When I worked in journalism and later in Wall Street, it sometimes occurred to me that I’d had a poor deal.
I was born in 1948 on Chicago’s South Side, the eldest of what would be three boys. We lived for a while in Northern Michigan where our father worked in his father-in-law’s scrap metal business. When Dad said that $75 a week wasn’t enough to raise a family, Mother’s father suggested he find a position back in Chicago which would. Dad worked for a metal smelting company and sold used cars, a field he knew well.
My father had been studying Hebrew with a man he once described as with a long coat and a black hat. My grandmother died when Dad was eleven, putting an end to his religious education. That didn’t stop him and my mother from making sure that each of their boys could read Hebrew and more.
As my high school graduation approached, Mother said I could go to college anywhere I’d like as long as I lived at home, paid for it myself, and helped in Dad’s car business.
I was 16 when I graduated high school, and had been working at clothier Maurice L. Rothschild, and selling printed materials to businesses.
Dad had started the used car lot, named for himself, with $300 from my savings account, $300 from my brother’s, and $300 saved with my mother. They also borrowed $1,000 on his life insurance. His father and several uncles had been used car dealers.
Earlier in their marriage, Mother and Father had tried scraping together enough capital to support a car business of his own. Each time the question became: inventory or groceries, and groceries won. This time we were old enough for Mom to go to work.
I was happy to be working with cars and with what I thought would be tools. The first day I appeared at Leonard Motors, I expected to be helping the mechanic fix cars, or at least cleaning them. Instead, Dad handed me a shovel and said to clean up after the dog.
“I don’t want you fixing cars,” my father said. “I’ve done that, and it’s no fun lying on your back on a concrete floor. I want you learning to talk with people, how to manage a business.” He had studied automatic transmission repair and could diagnose any automotive mechanical problem. He just didn’t favor that kind of work for himself, or for me.
Dad carried a gun, and had a “mostly German Shepherd” for additional protection. (He had taken Sheba in trade, and said she’d be “all Shepherd”, but for a scandal in the family.). A gangbanger might ask, “Does that dog bite?” to which he would say, “Only if you mean to bite us.” After Sheba came the Dobermans.
Much of what I know about salesmanship I learned from him. The kind of cars he sold didn’t last forever; he was always on the lookout for cheap transportation for one customer or another. “I’ve bought you a car,” he’d say into the phone. “I’m sending my son over with it now.”
All of Dad’s cars came with a 30/30 guarantee: 30 feet or 30 seconds, whichever came first. Many had 440 air conditioning (4 windows down, 40 miles an hour), Mogen David transmission (a little whine in it) or Mexican Steering (steering by Manuel).
One particular group of customers came through a black minister who brought young men from his congregation buying their first cars. These generally involved transactions of a few hundred dollars, and the reverend guaranteed payments, though no one ever defaulted.
Mother said they were guests at a wedding in a particularly bad neighborhood, the only one she could recall where the refreshments were cookies and Kool Aid. Everyone seemed to know them, and no one bothered his car.
Occasionally Dad would take me to Shirey Cadillac in Oak Lawn, or Jim Miller Pontiac down the street, while he bought cars that were too old or too rough for them. He’d ask me to estimate a total for, say, six cars. Then he’d show me his bid for the same cars.
In college, I sold a car to a girl in my classes who lived in the nearby neighborhood. She stopped me in a hallway, asking if I’d known what I’d done? It was a Plymouth Valient with a slant-six engine that should have lasted forever. What was the problem? She had found pictures under the seat. “Did you know you sold me a Negro car?” She asked. “A Black car?”
In time, I earned a master’s degree, and worked in journalism, market research, as a retail stock broker and on Wall Street. Many of the people I worked with were products of Harvard, or Wharton, or Columbia. I once counted more than a dozen members of the Forbes 400 that I knew on a first name basis. Some of them had gotten there through the Son Business.
There were times when I was jealous of those who had stepped seamlessly into (for me) unthinkable wealth, while I had begun shoveling after a dog. One client described his father introducing him to a Goldman partner at their club. Another traded stocks in his father’s account. Another’s father bought him business after business; the only thing he excelled at was dealing cocaine to his friends.
Each year as Father’s Day approaches, I appreciate more of what I learned at Leonard Motor Sales. Once I asked him for advice, to be told, “You got yourself into this, you can get yourself out.” My lessons came where the rubber meets the road.
Like my father, I have three children. Once I took the eldest to trading desks and family offices so that he might learn the family culture. I thought briefly about insisting that he live at home, contribute to college costs, and help me at work. His mother put a stop to that; instead we have an Ivy-educated doctor.
On Father’s Day I used to be jealous. Now I’m grateful.