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055 - On Cohen's Condos - Moral Letters for Modern Times

We assume the prominent are thrilled with their privileges, and made content thereby. But what do we know of their inner thoughts, their joys and their worries?
Trail with hikers and trees - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I flew into JFK airport not long ago, and marveled once again at the miracle of modern travel: boarding a plane in the morning, crossing an ocean, and arriving at a new continent in the afternoon of the same day. The speed with which we can conquer by air the distances of the globe is outdone, though, by the time dilation that occurs on reaching the ground, at least in New York.

It starts with the rush from the plane’s door down endless, empty corridors to the customs hall. The legs fairly leap after being caged for eight hours, and you are happy to stride energetically past the moving walkways. Why stand like a statue after you’ve been sitting immobile like a mummy in its sarcophagus? The sunlight streams through the glass windows along the hallway, and your heart briefly soars with optimism that this time will be different. Your face soon falls in line with your dashed hopes as you turn the final corner to see the Brownian motion of thousands of fellow travelers inching imperceptibly towards the next hurdle.

Quickly, which line is for you? Citizen, non-citizen, crew, green card holder, Global Entry … choose wrongly and you will be forced to backtrack, letting who knows how many ahead of you in line and adding perhaps hours to your wait. So you run to then stand and shuffle, while wondering for the 50th time whether those signs saying “Cell phone use prohibited” are really enforced. There’s a fellow traveler from your flight, and how on earth did they get so much farther ahead of you? They were sitting in the same row as you. Oh, there’s another, and you stifle a secret laugh that you are far ahead of them.

Eventually I clear customs, relieved to be spared the indignity of being fingerprinted and photographed like the potentially criminal non-citizens. The baggage hall is one circle of hell I may circumvent, for at least today I am traveling light. With a pitying glance for those in the purgatory of lost baggage I make my escape through the doors to freedom or, as it turns out, merely the arrivals hall. I feel like a marathoner approaching the finishing line, for the way is lined with spectators holding up signs, each eagerly looking to catch sight of their runner: “Mr. Pletros, Marriott,” “Electrolux,” “Al Walheer, The Essex House.” If you were willing to assume a new identity for the afternoon you could be whisked anyplace you wish in leather and air conditioning.

In my case, I put my person into the care of that most venerable institution, The Yellow Cab Company. Though I made my way from the plane’s door with the alacrity of a seasoned competitor, first to the line, fastest out the gate, leaving less experienced runners far behind, the halls of JFK strain from the disgorge of disgruntled passengers. Fast as I have been, before me waits another Amazonian line winding distantly to the taxis.

To truly understand motion that yields no progress, Deuteros, get into a New York City cab at the very epitome of oxymoron that is “rush hour.” For hours you will sit, wondering whether your destination is nearing faster than the figure on the meter is rising. Many times you will be tempted to fly your yellow cage and take to the streets by foot. Would that you had descended into the bowels of Jamaica Station and taken the E-train! The subway with all its chance encounters and strange smells at least gives you the sensation of movement.

It was while this run of thoughts ran riot through my tired brain that I looked out the window at 58th Street and spied a former home of hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen. Twenty-four foot ceilings, spread over two floors, and in the news as much for its storied owner as for its views over Central Park. Forced by an insider trading scandal to close SAC Capital Advisors, his eponymously initialed hedge fund, the firm paid the largest insider trading fine of all time at $1.8 billion. Mr. Cohen was reduced to managing his own money, perhaps a mere $10 billion at that point. He had also reduced the $115 million selling price of his condo multiple times since putting it on the market in 2013. The headlines reported it attracted a buyer after eight years and a 74% price cut. “Hah!” we laugh, “the brilliant trader has lost his golden touch.” But read a bit further and you see the bargain price of $29.5 million is still $5.5 million above what he paid for it.

I am not writing to begrudge anyone their wealth, their acumen, or their pursuits, Deuteros. I would have you see that the breathless reporting of billionaires’ mega apartments, art collections, and philanthropic contributions is a symptom of something else, and a distraction from what is truly valuable. The amount of ink spilled over the prominent hides as much as it reveals. We assume the prominent are thrilled with their privileges, and made content thereby. But what do we know of their inner thoughts, their joys and their worries? Do you think the shuttering of SAC Capital’s doors made Mr. Cohen any happier to open the doors of his Hamptons home?

It is not the painted walls of a grand villa that make one bright and happy. The riches that philosophy offers are available to all, regardless of what’s in their wallet. If you can but purchase peace of mind, you will see that you do not lack the means for any further purchase. And moreover, you will see that you pay the cost of your things well after you’ve paid the price. The maintenance fee on a million dollar condo is much more than what flows from your bank account each month!

When you think you are building a bulwark against uncertainty by piling up stacks of cash, be careful you are not building the walls of your own prison of discontent. The condo I would have you inhabit is one entirely of your own making, and though it be free of adornment, you will spend more carefree days there than in any luxury building.

Be well.

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