What I learned competing on The Moth Radio Hour

This week, I competed in a local version of The Moth Radio Hour for National Public Radio.  There were about 200 people attending the competition in downtown Ann Arbor, MI, in a public space operated by the Zingerman's firm.

When I left at halftime, I had the lowest score of any contestant.  Why did this happen?

I've come to the conclusion that the crowd's reaction to me, and my reaction to the crowd, were a part of the nation's culture wars.

Three teams of attendees were picked to assess performances.  As in the Olympics, scores were marked up from, or down from, 8.5.

With the theme of the night as "Gumption," I spoke for five minutes about the time I had spent two nights sleeping in my car as a guy named "Rocky" and his boys were disputing his share in a fireworks business I was then operating near Michigan's border with Toledo, Ohio.  "We know where you live," Rocky had said on one of many voicemails left for me.

As I told the audience, I grew up in that part of Chicago nestled between the old U.S. Steel South Works and the Chicago City Incinerator.

In my senior year of high school, Mother said, "You can go to college anywhere you like as long as you live at home, pay for it yourself, and help your father in his business."  I graduated DePaul University in Chicago (elected class president); earned an M.A. in economics out east; and spent the next decade in journalism, publishing, and market research.

At 30, in New York, I married a Nice Jewish Girl from New Jersey, moving us to New England, becoming a stockbroker.  In time, and with difficulty, I moved us back to New York, joining an institutional firm focused on securities of troubled companies.

Within a couple years, I was a partner in the firm, which had bought out its founder.  My wife, however, wanted a big house, bigger than anything her siblings might have.  Cash in your share in the firm, she said, to build me a house.  When I pointed out that I'd given her enough to write a check for a new house, she said, That's safe money.  I want your money.

When our second child almost died, I gave in to her demands, beginning a tortuous process to extract my partnership capital.  It was professional suicide: I joined one firm after another, every single one of which went out of business.  I took a job with Bear Stearns in Chicago, doing the largest single transaction in history of the retail side in that office.

I teamed with a client selling liquidation merchandise in his string of outlet centers.  Then I bought out one of the stores, in Monroe, Michigan, focusing it to selling fireworks.

That brought me to Rocky, who'd been in the fireworks business for years.  He taught me how to buy inventory and helped me get the needed licenses.

Back home in Chicago, the wife of 28 years filed for a divorce.  The house, most of what I had made, and our youngest went with her to Martha's Vineyard, leaving me to start over.

Meanwhile, Rocky was pressing for more, leaving messages on my phone that he and his boys would be coming to have it out.  "We know where you live," he said.

Finally, one of my clerks called to say Rocky was in the store, threatening everyone in sight.  I rushed over, finding him, the mall manager, and others.  "I'm going to sue you, and you, and you," he said, pointing at me, the property manager, and no one in particular.

"Well, Rocky, that's great!" I told him, thinking litigation sounded a lot better than recuperation.  "I know your lawyer.  Why don't we just all go over there and sort it out?"

I paid him $10,000 in cash, making it all go away.

"Let's be friends again — you coming to my place, having barbecues together.  My people can be your people," Rocky said.

I told him that wasn't going to happen.

Once fireworks season was over, I sold the business.  My youngest left Martha's Vineyard to join me, leading me to move to Ann Arbor, where schools are better than in Monroe.

As I looked out at the audience of nicely dressed UMich students, checking their Apple Watches and coasting on parentships, I realized that none of them had an appreciation for what I'd been through.

The apparent winner was a man who'd begun his talk, "Hi, my name is Peter, and I'm an alcoholic."  The emcee made a series of gay jokes ("don't marry her; marry me"), which they all loved.  Another contestant described losing her virginity on a gap year in Germany living across the road from a U.S. army base.

I had more in common with Rocky and his boys than I did with the NPR audience.  They gave me a horrible score.  I gave them a similar one.

This week, I competed in a local version of The Moth Radio Hour for National Public Radio.  There were about 200 people attending the competition in downtown Ann Arbor, MI, in a public space operated by the Zingerman's firm.

When I left at halftime, I had the lowest score of any contestant.  Why did this happen?

I've come to the conclusion that the crowd's reaction to me, and my reaction to the crowd, were a part of the nation's culture wars.

Three teams of attendees were picked to assess performances.  As in the Olympics, scores were marked up from, or down from, 8.5.

With the theme of the night as "Gumption," I spoke for five minutes about the time I had spent two nights sleeping in my car as a guy named "Rocky" and his boys were disputing his share in a fireworks business I was then operating near Michigan's border with Toledo, Ohio.  "We know where you live," Rocky had said on one of many voicemails left for me.

As I told the audience, I grew up in that part of Chicago nestled between the old U.S. Steel South Works and the Chicago City Incinerator.

In my senior year of high school, Mother said, "You can go to college anywhere you like as long as you live at home, pay for it yourself, and help your father in his business."  I graduated DePaul University in Chicago (elected class president); earned an M.A. in economics out east; and spent the next decade in journalism, publishing, and market research.

At 30, in New York, I married a Nice Jewish Girl from New Jersey, moving us to New England, becoming a stockbroker.  In time, and with difficulty, I moved us back to New York, joining an institutional firm focused on securities of troubled companies.

Within a couple years, I was a partner in the firm, which had bought out its founder.  My wife, however, wanted a big house, bigger than anything her siblings might have.  Cash in your share in the firm, she said, to build me a house.  When I pointed out that I'd given her enough to write a check for a new house, she said, That's safe money.  I want your money.

When our second child almost died, I gave in to her demands, beginning a tortuous process to extract my partnership capital.  It was professional suicide: I joined one firm after another, every single one of which went out of business.  I took a job with Bear Stearns in Chicago, doing the largest single transaction in history of the retail side in that office.

I teamed with a client selling liquidation merchandise in his string of outlet centers.  Then I bought out one of the stores, in Monroe, Michigan, focusing it to selling fireworks.

That brought me to Rocky, who'd been in the fireworks business for years.  He taught me how to buy inventory and helped me get the needed licenses.

Back home in Chicago, the wife of 28 years filed for a divorce.  The house, most of what I had made, and our youngest went with her to Martha's Vineyard, leaving me to start over.

Meanwhile, Rocky was pressing for more, leaving messages on my phone that he and his boys would be coming to have it out.  "We know where you live," he said.

Finally, one of my clerks called to say Rocky was in the store, threatening everyone in sight.  I rushed over, finding him, the mall manager, and others.  "I'm going to sue you, and you, and you," he said, pointing at me, the property manager, and no one in particular.

"Well, Rocky, that's great!" I told him, thinking litigation sounded a lot better than recuperation.  "I know your lawyer.  Why don't we just all go over there and sort it out?"

I paid him $10,000 in cash, making it all go away.

"Let's be friends again — you coming to my place, having barbecues together.  My people can be your people," Rocky said.

I told him that wasn't going to happen.

Once fireworks season was over, I sold the business.  My youngest left Martha's Vineyard to join me, leading me to move to Ann Arbor, where schools are better than in Monroe.

As I looked out at the audience of nicely dressed UMich students, checking their Apple Watches and coasting on parentships, I realized that none of them had an appreciation for what I'd been through.

The apparent winner was a man who'd begun his talk, "Hi, my name is Peter, and I'm an alcoholic."  The emcee made a series of gay jokes ("don't marry her; marry me"), which they all loved.  Another contestant described losing her virginity on a gap year in Germany living across the road from a U.S. army base.

I had more in common with Rocky and his boys than I did with the NPR audience.  They gave me a horrible score.  I gave them a similar one.