Velcro wallet empty it was hard to ignore those “various reasons” I didn’t go to college. I had screwed off in high school. My grades were humiliating and my attitude about them worse. I could hit a golf ball reasonably well but my defiant attitude got me kicked off the high school team. Most of my friends maintained decent grades and had parents with deeper pockets than mine. My best buddy, Mazal, and all of the others were enjoying the benefits of advanced education. While they were setting up lucrative futures, I was hawking life insurance on straight commission over kitchen tables.
While I slumped in my desk chair, massaging my pile of pink messages, Rex Logan waddled over to my cubicle. He propped himself on the divider and stroked his beard.
“Welcome back stranger. You ready to go downstairs for a coffee break?”
I examined the mountain of stale phone messages and underwriting declines as I pondered his offer. I’d been at the office for ten minutes. I was semi-nauseous and not anxious to start cold calling on dead-end leads.
“Sure,” I sighed.
The decision to screw off was remarkably easy. Rex and I liked to take what he referred to as “mental health breaks” from work. We headed downstairs to the Valley Donut Palace. The tacky joint served cheap apple fritters, jelly doughnuts and drinkable coffee. The older woman who owned the place liked us and gave us free refills. She had installed a new Ms. PacMan machine and we’d become experts at the game. The establishment had a payphone on the wall next to our regular booth. If we had to call someone we were only a dime away from conducting business. We also used the payphone for incoming calls. Occasionally, the Starbridge receptionist would call down to us and tip us off if Fred Cohen, the owner of our agency, was looking for us.
In our minds, we were kings. We ran our world from a payphone in a doughnut shop. We had one other friend who regularly joined us on these long mental health breaks. Annie Wu was our third wheel.
Annie was also a Penn Life runaway. She fit in with us because she had similar bad habits. Her father raised her after her mother’s sudden death due to a heart defect. As an only child, she would often become nostalgic about him while we wasted time at the doughnut shop. He owned a dry cleaning establishment in San Francisco. Raising a daughter to compete in a man’s world meant a lot to him. At night, after closing, he taught Annie how to prepare the cash deposit for the bank, telling her, “Take care of your own business. If you don’t, nobody else will.” Annie told me that story every time my self-pity grew annoying.
The three of us talked for hours in the doughnut shop. Rex professed his liberal hippie philosophies while smoking like a chimney, and Annie challenged him— advocating her free enterprise values—while killing her pack of Virginia Slims. I sat in the middle, in a cloud of smoke, watching them argue while drinking more coffee than Juan Valdez.
Rex ended our screw-off session that day sooner than usual. He signaled, with a point of his cigarette, that it was time to go upstairs. We entered the office, but as we passed the production board, I slammed on my brakes. The weekly commission numbers had just been posted. Rex’s name was third with $2,950 in commissions.
He hadn’t mentioned his incredible week to me. He’d already shuffled back to his desk and had a phone to his ear making calls. I was frozen in my tracks, staring at the production numbers. I was happy for him, but wasn’t sure how he’d gone from zero to hero while I was on my latest two-week binge.
I went back to my cubicle, flopped down in my chair and rubbed my forehead in a futile attempt to suppress the lingering hangover. The sight of other people’s huge commission numbers made my headache seem worse: it cemented what a loser I was.
From the vantage point of my cubicle I watched the receptionist complete the weekly rankings. The top producer, Ken Richman, had earned $3,875 in commissions.
Richman was the new star at Starbridge. The owner, Fred Cohen, hired him straight into a vice president’s role four weeks earlier. Apparently, Richman’s job was to coach the current sales team as well as expand the size of the agency through recruiting efforts. Rex told me that Richman was willing to share his knowledge with only a select few. Because of my lack of attendance at the office and the fact that Richman rarely came in there, I’d never met him.
I broke into a cold sweat, loosened my tie and snatched the dusty stack of lead cards. I began placing calls in a half-hearted attempt to book an appointment. Forty-five minutes ticked off the clock. I was in the midst of a horrid slump when Rex leaned on my cubicle wall.
“Do you have some time on Friday afternoon?” he asked.
I shrugged; knowing all I had was time. I was hoping he wanted to hit our favorite saloon and drink Friday afternoon away, but he had a no nonsense expression on his face.
“You remember the new vice president I mentioned, Ken Richman?” “Yeah,” I said. “I’m hung-over, not senile.”
Rex leaned in close as if he was about to deliver the code for the atomic bomb.
“I wrangled you a meeting with him. Here’s his home address,” he said, handing me a note. “Be there on Friday at 2:00 PM. Wear a suit and tie. Don’t be late.”
I laid the piece of scrap paper next to my list of failed appointment attempts and mustered up a sarcastic question: “Is this BYOB or will this guy have some cold beers set up for us?”
Rex’s eyes narrowed. “Suit and tie,” he repeated.
I mumbled, “Thanks” as he hurried back to his desk.
I attempted a few more dials, but quickly grew bored with my labors. It was only 3:50 PM but I was done. I cleaned up my desk and cruised by Rex’s cubicle to say goodbye. I stopped a few yards short of his workspace and eavesdropped on his conversation. He was hyping somebody on Ken Richman. I’d never seen my makeshift mentor so enthused about another person.
Glancing at Rex’s desk I noticed a wooden eagle perched beside his phone. Carved below the claws, the inscription read: Freedom Isn’t Free. I didn’t wait to say goodbye. I dipped out the back door, artfully avoiding human contact, especially with Fred Cohen. I was teetering on the edge of dismissal; he was the last person who needed to witness my current state.
I placed the clip-on shades over my prescription glasses, flipped down the visor of my Olds and headed west into the afternoon sun. The pesky hangover was still torturing me as I contemplated Rex’s remarkable week as well as the scrap paper address he’d handed me. Had I pegged him wrong? Maybe he aspired to be better than average, or at the moment, just better than me. I was in a horrific hole. Whatever Rex was cooking up with Ken Richman was a secret he could’ve kept to himself; instead, he was throwing me a rope. I was inclined to grab it.
I never put much thought into production numbers. I wasn’t that competitive; well, at least until I saw Logan’s commissions that week. Rex’s offer made me realize how deeply I had fallen. Humiliation was a circumstance I normally handled with a joke or a crude hand motion.
Alone in my car with my head pounding, there was no audience to entertain. I had to face facts. I’d need to nail down a few juicy life insurance sales fast and then ask Fred for a commission advance. If I didn’t pull that off I’d have to admit to my parents that I’d screwed off so badly again that I’d need them to bail me out on my mortgage payment one more time.
The hangover was wearing off but the anxiety was kicking in. I eased my Olds into the driveway of my Canoga Park tract house. I grabbed a cold forty from the fridge. I wasn’t sure if I was still suffering from a hangover or if it was simply the discomfort of my life. Whatever it was I was quite sure another beer would fix it.
I’d somehow avoided all distractions and squeezed out the two sales I badly needed. I pulled my ass out of the gutter. Again. I made my first prospecting call by 9:45 AM that morning. A new world record for Tony DiBona. I would’ve been hitting the phone twenty minutes earlier, but Fred Cohen stopped me short of my cubicle and worked me over.
Fred was an old-school life insurance guy who had done well. He and his wife lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills and he drove a Rolls Royce, Silver Shadow. Fred enjoyed the fruits of his labor, but wasn’t all caught up in it. He wasn’t interested in personal appearance. Food stains on his shirt were common and it was rare that his ties matched the rest of his attire.
His other distinctive quality was his habit of incessant chitchat. He’d stroll over to your cubicle and ask about your family and hobbies, diving into topics that had absolutely no connection with selling life insurance. If you wanted to be productive you avoided Fred like a bad venereal disease. That aside, he was genuinely kind and offered guys like me the chance to have a job, a desk and phone. He’d even hand us warm leads to call on once in a while.
The other reason I liked the guy was that he’d always help me out with an advance on commission when I was low on funds. I think he liked me, but it was clear he regarded me as an underachiever. He’d tell me, “You’re working on half your potential. If I could just get you to work a full week.” I’d just smile, knowing that would leave too little time for golf and beer.
This particular Friday was magic. Four appointments hit my calendar before noon. I glanced at my watch and realized it was almost time for my scheduled meeting with Ken Richman. I sat for a moment, wondering if I should even bother to go. The note that Rex had given me the previous Monday sat on my desk staring at me.
Why should I listen to some hotshot tell me his shit doesn’t stink? I grabbed my pen and circled the address a few times, scribbling around it. Then I crumpled it up. I’d tell Rex I was busy. Why should I go to this guy’s house when I didn’t even know what the meeting was about?
The piece of scrap paper landed in my trashcan and sunk into the sea of dead lead cards. Had I just thrown an opportunity away? I dug through the trash, located the note and flattened it out.
Looking across the office floor, my eyes fell on Annie, sitting in her cubicle. I wondered if Rex offered her the same cryptic opportunity I’d almost sent to a landfill. Her commission numbers hadn’t been good. She was a single mother of two with no safety net. I knew she would bounce back out of her slump sooner or later. She always did.
Most of the agents on the floor were at least ten or fifteen years older than me. They were slaving away at their phones, trying to sell a policy or two. I couldn’t imagine being in my thirties or forties, out every night—sitting at those damn kitchen tables— pretending I liked the wife’s homemade lemon cake so they’d write me a check. I put the piece of notepaper with Ken’s address in my shirt pocket. I made sure the path to the back door was clear—that Fred was nowhere in sight. I’d go to the stupid meeting. What the hell did I have to lose?
I pulled up to the address just a few blocks south of the Boulevard. I’d driven through the area over the years, admiring the expensive homes, but had never been inside one of them. The Richman home was positioned on a flag lot with a long driveway that snaked back to a secluded property. I approached the front doors and noticed one was slightly ajar.
“Hello!” I shouted. “Tony DiBona here to meet with Ken Richman.”
I heard Logan’s familiar cackle coming from somewhere inside. I rang the bell and a woman appeared.
“You must be Tony,” she said.
I reached out my hand. “Yes.”
“I’m Nancy, Ken’s wife,” she said, shaking it while flashing a saintly smile.
She was attractive, with soft facial features and meticulous makeup. Nancy
Richman was dressed conservatively with the exception of a few pieces of show jewelry. She appeared to be in her early thirties.
“Ken and Rex are in the family room,” she said.
I stood dumbfounded by my surroundings and a tad uncomfortable with her Sunday school teacher vibe.
“Can I show you in?” she asked with some measure of formality.
I followed Nancy into the large family room. Ken rose and shook my hand. He was well over six feet tall; his hand easily eclipsed mine. At five-foot-eight, his commanding presence towered over me. He was in great physical shape and looked the part of a matinee idol with bleach-blond hair, sturdy facial features and a California tan. He was dressed in a white nylon tracksuit, as though he’d been lounging around his big house all day. I noticed the thick gold bracelet adorned with a gold eagle. It was draped on one wrist; a Rolex Presidential engulfed the other.
“Hi Tony. Heard a lot about you. Good to meet you.”
Ken motioned for me to sit. The luxurious surroundings were intimidating. The home featured high ceilings with exposed wood beams. Lavish furnishings and expensive art dominated the room. The most curious piece of art was hung over the stone fireplace. It was massive—an oil on canvas painting of an American bald eagle. The bird was in flight, looking down, a claw stretched out ominously as though it was preparing to pluck a rodent off the ground. It was unnerving. He noticed me staring at it.
“That’s my favorite,” he said. “Freedom. That’s what the eagle symbolizes. Freedom.”
I nodded my head in submissive agreement as my eyes continued to wander around. I glanced in the direction of the French doors that opened to the backyard. The sprawling yard housed an enormous pool and Jacuzzi bordered by a grove of palm trees and lush foliage. So this is how rich people live?
“I understand you’d like some mentorship?” he asked, breaking my spell.
I calculated how I might respond. I was rudderless in my career and living in a small tract home my parents helped me buy. I was struggling to cover my monthly mortgage with seventeen bucks in my checking account. I resisted the urge to make a clever comment.
“Yeah. That would be great,” I sputtered.
Ken put his size thirteen sneakers up onto his glass coffee table. He rubbed his chin, sizing me up. After his moment of consideration, he launched into one of the better pieces of reverse psychology I’d heard up to that point in my life.
“I’m not interested in working with someone who isn’t a hundred and ten percent serious,” he said. “I’m also not going to waste time with a person who doesn’t follow directions. My goal isn’t to mentor every deadbeat at Starbridge, no matter what Fred Cohen expects. If I select you as one of my protégés I will demand your total loyalty and commitment to my full program. As a result, you’ll become wealthy.”
He let his last thought linger as he took a long drink of his Diet Coke. He smacked his lips and pointed at Rex.
“He’s been in my program for three-and-a-half weeks and his life insurance commissions are exploding,” he said. “You’ve probably noticed the production board at Starbridge. His life is changing quickly because of my mentorship. If I bring you aboard I’m going to teach you how to create similar results—knock down three times the insurance commissions you’re used to earning.”
He had my attention, but it was what he said next that shocked me.
“I’ll require you to keep details about our program to yourself around the office. You won’t disclose our strategies to Fred. The only people you can discuss our program with are the agents actually involved. And finally…in order for me to teach you how to triple your insurance income, you have to be involved in my home-based business.”
Ken stopped talking and clasped his hands behind his neck. He grinned slightly, a cunning grin that I’d come to know well in the future.
“Acceptable?” he asked.
I’d been in the guy’s presence for five minutes and in that time he’d asked me to completely commit to his “program” and his other “home-based business” without giving me specifics on either. He had a set of balls bigger than a rodeo bull.
“I’ve definitely got some questions but you have my interest,” I said. He smiled confidently, and shrewdly, and began to tell me his story.
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