I’m not exactly what you would call a high roller. I treat my wife to the occasional dinner out using the money I make selling used CDs on half.com, and every stitch of clothing our two kids wear was either gifted by grandparents or handed down from older cousins. So it surprises me no end to find that I’ve been Madoffed.
A few months before Bernard Madoff admitted to having bilked thousands of people out of $65 billion in the world’s biggest and longest-running Ponzi scheme — and long before we learned that he had a penchant for screwing at least some of his investors both literally and figuratively — I applied for a grant administered by an arts organization in my home borough of Queens. The Roger Madoff Literary Fellowship promised $10,000, a year-long residency at the Writer’s Room in Manhattan, and regular meetings with a mentor to help an “emerging writer” craft a “substantial” new piece of work.
I’m a little too old to count as an emerging anything, or to have much interest in acquiring a mentor; and as a work-from-home dad with hermit-like tendencies, I lack both the opportunity and the desire to haul my ass across the East River just to sit around drinking coffee with a bunch of other non-emerging writers. But that $10,000 sounded mighty appealing. I hoped to use it to write a memoir of the time I spent living in Ghana, West Africa; or, more precisely, I hoped to use it to buy diapers for my nine-month-old and graham crackers for my four-year-old while I wrote a memoir of the time I spent living in Ghana, West Africa.
So I filled out the lengthy application form — I have never before had to write an artist’s statement, and I hope never to do so again — cadged letters of recommendation from the two editors whom I thought were least likely to secretly hate me, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
When news first began to leak out about Bernard Madoff’s financial hijinks, my first thought was: that name seems awfully familiar. When I finally figured out why, I wondered if my Madoff and that Madoff could possibly be related. And when charitable organizations began to report that their endowments had suddenly ceased to exist thanks to the collapse of that Madoff’s little caper, I began to wonder if I was about to get pantsed — financially speaking, of course.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when I woke up one morning to find that I had received a Dear John e-mail from the poor chump who was administering the fellowship competition: “I regret to inform you that the Roger Madoff Literary Fellowship has been suspended indefinitely because of unforeseen developments regarding the funding of the fellowship. Applications for the 2009 fellowship will be kept on file for consideration if and when the program resumes.”
Turns out that Roger Madoff was not just a journalist whose life was cut tragically short by leukemia at the age of 32, and whose family decided to honor his memory by giving other writers a helping hand. He was also the son of Peter Madoff, Bernard’s brother. Given the way things have turned out for Uncle Bernie, I think it’s fair to say that both the “if” and “when” in that e-mail were wildly optimistic. My dreams of avarice had been dashed. Bernie had stolen my mojo, just as he had stolen that of so many others.
Now I’m not saying that I have as much cause for grief as those poor bastards who lined up at the courthouse to hear Bernie’s fake apology. (“I am deeply sorry and ashamed?” Please. If you felt that bad about the whole thing, you wouldn’t have mailed over $1 million worth of gold Rolexes to your family and friends after the criminal investigation had begun.) And I’m certainly not going to compare myself to Elie Wiesel, who lost everything — from his foundation’s funds to his personal fortune — in the Madoff whirlwind. Though I will say that, if there is a God, He must have a very strange sense of humor. What kind of sadist lets a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor get taken for $37 million?
I can’t even claim, like Eric Roth, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Forrest Gump, to have been “the biggest sucker who ever walked the face of the earth.” (I guess life really is like a box of chocolates – if, rather than containing a luscious liquid center, each one of those chocolates is instead filled with a tiny nugget of poop. “Poop” being a word that I hear a lot of these days, thanks to all of the extra quality time I get to spend with my four-year-old now that I can no longer claim to be working on something new and substantial.) After all, I never actually invested a cent with Bernie.
But that’s the point. You don’t have to be a financier or a millionaire — hell, you don’t even have to own an IRA or a decent pair of shoes — to have been affected by the current round of financial frauds and panics. You just have to have a pulse.
We’re all suffering, to one degree or another. Bernie liked to tout the exclusivity of his investor’s club, but as we now know, that was just another lie: he roped in thousands of suckers. Big fish, little fish, Bernie feasted on them all — just like the banks that sold loans to anyone who could sign their name, and the insurers that wrote credit default swaps for anyone who asked.
Fortunately, I have found many ways to occupy the time that I would otherwise have devoted to that memoir. For example, I’ve spent way more time than usual babysitting for my kids while my wife has gone out to hustle additional work as a freelance musician. I have spent long hours online, obsessively researching several pieces of consumer electronics that I can no longer afford to buy. (Hey, that handheld digital recorder would be deductible, baby.) And I have written this essay, which, if sold to an actual publication, might even help me recoup a percentage of my loss equivalent to that which we can all expect to get back from AIG, Citibank, and whoever else Congress next decides to toss a few billion.
So I was Madoffed. Who wasn’t?