October 31, 1981 was 40 years ago Sunday. I was in my first year in college at my father’s alma mater, and my parents had come from Connecticut to visit so we could spend the day in Boston.
What a beautiful day. Cool, breezy, in the 50s. I don’t recall where we ate, but if we were together more than a few hours then my mom would have made sure we ate at least twice. My parents let me cry on them about the breakup with my high school girlfriend a few weeks earlier. They bought me a blazer at Saks and a winter coat at EMS on Commonwealth Avenue, one that I wore well into my 40s. When my dad bought a couple of shirts for himself at Brooks Brothers, he was subjected to a level of rudeness on the part of the sales lady that I still remember it (She must have come from Boston Brahmin money, because Boston Brahmins don’t care for Fairfield County types).
By the time they delivered me back to my dorm early in the evening we had all had a wonderful day, one full of harmony and promise and possibility. My father, who had graduated from what was then the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance in 1950, was excited to see the changes in the school and proud to have me majoring in a field similar to his. By all appearances it was the opening scene in the story of a great life, of productive college years, then a great first job and a solid career in finance. I was truly on my way.
The way, of course, was not that clear. I allowed my immaturity and lack of discipline to interfere with the tasks at hand, and by the time I dropped out of that school 19 months later, I was just another drug-using dropout on the lookout for an easy buck. A Criminal Justice professor whose name continues to elude me coined the term “middle class losers” about a decade ago, and that description suited me perfectly.
After a year working for a shady character who offered corporate safety services by day and distributed cocaine by night, I talked my way into a job as a commercial lender in 1985. I lost that job three years later over my abysmal work ethic and my inability to manage a 40,000 square mile territory on my own. Now married, I started preparing tax returns and doing monthly writeup, but the quality of my work was awful. I wasn’t halfway through the CPA exam in 1993 when I realized I was never going to pass it; not long after I had the same realization about three pages into the EA exam.
The more my work suffered, the more I depended on a winning smile and a calm, reassuring demeanor to make up for my lack of actual credentials. Having started stealing from them in 1993, the more my clients liked and trusted me, the more I took. And each time I stole something from a client, the decision to steal the next time became easier.
Every decision to steal or not steal, to study or not study, to get up or sleep late, to use drugs or not use drugs, changes life’s path. The momentous ones – the choice of a college, the choice of a spouse, the choice of a career – are recalled at anniversary parties, new partner celebrations or retirement banquets. But our lives are governed more by the dozens of decisions we make every single day than the ones we will recall with our families or coworkers. One could say that bad decision making begets bad decision making until a pattern emerges, but each choice still stands on its own. So while choosing the wrong path on Tuesday makes it more likely that one will choose the wrong path on Thursday, it’s also true that – as Anne Shirley might have said – that Thursday will be a new day, fresh and clean of mistakes. It’s never too late to start making the right choices, and that’s something that gives me great comfort.
That day in October 40 years ago was truly the beginning of a story. It just wasn’t the story any of us had in mind that day.