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Matt Mittleman scanned the audience as he walked off the stage, diploma in hand. Yes, Uncle Frank was there, not sitting next to his parents but standing alone, removed from them. Frank Goldstein looked distinguished in a gray flannel suit, even if it did fit somewhat loosely on his tall, angular frame. He appeared to look frailer than the last time Matt had seen him, but he still had that enigmatic smile.
"Congratulations, my boy. I see your day has finally arrived," Frank said, pumping his nephew's outstretched hand. "You said you wanted to do this your way, and you did."
The look of admiration on his uncle's weathered face meant more to Matt than attaining the status of salutatorian. This uncle, Frank Goldstein, was a self-made man, an entrepreneur who had no equal.
Goldstein rasped, "I noticed a slight limp. Not a permanent injury, I hope."
Matt ran a hand through his curly hair. "No. The doc said I'll be okay. A small price to pay for scoring the winning puck that won the hockey championship," he said nonchalantly. "Unfortunately a bruiser the size of a freight train plowed into me." He pointed toward the injury. "The doc told me I tore one of my ligaments." Matt grinned. "If you think I'm in bad shape, you should see the other guy!"
"I know all about your prowess on the rink. Your mother told me your teammates named you the 'Scrapper,' " Goldstein said. "You've got spunk. I admire that in a man."
Just then Matt's mother and father approached. His mother gave him a hug. "We're all going back to the house." She gave him an imploring look. "You will join us, won't you?"
Matt glanced at his father who was standing in the background. He had hoped his father would shake his hand. They had argued recently and apparently he was still harboring a grudge.
"Of course. Uncle Frank, you are coming, aren't you?"
"What about it, Frank?" his mother asked.
Goldstein hesitated so long that Matt was about to repeat the invitation. "If that's what Matt wants. I'd be happy to take all of you out for dinner if you like."
His mother was about to speak when his father cut in. "I'm going back to the house. Are you two coming?"
"I'll ride with Uncle Frank," Matt said testily. "We'll be along shortly." Matt resented his father's coolness toward his uncle.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Frank. My dad is acting this way because he's upset with me."
Frank Goldstein placed an arm around Matt. "Don't think a thing of it."
Matt wondered if his father resented his uncle because he was rich. Goldstein lived in a world far different from the one Matt and his parents were accustomed to. A world filled with jet travel and fancy cars. Uncle Frank made millions buying and selling businesses while his family struggled to meet everyday expenses. His parents owned a modest home in Quebec, which he knew was mortgaged to the hilt. For some reason his father clung to the idea that he could continue to make a living at his neighborhood grocery store. A store that was outdated just like he was.
Matt pitied his father who believed that no one could earn an honest living without putting in a twelve-hour day. For some unfathomable reason, his father believed Matt would come to no good unless he came to work at the store. Matt cringed at the idea. When his grandfather had owned it, he had been able to make a fairly decent living. But shortly after his father took over the business, a new supermarket had taken half of his customers. His father could no longer compete, but he was stubborn and refused to admit defeat. "You just wait and see," he had told Matt. "My customers will be back. Supermarkets don't deliver and I do." The comment had brought on another argument.
As long as he could remember, Matt worshipped his Uncle Frank, wanting to be just like him, a success. Failure petrified him. Failure meant he would end up spending the rest of his life in Quebec working for someone else. Failure meant he would never live a glamorous exciting life, the kind of life his uncle lived.
Matt's parents considered Frank Goldstein a rich eccentric. For as long as Matt could remember they discouraged him from associating with his uncle. His mother called her brother a shrewd and sometimes ruthless businessman, while his father called him a selfish, manipulative bastard. Since Goldstein lived in Los Angeles, Matt didn't have an opportunity to visit him often, but he always remembered to send his uncle a birthday card.
A year or so ago, Matt had made the decision to find employment in L.A. With his wife dead and no children of his own, his uncle had tried to talk Matt into staying with him. Goldstein had laughed when Matt offered to pay him rent.
"I'm not a charity case, Uncle Frank. I can pay my own way."
As usual, Frank had been persuasive. He'd managed to convince Matt to stay with him, at least until he found a job. Matt's parents had been skeptical of the arrangement, even tried to talk him out of it, but in the end hadn't been able to give their son a good enough reason why he shouldn't be with his uncle.
When the family returned to the Mittleman home, his mother worked at keeping the conversation light throughout dinner, but Matt caught the palpable underlying current of tension that existed between his father and his uncle. His mother attempted to diffuse his father's hostility. She chatted about unimportant events that were occurring in her life, while Matt's thoughts gravitated toward his newly acquired independence. He was free at last. Free from school. Free from hockey practice and above all free from the part time job at his father's grocery store.
Later, after spending some time discussing his plans with Frank, Matt said good night. His leg was throbbing so he went to the bathroom, downed a couple of painkillers, and started a slow climb up the stairs to his room, when he heard loud, angry voices coming from downstairs.
"He idolizes you so don't you ever hurt him," his mother warned.
Matt could hear his uncle's raspy response. "The boy is more like me than you realize."
"I hope not," said his father, his voice full of antagonism. "Everything you touch sooner or later gets tainted. You're obsessed with money, you always have been and you never let anything or anyone stand in your way to get it. Sometimes I think you'd make a pact with the devil himself if he offered you a competitive edge."
"Come on. Aren't you exaggerating a bit?" Matt heard his uncle say.
"No," came his mother's reply. "The reason I didn't want Matt living with you is because I don't want him to be anything like you. God forbid. I can't tell him what to do anymore because he's a grown man. And if I were to tell him what kind of a person you are, he probably wouldn't believe me. He's got you up there with the rest of the saints, and I don't want him to be disappointed when you let him downand you will."
Matt felt guilty standing there, eavesdropping on a conversation obviously not meant for his ears. He was surprised his father and mother, who were normally demure, were so vehement. He never realized there was so much friction between his parents and his uncle, or possibly it was just one sided.
But soon he put the incident aside. Regardless of what he had heard his parents say about his uncle, Matt strengthened his resolve to leave. He had sold his car, withdrawn his savings from the bank, and had said his goodbyes. Nothing would deter him from going to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.
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When his plane landed in L.A., Matt lined up with the rest of the passengers to debark. As soon as he spotted his suitcase circling around the turnstile of the baggage claim area, he grabbed it. As he headed toward the exit, he saw a man in a chauffeur's uniform brandishing a sign with his name on it. As promised, Goldstein had sent someone to pick him up. He followed the chauffeur to a parking lot where some people were admiring a black Rolls. The limousine was polished to such a fine sheen that Matt could see his own reflection in its mirror-like finish.
A young man about his age, who had been ogling the limo, looked at him in open admiration as Matt slumped into the luxurious leather seat. He felt somewhat strange being the car's only occupant.
As the Rolls pulled away from the curb, he marveled at its silent ride. Now he knew what it felt like to be a VIP.
The glass partition separating him from the driver slid down ever so silently. "There's a bar to the left of you, sir. Please help yourself. Maybe a cold drink, champagne if you like."
"Thank you," Matt heard himself say. "But I'm fine."
Suddenly, another wave of self-doubt hit him. Maybe his mother had been right. Maybe he wouldn't be able to fit into his uncle's world. He tried to push these negative thoughts out of his mind, but they kept surfacing. He was more afraid of not becoming successful in his uncle's eyes than he was in his father's.
The chauffeur brought him out of his reverie. "We'll be at your uncle's house in a few moments. Mr. Goldstein wanted me to tell you that he had an important business engagement, but Henry will tend to your needs." Matt remembered Henry, the butler. He had been in his uncle's employ ever since he could remember.
As they approached the estate, two iron gates opened inwardly to let them onto the path that led to the house. As the Rolls pulled up in front of the cobblestone circular driveway, Matt couldn't help but admire the marble fountain dominating the courtyard. A planter filled with red bromeliads loomed out of their moss-filled environment like fiery dragons' tongues seeking out prey.
The massive front door opened, and Henry emerged. He was a morose-appearing man, slightly stooped with a Popeye jaw. The butler was slow to move, but somehow managed to hobble to the car. He greeted Matt affably.
With suitcase in hand, the old man shuffled toward the mansion. Matt caught up to Henry. He felt guilty that someone four times his age would be carrying his bag. "I can handle that, Henry. You don't need to bother."
The butler shook his head. "Don't concern yourself, sir. Believe me, I'm fine."
Matt followed Henry into the house. Although he had been there several times, he marveled once again at its size. He asked, "Did my uncle remodel the place?"
"Oh, yes, sir. A couple of years ago. It was right after his wife died. Mr. Goldstein modernized the house. He also made it larger."
Matt vaguely remembered meeting his aunt. His mother had nothing but nice things to say about her. He wondered why his uncle would enlarge the house, particularly since he was now living by himself. But then he recalled Goldstein telling him once that he always sought the best.
Upon entering the foyer Matt saw half a dozen parrots. He had forgotten that his uncle loved the birds and cared for them as if they were his children. Enclosed in their gilded cages, they gazed at him with unblinking eyes as an intruder. In between their squawking, they paused long enough to preen. Their incessant, meaningless chatter sounded like a cacophonous concert with the instruments out of tune. Matt did not like birds. He wondered why his uncle chose to have the creatures in his house. They were noisy and also messy. But then his uncle was an eccentric. Maybe the birds gave an old man who lived alone some companionship.
The butler interrupted Matt's thoughts. "I have your room prepared. I'll show you where it is in case you have forgotten."
On his way up the stairs, Matt ran a finger along the highly polished mahogany railing. It was smooth and, like the Rolls, had a deep sheen to it. He imagined it had taken years of polishing before it could have attained such luster.
As Matt started to unpack, Henry stopped him. "Please, sir. I'll take care of that for you. Mr. Goldstein instructed me to tell you to make yourself at home. He had a business engagement, but he'll be back in about an hour. Lunch will be served on the patio." Matt thought the butler had actually bowed, or maybe it just looked that way because he was so stooped over. He felt uncomfortable around Henry. Except at his uncle's house, Matt had never experienced a class distinction among people. And Henry's subservient manner made him feel even more ill at ease. Here was a man sixty years his senior bowing and calling him "sir." So much for age having its privilege over youth.
"Perhaps you'd like to freshen up," Henry suggested.
While showering in the spacious bathroom, Matt marveled at the granite stall with its spigot of a fish head that emitted razor-sharp streams of hot water.
Invigorated after the shower, he walked back into the bedroom. His clothes were neatly arranged in the antique bureau.
As he dressed, he took stock of his surroundings. His uncle had not only made the house larger, but he had also added some unique features. There was a sitting area with a fireplace, a flat screen television recessed inside the armoire. An ornate writing desk, supported by a pair of spindly legs, was situated by a bay window framed with electronic pull curtains.
He had some time to kill so he walked around the grounds. He passed a garden with hundreds of roses in full bloom. Following a brick walkway to the far side of the estate, he came upon the caretaker's house. In front of this house was a fountain much smaller than the one he'd seen in the middle of the circular driveway.
He gazed at the pond. Large motley-colored Koi swam lazily through green moss, completely unaware of his presence. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, took a dime out of his pocket and threw the coin into the water. His wish was that one day he could become wealthy like his uncle, so wealthy he could afford a home like this. He daydreamed what it would be like to own a yacht and an exotic car or two. If he became well heeled, he could hire servants like Henry who'd care for all of his daily needs...but maybe that would be carrying things too far.
Matt had to figure out a way to earn some cash fast. Before he left Quebec, he had been unsuccessful in lining up job interviews. Now that he was in the City of Angels he hoped to have better luck. He was optimistic. That's why he had purchased a one-way ticket to L.A., and it bothered him that he was short on funds. He had no intention of returning to Quebec-unless he ran out of money before finding work. He shuddered at the thought of having to move back in with his parents.
On his way back to the main house, Matt marveled at the view. A row of blooming red azaleas, which bordered a brick walkway, led Matt to a large terrace. Overlooking the terrace were two Greek statues. They appeared to stand guard over a large high tech pool. He marveled at how the water created the illusion of hanging suspended in mid-air. Beyond the water's edge, Matt could see the manicured fairways of the prestigious Riviera Golf Course.
He was within a few feet of the main house when Henry appeared. "Mr. Goldstein is waiting for you on the back patio, sir. Lunch will be served in a few minutes."
As Matt approached, he spotted his uncle sitting at a table protected from the sun by a large umbrella. A parrot was on his shoulder. Frank stood to shake his hand. "How was the flight?" he asked in his gravelly voice.
"It was okay. Actually, better than okay. I met a flight attendant on the plane. Pretty girl."
"What's her name?"
"Amy. Amy Meraux."
"Did you get her number?"
"As a matter a fact I did, but I don't have time for girls right now. I need to figure out how I'm going to make a living."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Thanks, but I feel I must do this myself or at least try."
The enigmatic smile that crossed Frank's face caused the wrinkles around the corners of his mouth to become less pronounced. The minute Frank took the parrot off his shoulder, Henry, who had been hovering nearby, placed the squawking bird in a nearby cage. Matt noticed that the skin on Frank's arms looked like worn leather. He assumed that's what happened to people after years of exposure to the sun.
They both ate in silence for a while watching the golfers hit their approach shots onto the green. Matt was the first to speak. "How did you make your money?"
"You might say I was lucky. I found my niche early in life." Frank put a piece of steak in his mouth and chewed it slowly. "I buy unprofitable companies that have potential. And then I look for ways to turn them around."
"Do you keep them?"
"Sometimes...at least for a while. You see, it's all in the timing, my boy. In order to make money as a venture capitalist, you must be in the right place at the right time."
An economics professor had once told him that venture capitalists were huge risk takers. He wanted to ask his uncle what he did to minimize risk, but instead asked, "How will I know when the timing is right?"
The inscrutable smile reappeared. "You'll have to learn to trust your instincts." Frank looked at his watch. "I better get going. I have a meeting this afternoon, but I'll be back by dinnertime. Why don't we plan on having supper at the club?"
Frank got up from the table. "Oh, I almost forgot." He reached into his pocket and tossed Matt two keys bound together by a brass ring.
"What are these for?"
"One is for the front door to the house, the other is to one of my cars. I asked Henry to bring it out front. You will make yourself at home, won't you?"
"Uncle Frank..." Matt stammered. "I don't know what to say."
Goldstein was halfway up the walk. He turned, looked at his nephew, and said, "If I were you I wouldn't wait too long to ask this Amy for a date."
* * *
When Matt saw the new BMW convertible, he thought Henry had made a mistake. He certainly didn't think his uncle would loan him an $80,000 car. He tenuously opened the car door and took in the smell of new leather. He took his time adjusting the seat, the side mirrors, and the rearview mirror. One of the keys Frank had given him slid effortlessly into the ignition. The car started with a snarl. Matt released the brake, placed the shift knob into drive position, and cautiously put the car in motion.
It only took him a couple of minutes to find the highway. When he pressed his foot on the accelerator, the car's response was instantaneous. Matt felt a sense of exhilaration as he navigated the German vehicle thru traffic. This could be mine, he thought. All I have to do is find my niche.
That night Matt had difficulty sleeping. Thoughts of self-doubt again entered his mind. Would he be able to find a good paying job with a future? How long would he have to depend on his uncle's generosity?
When Matt finally drifted off to sleep, he dreamt he was on a plane heading to Quebec. Amy, the flight attendant who had given him her phone number, had a sympathetic look on her face. "I'm sorry you couldn't make a go of it in L.A.," she said.
"I guess I just wasn't cut out for such a fast paced life," Matt replied.
"What are you going to do?"
His eyes wouldn't meet her stare. "Work for my father, I guess. He owns a delicatessen." It was a bold-face lie. But a delicatessen sounded better than a grocery store. He saw disappointment written on her face. "Why don't we take in dinner and a movie?" he asked.
"Sorry, Matt. I don't go out with losers."
Matt woke with a start, thankful it had only been a dream. He vowed that no matter what he had to do, he would make a go of it. It was seven a.m. When he opened the electronic pull curtains, he immediately saw the rainbow. Its arc of color seemed to split the sky in two. It looked as if an artist had taken a multi-colored brush to a backdrop of blue canvass.
He traced the sweep to the horizon where it seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Matt, who was superstitious, was certain this was a good omen.
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A week went by before Matt realized that even with a college education, without experience, the best he could hope for was a low-paying entry level job in sales. Discouraged, he went to seek his uncle's advice.
Frank was playing pool. "Care to join me in a game of eight ball?" he asked.
"No thanks." Matt watched Frank play for a while, and then said, "There aren't as many good job opportunities in L.A. as I thought there'd be."
Frank broke another rack. "I could have told you so. You're ambitious and impatient just like I was when I was your age. You wouldn't be happy working for someone else. Most wealthy people are entrepreneurs. They use the money they've accumulated as a benchmark of their success. The more money you make, the more successful you'll become. You'll never achieve independence unless you work for yourself."
"But what could I do?"
"Your major is marketing, right?" Frank didn't wait for Matt's answer. "Go and talk to people who are self-employed in a business to provide a service. Target small companiesbusinesses that cannot afford to spend much on advertising. Convince them you can increase their market share for a percentage of the profit."
Matt clung to his uncle's every word. "What kind of businesses?"
"Oh, I don't know. Any industry would work. It could be a small contracting firm. There are hundreds in L.A."
Matt thought his uncle's idea had merit. The only problem was he had little time. Another week, two at most, and he would barely have enough money for a plane ticket home. The thought of having to go back to Quebec and admit defeat petrified him. Matt knew most men didn't have the guts to start a business of their own. Frank had just told him he did.
* * *
That evening, Matt came up with an idea. He'd spent part of one summer painting his parents' house inside and out. Why not try to promote a paint company? He decided to find a reputable painting contractor who didn't have the money or marketing expertise to promote his company. But first, he'd have to create a good impression.
The next day he chose a name for his company, deciding on Catalyst Marketing. After filing the fictitious name at the county courthouse, he had some business cards printed. He also developed a brochure with a catchy phrase. "Catalyst Marketing offers upside potential without the downside risk." Taking his uncle's advice, he concentrated on smaller businesses with no name recognition.
Within a week, he'd mastered the technique of getting to the decision makers who were usually the owners themselves. He found it much easier to get his foot in the door as a self-employed individual than as a job applicant.
Screening his prospects thoroughly, Matt asked for references and then checked them out. Two companies he'd pitched told him they weren't interested, but that didn't discourage Matt. He knew he was playing a numbers game. Sooner or later he'd get someone to bite.
Regent Enterprises looked promising. The paint company had been in existence in the greater Los Angeles area for fifteen years. Almost all of its business came from customer referrals, and the company limited its advertising to a small ad in the yellow pages.
The owner of Regent Enterprises, Stan Le Duc, pointed to a chair as Matt entered his office. "Well, young man, what's on your mind?"
After seeing the skeptical look on Le Duc's face, Matt decided to come right to the point. "Here's my proposal. I'll generate business for you. As much as you can handle. You'll have your estimator bid on each job, but I must accompany him at all times. I'll either pass his bid on to the prospective client as written, or I'll rewrite the bid to include overages. In either case, if I don't provide you with a signed contract, I'll pay your estimator the going rate for doing the estimate."
Matt became less confident when he saw that Le Duc's look of skepticism was still there. "What's this going to cost me?"
"Nothing up front, but I want fifteen percent of all labor charges, ten percent on materials and I keep all overages. You pay one hundred percent of all penalty clauses for not completing a job within a specified time." By this time, Matt had perfected his pitch. He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.
The older man appeared to give Matt's proposal some thought. "I won't accept anything less than a $5,000 job. I don't want to waste my time painting closets. I'll pay you a ten percent override on labor, five on materials." Le Duc gave Matt a piercing look. "And you can have seventy-five percent of all overages. You get paid when I get paid. I'm willing to try you out to see how this works on the condition that either of us can terminate the arrangement after thirty days."
Matt hesitated only for effect. "Sounds fair to me. Let's put it down in writing. Once I have a signed agreement, I'll start bringing you jobs."
Matt couldn't help but notice Le Duc's dubious look. "Don't worry. I'll get you results."
With a promise and a handshake Matt left Le Duc's office. Back in the car, he wondered whether the California sun was starting to get to him. I don't have a clue how to pull this off. I just know I have to make it work.
Matt decided he'd concentrate on $1 million-plus homes, the closer to the ocean the better. He took a map of L.A. and circled all the prestigious areas: Malibu, Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills, and the Riviera district were but a few. Matt believed most homeowners would rely more on referrals than on the lowest bid. Also, according to his uncle, many affluent people employed full-time help to manage their estates. Matt had a hunch that these caretakers would do little to no comparison shopping.
Over breakfast the next day, Matt asked his uncle, "Are you still willing to give me a helping hand?"
"Of course. Just tell me what you'd like me to do."
"How many members belong to the Riviera Country Club?" Matt asked.
"I believe we have 580 and a large waiting list."
"How many of these people do you know by name?"
"Oh, I'd say around a hundred or so. Most of the golfers know me because I was president of the club last year. Also, I've been on the governing board for seven years in a row."
"Then this is what I'd like you to do."
* * *
The next day Matt splurged on some expensive stationery. He also bought a cell phone, a pager, and an answering machine, which he planned to hook up to one of his uncle's phone lines. He had to admit he was nervous. If this didn't work, he would have to borrow money for a plane ticket home.
He took his time writing the letter, developing some catchy phrases, but the clincher was the last paragraph. Goldstein had given Matt and his company the highest possible praise and recommendation. The implication was that Matt only dealt with wealthy clients who owned prestigious, expensive properties. The referral was not made lightly and Frank signed each letter personally with a flourish.
The results were practically instantaneous. Matt mailed fifty letters the first week and by the end of the second had scheduled five estimates.
Since his first appointment came from the Riviera district, he asked his uncle if he knew a Mrs. Rollins.
"Good looking woman, that Rollins. She's the wife of a prominent criminal defense attorney. The guy belongs to the club, but he never has time to play golf. You can get this job, Matt. Go for it!"
Matt punched in the time and date of his appointment in his Blackberry, praying this marketing scheme would work.
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