Thankful for this opportunity and so much more

When I began writing here about our experience building a house, shortly after ground-breaking some six months ago, I had planned to update my legion of eleven followers on a somewhat regular basis. Then, as the enormity of the pandemic came to light, I couldn’t bring myself to share the ups and downs of such an opportunity of privilege. Not while so many others suffered. So, on this Thanksgiving Day I will do what is called for on the fourth Thursday of each November, and simply acknowledge the deep gratitude I feel for all that defines my life on this planet. I am indeed among the lucky ones.

We’re scheduled to move into our new house in about a month, a mere two months behind schedule. That fact alone illustrates how fortunate we are. As far as we can tell, Covid has affected our project just twice. First, when the trusses that were to hold up our first floor weren’t available due to a pandemic-related manufacturing slowdown, and our quick-thinking builder switched to using I-beams instead. Second, when one of the carpenters tested positive. Work then halted while everyone on the project got tested (all came back negative) and the builder, at no cost to us, hired a crew of hazmatted disinfectors to spray down the job site. The infected carpenter recovered in due course and was back on the job, installing stairway bannisters with his trademark cheer and enthusiasm, just the other day. Would that everyone was as cheerful and enthusiastic in times like these.

I just read in the Washington Post that anxiety and depression are running rampant (link below). It may be years, if ever, before we know just how many people are struggling to maintain their mental health as each of these wretched waves hits harder than the last. Yesterday there were 178,242 new cases reported in the United States. Another day, another record high.

I hope everyone reading this—make that everyone everywhere—finds the strength, patience, and optimism to get through this. And I hope everyone has someone, or finds someone, to talk to. And then talks. With three vaccines now in the final stage of approval it will only be a matter of time before we can begin seeing loved ones again and otherwise start inching back to normalcy. We just gotta hang in there. And, in the meantime, give thanks for what we do have. That’s what I’m telling myself today.

Here’s a link to that Post article:

Playing with fire

By the age of three I had mastered such standard life skills as how to stack things, how to operate a toilet, and how to start a fire. Indeed, I nearly burned our house down. You’d think that such a traumatic experience at that age would make some impression on my developing brain, such that my childhood fascination with fires would stop. You’d think that.

When you’re the seventh of ten kids, the question of what to do with your free time is often up to you. Even the best parents to ever walk the face of this earth (e.g., my mom) have only so much time to spread around.

I’ve a memento from one of my very earliest attempts to entertain myself. Sitting on the kitchen floor, possibly still in diapers, I extracted cans of vegetables from the cabinets beneath the stove and decided to stack them as high as I could. After making a tower much taller than it was stable, I looked up just as gravity did what gravity does. The gash on my lower lip, from a can of creamed corn whose fall to earth was interrupted by my face, left a scar for life.

I found bathrooms laden with new and interesting things. The sinks and tubs were cool. And the toilet? Utterly fascinating. I made deposits far more frequently than was necessary, just so I could watch them disappear in that entertaining vortex of rushing water. With astonishing speed, I developed a fine grasp of the mechanisms involved in the essential bathroom functions, if not their correct names. Learning the verb “to pee” was easy enough. But when Mom referred to the other one as “moving your bowels” I thought she said “moving your bottles,” and that is how I referred to it for more years than I care to admit.

I was particularly bored one morning, at the age of not-quite-four, in the fall of 1966. School had just started so the house was relatively empty of kids. My sister Barb was home, up in her room getting over a bug going around, and Mom was busy tending to Marty and Kenny upstairs. I was downstairs in the kitchen, drawn to the stove and its magical feature: You don’t need matches to make a fire with this thing, I had observed. You just turn those knobs.

I couldn’t quite reach those knobs but solved that problem using those cans under the stove. Perched atop two giant cans of Hawaiian Punch fruit drink, it took me no time at all to light a little blue ring of fire. Couldn’t I make it any bigger, I wondered? Why yes, I could.

Mom stored leftover bacon grease in a paper milk carton with the top cut off, right next to the burners. I bellied myself onto the countertop to reach the grease carton, tipped it over, and took in the comforting smell of bacon grease as it oozed onto the stove before transforming into a most impressive flame. But then came the smoke. It was black, and heavy, and it made my eyes burn. I stepped off the Hawaiian Punch cans then ran upstairs to where Mom was changing Kenny’s diaper.

I did not report what was going on. Cloaking myself in nonchalance, I meandered to the open window, looked onto our backyard below, and after a relaxed moment or two turned and pointed outside. “Look at the smoke, Mom.”

She did as instructed, only to see a tower of inky black smoke pouring out of someone’s window. Ours. “Barb!” Mom yelled to my sister. “Get out here!”

Mom looked into the kitchen as she hurried us all to safety. A glance at the Hawaiian Punch cans and toppled grease carton were no doubt all the clues she needed to know what had happened. The flames were now climbing the back wall of the stove and licking the wooden cabinetry above. The black smoke was clinging to the entire first-floor ceiling of our house, like a heavy blanket defying gravity. Dad and my older brothers had painted those ceilings, indeed every wall in the house, just days before.

Barb took us into the garage and into the car while Mom tried to turn off the stove. That’s when the miracle happened. A volunteer fireman, clearly following careful instructions from God because how else does one explain this, had been driving up North Point Road just as smoke began billowing out of our kitchen window. He stopped his car and burst inside to find Mom in the burning kitchen.

“We need a blanket,” he told her, pulling Mom aside and switching off the burners. “A table cloth?” she asked, eyes burning. “Get it.”

Mom fetched the big green tablecloth, the nice one we only used for Sunday dinner, while the fireman ran water in the sink. Using the soaked cloth, they soon smothered the flame. As billows of white steam overtook the black smoke of a defeated fire, a crew of firefighters burst through our front door, the nozzle of a ready fire hose in their hands. Luckily for us they never turned it on. It saved the house from who-knows-what kind of water damage. The smoke, however, did plenty. It got into every room, every drawer, and every stitch of clothing inside those drawers.

Mom wasted no time in commencing a clean-up effort. She and Alice Albro, Mom’s neighborhood friend who had rushed over at the sight of the fire trucks, had buckets and sponges out in no time. They were wiping down walls when Warren Baker, the State Farm insurance agent who had sold us a homeowner’s policy just the month before, arrived at the scene.

“Girls, you can put down those buckets,” said Warren, who then delivered the news that State Farm would take care of everything, including putting us up in temporary lodging while they fixed up our house. So while Mom, Barb and my little brothers moved into Grandma’s house next door, the rest of us guys enjoyed a life of luxury at the Trailways Motor Lodge and Restaurant, complete with daily maid service, all-you-can-eat meals, and a different dessert every night.

“Eat up,” our dad encouraged his growing boys at the restaurant dinner table. “State Farm is paying for it!” Our last night at the Trailways, my brother Bob ate so much chicken and dumplings he threw up right at the dinner table. We didn’t stay for dessert that night.

Did the experience extinguish my fascination with fire? Hardly. Over the next few years, Mom was forever finding books of matches in my pants pockets—I swiped them whenever I could—and my older siblings nearly tired of ratting on me for my little grass fires in the yard. Mom and Dad certainly tired of telling me not to play with matches, and resorted on one occasion not to spanking or scolding but with something rather creative. They invited me to a movie.

The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne playing the real life oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair, who was famous for putting out gushing oil wells that had burst into flames. Mom and Dad took me to the French Village drive-in movie theater to see it. And they only took me.

John Wayne as Red Adaire

I really liked the movie, at least the first 20 minutes or so, which is all I saw from the middle seat of the station wagon, perched on the big hump on the floor we called the watermelon, before falling asleep. Mom had brought grocery sack filled with popcorn she made at home and smuggled in. To hear the movie there was a speaker, a big gray metal thing with slits where the sound came out and a knob to adjust the volume, hanging inside a window.

If my parents thought the experience would get pyromania out of my system cathartically, by watching huge fires up on the huge screen, they were unfortunately wrong. I kept stealing matches and just got better at hiding them—I found my clean black socks a fine place. And one day I used them to again summon the Fairview firefighters.

Most of the lots in South Bountiful Heights had houses on them by the late 1960s but a few remained vacant. One was on Bountiful Drive not far from our house. The grass and weeds grew tall there, so a kid could crouch down and not be seen by passersby. One day I headed there with my matches. It was a very hot day and when the wind blew it was like opening the door of an oven. The dry grass crinkled at my ankles as I waded through it.

Depositing myself where the grass was tallest, I struck a match. The flame was a nice one and I held it close to my face, wondering why it was blue at the base and then turning reddish yellow. I made a mental note to ask my brother Steve. He could always explain stuff like that.

I didn’t need to feed this fire. It founds its own fuel and spread in all directions, indeed with alarming speed. When I realized the smoke might be visible to others, I sprang to my feet and ran off. It took no time at all for others to see the smoke and call the fire department. On my way home, the town’s little red fire jeep passed me by. It sped to the fire and began putting it out and was soon joined by pumper trucks, whose deafening sirens really got to me. Or something did.

When I got home I decided to stay quiet. Unlike the kitchen fire, the fire on Bountiful would never be credited to me. Had I brought it up, I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad would have figured out it was mine. And then I expect they would have done the only sensible thing and sent me off to reform school.

Fortunately, no such measure was needed because the Bountiful fire was my last. Never again would I set a fire I wasn’t supposed to. We moved to Washington, DC when I was ten, and our new house there had a fireplace where I helped Dad build lots of fires. I think that helped. So too did joining Boy Scout Troop 1092. On countless camping trips with those fellas I learned to build fires safely and, I might add, with rather some finesse.

Indeed, I got pretty damn good at building fires. Nowadays I can still get a roaring fire going with no more help than the sulfur on the tip of a match.  And I do so whenever I can. It’s still fun.

Mike’s 1966 birthday. Standing left to right: Ed, Mike, Mom, Marty, Barb, Grandma, Ken. Notice Mom keeping me away from the candles.

Where I learned Black lives matter

I learned that racial discrimination is wrong the same place I suppose some people learn it’s okay. At home. From my parents. Most of this education took place during the late 1960s and early 70s, in Fairview Heights, Illinois, where I lived until I was ten. And, like the best lessons from parent to child, all I had to do was watch.

Mom and Dad were torn when, in 1962, they had outgrown their two-bedroom house in East St. Louis. With a seventh child (me) on the way, they desperately needed a bigger place. They found one in Fairview, just up the bluffs from their decaying industrial hometown of East St. Louis. They loved their house in an all-new subdivision. But they were keenly aware they had joined a parade of white families fleeing Black ones. And it bothered them.

My parents themselves had learned racial tolerance from the words and deeds of their own parents. As little kids, when my mom and her sister needed a babysitter when their mom went into labor, their dad invited Addie, a Black woman and family acquaintance, to stay at their house. When my dad got his first job at the New York Central Railroad, where his dad was Chief Clerk, my grandfather assigned his very best stevedore, a Black man, to be his son’s mentor.

After settling into their split-level on Primrose Lane, Mom and Dad had an idea. Maybe they could host coffees at their house, inviting their old Black neighbors from East St. Louis to sit with their new white neighbors? If families would just get to know each other, they figured, new friendships could be made to help bridge the racial divide.

After broaching the idea with a few of their neighbors, the coffee idea went cold. There was zero interest. And asking Black friends to come to Fairview could put them in harm’s way. The police were said to idle their cruisers at the base of the bluffs on Highway 50, watching for cars with dark-skinned occupants heading up to Fairview, cars that were promptly escorted out of town. Intimidation like this kept the number of Black visitors to Fairview at approximately zero—and, for many years, the number of Black residents at exactly zero.

As a devout Catholic and avid reader, Dad kept up with what the Pope had to say, which was quite a lot in that era of reform known as Vatican II. The 1967 papal encyclical Populorum Progressio by Pope Paul VI addressed the needs of “those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilization.” Dad thought of Black people. It spoke of the Church putting herself at the service of all, and proclaiming “solidarity in action at this turning point in human history is a matter of urgency.” To Dad it was a clarion call to get to work.

Dad had stayed in touch with Father Goldammer at St. Elizabeth’s, the East St. Louis parish he attended as a kid. Many priests are known for mild manners and solemnity. But this priest would turn red in the face, raging from the pulpit about the racial conflict tearing the country apart. And when my dad brought up the papal encyclical, and offered to write and give speeches to anyone who would listen, Father Goldammer was all ears. He would find my dad an audience.

So my dad gave these talks, mostly in church basements, and his speeches were well received. He put the message of the Populorum Progessio into his own words that went along these lines: Violence and anger and hatred aren’t the answer. Looking past racial differences is the answer. We are all brothers and sisters of the same family, the family of God’s people. Dad felt like one of the big brothers of that family. And it felt great. He had found his cadence in the great march for civil rights.

Just as the police murder of George Floyd would ignite the flames of protest in 2020, so too did the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Then, as now, the battle over civil rights became an intense topic of national conversation. Which side you were on, and how vocal you were about it, could make a difference in how others, including your employer, saw you.

There was a presidential election in 1968 that turned out to be a memorable one. Although he had won by a landslide in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, with the yoke of the Vietnam War around his neck, decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic nomination went to Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Our family liked this guy a lot. Nicknamed the Happy Warrior, this architect of the Peace Corp, before becoming Johnson’s VP, was the Democratic Whip in the US Senate, a position Senator Dick Durbin, Dad’s brother, has filled since 2005. Our family likes this guy quite a lot, too.

Johnson’s withdrawal from the race also opened the door for the reincarnation of Richard Nixon’s political life after having lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960. He won the 1968 Republican nomination. Unlike most presidential races, this one featured a viable third party candidate in the segregationist George Wallace. He ran as an independent. Most people wrote off the Alabama governor as an avowed racist, given his attempts to block Black children from entering newly integrated schools.

In a mock election at Grant School, the Durbin kids old enough to participate all voted for Hubert Humphrey. They were promptly labeled “n-word lovers” by their classmates. And on the big sign at the front of our South Bountiful Heights subdivision, someone used Wallace bumper stickers to rename it “Wallace” Heights.

“Don’t worry,” Mom assured us all back at home. “If George Wallace becomes president then we’re all moving to Canada. Or maybe New Zealand.”

Some of our neighbors made a point of letting us know how they felt about our views. One morning we found our house had been egged and spray-painted. The twisting patterns were all over our fake window shutters and front porch railings—you can see them in the photo at the end of this post. Dad decided not to let it bother him, and to let the vandals know by keeping those shutters and porch rails just the way they were.

He responded differently to the next message that came our way. Some “yahoos,” as Dad called them, began driving their cars across our yard at night, leaving deep trenches in the grass. He drove a bunch of us down to the nearby Haydite mines, where I think they made cinderblocks. There, we loaded our Ford station wagon with massive, fossil-laden stones. It’s a miracle the car’s suspension didn’t snap on the drive home. I can still recall the sparks flying as the bottom of our lumbering car scraped the asphalt of Old Lincoln Trail. We put those stones along the curb of house and the yahoos never came back.

Meanwhile, Dad got pretty good at giving those speeches and his words were mostly well received. When he spoke of church leaders having a responsibility in the matter of racial justice, however, word got back to his new church St. Albert’s in Fairview. And he got a message from fellow members of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men. They took him aside one night after a meeting. The head priest at St. Albert’s and even the local bishop, they told him, thought Bill Durbin was being arrogant. His DCC buddies asked him to stop. Knowing he was being heard by Church leadership only made my dad want to speak out more. He felt he was accomplishing something, and told these guys, in so many words, to go pee up a rope. They weren’t going to shut him up. But something else soon would.

One night, as Dad entered the basement of St. Joseph’s Church to give a speech, he saw something he hadn’t seen at one of these events before: A film crew. And, beside them, some colleagues from the Aeronautical Charts and Information Center, the Defense Department agency in St. Louis where Dad worked. What the hell?

Dad’s speech was preceded by one from another activist priest, Father Geneseo, who was himself on thin ice with Church leadership. But the crew didn’t film him. They waited for Dad. When he approached the pulpit, they turned on their lights and raised a microphone as the film camera started to whir. When he was done, the crew packed up and left. They didn’t stay for the next speaker. They only filmed Bill Durbin.

Then all kinds of questions went through my dad’s head: Who brought the film crew? What kind of word would go back to his supervisors? Would they make some kind of report to the government investigators who kept an eye on the personal lives of the men working on their secret projects making maps for the military? Would he have some explaining to do when he was next up for promotion? Would he even be up for promotion? He decided not to find out. The possible answers to any of these questions were too painful to bear.

Until that night at St. Joseph’s, Bill Durbin hadn’t thought anyone at ACIC would care what he spoke about, as long as he wasn’t revealing classified information, which of course he never did. He was making a steady income for the first time in his life, serving as a diligent civil servant in the midst of the Cold War. It had been years since he or Mom went to relatives to borrow a few dollars until payday. But now, with the government apparently recording his activities, he felt that meager financial security was at risk.

Dad told Father Goldammer there would be no more speeches. He also called up the head of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men to tell him he had reconsidered their advice. They didn’t have to worry anymore, Dad told the guy, because there would be no more speeches. The guy thanked him.

Then he quit the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men and, keeping his word, stopped giving speeches. And, at last, he painted those shutters on our front windows. The march for civil rights would have to continue without Bill Durbin, at least outside the house. But the education of his children would continue. And it included one field trip I’ll never forget.

Although typically considered a northern state, the longitudinal expanse of Illinois puts it in both the North and South. For the better part of the 20th century, while the progressive metropolis of Chicago at its northern edge was chock full of racially tolerant whites, the little town of Cairo at the other end had scant few. Pronounced KAY-ro like the syrup (not KY-ro like its namesake city in Egypt) things happened in that Illinois town that one might think in those days only happened in places like Alabama or Mississippi.

According to newspaper accounts, in July 1967, 19-year-old Private Robert Hunt, a Black soldier home on leave in Cairo, was stopped by the police for a malfunctioning taillight. A few hours later he was dead. His battered body lay crumpled on the floor of a holding cell in the police station, where the cops later told the FBI the disturbed AWOL had hung himself with his t-shirt. The FBI agreed and decided not to investigate, despite the bruises, despite no indication Private Hunt was AWOL, and despite a mesh ceiling on the holding cell that could not possibly hold the weight of a grown man. In any earlier year, things might have ended there. But this was 1967. This time the Black community rose up in anger. They smashed windows, burned buildings to the ground, and vowed to continue until things changed.

A few years later, when Bill Durbin drove a station wagon full of us kids past the cotton fields on its outskirts and into the town of Cairo, things hadn’t changed much. White residents had formed a group known as the White Hats, for the white construction helmets they wore while patrolling the city. White civil rights activists joined up with the NAACP and local Black residents to form the Cairo United Front. One of those activists was Father Bernard Bodewes, once a priest at St. Albert’s in Fairview who had relocated to Cairo to join the battle. Dad had called Father Bodewes and asked to bring his kids down for a visit. Dad wanted us to see firsthand that some of the riots and violence we read about in the papers and seen on TV happened just a few hours drive from where we lived.

Father Bodewes pointed to the wall of his dining room. “See those holes? Who wants to look through and tell me what they see?”

We took turns peering through some of the half dozen or so holes in the wall, each big enough to slide a hot dog through. “I see a flag pole,” I said as I peered outside and felt a slight wind on my face coming through the hole.

“That’s the police station,” said Father Bodewes.

As it dawned on us these holes were from bullets fired from the direction of the police station, maybe by police themselves, Dad suggested we move away from the wall and into the living room. There, Father Bodewes shared some of what was going on in Cairo. I didn’t follow all of it, but I could tell Dad really thought the world of this guy. Dad might have stopped speaking out himself on behalf of civil rights, but I think he wanted us to know someone who was still speaking. At least for the time being.

Father Bodewes was booted from the Catholic Church in 1971. His excommunication was ostensibly the result of his taking the diocese to court in an attempt to restore his paycheck. The Church hadn’t paid his $700 monthly salary in nearly a year, cutting him off when he refused to break with the Cairo United Front. Apparently, these disciples of Jesus Christ were unimpressed by a priest literally putting his life on the line in the service of people in need. Bernard Bodewes died in 2013.

On the way out of Cairo, Dad drove us through parts of town that by comparison made even East St. Louis look good. The streets were nearly deserted and it looked like the trash hadn’t been picked up in years. Dad slowed down as we passed the remains of buildings that had been burned down. Some were nothing but charred wood piles, or brick boxes with no tops and filled with blackened debris. The half dozen Durbin kids packed into the car didn’t have much to say.

The long drive home was a quiet one.

I called Mom while preparing this post. “I suppose some people just need other people to look down on,” she said. She remembers exactly where the so-called color lines of the East St. Louis were drawn—Blacks had to stay south of Louisiana Boulevard, Latinos in Washington Park—and laments that we’re still struggling with such things. “The worst four-letter word we have is ‘hate’,” she told me, before quickly attributing the quote to Eleanor Roosevelt, reminding me that I learned the sin of plagiarism from my parents too.

We lost Dad to heart disease in 2001. After nearly twenty years, I still think of not just his message but the messenger himself. He loved his family, his country, his faith, and the ideals of fairness and justice. And he worked hard every day in service to all that he loved. Would that I might follow in such footsteps.

I think about how Dad would view the Black Lives Matter movement today, a half century after those turbulent 1960s. I think about our trip to Cairo, his speeches, those shutters—fresh memories come to mind daily.

I think too about 19-year-old Robert Hunt, that young Black man on leave from serving his country, who died back in 1967 at the hands of the police. His life sure mattered.


Bill and Lorraine Durbin with some of their kids and visiting friends. That’s me off to the right.

To plan a house

Houses nowadays are built twice. The first creation uses software to produce plans. The second uses mortar mixers, nail guns, and all manner of hardware to produce an actual dwelling where one can watch TV, make a pee, and otherwise live a life. We thought our first build would be lots of fun and parts of it definitely were. Some parts definitely were not.

Before we’d even bought our lot we met a local builder who’s built lots of houses in Carrboro we think are quite nice. When he told us we wouldn’t need to hire an architect, that we could just show him photos of houses we liked or draw a sketch, and he would create construction plans for a fee well below what any architect would charge, we were ecstatic.

Becky and I had already agreed we liked Craftsman homes, a classic American style of dwelling from the early 1900s. She quickly gathered lots of photos she’d found on Houzz and I got to work with a pencil, ruler, and big pad of paper. I sketched a handsome foursquare, complete with a view from the street and a top view showing where all the rooms might go, and a carport off the back of the house. The local builder thought they were great and said to keep going.

A week or so later we all met for coffee at Johnny’s on Main Street (back when one could do such things) and this time I had several sheets of paper, taped together to form detailed plans that spanned the length of the table. I had toiled for hours on these things and thought they were pretty good. “Let’s see here,” the local builder said as he moved his coffee cup and took in the dimensions on my sketch. “That’s almost five thousand square feet!” My house was twice the size of what we could afford. Suddenly I saw my plans for what they were, an artifact of enthusiastic naïveté.

We needed an architect. Becky tapped into her enviable network of friends, built over a lifetime spent in these parts, and before long we had interviewed three: Bill Waddell, Jody Brown, and Sophie Piesse. Each blew us away and left us in a quandary over who to go with. While deliberating, we continued thinking about what kind of house we wanted, and for ideas went to look at nearby houses nearly every day. One of them was the fight house.

It’s a gorgeous one-story home on Hillsborough Street, with a built-out attic and secondary structure I really liked. I liked everything about the place, in fact, and wanted Becky to like it just as much. She, wisely, takes more time when deciding what she likes and pushed back a bit. She said something—neither of us can recall what exactly—that seemed, to me, to contradict advice one of the architects had given us. “Are you saying Bill lied to us?” My stupid remark stopped Becky in her tracks.

“How can what I just said make you say that?”  That’s when the excitement of planning our dream house tipped into anger and resentment. It was… not fun. The argument continued after we climbed into our car and drove away, ending before long with a truce, a genuine hug, and a decision to let an architect listen to what we both had to say then tell us what they thought. Like a marriage counselor.

We decided to hire Jody Brown after a few quick rounds of rock-paper-scissors. Not really. It was his portfolio, which happened to include a modern take on a Craftsman that we both loved. When we met to begin the design process Jody gave us each a list of words—hundreds, including different shapes, colors, styles, and whatnot—and asked us to independently check off those we liked. Silently, handing back my sheet, I thought it seemed silly. He also asked lots of questions you would expect – how many bedrooms, how do we feel about porch space, and so on – and spoke in a casual way that made us think we were chatting with a good friend who happened to also be a licensed architect. I wondered if it was too casual, and grew concerned that he seemed to say yes to everything we said.

Our only concern at that meeting was his answer to what we thought was a reasonable question: Would he give us three sketches of rough ideas, so we could select one before spending more of his time? This time he said no. He would give us only one design, but if we didn’t like it we could ask him to start over. We could do that as many times as we wanted until he designed a house we loved.

We left with more than a bit of anxiety. How long would this take? How many designs would Jody have to produce to make us happy? The answer, it turned out, was one.

On the last day of September, not two weeks after our meeting, Jody emailed us a PDF. I called Becky and, not wanting to influence her, asked her what she thought. “What do YOU think?” she answered. “No,” I insisted in the flattest voice I could muster, “you go first.” “Well… I really like it,” she said. “Me too!!” I yelped. “Do you mean it?” she responded. “I really REALLY mean it!”

We still don’t know how he did it. Maybe it was the goofy word quiz or maybe, and this is more likely, Jody is just a damn good architect, and this is what damn good architects can do.

Jody made a few more drafts for us, adjusting things like the number of bedrooms and other interior aspects. We changed not one single thing about the exterior. When we figured we were now done with the planning stage, in mid-October, we learned otherwise. Jody would now need to create construction plans with thousands of additional details. That took another three months. And when those plans arrived, we knew why. I couldn’t have made these in three years.

When printed, the first creation of our house fills 28 pages with elevations, electrical and framing plans, roof plans and more. Arranged side by side, the resulting quilt of paper would cover the entire floor of a typical bedroom. Plans like this used to be called blueprints, for the color of the light-sensitive paper, so tinted due to the infusion of ammonium ferric citrate, against which a tracing paper sketch was pressed under glass and placed under a strong light, thus transferring the sketch to the blue paper. I know! I’m quite a nerd when it comes to such things!

Jody’s construction plans are in black and white. Putting color onto all those squares, triangles, and rectangles was up to us, with some great tips from Jody. The color selection process involved more than a little bit of disagreement between Becky and me, but nothing approaching the level of a fight. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, the old saying goes, so when one of us didn’t like a color the other did we just moved onto the next one. There are only about a million or so to choose from. Jody was kind enough to put our Sherwin-Williams colors onto his plans, and we ended up with one plan we like a lot. We need to test it out with real paint, but we think we’re pretty close.

“There’s the fight house,” one of us will say to the other as we pass by that house on Hillsborough Street nowadays. It makes us smile. And it makes me grateful. Genuine conflict tests a couple’s mettle like nothing else, and passing such a test, by talking about it and learning from it, as we did, feels really good. So does looking at those plans.

To build a house. Or not.

When Becky and I decided to build a house, it did seem a bit impulsive. We had just met. When Covid hit a few months later, the idea seemed suddenly improbable. Then impossible. Then, positively insane.

Our original plan was to do what most people do and just buy a pre-existing place—a used house, as it were. So, one very hot Sunday in July 2019, we decided to scope out neighborhoods just north of downtown Carrboro, North Carolina, where I lived.

Becky Broun and I had been dating for less than a year. Indeed, less than two months. Seven weeks earlier we’d met at Caffe Driade, a local institution whose name translates from ancient Greek to “place for online coffee dates.” It’s rather popular with the crowd.

I had an iced herbal tea, having given up caffeine some months before when I realized it was giving me weird bouts of vertigo. Unfortunately, what I’ve just explained here in 24 words I took several hundred to explain to Becky that day, just as we sat down, prattling on as if defending a research thesis. Another woman might have excused herself and raced off in her car. But Becky stuck around until at last I gave her a chance to speak, and by the end of our date we had each pretty much decided our online dating days were over. How we could be so sure, so quickly, is a story for another time.  

Now we were highlighting streets on a paper map so we’d know when to pounce if any of those houses went up for sale. The real estate market had cooled some as summer heated up, but only a little. It was still the kind of market where if you wanted a nice house you had to be there on the day it hit the market with a fat wad of money in each hand.

“Wouldn’t it be great to find a house in walking distance to Weaver Street? Or even better, to build one?” I said to Becky as I lurched my car through tree-lined streets, with one eye in the rearview for cars that might want to get by.

I was referring not to actual Weaver Street but to Weaver Street Market, the cultural centerpiece of Carrboro where people gathered to shop for groceries or fill plates at the food bar for dining under the giant oak trees out front. On Sunday mornings bands play live music there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more Carrboro residents go to Weaver Street on Sunday mornings than to church. I had worshipped there countless times over pancakes and Mexican scrambled eggs.

Becky agreed. “It’d be amazing to live so close to Benj and Rachel” she added, referring to her brother and sister-in-law who lived on a street just behind Armadillo Grill, another downtown Carrboro fixture. Becky and Benjamin are close. She’s the only person on earth allowed to call him “Benj” and I’m pretty sure they talk on the phone every day.

We’d arrived at Weaver Street and decided to hit the adjacent neighborhoods, slowing to take in the quant mill houses the town is known for: impossibly small structures—tiny houses way before tiny houses were a thing—built for Carrboro’s cotton mill workers at the at the start of the 1900s. Houses are packed tight around here, on some streets like cereal boxes on a store shelf, and the odds of finding a vacant lot are impossibly long. But this was our impossibly lucky day.

Someone else had managed to build a house on an empty lot in this neighborhood—I had watched it go up with envy. We were driving by it now. What I hadn’t noticed before is that the house took up only half of a double lot. But Becky noticed it right away. “There’s a For Sale By Owner sign!”

I slowed to the car to a stop and we both jumped out. The grass was nearly as tall as we were, so we couldn’t see the entire lot and hesitated to go romping through it just yet, but we took down the web address on the sign. As we drove away Becky tapped the URL into her phone, we texted the owner, and set up a meeting.

The next day we pulled up again at the lot and parked. There was now a path mowed in a giant figure eight through the tall grass, and shortly after we arrived a spectacled man with close cropped hair rode up on a small bicycle.

“Hi, I’m Chris.”

We introduced ourselves and thanked him for cutting the path.

“While I was mowing I found a dead deer back there,” he quickly offered up. “The smell was awful and I had to drag it to the curb myself so the town would come pick it up. I’m glad they got here before you did!”

As were we.

Chris had lived in the area for many years, so it didn’t take long for him and Becky, who grew up here, to identify people they both knew. He and his wife had bought half the double lot with the couple who now lived in the recently finished house on the northern half—the one I watched go up. There had been a 1950s brick house here, in bad repair, which the two couples tore down. When Chris and his wife decided to renovate their current house just a few blocks away, rather than build a new one on their half, they put the lot up for sale.

We strode around the path, listening to Chris tell us how great it was to walk to everything in Carrboro, especially the restaurants. “Some nights we just start walking toward Chapel Hill until we smell something that draws us in. It’s pretty sweet.”

Carrboro is adjacent to Chapel Hill, home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina. The college town is known for being one of the more liberal outposts in the southern state, much to the frustration of conservative politicians, of which there are more than a few. The legendary Republican Senator Jesse Helms, when the state was debating where to put a new zoo in the 1970s, is said to have asked, “Couldn’t we just build a fence around Chapel Hill?” Carrboro, just to the west, is even more liberal. “A little to the left of Chapel Hill,” a sign here once said. 

The next day, Wednesday, I called the town hall and spoke with zoning officer James Thomas. He confirmed it was a buildable lot but warned us there was a stream buffer along one side, on either side of a drainage ditch. “You can’t build within the buffer,” he stressed. We’d seen the ditch and didn’t think it would be a problem. On Thursday we gave Chris and his wife a cashier’s check and executed an offer to purchase.

It was done. Becky and I, eight weeks after meeting, and four days after first laying eyes on the lot, had committed to building a custom home, something neither of us had ever done before nor even dreamt we might. The next several weeks consisted of both easy things, like securing hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing and choosing a builder to entrust it to, and difficult things like convincing our families we weren’t out of our gourds.

We hired a local design-build firm to put a house our lot. In September, their architect, after just one meeting with Becky and me, produced plans we loved at first sight. It was a craftsman bungalow with a big front porch–we found ourselves looking at it several times a day. The firm’s owner, our “builder” in construction parlance, told us if they submitted the permit application by end of year then construction could start in February. Neither of those things, it turned out, would happen.

By early March we were growing more frustrated by the day. What could be taking so long? Then frustration gave way to the gratitude when an impossibly small creature, a coronavirus named SARS-Cov-2, began causing the infectious disease COVID-19. It had already wreaked havoc in China and was now grinding life on the rest of the planet to a halt. Restaurants closed (the Weaver Street lawn was eerily empty even on beautiful Sunday mornings), college students all came home, and toilet paper disappeared from grocery stores. I began working from home and set up a desk at a window that looked out on the local health clinic, where I watched them erect a tent for drive-through screenings. Seemingly overnight, life had turned upside down and outside in.

Nobody knew how bad this was going to get. Becky and I had to wonder, if we started construction now, could we finish? Would workers be available? How about all the materials? We had visions of a half-built house rotting in the sun for months. Or years. And what if one or both of us lost our jobs? All that cash we were about to pour into a house might come in very handy.

We put the project on hold. “I’d probably do the same,” our builder offered up glumly when we called him with the news. We told him we were postponing for two months, knowing it might be much longer. It was depressing, pulling the plug like that. But, we decided, it was better to be sad than scared.

Then, with the pressure off, we took a few days to size up the situation. Yes, if the worst of our predictions all came true, then Becky and I would be, as a learned economist might say, really in the shit. But it might not be so bad. There was uncertainty.

There was no uncertainty, however, on the likely effect of pulling the plug on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Construction workers would need to look elsewhere for work. Our orders of cinder blocks and two-by-fours and everything else would be cancelled. The national economy was facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression, and we had control over just this tiny little bit of it. But it was our bit.

We might get hurt if we proceed but others will certainly hurt if we don’t. Fuck it, we decided. We called our builder back not two weeks after postponing. Let’s build this thing, we told him, full speed ahead. We could hear his sigh of relief. “This will be one special house,” he said.

To us it already was.

Something in my head

One weekend nearly three years ago, something weird started going on inside my head. The chief symptom of my ailment was vertigo, which came and went spontaneously, in episodes typically lasting well under a minute. Some of these dizzy spells were barely noticeable. Some were accompanied by sudden deafness in my left ear, ringing on the right, and profuse sweating. Some sent me crumpling to the ground in spinning agony.

My only comfort was in thinking my symptoms were so striking, and so consistent, that my doctor would pinpoint their cause in no time. Man was I wrong about that.

In October 2017 I was 54 years old and divorced, with two kids off in college, and single as a dollar. To improve my chances on the dating front I decided to get serious about losing the few extra pounds around my middle. So, one Monday I hatched a plan to go two solid weeks living the healthiest life possible. I would choose meals with extra care, get lots of sleep, and double my running and hiking routine. I dubbed it my “fitness fortnight.” By Friday, my thrice-weekly run had grown from three miles to six, and on days between running I took long hikes through the woods behind my house at the fastest clip I could muster. It felt great.

One Saturday morning, sitting at my writing desk and looking out at the birds at my feeder, I felt as if something were gently squeezing my brain. It lasted just a few seconds. An hour or so later it happened again, feeling more intense this time but still lasting no more than half a minute. I had one more spell that day, again out of the blue and slightly more intense than the last.

The next morning, I was just waking from a good night’s rest when I heard a whooshing sound I attributed to the dishwasher running in the kitchen downstairs. But then I remembered just emptying it the day before. It must be something outside the house, I figured. When I heard it again later that day I went to the window. There was nothing there. That’s when I realized the whooshes were whooshing at a familiar tempo. I pressed a hand to my neck and realized the whooshing was tracking my pulse perfectly. I was hearing my blood.

I decided to see my doctor first thing Monday morning. I also decided, reluctantly, to hold off on running. My fitness fortnight had become a fitness four-night.  

My regular doctor was out. His replacement was not the least bit alarmed. “I get two new vertigo patients a week at your age,” he told me. I hadn’t even thought of this as vertigo, as so far I hadn’t experienced any spinning, only these brain-squeezes. But apparently there’s such a thing as non-spinning vertigo. And what about the whooshing, I asked? “Let’s work on the vertigo,” he said, then prescribed a drug called meclizine.

I had had seven spells by then. That evening I had my eighth, while standing in my kitchen making dinner, and this one came with a new feature. When my brain squeeze came on, I held onto the edge of the sink to steady myself. It wasn’t enough. Suddenly I was unable to remain standing, as if my brain had shut off all instructions to the muscles that allow hominids to stand upright. I dropped to the floor.

I remember once playing with a toy doll made of hollow wooden limbs held together by wires. When you pressed a button at its base, the wires went slack, causing the little man to crumple into a pile of body parts. The experience in my kitchen that night was just like that. Something pressed that button. I would later learn these are called drop attacks, and the one that night would be the first of many.

I decided to work from home the next day, fearful of having a severe episode while driving to my office some 20 miles away. I had another episode that day, and another at night. That one woke me from a deep, dreamy sleep and I had to sit up and steady myself until it passed.

Early the next morning, back at my writing desk, I noticed the birds outside my open screen door went suddenly quiet. Turning to look, I realized my hearing had gone out in my left ear—just as my brain felt the familiar squeeze and, this time, for the first time, the world began to spin. It was textbook vertigo. I laid both palms on the desk and looked out the window as a great wave of nausea came on. I was on the verge of vomiting, sucking in that one last deep breath as my stomach prepared to spew forth its contents, when the spinning stopped and my hearing came back. As I exhaled, I noticed beads of sweat on the hairs up and down on my forearm and shivered as a light wind blew across my wet skin. I was so drenched I had to change my shirt.

I called my mom, who had had some experience with vertigo, and learned that her doctor had also prescribed meclizine. But she had never experienced episodes quite like mine. She recommended I begin logging the episodes, in order to have solid data to share with my doctors, advice I began following right away.

The meclizine was not helping. I called my doctor’s office to get an appointment with an ENT, and got one, but would need to wait four weeks. With each episode worse than the last, I was pretty sure I’d be in the ER way before then. Fortunately, the next episode was slightly less intense. And the one after that was even milder. I decided I could wait.

I went two days with only the mildest of spells and so began driving to work again. The whooshing episodes also subsided. I was hearing my pulse only once or twice a day, for five or ten minutes at a time. Interestingly, the whooshing spells never coincided with the dizzy spells. They were on their own random cycle.


Ten days after my first episode, sitting at my desk at the bank where I work, I heard a ringing on the right side of my head. Then my hearing went out in my left ear and the world began to spin. It spun for less than a minute, not as badly as it had before, but when it stopped, I again noticed my forearms wet with sweat. I made an appointment to see my regular physician the next day.

“You need a brain scan right now.” My doctor’s face had gone slack when I described what was going on. His alarm, though, was oddly reassuring. I’ve been seeing my primary care physician for more than a decade and was glad that he too saw this as being something truly weird. Other than an argument over how to pronounce tinnitus (I’d always heard it tin-EYE-tus and he insisted it was TIN-i-tus, which I think sounds silly) my doc and I were on the same page.

While waiting for the results of the emergency MRI of my head, I went online to see what my doctor might be worried about. It didn’t take long to find a condition whose symptoms lined up with mine, a non-cancerous tumor called an acoustic neuroma. This was it, I thought. It was an awful thing to have, but weirdly I took some comfort in knowing what was probably going on. My mind turned to my son and daughter and how I would break the news, explain the condition, and assure them I would be fine once the tumor was removed.

I learned by email that the MRI came back negative. There was no tumor or other sign of anything unusual. My first reaction was disappointment at having to go back to square one. Then I remembered that learning one does not have a brain tumor is actually not a bad thing.


Thus began something of an odyssey, which consisted mostly of waiting for appointments with specialists of various stripes, all the while experiencing random waves of vertigo of varying intensity. It was like a gremlin had taken up quarters in my head, tormenting me at random moments of his choosing. Sometimes he’d sleep quietly for two or three days, then come out 30 times or more in a single day.

My first stop was the otolaryngology or ENT department at Duke Hospital where, over the course of several weeks, a team of ENTs ordered a hearing test, a test of the vestibular functions of my inner ear, additional MRIs, and a CT scan of my brain. Between appointments I began scouring the internet to learn about my hearing and vestibular system, and basically to see what the hell might be going on.

The space between your earlobes and brainstem is home to a remarkable bit of machinery. Consider just the semi-circular canals, three hollow rings positioned on opposing axes like the rings of a gyroscope and filled with tiny crystals floating in liquid. Moving your head in any direction disrupts the flow of those liquids, disruptions transmitted to your brain by the vestibulocochlear nerve. As its name implies, this nerve, also known as the eighth cranial nerve, also transmits signals produced by air pressing on your cochlea, or eardrum. The mechanisms are magnificent. And as a software engineer I can only marvel at the complexity of the “code” inside the brain that has to interpret the data coming in via this key pipeline of information on either side of our heads. Wrapped all around the hearing and vestibular organs is a web of blood vessels large and small, equally marvelous it its ability to get blood in and out of impossibly compact nooks and crannies.

There are any number of things that can go wrong in this part of the head, all of which would need to be considered in my case. Doctors call this process of elimination differential diagnosis. So far, only the tumor had been struck off my list. That left things like Benign Positional Vertigo (whose cause has to do with those canal crystals not moving around as they should) and Meneire’s Disease (an inner-ear disorder that can cause random vertigo spells like mine). To be considered on the vascular front were things like aneurysms (blood bubbles), stroke (blood clots or bleeding), stenoses (vessel narrowing), fistulas (abnormal connections between arteries and veins), and dissections (blood vessel tears). The whooshing, I learned, was known as pulsatile tinnitus.

When I asked my senior-most ENT about a condition I had run across called vestibular paroxysmia (VP) caused by a blood vessel compressing the vestibulocochlear nerve, and whose symptoms seemed to line up with mine, he responded as if I’d insulted him. “I don’t believe in that,” he snapped. His umbrage made me feel like I’d just suggested voodoo. He hadn’t seen it in 25 years of practice, he continued, and when I pressed him for more he said if such a condition were real it would cause much more severe hearing loss than what I was reporting. He clearly knew what he was talking about. I decided to let the doctors do the diagnosing.


One of the doctors suspected a vestibular migraine, whose typical symptoms include dizzy spells, and suggested I go on a migraine diet for two weeks. But removing nuts, cheeses, processed foods, soy products, and olives from my diet had no apparent effect. Nor did abstaining from alcohol. And thank God for that.   

The battery of testing ordered by the ENTs gave no clue as to what was going on. My hearing was fine, except for a slight deafness on my right side, which I’d had since I was a teenager, when a firecracker went off in my right hand after waiting too long to throw it. My vestibular organs all seemed to be functioning properly. I didn’t qualify for Meniere’s, whose spells need to last 20 minutes or more, whereas mine typically lasted 15 or 20 seconds. And none of the brain scans—not the MRI, MRA, MRV, nor CT—showed signs of a dissection or other obvious vascular disorder. One scan did find an aneurism, or blood bubble, deep inside my brain. But its size (thankfully quite small) and location ruled it out as a culprit.

The apparent lack of vascular disorder baffled me for two reasons. One, pulsatile tinnitus by definition is due to blood flowing where it shouldn’t, i.e., where your cochlea can pick it up. Two, my symptoms came on after the most intensive cardiovascular workout of my life, with long runs or fast hikes every day. Rather stupidly, in hindsight, I had clearly let my heart rate go way into a danger zone. Wasn’t it reasonable to assume I had torn some vessel up there? Perhaps. But the testing showed no sign of it.

The ENTs concluded that a central nervous system disorder should be considered next and referred me to neurology. And the referring doctor told me to expect the neurologists to order a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, which quickly brought two words to mind: oh shit. If there was one medical procedure I had feared more than any other it was a spinal tap. Fortunately, the very first neurologist I went to saw no reasons to indicate a central nervous system disorder. “You don’t need a lumbar puncture,” he told me. I nearly hugged the guy.

He still suspected a vascular issue and referred me to a neurologist who specializes in those. When I told her about another symptom that had come on a few weeks before onset, a stiff neck whenever I ran, she ordered MRIs of my neck to expand the search for a vascular disorder in that area. Nothing.


Meanwhile the episodes continued. In April, I crumpled to the ground after drinking one beer at the Ponysaurus Brewing Company in Durham, where the other patrons no doubt assumed I had had way more than one. In May, waiting in baggage claim at the airport, I noticed the loud ringing on my right side, which I had learned by then signaled the onset of a drop attack. I headed for a bench not ten feet away but didn’t make it. I dropped like a rock onto the cold, tile floor. Leaving Duke’s imaging facility one day, passing by the cancer center, I put both hands on its stone exterior when the ringing began, thinking wrongly that I could remain standing. A second later I was on the ground, rehearsing what I would say to the passersby who I knew would soon be coming to assist. Actually none did.

One thing I noticed about my drop attacks is that my body seemed to always fall to the left. Wanting to confirm this, one day I hurried to my bedroom when I felt one coming on. Standing next to my bed and a safe distance from any hard furniture, when this one came on I offered no resistance. Sure enough, I fell not slightly to my port side but directly, as if someone twice my size were standing to my right and pushing with gusto, their invisible hand toppling me right over.

It had been seven months since this gremlin made a home of my head. By mid-April 2018, I had logged 853 episodes, including 28 drop attacks—one per week, on average.

Duke Hospital is a world-class medical facility with a well-deserved reputation for superior medical care, but it appeared my condition had them stumped. I decided to look elsewhere for help and started, of all places, on Facebook. There I found a group of pulsatile tinnitus sufferers and began looking for names of doctors in their posts. Because my PT had begun on nearly the same day as the vertigo, I figured there was a good chance they had the same underlying cause. If I could diagnose the PT, my thinking went, I might simultaneously diagnose the vertigo.

I went to see two doctors who specialize in pulsatile tinnitus, one in New York and one in Baltimore. Looking at my scans, the New York doctor, a neurointerventional radiologist, saw some indication of stenosis but could not say that was causing my symptoms. The Baltimore doctor was equally baffled, until the day after the appointment when he placed a phone call that changed everything.


I was driving to work one morning and saw a call coming in from Baltimore. The ENT had woken up that morning with a new idea, he told me with a hint of pride. I was just thrilled he took the time to call. He suggested my symptoms might be due to something called intracranial hypotension due to a cerebral spinal fluid leak. I thanked him profusely and pulled over for a quick bit of googling. The condition, I learned, would seem to explain every one of my symptoms.

I was ecstatic. After seven months of riding this disturbing roller coaster, finally a doctor had the combination of curiosity and caring to point me to the most promising path I’d yet encountered. Incredibly, one of the three major centers in the US for treating CSF leaks, I learned, is none other than Duke Hospital. Why my Duke ENTs, neurologists, and radiologists did not think of sending me down the hall to their CSF colleagues I cannot say. In any event, I went back to Duke.

After reading everything I could find on CSF leaks, a plausible story nearly wrote itself. It was plausible to me, anyway, and it went like this: Our brains are suspended in a bath of clear liquid that extends down our spinal column. On one of my intense runs back in October, I had caused a tear that CSF was leaking out of, causing my brain to sag onto my vestibulocochlear nerve, in turn triggering either the pulsatile tinnitus or vertigo, depending on where it sagged. The whooshing was the result of something called the Venturi effect when blood is forced to flow through a constricted space—just as a running water hose hisses when you kink it.

Two things supported my story. First was the fact that from time to time, with no symptoms of a cold, I would find a thin clear fluid dripping from my nose—I read this was a common symptom. I also decided to test the saggy brain theory. One day when I felt the pulsatile tinnitus coming on, I got down on all fours, hunched up my hiny and let my head dangle upside down. The whooshing stopped. When I stood up, the whooshing came back. I repeated this test dozens of times with same result.

It was a lead-pipe cinch, quod erat demonstrandum, and a total no-brainer: my spinal fluid was leaking.

Waiting three months for testing to confirm a CSF leak (I’d become accustomed to waits of weeks or months between stops on my journey to diagnosis) I read that caffeine was known to reduce symptoms of intracranial hypotension. I happily increased my morning consumption from four cups to six. A lifelong coffee drinker, this was a silver lining, albeit slim, to the gray cloud of dread that hung over me waiting for the test they would use to detect a CSF leak:  a spinal tap, while lying on the bed of a CT scanner, to inject dye into my spinal fluid, dye that would show up on the CT scans when it leaked out.

The spinal tap turned out to be not the least bit painful. Just a bit of pressure against my spine. “Do want to see what I see?” asked the friendly technician who had patiently explained everything beforehand, setting me at complete ease. “Sure!” He positioned the CT screen so I could watch as a needle entered the space between the bones of my spine. So the CT myelogram turned out to be rather cool. But it did not show any signs of a CSF.

“I know it’s disappointing to not know what’s going on,” the doctor told me over the phone a few days later. “But trust me, you don’t want to have a CSF leak.”

How could this be? I had fallen victim to something called confirmation bias, where you focus on evidence that supports a hypothesis you already believe to be true. It was the same as when I was convinced I had a tumor. So once again, a year into this odyssey, I went back to a familiar place: square one.


Until this time, my episodes of vertigo had come on randomly throughout the day. But now I began noticing a pattern. They tended to occur between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon, when my recently increased morning caffeine infusion was starting to wear off. Might there be a connection? Over the course of ten days I switched to decaf, gradually mixing it into my regular coffee. It took all the will power I could muster. But the result was striking.

I went from having 50 or more episodes per week to having just a few. And none were severe. I missed the effect of fully caffeinated coffee but still enjoyed a lesser effect, from the residual caffeine in decaf, but was elated that my symptoms were now easily tolerable. A week went by with almost no episodes. Then two. Then four.

Still wanting an explanation, I went to see a neurologist in Chicago whose name I had seen on dozens of research papers on hearing and dizziness disorders. He examined my growing collection of images and ordered an all new battery of tests of my hearing and vestibular functions. Sitting with me in his office after several hours of testing, the friendly doctor (who looked remarkably like Steve Martin) patiently summarized nearly a dozen different conditions that could potentially explain at least some of my symptoms before choosing for his diagnosis the very condition my Duke ENT said did not exist: vestibular paroxysmia.

The cause of VP, also known as microvascular compression syndrome (MCS), is not known. It may be due to a weakening of the myelin sheath surrounding the vestibulocochlear nerve, which makes it susceptible to interference by a blood vessel running beside it. Such interference triggers sudden episodes, or paroxysms, of hearing loss, vertigo, and imbalance.  The impact of caffeine abstention made sense to my Chicago doctor given its well-known effects on both nerves and blood vessels in the head. He suggested that I stay off caffeine as long as that helped, and if the symptoms returned, there were drugs available known to help relieve VP symptoms.

I went back to Duke and found a neurologist who did believe in VP and who in fact was treating other patients for the disorder. But he didn’t think I had it. He told me it did not cause hearing loss, the exact opposite opinion of the Duke ENT who said it would come with severe hearing loss.

Three specialists were saying three different things about this vestibular paroxysmia: You have it, you don’t have it, and it doesn’t exist. I decided to just accept the uncertainty of my situation and get on with life. The only thing I knew for sure was that limiting myself to decaf seemed to minimize my symptoms to the point of irrelevance. I brushed off the two or three mild head squeezes per week, enjoyed my decaf, and learned to tune out the occasional whooshing in my ear.


Then, six months after my trip to Chicago, I was sitting at my desk at work when one of the mild dizzy spells came on. It wasn’t too bad, but something told me to head to the nurse’s office where I work. It was lasting a bit longer than usual. As I sat on the examining table explaining my history, the spinning accelerated and suddenly I could no longer sit upright. I rolled over in agony—the spinning had never been this bad—and began vomiting. It was the first time I threw up since this whole thing began.

The spinning and vomiting subsided for ten minutes or so, then came back. I texted my friend Elisabeth who rushed over and drove me to the Duke ER. The waves continued, thankfully growing less intense each time. Until that day, no episode had lasted more than a minute. This one lasted nearly four hours. The ER docs ordered a CT scan, reviewed my records, and sent me home at 6:30 the next morning. As expected, they had no idea what was going on.

At a follow-up appointment my Duke neurologist prescribed carbamazepine, known to be effective in treating vestibular paroxysmia, but I decided to try something else first. Learning that “decaffeinated” coffee can contain up to 30% of the caffeine of regular coffee (I think “low caf” is a better name), I went entirely caffeine-free. No decaf, no caffeinated teas, and no chocolate beyond the occasional nibble. For the next six months I still heard whooshing from time to time, but not a single episode of vertigo. Not even a mild one. The carbamazepine went into the trash.

I was symptom free. My gremlin, it appeared, loved coffee. And whenever I felt the urge to make myself a French Roast pour-over, or dash into the nearest coffee shop for a latte, I just thought back to that marathon night in the ER. Still, even still, I wondered if I might some day recaffeinate.

One day, months later, googling yet again for all the neurovascular disorders with symptoms like mine, I stumbled upon one with the weirdest name yet: secondary endolymphatic hydrops. Its symptoms are episodic vertigo and intermittent hearing loss that come on a response to some event or condition. When I read it might have something to do with the chemical balance of the fluid inside the inner ear, I got to thinking about the apparent dehydration effect of caffeine. There’s disagreement over just how dehydrating caffeine really is, but what if I was dehydrating just enough to mess with the chemistry of my inner ear?

I started drinking more water. Each morning I filled my one-liter Nalgene and made a point of emptying it at least once a day. After a week or so I treated myself to a decaf. Things were all good that day. And the day after that. Over the course of about a month, I worked my way up to a full cup of coffee every morning, always careful to empty the Nalgene at least once a day.

Fact one: I’ve been symptom free for six months. Fact two: I drink coffee, and plenty of water, every day. God only knows if there’s a connection between those two facts.

Was secondary endolymphatic hydrops the cause of all this bother? I don’t know. But learning about it, and thinking about what’s known about it, got me thinking about drinking more water and when I did so I could drink coffee again without fear of falling down. That’s all I can say for sure.

I still think I damaged something in my head during my ill-advised fitness fortnight, the extreme workout that immediately preceded the onset of symptoms. The coincidence is just too striking for me to believe otherwise. And if that’s the case, then maybe Mother Nature has now healed whatever I did. Or maybe, or maybe. Dot. Dot. Dot.

Truth is I don’t expect to ever know the real story. And I’m fine with that. These bodies of ours, I have come to learn, are complicated as hell. I’m just grateful as hell mine is working properly again.

Grandma is a seven-letter word

I learned to play Scrabble from a grandmother who didn’t cut kids any slack when it came to this game she loved. When I finally learned to play at her level, it felt great. Until it didn’t.

I was eight years old when I first played Scrabble with Grandma and lost that game by more than a hundred points. “Don’t be discouraged, Mike. It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.” For the next decade or so she avoided the stinkers with amazing regularity. Grandma was an awesome Scrabble player who played to win no matter how young her opponent. She worked those little wooden tiles with the skill of a surgeon and confidence of a concert pianist. She would extend my DOG into DOGMATIC, my CAT into CATHARTIC. Questionable words were challenged before the last tile could hit the board. And she was always so certain whether or not a word was in the dictionary, I would wonder if she had it memorized.

Few of my siblings would come back for a second game. But I was always up for a game of Scrabble at Grandma’s house next door and she was always up for a win. Part of what brought me back was the simple joy of observing talent. Grandma was skillful at many things—gardening, knitting, cooking—but her mastery of Scrabble impressed me most of all. And while many good people surrounded me in my childhood, nobody else struck me as being an expert as she did. Going back for another game was like going back to the theater or concert hall or big league ballpark. We enjoy watching talent at work and she had plenty.

It was more than Grandma’s performance that kept me coming back. Something told me that Scrabble was something I could learn, that one day I might impress others the way she so impressed me, if only I kept working at it. And as Grandma’s inveterate sparring partner I got quite a workout. I learned two-letter words with virtually no relevance outside the game, words like EM and EN and AA. I learned the word QUEUE at a comparatively young age, as well as what it means to GIRD your loins, to DUN a debtor, and to DRUB your opponent. I learned Scrabble strategy: Always aim for the pink squares that double your word score. Never play a word that puts your opponent within reach of a red triple-word square. And never, ever play the letter U early in the game—it’s always good to have one if you draw the Q.

What drew Grandma to Scrabble? Its demand for intellect and knowledge had something to do with it. As an adult she had a penchant for developing herself intellectually—by enrolling in business colleges, reading voraciously, frequenting museums. She considered knowledge the only permanent possession. “They can take everything away from you, Mike, your house, your money. But nobody can take away what you know.” Grandma grew up at the hands of a monster of a father, in an unenviable immigrant household where possessions were fleeting. She watched her father destroy her few and favorite trinkets in fits of rage. She came home from school one day to an empty house—her father had moved the family and not bothered to tell her. Is it any wonder she always played Scrabble to win? Was it not an opportunity to show off the knowledge in which she had so much pride?

As happens to one who studies with a master, Grandma’s skill at Scrabble did eventually begin to rub off on me. I started using words like EM and AA myself. I was careful to save any U until the difficult Q had been played, and if a word might put her within reach of a triple word square I wouldn’t play it—no matter how many points it was worth. I began losing by reasonable margins, then by just a point or two. Then, when I was in high school, I won my very first game of Scrabble with Grandma.

It was a heady achievement that left me in something like a state of shock. I don’t remember details of the game but I do remember wondering how she might react. Would she check the math on the score sheet? Attribute the win to a dubious word that should have been challenged? She did neither. “Nice game, Mike. Those were some clever words you played.” Grandma was a good sport about losing to me, attributing only her own wins to luck-of-the-draw and never my own.

My skills continued to improve over time and before long I was winning as many games as was she. Our games continued even after I moved half a continent away, when a Scrabble match became a mutual expectation of my every visit. My mother became our standard third player. Mom’s vocabulary was every bit as good as Grandma’s and mine but she didn’t give a whit for strategy. For instance, she would not hesitate to place a word that gave a triple-word scoring opportunity to the next player. This tendency did not go unnoticed by Grandma and me. As play moves clockwise in Scrabble, we developed a shameless ritual prior to each game in which we would jockey—oh so innocently—for the seat to Mom’s left, where those valuable openings would be ours.

It often amazes me I have any talent at all for Scrabble because it requires something I don’t have: a good memory. Memory in general has never been my strong suit. (Have I told you this before? I have? Are you certain?) But somehow I do remember words, especially interesting ones. Did you know there is a word abecedarian? It’s a person learning something, such as the alphabet. How about navvy? That’s a laborer on a canal or railroad, short for navigator in a sense that word is no longer used. You may know these words, of course, and wonder how one who fancies himself a writer finds them extraordinary. That’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that I’m the last person to learn a word, I still enjoy learning it.

Grandma kept up her yen for Scrabble into her older years, even after the shaking hands of Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to place those little wooden tiles on the slippery board. More than once a tiny jerk of a finger would send every word on the board askew as if a small earthquake had struck, requiring Mom or me to tidy things up. As her body slowed with age, though, her mind stayed sharp. I once played the word FAX and Grandma immediately threatened a challenge. I explained what a fax machine was, which at the time could be found in any workplace but was completely unknown to Grandma. “Is it in the dictionary?” she asked. “Not our old dictionaries, but it’s a word used all the time. It’s actually short for facsimile.” “Then it’s an abbreviation,” she pointed out, “and abbreviations aren’t allowed.” I removed the word from the board.

Midway during one game my outlook changed forever. On my tray were the letters S-E-E-I-G-V-T. On the board was an open S. As long as the spot stayed open until my turn, I could empty my tray and make the word VESTIGES. It would be a seven-letter play for a fifty-point bonus and certain victory in a game I was already winning.

As I waited my turn, I began browsing the old score sheets we kept in the Scrabble box. There were ten or fifteen at least. Before long a startling fact lay in front of me: I had won every single one of those games. I suddenly felt a lump in my throat so big I could hardly swallow. A sense of arrogance swelled deep inside me, mixed with a feeling of selfishness. Grandma and Mom could no longer be playing only for their own enjoyment, I realized, they were playing in large part for mine, knowing I loved the game, knowing I especially loved to win it.

As I peered across the board, my eyes opened for the first time to see that Grandma was no longer the player she once was. Her right hand shook so uncontrollably she would hold it tight with her left, cursing it. She had a difficult time just concentrating on the game. It had been years since she played a seven-letter word and the words she now played rarely returned more than twenty points.

It was my turn. The space remained open, beckoning my seven-letter play. I paused and waited, pretending to search the board for openings. “Can’t you play anything?” Mom asked. I stopped stalling and made up my mind. Using only six of my seven tiles, I played the word VESTIGE and added a handful of points to my score. The final S stayed in my tray. There would be no fifty-point bonus. “The board’s really filling up,” I said. Grandma set her tiles on the edge of the board, not even trying to place them. Mom slid Grandma’s word into position.

Before long we added up the score. Grandma won by eleven points. “Nice game, Grandma. Those were some clever words you played.” Her reply was one I hadn’t heard in years. “It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.”

That was our last game. Grandma died eight weeks later at the age of 87, when ailments she’d been battling for more than four decades finally won their match—or, perhaps, were allowed to win. I had seen her in the hospital the day before she died, passing through town on my way out of the country on business. We exchanged regrets that we hadn’t played a game of Scrabble during that visit and ended our last conversation with a vow to play on my next one. I was hardly over jet lag when my wife called me in Paris with the news. I flew back early to be with family for the funeral. Like most everyone else there, it was an occasion to reflect upon all I had learned from Grandma and how much she influenced the person I had become. And of course I thought about our Scrabble, especially that last game. Did I betray all she taught me by throwing the game? Would she be angry had she known? I don’t know. In fact, can I be certain she never threw a game for me? That first win—was it all my doing? No matter. I’m glad I let her win that last game. In the moments afterward, as we poured the tiles off the board and into their bag, as Grandma placed her letter tray back in the old maroon Scrabble box for the last time, there was a priceless glint of satisfaction in her eye. Or maybe it was in my own. At Grandma’s wake, as I laid my eyes upon her, I slipped a small memento into her casket. A Scrabble tile. The letter U, of course. It’s always good to have one if you draw that Q.

An App for the Ministry

Posted to the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry blog on December 28, 2019

I’ve never known a place quite like the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. Since the 1980s they’ve served thousands of migrant farmworkers from their outpost in Dunn, North Carolina, tending to the needs of the invisible and poorly paid workforce on which our agricultural economy depends. In the summer of 2018, the Ministry went into high gear like never before, providing emergency food, clothing, and supplies following the double-punch of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. I was one of many volunteers who pitched in to help.

One evening I helped Juan Carabaña, the Ministry’s tireless outreach coordinator, load a van full of groceries before heading out to two camps. With the fall sweet potato harvest curtailed due to devastating rains, the workers there hadn’t been paid in weeks and were running low on food. The camps were two that hadn’t been visited in a while so we couldn’t be sure our printed directions were accurate. They weren’t. After wandering for more than hour to find the first camp, and another hour to find the second, this career software developer had an idea: there needs to be an app for this.

“We need a map on our phones showing us exactly where the camps are. Plus, accurate descriptions of camps, and notes from previous outreach visits. And photos would be awesome.” Lariza Garzon, the Ministry’s new Executive Director, described over coffee what she’d like to see in a farmworker outreach app. I got to work.

There are thought to be more than two thousand migrant farmworker camps in North Carolina – nobody can say for sure. Some consist of old bunkhouses tucked into the woods, some are small trailer parks, and some are old farmhouses. Some are surrounded by barbed wire fences or lack indoor plumbing. None is the kind of place you or I would want to spend the night, much less live for several months. But they are all filled with people with the same basic needs as you and me, things like food to eat and clothes to wear. And those are the kind of needs that workers and volunteers at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry cater to when they go on outreach.

My app was ready a few weeks after my coffee with Lariza. Or so I thought. The tryout was a complete disaster: the user interface was difficult to navigate, almost none of the camp information was right, and the app crashed so often it was useless. I spent that evening scribbling furiously from the passenger seat, logging our camp visits into a spiral notebook instead of the app. I had put too many features into that first version and hadn’t taken enough time for testing and debugging. The next version had just the camp map and nothing else, so on the next outreach visit it did a bit of good. Juan could at least tap a button to launch GPS directions without manually typing a street address. I still logged into my notebook, recording how many workers we met with and what we delivered to each camp, and took a few photos of each camp. The next day I transferred everything from my notebook into the app’s database, uploaded the photos, and added another user feature to the app. This process repeated itself every week. Slowly but surely, the app got better and the Ministry’s database of outreach information and photos grew.

In April I teamed up with Code the Dream, a remarkable non-profit software development organization that offers free training to people from low-income communities. One of their developers, in fact, grew up in a farmworker camp herself. Over the summer, she and her colleagues turned my prototype app into a real app, complete with security, performance, and stability features. They went with Juan and me on outreach, came up with features I hadn’t thought of, and also gave the app a name: Vamos.

As the agricultural season drew to a close, Vamos had recorded outreach visits to more than 80 camps. On the last scheduled outreach, the app was used for everything: to select camps to visit, to navigate to each, to log how many farmworkers were visited and what was provided, and to take photos. Nobody had to scribble furiously from the passenger seat or remember to file an outreach report later.

As I write this in December 2019, the camps are empty but Vamos is not. It is filled with data and photos from this year’s outreach. Next spring, when outreach workers head out to a camp, they’ll call it up on the app, tap the directions button and just start driving. With Vamos they can spend their time providing services instead of knocking on doors and wandering dirt roads looking for camps. There’s still work to be done on the app, to help make outreach even more productive, and there are many more camps to add to the database. But there is an app.

The Eponymous Mr. Ponzi

The little-known story of an age-old scam… Published by Damn Interesting on September 2, 2019

Nobody knows who did it first. Swindlers have been pulling off the scam for centuries, paying existing investors with the deposits of new ones to create the illusion of an incredibly profitable investment opportunity. Before 1920, it was known as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” or “the Peter-to-Paul scheme.” For example, Sarah Howe, a fortune-teller and frequent guest of the State Lunatic Asylum in Massachusetts, employed it in 1880 to take in nearly $500,000 from her followers. In 1884, former president Ulysses S. Grant fell victim to such a scheme that left him penniless.

But it was Charles Ponzi who, in Boston in 1920, earned permanent naming rights to the scheme by dazzling the investing public and dumbfounding authorities like no other. That sweltering summer, Bostonians of every stripe were all but begging this diminutive investment banker to take their money for an unheard-of return: 100 percent in 90 days. In less than a year, Ponzi raked in nearly $7 million⁠⁠—more than $90 million in today’s dollars. His downfall came as swiftly as his meteoric rise.

Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi was born on 03 March 1882 in Lugo, Italy. His father, a postal worker, died when Carlo was ten, leaving the family without a breadwinner. His mother, Imelde, was descended from Italian aristocracy. She sent Carlo to the University of Rome with just enough money to earn a degree, and high hopes he would use it to prosper and restore the family to its erstwhile rank in society.

Carlo dashed any such hopes. He loved college, 500 miles from home, but not for the education. There he enjoyed the life of a bon vivant, skipping classes and befriending students from more privileged families. He spent much of his money on fine dining and equally fine clothing, and by picking up more bar tabs than books. He returned home penniless and diploma-less.

Determined to patch things up with his unhappy mother, Carlo vowed to sail to America, scoop up some of the gold rumored to line its streets, and become a very rich man. He left Naples on 03 November 1903 with $200 in his pocket. He arrived in Boston with $2.50, the balance in the pockets of cardsharps who earned their living from unsuspecting immigrants on ships.

Ponzi found making money in America rather harder than he’d expected. For nearly four years, he worked as a grocery clerk, factory hand, dishwasher, waiter, and painter. He did repair work, folded laundry, and anything else to keep food in his belly. He took the first name Charles and a variety of surnames other than his own, including Bianchi, Ponsi, Ponci, and Ponce.

Ponzi did not limit his job search to Boston. Willing to go anywhere for employment that exercised his mind and not just his back, he found it in Montreal in July 1907. There, a man by the name of Louis Zarossi hired him as a bank clerk after a 5-minute interview. He fit right in at Banco Zarossi, which did a booming business catering to the Italian immigrant community and paying 6 percent interest to depositors⁠⁠—three times the rate other banks offered. And he did so in a most unscrupulous manner.

Among Zarossi’s customers were not just depositors but immigrants who gave him money to wire home to family in Italy. Some of these funds he simply stole, using it to pay his depositors their promised 6 percent. It could take months for wire customers to complain, and when they did he pleaded ignorance and laid blame on the receiving end. Nobody can say exactly how much Zarossi stole in this manner, but in July 1908, he filled a suitcase with cash and fled to Mexico.

Again out of work and tired of earning money in the conventional manner, Ponzi one day entered the office of the Canadian Warehousing Company, a former Banco Zarossi customer. The office staff knew and trusted Ponzi. While nobody was looking, he located their company checkbook, removed a check, and slipped it into a pocket. Later, he wrote it out to himself in the seemingly authentic amount of $423.58, then carefully forged the signature.

After cashing the check and visiting a number of clothiers to outfit himself in style, Ponzi found his buying spree short-lived. Bank officials suspected the authenticity of the check’s signature. They contacted the police, who had little trouble finding and arresting him. He feigned mental illness by chewing a towel to shreds, then wildly climbing a wall toward a barred window. Convincingly calmed by a straitjacket, he earned an upgrade to the infirmary by persuading his jailer he suffered from epilepsy. His insanity act only went so far. Ponzi was ultimately sentenced to a three-year term at the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary, his jailers settling on the name of Charles Ponsi.

At the penitentiary, he crushed stone, slept on a bed of corn cob husks, and shared a cell with an especially nasty convict named Louis Cassullo. Ponzi would later describe him as “one of those prowling, petty, sneaky thieves whose counterparts in the animal kingdom are the hyenas and the jackals.” After serving a term shortened to 20 months for good behavior, Ponzi was only too happy to bid farewell to his unpleasant cellmate.

Not three weeks later, after living with friends and doing odd jobs to earn a bit of money, Ponzi hopped on a train headed back to the U.S. Sitting with him were five other Italians, all recent immigrants who spoke no English and lacked proper papers. They appreciated his company, advice, and interpretation skills, all of which he would soon regret providing. When a customs official questioned the group, Ponzi was assumed to be their leader, despite his protestations that he did not know the men. Bias against immigrants of Italian origin⁠—also known as Anti-Italianism⁠—was the discrimination du jour. Ponzi was arrested on charges of smuggling aliens. At trial, prosecutors secured a conviction, aided by the testimony of the other Italians, each of whom testified against Ponzi in return for their release.

Ponzi was sentenced to two years at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Upon release, he wandered the Southeast U.S. for the next five years working a variety of jobs⁠⁠—bookkeeper, translator, painter, librarian⁠⁠—before finding himself back in Boston.

There, in 1917, Ponzi landed a most promising job as a clerk for the J.R. Poole Company, an import/export firm. His job was to keep track of foreign operations. The starting pay of $16 a week was not great, but soon rose to $25, and then $50.•     •     •

In May of 1917, Ponzi met and married Rose Gnecco, the daughter of a produce merchant. Rose enjoyed their modest, newlywed lifestyle. But Ponzi was determined to make her the wife of a millionaire. “I want you to be able to throw away a hundred dollars,” he told her.

In September 1918, Ponzi quit his job at J.R. Poole to help run his father-in-law’s failing produce business. Ponzi was confident he could turn things around and turn the shop into a commercial empire with himself at the helm. Instead, the business quickly went into bankruptcy. Ponzi found himself again out of work, but not out of ideas for getting rich, this time as a commodities broker.

Unfortunately, the first commodity he tried to sell apparently belonged to someone else. In May 1919, authorities served Ponzi a warrant for stealing 5,387 pounds of cheese. It’s unknown whether the warrant was warranted. As the investigation got under way, Ponzi feared that once authorities learned of his two prison sentences, he might be deported. He feared too that Rose would learn of his criminal past, in the mistaken belief she did not already know. During their engagement, his mother had told Rose all about his prison stints, and both women decided not to tell him Rose was privy to his past. But Ponzi had a lucky break⁠—a misspelling of his name on the cheese charge court documents, as “Charles Pouzi,” led to the dismissal of charges.

Ponzi then decided to publish an international trade publication he called the Traders Guide, in which advertisers would pay for listings seen in every corner of the world. So confident was Ponzi in his new scheme that he rented office space, bought $350 of furniture on credit from the Daniels & Wilson Furniture Company, and hired a small staff.

Ponzi quickly exhausted his meager savings. To keep the operation afloat, he applied for a loan at the Hanover Trust Company. Henry Chmielinski, the bank’s president, turned him down personally. Ponzi reminded him he was already a loyal customer of the bank. Chmielinski added an insult Ponzi would never forget: “Your account is more of a bother than a benefit to us. Good day, sir.” Ponzi returned to his office and laid off his staff.

Not long after the demise of the Traders Guide, in August 1919, Ponzi received a letter from a merchant in Spain asking about it. Enclosed with the letter was a curious, official-looking square of paper. It was an International Reply Coupon, or IRC. Created in 1906 by a multinational body of postal services to simplify the international exchange of mail, one could buy an IRC at a local post office and enclose it in a letter sent to any of the participating countries. There, the recipient could redeem it for whatever local postage stamps were required to send a return. Staring at the coupon, Ponzi at last realized how he could make millions. And this time he was right.

International Reply Coupon
International Reply Coupon

Known today as arbitrage, the strategy Charles Ponzi devised was theoretically sound. Owing to interest rate and foreign exchange fluctuations among countries, say the United States and Italy, one U.S. dollar could buy 20 IRCs in Boston⁠⁠—or more than 60 in Rome. Hence Ponzi knew he could have someone buy IRCs in Italy for roughly 1.5 cents each, and send them back to the U.S., where he could sell them for 5 cents each, earning the eye-popping profit of 233 percent⁠—more than enough for him to offer investors a tantalizing 50 percent return in 45 days, or 100 percent in 90, and keep the rest for himself. He just needed funding to get things started.

As Ponzi set about looking for investors, the Daniels & Webster Furniture company came looking for him. He had fallen behind on his payments for his office furniture. With unbridled confidence and charm, Ponzi convinced Joseph Daniels to not only hold off on repossessing the furniture, but to essentially convert his obligation into a loan. Daniels even wrote Ponzi a check for $20 as a further investment in the IRC operation.

Ponzi tried but failed to convince other acquaintances to trust him with their money, including the grocer Ettore Giberti. Giberti was walking out the door after politely declining Ponzi’s offer to invest, when Ponzi sweetened the offer: Invest just $10 and become his first sales agent, keeping 10 percent of whatever Giberti raised. This did the trick. By early January 1920, Giberti had raised $1,770 from 18 investors. More agents soon came on board, as did a modest stream of small investors.

While essentially legal, Ponzi’s IRC idea was in practice absurd. Beyond the problem of how to compete with the U.S. Postal Service for selling stamps, there were simply not enough International Reply Coupons in existence to make any significant profit through arbitrage.

At the end of February 1920, Ponzi owed $2,655 to Giberti’s initial investors⁠⁠—their $1,770 capital plus $885 interest. Ponzi had no arbitrage profits with which to pay them. But he had money from more recent investors, so he simply used that, dipping into funds from Peter, as it were, to pay Paul. He claimed the gains were legitimate, that an associate named Lionello Sarti had gone to Italy and returned with large quantities of coupons, along with the fortunate news there were plenty more to be had. It’s very likely Sarti never existed⁠⁠—nobody other than Ponzi would ever report meeting the man. Ponzi’s satisfied investors didn’t care as long as they were getting paid.

Ponzi saw his February deception as a stopgap, necessary only until he generated the juicy profits that to him were so obviously available through his IRC strategy. When word got out that Ponzi’s word was good, that he actually did pay 50 percent in 45 days, more people clamored to invest. When the next investors were due their interest, he again used the proceeds from the newest investors. And then again and again. The stopgap didn’t stop. And Charles Ponzi would never again have to ask investors for money. From then on, they asked him to take it.

Bostonians literally lined up at the door of Ponzi’s office at 27 School Street to entrust their money with him. In February 1920, Ponzi’s Securities Exchange Company took in $5,290 from new investors. In March, 110 investors turned in nearly $25,000.

Most of the people gathering at his door had only a few dollars to spare. Ponzi tailored his pitch directly to them. Climbing atop the stoop, which helped to augment his 5 feet 2 inches of height, he spun a story of humble beginnings in Italy, of descending the gangplank in Boston with a mere $2.50 in his pocket, then toiling tirelessly in the years since. He intended to build a financial operation that would benefit not Wall Street bankers, he told the mesmerized crowd, but honest and hard-working people just like them.

His populist appeal, playing on fears that rich bankers were keeping exorbitant profits to themselves, would remain the foundation of Ponzi’s pitch. Far from hiding his humble days of barely making ends meet, he was happy to talk with prospective investors about the years of working one menial job after another. It made a moving story. But he left out the part about going to prison for check forgery, knowing it would spell the end of his reputation as a legitimate financier.

So it was with no little alarm that one day he recognized the face of one of the many people applying for a job at his office. It belonged to Lou Cassullo, his former cellmate from Montreal, who had tracked Ponzi down after learning of his success. The man Ponzi compared to a hyena knew very well that Ponzi could ill-afford for anyone to know of his prison past, and Ponzi knew that he knew. Cassullo soon found himself on Ponzi’s payroll, accepting a generous paycheck and helping himself to a few bonus bills whenever he chose. Ponzi wanted him out. With Prohibition in full swing, he once tried to get his new hire arrested by sending him out to buy a few bottles of his favorite whiskey. But Cassullo just returned with the booze.

Whether Cassullo kept his mouth shut or not, Ponzi feared that sooner or later law enforcement would take an interest in his operation. And one day, the Boston police did indeed send two detectives to look it over. Ponzi put on an especially convincing show for the two men, each of whom deemed the plan legitimate, then pulled out their wallets and invested on the spot.

Five police inspectors and a lieutenant would eventually put their money into Ponzi’s Securities Exchange Company, as would hundreds of street cops. Several in fact became agents, earning the 10 percent commission and giving his operation a veneer of legitimacy no money could buy. By the spring of 1920, Ponzi was taking in $30,000 every week. In May alone, 1,525 investors contributed $440,000. In June, nearly 8,000 investors entrusted Ponzi with $2.5 million, equivalent to $32 million today.

A photo from a Ponzi photo shoot
A photo from a Ponzi photo shoot

Flush with cash, Ponzi paid off all of his debts, including $200 he still owed on his loan from furniture dealer Joseph Daniels. He invested in the Splendor Macaroni Company. And the Napoli Macaroni Company. He bought real estate.

It had taken nearly 17 years, but by June 1920, Charles Ponzi had at last made good on his promise to his mother. Now a very rich man, he sent her first-class tickets to sail to America. Imelde arrived to join the Ponzis in their life of American aristocracy at a newly decorated mansion in the affluent town of Lexington, Mass., basking in wealth that only grew with every new investor.

By the end of June, the sheer amount of cash coming in the door at 27 School Street overwhelmed Ponzi’s growing staff. His bookkeeper is said to have put cash into wastebaskets until it could be counted, sorted, and deposited in a bank⁠⁠—minus whatever bills Cassullo deposited into his pocket.

Ponzi could have kept his money at any of Boston’s banks. Curiously, his favorite was Hanover Trust, whose president Henry Chmielinski had rudely turned him down for a loan several months earlier. By June, Ponzi was the bank’s largest depositor, which ensured Chmielinski would never again do anything to risk offending him. Because banks lent out depositors’ money to other customers as loans, a sudden withdrawal by a large depositor would prove disastrous. Well aware of this fact, Ponzi enjoyed his position of power.

As summer got into full swing, with so many Boston police among his happy investors, inquiries into the legitimacy of Ponzi’s operation were minimal. But there were some. In July, U.S. postal authorities issued a formal ban against anyone redeeming more than 50 cents’ worth of IRCs at one time. This made it all but impossible for anyone to turn a large-scale profit by trading in IRCs. But that fact was now moot. By mid-July, Ponzi was taking in $1 million a week, about $13 million in today’s dollars, from investors. He delivered on his promise of exorbitant returns, and to them that was all that mattered.

On the same day U.S. postal authorities issued their ban, a lawyer for furniture dealer Joseph Daniels filed a lawsuit against Charles Ponzi. The suit claimed that, in return for loaning Ponzi some office furniture and giving him a check for $20 back in December, Daniels was entitled to half ownership of the Securities Exchange Company. He wanted $1 million.

Lawsuits for seven-figure sums were still newsworthy at this time. When The Boston Post put it on the front page of its Sunday, July 4 edition, one reader took particular interest⁠—state banking commissioner Joseph C. Allen, a quiet but diligent public servant, whom Governor Calvin Coolidge had just recently appointed to office. Reading about the Ponzi lawsuit, Allen went to Massachusetts Attorney General J. Weston Allen (no relation) to recommend an inquiry. Something about Ponzi didn’t seem right, the newly appointed Allen told the veteran Allen. Sensing a newcomer treading on his turf, the attorney general told the political neophyte to back off. Commissioner Allen eased off as ordered⁠—but his suspicions about Ponzi did not go away.

The Daniels lawsuit had also piqued the curiosity of Robert Grozier, who had recently become publisher of The Boston Post when his father Edwin Grozier fell ill. The younger Grozier never sought nor wanted his father’s position, nor had the son of privilege shown a talent for this or any other job requiring intellectual acumen. He flunked out of Harvard three times⁠⁠—freshman composition had been especially challenging, which is never a good portent for a journalist. Grozier was the first to recognize his own limitations. Out of family obligation, he felt he had little choice but to watch over the venerated Boston Post for his dad.

Ponzi’s dealings with Hanover Trust continued to grow. In addition to keeping most of his money in its vaults, he also began buying the bank’s stock and making friends with other shareholders. When the bank announced plans to issue a new block of 2,000 shares, Ponzi made a visit to Mr. Chmielinksi and offered to buy them all. Chmielinksi refused him⁠⁠—politely this time⁠⁠—on grounds this would give Ponzi control of the bank. This was exactly what Ponzi had in mind. When he made a casual inquiry about his current, very large balance, Chmielinski relented some. He told Ponzi he could buy 1,500 shares. Ponzi accepted. With his ties to other shareholders, who would soon elect him a director and then to a position on the executive board, Charles Ponzi effectively controlled the Hanover Trust Bank. He would soon make plans to put this new power to use.

When news of the stock purchase reached commissioner Allen, he again decided to make an inquiry into Ponzi, with or without anyone’s permission. This time the other Allen went along, sending two assistant attorneys general to join the commissioner in a meeting with Ponzi at the Boston state house.

Ponzi had no legal obligation to comply with the invitation but eagerly attended anyway. His pitch polished to perfection, Ponzi handled every question with aplomb, indeed feeling intellectually superior to the government officials. “I was almost ashamed to match wits with them. It was like stealing candy from a baby,” he would later say. After Ponzi left the meeting, the officials agreed that his strategy seemed plausible and could find no reason to stop him.

Given that investors could only be paid as long as new ones kept showing up, Charles Ponzi was well aware that no Peter-to-Paul scheme could last forever. With the IRC strategy no longer an option and authorities beginning to take interest, he devised a number of plans to go legitimate. Among the most grandiose was a plan to buy Navy ships, mothballed since the end of World War I, and turn them into giant floating showrooms where American manufacturers could bring samples of their wares to foreign ports.

Ponzi did not believe he was doing anything fundamentally wrong by paying off investors with other investors’ capital, convinced that in the end he would meet his liabilities through fully legitimate means. He wanted to be sure the public knew of his legitimate business plans, and to help with that he hired William McMasters, a straight-laced publicist with an exceptionally bright future. McMasters had earned his reputation helping numerous public officials to get elected, including political luminaries such as John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald⁠⁠—future grandfather of President John F. Kennedy. McMasters began work 23 July 1920.

Charles Ponzi en route to a court appointment
Charles Ponzi en route to a court appointment

On 24 and 25 July, The Boston Post ran back-to-back feature stories on Ponzi and his operation. These were generally upbeat and positive⁠⁠—Robert Grozier carefully avoided printing anything that might bring on a libel suit and put the family newspaper at risk⁠⁠—mentioning only that federal authorities were investigating Ponzi’s operation. But on 26 July, the Post reported the more ominous news that respected financial authority Clarence Walker Barron, whose name remains to this day on the masthead of the financial and investment publication Barron’s, found the plan implausible. The stinging indictment might as well have been a full-page endorsement. In the following days, the number of new investors only grew. Ponzi took in $6.5 million from nearly 20,000 investors that month. To date, nearly 30,000 men, women, and even a number of children had entrusted him with a total of $9.6 million.

While the stories excited investors, Ponzi knew they would also excite additional authorities who would soon come knocking. Rather than wait, he decided to go to them. With McMasters at his side, Ponzi hurriedly arranged meetings with U.S. District Attorney Dan Gallagher, County District Attorney Joseph Pelletier, and Attorney General J. Weston Allen. He did not arrange a meeting with commissioner Allen, convinced that their earlier meeting had assuaged any of his concerns.

With McMasters taking notes, Ponzi made an astonishing offer to each of the authorities: He would open his books to an auditor of their choosing, to prove he had sufficient assets to meet his liabilities. This was of course impossible⁠⁠—but only if he limited the assets to his own.

Ponzi calculated he would need to show $15 million in cash and other liquid assets to prove his solvency. But he had, at most, only half of this amount. For the rest, he planned to simply walk into Hanover Trust when the day of reckoning came and, as a bank director, authorize a most unusual loan to himself. He would then enter the vault, exit with several million dollars of other depositors’ money, take it to the auditor as proof of his liquidity, and then return it the same day.

While the audit got under way over the coming days, The Boston Post stepped up its criticism of Charles Ponzi. It ran an editorial stating flatly their opinion that Ponzi’s scheme could not last. One day, it reported that the New York Postmaster said there were not enough International Reply Coupons in the whole world to make a fortune like Ponzi’s. Then they published another, more detailed analysis by Barron. Why would Ponzi put his own money into investments earning single digit returns, Barron argued, if he could realize 100 percent returns in 90 days? The clear indictment used logic that anyone could understand, and should have been more than enough to convince Ponzi’s investors to flee. But it did not. Nearly all of them stayed.

Ponzi might have thanked Barron for the unintended imprimatur, but instead sued him for $5 million, even laying claims on Barron’s vast farm in case Barron didn’t have the cash. To Robert Grozier’s relief, Ponzi did not sue The Boston Post. But he had fired a shot across their bow, threatening to “own their presses” if they weren’t careful.

While the state auditor, a diligent accountant named Edwin Pride, struggled to make sense of the haphazard record-keeping at the Securities Exchange Company, William McMasters struggled with a personal dilemma. At the meetings where Ponzi had offered to be audited, McMasters noted inconsistencies as his boss moved from meeting to meeting. Thus tipped off, he used the next several days to take a closer look at Ponzi’s operation. It took him no time at all to conclude it was a massive fraud. Knowing his own career was at grave risk, he went to Robert Grozier of The Boston Post with his discovery, offering to write a full exposé. Grozier declined. He had gone as far out on the limb as he could go without risking a devastating lawsuit.

Known for being a straight-laced stickler for the law, McMasters made an exception by going to district attorney Nathan Tufts, who guaranteed that the Post would be immune from lawsuits “in case the story turned out to be untrue and libelous.” When Robert Grozier learned of this promise, he allowed McMasters to publish an astonishing exposé. “DECLARES PONZI IS NOW HOPELESSLY INSOLVENT,” blared the headline. The story went on to describe in detail everything McMasters had seen and concluded.

The next day, a small number of Ponzi’s investors asked for their money back. But the exposé did not make a significant dent in public confidence. Ponzi claimed McMasters did not have access to details of the operation, and was telling this lie to divert attention from the true crime: McMasters had not accounted for $2,000 entrusted to him to place ads. To bolster the claim that McMasters was a thief, Ponzi sued him for that amount. McMasters promptly sued him back for $5,000. The public sided with Ponzi. Within a few days, his operation was more or less back to normal.

Ponzi’s plan to temporarily borrow money from the Hanover Trust vaults might have worked were it not for one miscalculation. Bank Commissioner Joseph Allen had not lost interest in Ponzi at all. Indeed, unbeknownst to Ponzi when he made his offer of an audit, Allen used his authority to call Hanover Trust and instruct them to monitor every dollar going into and out of their vaults and to provide him detailed reports. When those reports further raised his suspicions, he posted two examiners at the bank. When further investigation revealed that Ponzi had clearly overdrawn his checking account, and that bank officials had been conducting illegal operations having nothing to do with Ponzi, Allen posted a sign on the door of the bank: He was taking possession of Hanover Trust and closing its doors until further notice.

When Ponzi found out, he knew there was no way he could rob his own bank. He could only hope now that auditor Pride would miscalculate, or some other stroke of luck would come his way. But what happened next was anything but lucky.

Boston Post reporter had received a most interesting tip: A “Charles Ponsi” was rumored to have spent time in jail in Montreal for forging checks. Dubious of the anonymous tip, Grozier sent a reporter to Montreal to check it out. With photos of Charles Ponzi in hand, the reporter had little trouble finding several people, including the warden of the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary, to identify the man in the photos as the same Charles Ponsi who had spent time in his prison 12 years earlier.

At 1:00 a.m. on 11 August 1920, a Post reporter confronted Ponzi at his home in Lexington about the article being prepared for that day’s edition. Hearing the claim, Ponzi denied being Ponsi and told them not to run the story, else “you are going to get the presses ripped out of your building.” The story ran anyway, encapsulated by its headline: “Montreal Police, Jail Warden and Others Declare That Charles Ponzi of Boston and Charles Ponsi of Montreal Who Was Sentenced to Two and Half Years in Jail for Forgery on Italian Bank Are One and the Same Men.” At an interview with reporters that afternoon, Ponzi changed his response. Yes, he was the man sentenced for that crime. But he hadn’t committed it. He claimed to have taken blame out of mercy, for a crime actually committed by his boss Louis Zarossi, who was struggling to support his wife and children. The impromptu story was so far-fetched that even Ponzi’s own lawyer, standing at his side, resigned on the spot.

The next day, authorities informed Ponzi that Edwin Pride had calculated his liabilities at about $7 million. The official tally would be announced the next day. Ponzi did not wait, and instead turned himself in to the authorities. He was placed under arrest on charges of using the U.S. mail to commit fraud. In public statements, Ponzi continued to portray himself as doing the work of the people, this time by admitting that he did indeed lie about relying on the postal coupon scheme, but only to keep Wall Street bankers from discovering his true operation, which would earn not tens of millions of dollars but more than $100 million. He offered no details. But now it made no difference. A stream of additional indictments soon followed.

A run on a Ponzi bank
A run on a Ponzi bank

In the days that followed, hundreds of investors registered their names as victims, hoping to recover some of their losses. They were aided by numerous more fortunate investors, ones who had received payouts from Ponzi and kindly returned their ill-gotten gains. In the end, roughly 20,000 victims were awarded refunds of just under 40 percent of their investments. Thousands more got nothing but a costly lesson in naïveté.

Charles Ponzi was convicted on federal mail fraud charges and sentenced to five years of prison. In May 1921, while Ponzi enjoyed the nice view of Cape Cod Bay from the Plymouth County Jail, The Boston Post’s publisher Robert Grozier won a Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded outside of New York, for his “courage and fine sense of newspaper honor” in exposing Ponzi. There was no mention that his courage was bolstered by a secret and legally dubious promise of immunity from prosecution. That fact would remain hidden until 2009, when the unpublished memoirs of William McMasters were unearthed in a book shop in New Jersey.

Charles Ponzi’s mail fraud sentence was reduced by one year for good behavior. Upon his release in 1925, state prosecutors took their turn and secured another conviction and prison sentence of seven to nine years. While on bail awaiting his return to jail, and confident he would win an appeal, Ponzi went to Florida and hatched a brand new investment scheme, this time in real estate, and this time offering investors a 200 percent return in 60 days. Florida officials quickly shut it down and arrested him. He was sentenced to one year in prison for violating state securities laws.

Out on appeal for this latest charge, Ponzi decided he could not bear the thought of returning to prison. So he disappeared. With a nationwide manhunt underway, he used his fluent Italian and years of experience as a manual laborer to secure a job as a waiter and dishwasher aboard an Italian freighter. Disguised by a moustache and shaved head, he decided to end the manhunt by faking suicide, asking friends to put some of his clothes and a suicide note on a Florida beach. The ship set sail from Tampa and Charles Ponzi, now using the alias Andrea Luciana, was again a free man.

It was a perfect escape. Almost. After revealing his true identity to a shipmate, Ponzi was in time met by authorities in New Orleans who placed him under arrest. Taken back to Massachusetts, Ponzi served seven years in prison and then, having never obtained U.S. citizenship, was promptly deported.

Back home in Italy, Ponzi struggled to make ends meet doing odd jobs. He spent two years writing his autobiography but failed to find an American publisher. He moved to Brazil in 1939 to take a job for the Italian state airline. When that job fizzled, he operated a small rooming house and taught English in Rio de Janeiro, where, following a steep decline in health, he died in 1949 with a net worth of $75.

Charles Ponzi delivered to the SS Vulcania for Deportation, 1934
Charles Ponzi delivered to the SS Vulcania for Deportation, 1934

Charles Ponzi’s Ponzi scheme was not history’s first. But its ingenuity, audacity, and unlikely success was such that the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1957, lent Ponzi’s name permanently to the scheme. The Oxford English Dictionary would later cement the term “Ponzi scheme” into the lexicon with its definition: “A form of fraud in which belief in the success of a nonexistent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors.“

Ponzi’s scheme was also not the largest in history. That honor (so far) goes to Bernie Madoff, famously arrested in 2008 for defrauding investors of an estimated $65 billion over the course of 16 years, using the same basic ruse of paying off earlier investors using proceeds from new ones. And in the time since the Madoff conviction, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has enforced actions against more than 50 similar schemes.

And those are just the ones authorities have managed to find.

Death by Derivatives

How the opening of a Chicago canal in 1848 led to the birth of modern financial derivatives, and the early demise of some of the men who traded them… Published by Damn Interesting on November 21, 2017

In April of 1873, an unhappy man walked along Clark Street in downtown Chicago. His name was Aymar de Belloy. There was a gun in his pocket, and a nickel – enough for one final glass of beer.

He entered Kirchoff’s tavern and sat at a table, then changed his mind about the beer. He drew his gun, pointed it at his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet careened along the inside of his skull like a speed skater on a banked turn. It stopped at the left temple, sparing his brain. Belloy rose and staggered to the bar, shaking hands with the horrified men he passed along the way. Upon reaching the bartender, he apologized in all sincerity for the inconvenience he had just caused. Then he collapsed.

Chicago Board of Trade, interior, 1887
Chicago Board of Trade, interior, 1887

Belloy was a speculator, or “plunger” as they were then known, at the Chicago Board of Trade, where traders negotiated contracts for the future sale of wheat and other such goods. The value of these contracts was based on, or derived from, the current price of wheat. Hence they would one day take the name we use today: derivatives.

In the 1870s, with few rules in place, a man could make a fortune plunging wheat. He could also lose a fortune, and with it the will to live. Indeed, the string of early derivative traders taking their own lives grew long enough that one writer gave it a name: the “crimson thread of suicide.”

The scale of today’s derivatives market is almost too vast to comprehend. It’s measured in trillions of dollars. Traders, aided by the most sophisticated software money can buy, place bets ⁠— billions per second ⁠— on the future prices of every manner of stuff. The market hardly exists in any tangible physical sense; most trading takes place across a network of countless devices at data centers around the world.

But in 1873, the global derivatives market was centered in one building on LaSalle Street in Chicago. And it would not have existed at all were it not for the digging of a very long ditch some 25 years earlier.

In 1848, an army of Irish immigrants finished digging the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It was ninety-six miles long and surprisingly shallow⁠—a tall man could stand on the bottom and not dampen his bowler. The canal connected the Chicago River with the Illinois River, which in turn fed the mighty Mississippi, opening an inland waterway from New Orleans to New York. 1848 was also the year Chicago saw its first railway, and stockyard. Its first telegraph and steam-powered grain elevator? Same year.

Indeed, a city’s annus mirabilis (“wonderful year”) doesn’t get much more mirabilis than Chicago’s 1848. These advances would soon turn the city into, well, Chicago, simply by making it so much easier for stuff to move between east and west.

And boy oh boy did stuff thus move: grain, lumber, salt, sugar, pigs, and cattle began floating or rolling into this town on the southern tip of Lake Michigan like never before. There it was unloaded, weighed, graded, sold, stored, and reloaded onto boats or trains heading the other way.

The Historic Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor, 1851 (via)
The Historic Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor, 1851 (via)

In March of 1848, a dozen or so businessmen gathered to form an alliance of business interests, or what we would today call a trade association. It was a brilliant idea whose only problem was the apparent lack of anything for these fellows to actually do. Founders of the Chicago Board of Trade were determined to find something, but interest soon began to wane. To persuade members to show up for meetings, the founders began offering a free lunch of crackers, cheese and ale. Lines soon formed at the door, filled with men from all walks of life who were only too happy to attend meetings in exchange for free booze⁠—or what we would today call, well, a trade association. The Chicago Board of Trade hired a bouncer to keep the freeloaders at bay, but this still left the nascent organization with very little to do. That would soon change.

Before 1848, farmers carted sacks of wheat into the city, behind horses on unpaved roads, and then sold it directly to buyers. When the canal and railroads lowered shipping costs, far more of the golden grain poured into the city, where it was loaded into grain elevators in exchange for a receipt.

With wheat no longer associated with an individual farmer, it became an exchangeable common good, or commodity, with one bushel of a given grade as good as any other. This at last gave the Chicago Board of Trade something to do: It provided an exchange, a place where buyers and sellers could gather in pits and shout out prices at which they were willing to trade.

It didn’t take long for traders to innovate in this new space. In addition to trading wheat already in an elevator, known as physical wheat, they made deals for so-called future wheat not yet in an elevator but expected to arrive at some later date. Such “to-arrive” contracts would eventually take the name used today: futures. Anyone planning to buy or sell future wheat could lock in a price days, weeks, or months in advance. This, of course, required someone to be on the other side of the trade. Sometimes a miller could find a farmer willing to sell, or vice versa, but not always. Enter the plungers.

These fellows had no interest in actually buying or selling grain. They wanted only to profit on price changes, caring not a whit about wheat. They would buy an elevator receipt simply on a hunch that prices would rise, at which time they could sell it at a profit. Or, if the trader foresaw a price decline, he could borrow someone’s receipt, sell it for cash, and later buy it back at a lower price in order to return it to its lender, keeping the difference as a profit. (This is known as shorting a market and is precisely how short selling of stock works today.)

One such plunger was Aymar de Belloy. A French nobleman, scion of one of the oldest and most prominent families in France, Belloy started adulthood with an inheritance of $300,000 ($9 million in today’s dollars)⁠—most of which he immediately proceeded to squander. In 1868, he brought the remnants of his fortune to Chicago to speculate on wheat. He managed to stay afloat long enough to marry and father a number of children, then his luck ran out. And so did the last of his money.

Belloy’s misfortune stemmed from more than bad luck. He was the victim of unscrupulous traders known simply as operators, who might sell fake elevator receipts, or move prices in their favor by spreading false news. Or they might pull off an especially cunning manipulation known as a corner, in which they would buy future wheat while simultaneously buying all physical wheat.

Later, when it came time for the operator to take delivery of his future wheat, the other trader had to first go buy some. But there was none. The operator owned it all. Thus trapped, or cornered, the victim had no choice but to pay whatever price the operator demanded. Cornering was the ruin of many a trader, like our Belloy, to whom the only apparent recourse was to find the nearest saloon and shoot himself in the head.

After an agonizing ride home in a horse-drawn taxi, Belloy’s luck turned in his favor. A doctor pronounced the wound non-life-threatening, assuring Belloy he would be back on his feet in only a week or two. His friends at the Board of Trade took up a collection and raised more than $1,000 for Belloy and his family. Members of the press, having little respect for men who gambled on the price of food, were not so moved. The Chicago Journal ran an editorial on Belloy and his roller-coaster luck. They, too, suggested a collection be taken: to buy him a better gun.

But Belloy’s luck changed again. The doctor was wrong. The wound proved mortal. Two days after shooting himself at Kirchoff’s, the nobleman-turned-derivative-trader died.

The failed plunger left his widow and children penniless. The eldest son went to work as a bootblack on the streets of Chicago, shining shoes, though he himself wore none. Then the boy sold newspapers and scrounged the odd penny however he could. The mother took alms.

The corner practice did more than add to Chicago’s widow and orphan population. It made a mockery of a free market. Farmers might not mind when the price of grain was manipulated upward. They could make more money. But consumers certainly minded. Bakers had to make loaves of bread smaller to keep them priced at a nickel, the most it was believed consumers would pay.

The Board of Trade directors knew something had to be done, so they introduced a new rule:

“…the practice of “corners,” of making contracts for the purchase of a commodity, and then taking measures to render it impossible for the seller to fill his contract, for the purpose of extorting money from him, has been too long tolerated… these transactions are essentially improper and fraudulent.”

The rule could not have been more clear in defining a corner and its ill effects. It went on to proscribe strict penalties for violation and was written into bylaws with haste. And then it was promptly ignored.

New Chicago Board of Trade building, 1885
New Chicago Board of Trade building, 1885

On 28 April 1885, members of the Board of Trade and their wives looked forward to a magnificent banquet to be held that evening in the lobby of their gleaming new building at LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard. Nearby, the anarchist Albert R. Parsons raised enthusiasm of another sort, telling a gathering crowd on Market Street that the nearly $2 million spent on the building had been stolen from their own pockets, by members of what he dubbed the Chicago Board of Thieves. He called his audience to arms. “Let every man lay up a part of his wages,” he urged them, “buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and learn to make and use dynamite!”

The mob did as instructed. As day turned to dusk, some 2,000 protesters marched toward the building carrying red and black flags, revolvers, and homemade nitroglycerin bombs. A marching band played the Marseillaise. Just one block away from the brightly lit building, a wall of police officers stopped their advance. Mob leaders shook their fists, yelled more words of outrage to the crowd, then retreated to nearby saloons to safely drink off their rage.

The imposing new Board of Trade building may have looked staid and dignified on the outside, but the view inside was anything but. A popular saying went: “The wheat pit is only twenty yards across, but it goes down to hell.” The writer Frank Norris penned a roman-a-clef titled The Pit about wheat speculation in Chicago. It was not a dry read. He described the trading pit, for instance, as:

“a great whirlpool, a pit of roaring waters spun and thundered, sucking in the life tides of the city, sucking them in as into the mouth of some tremendous cloaca, then vomiting them forth again, spewing them up and out, only to catch them in the return eddy and suck them in afresh.”

The image becomes particularly disturbing upon learning the definition of the word “cloaca”.

The unlucky Belloy was not the only early futures trader whose life ended in an unpleasant fashion. The ruined trader Nelson Van Kirk used his last few dollars to buy a cheap revolver that had to be pried from the fingers of his corpse. The trader T.C. Chisolm lost everything in a failed wheat corner, save an elevator full of corn in New York, which, it turned out, was rotten. He took a ferry to Brooklyn (no doubt noticing a magnificent new bridge still under construction), then found a remote slip where he filled his pockets with stones and plunged into the East River to drown.

Board of Trade in session, 1900
Board of Trade in session, 1900

Deaths such as these became rather routine. In 1905, the veteran CBOT official George F. Stone was asked about the long history of out-of-luck traders resorting to felo de se. He rejected the idea that board members were prone to suicide, and in fact asserted just the opposite:

“The average board of trade man is of other mettle. He is hopeful and looks upon the bright side of things, and in case of disaster his first impulse is to consider that better times will come.”

The Belloy, Chisholm, and Van Kirk widows may have begged to disagree.

The manipulation of securities trading continues to this day, such as by high frequency traders whose practices are seen by some as less than ethical. Michael Lewis details one such practice in his book Flash Boys, where market makers use superior networking technology to change the market price of a security after a customer sees it and places an order, forcing them to trade at an inferior price.

The derivative traders once known as operators remain at work, but trader suicide began, thankfully, to wane in the early years of the twentieth century. Plenty of traders have lost fortunes and many died penniless, but typically not at their own hands. Thus we are unlikely to again see the likes of Aymar de Belloy, whose story does not end with his death.

One month after his funeral, Belloy’s luck turned yet again. News came from France that he had inherited $2 million ($50 million today) following the death of his mother. All that was needed for the widow to receive the money was proof of marriage. This was duly secured and provided to the authorities.

Belloy’s widow took the title of Marchioness, the eldest son the title of Marquis. The family was elevated from dire poverty in Chicago’s tenement district to aristocracy on the Gold Coast.

Life after that was pretty good.