David Banks: Voilà, an American dream, or: When fortune frowns

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS
  • Updated: March 27, 2009 - 9:28 AM

How an honest, everyday guy turned his small savings into ... not much more.

MARCH 26, 2020 - Meet Jack Fox, hypothetical hardworking American. In the 1980s he tried to make a go of it in Hollywood, hoping to capitalize on his average good looks and rat-a-tat name, but casting agents didn't like his reedy voice and peculiar dialect, so he moved back to Minnesota, got a job as an assistant manager and started to save whatever hard-earned money was left after taxes in the hope of someday buying a lake cabin to enjoy for a few good years before leaving it for his kids to fight over.

In 1992 Jack bought 100 shares of T.R. Olson Technologies (ticker: TROT), a fine American company making solid American stuff, namely plastic. Jack had an inkling that Americans would ultimately transfer the entire contents of their attics and basements and garages from cardboard boxes into durable containers, and he was right. Over the years shares of TROT have soared from $8 to $15, and Jack has a $700 profit, which sounds better when expressed in nonannualized percentage terms.

And today Jack needs that money. Last month he slipped on the ice and twisted his knee and after a few weeks it wasn't getting any better so he went to the doctor, who recommended ACL reconstruction, and now the hospital is calling him demanding the $1,500 his new high-deductible insurance plan requires him to pay before a single scalpel can be deployed. You can't enjoy a lake cabin with a bum knee, so Jack schedules the surgery and places a limit order to sell 100 shares of TROT at 15.

It used to be that when you placed an order in the market, you'd get a fill almost instantly (and at the price you expected), because the market teemed with buyers and sellers of various time frames and purposes. But that was before the public rebelled against bankers and speculators and other people who wring profits from the air, and today the only person Jack can sell his shares to is someone just like him, who dreams of a lake cabin and thinks Americans are about to transfer all of their junk into biodegradable, corn-based containers -- TROT's new product -- and who wants to buy for the long term.

But there is no such buyer. Jack changes his price to 14.50 ... 14.25 ... 14 ... no dice. A few days later he switches to a market order -- sell at any price. Even then it sits.

Finally someone hits the offer. Jake Fox (no relation) made a go of it in Hollywood, spending futile hours in coffee shops trying to write "'Forrest Gump' meets 'The Godfather'" in a way that seemed natural. But they say you should write what you know, so finally he drew up a spec for "CSI: Minneapolis," which he liked a lot but no one else did so he moved back to Minnesota and took a job with a nonprofit. He's saved up a bit of money, so he buys 10 shares of TROT from Jack at 10.50. Jack pays the medical center as much as he can in cash and puts the rest on his credit card.

A few months later, Jack is having the Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny's when his cell phone broadcasts a tinny snippet of "My Sharona," which is creepy for a 53-year-old but remember he was 12 when it came out. It's the ringtone he's programmed for unidentified callers, who usually dial back 17 times in quick succession late at night, demanding to speak with Lamar.

This time there's an intelligible voice on the other end. "We're producing a pilot called "CSI: Fargo," it says, "and we're looking for a middle-aged male lead, with average good looks, a slight limp and an authentic regional accent ..."

David Banks is an associate editor for the Star Tribune's opinion pages. He is at djbanks@startribune.com.

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