A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
If you’re playing poker and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy. — Warren Buffet
One of my first mentors was Mac McInerny, an old farmer who hired me when I was 16 to work in his greenhouse and to do handyman repairs for his friends. We drove around town in his beat-up pickup truck delivering gravel and lumber, fixing roofs and planting trees. He was self-educated, wore overalls and work boots, grew up in East Texas, spoke Spanish and knew a lot about engineering. He was kind to me, and when he found out I was secretly writing poetry, he gave me a book of poems by his friend who was a Methodist minister. Years later, I found out that in the 1950s Mac had helped design a way to precisely cut quartz for the first transistors. With the money he made, he bought farmland west of Houston. He taught me a lot about craft, humility and kindness. He also showed me years later how to outsmart the guys in Brooks Brothers suits.
I first met Mac through my father. Dad had hired him to deliver gravel, rock and manure for the garden in our backyard. It was rough and exhausting manual labor, and for years my father had required me to work without pay after school and on weekends in the garden, as well as on our ranch in East Texas. When Mac saw how hard I could work, he offered to hire me as his helper at a dollar an hour. Getting paid at all seemed like a step up in the world, so I accepted his offer. One of our first jobs was to patch the roof of Dad’s secretary Jeanine, a petite brunette twenty years older than me. I was smitten by her. Not only was she friendly and pretty, she was also smart as a whip.
In the 1980s my father was Executive Vice President of the largest bank in Houston. As he later told the story, one day Mac came to him and said, “Harry, I own some farmland west of Houston, and a couple of New York developers want to buy it. The problem is that they seem like a couple of sharpies, and they’re gonna lowball the offer because they think I’m just a hick who doesn’t understand the market for raw land in that area. What do you think I should do?”
Dad, who loved nothing more than a good hand of poker, said, “Tell you what, I’ll reserve you the Board Room in our bank. Jeanine will call you with the date and time. Give her the names and phone numbers of the two guys, and she’ll call them to set an appointment.”
The bank was located in one of the tallest skyscrapers in downtown Houston, and the Board Room was on the top floor. It had a stunning view of the city and a long oak table so shiny you could see your reflection. Jeanine met the two developers in the lobby and brought them up on the private elevator. Dad had filled her in on the strategy, so she talked up “Mr. McInerny” — what a shrewd businessman he was, how he had given millions to charity anonymously, and what an honor it was for her to meet him.
My father, Harry William Simms, Senior Trust Officer and Executive Vice President of one of the largest banks in the country, met them at the elevator. He solemnly instructed the two men, who were already sensing that they had underestimated the farmer, “Mr. McInerny is a little eccentric with his good ole boy demeanor, but make no mistake, he is the sharpest businessman I’ve ever seen.”
Properly prepped in this way, the two developers were ushered into the Board Room. Wearing his Sunday suit which was so old it was back in style, Mac was sitting at the head of the table reading the Wall Street Journal. It may have actually been one of the few times in his life when Mac actually looked at the WSJ. The two developers sat down and nervously tried to start small talk. Mac and my dad stared at them with their best poker faces. One of the developers opened his briefcase, pulled out a sheaf of documents and slid them across the table. Mac spent a few moments perusing them. He passed the documents to my dad who skimmed them and set them aside. Mac and Harry stared at the two men and said nothing. Jeanine, standing next to Mac, glanced down at the cover letter of the offer and asked her boss, “Is this the down payment?” And when my Dad said, “No, it’s the full offer,” she too stared at the two developers, a look of pity on her face. The message was that they had showed up at a major league game with a bush league offer.
Finally, one of the developers cleared his throat and said, “Obviously, this is just a preliminary offer. We’d appreciate your telling us what you think the land is worth.”
Mac continued silently staring at them, and the tension in the room became unbearable. Finally, Jeanine said, “May I show you two gentlemen out?”
When Jeanine returned to the Board Room, Mac and Harry were still laughing. Catching his breath, Harry said, “I’m sure you’ll be getting a letter from them in a couple of weeks with a much higher offer.”
And sure enough, a few months later Mac sold the land to the two developers for more than five times their original offer. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as well for my Dad. Thinking to make a big score like his friend Mac, he invested most of his money in heavily leveraged Houston real estate, and he lost everything in the 1984 crash. In the late 90s, he retired from the bank almost broke, and he and my mother sold their suburban home and moved into a small apartment over a garage in the city. Meanwhile Jeanine, having spent the decade climbing the corporate ladder, was promoted to Dad’s old job as vice president of the bank.
The last time I saw Mac, he dropped by my parents’ apartment with a bag of peaches from one of the trees in his yard. It had been almost two decades since I worked for him, and he didn’t seem to have changed at all, right down to the work boots and blue overalls I remembered. The four of us sat at the kitchen table all afternoon, drinking coffee and catching up. The story about the two sharpies in the Board Room was re-told for the hundredth time, and Mom laughed as if she’d never heard it before. Toward evening, I walked Mac out, and in the driveway was a brand-new red Chevy truck, the dealer’s sticker still on the window. I asked him what it felt like to be rich. He turned to me, a puzzled look on his grizzled face. “Son, money don’t change nothin’. You got your friends, your family and your health. That’s all. Money don’t mean shit.” Then he gave me a broad grin and added, “But I do like a new truck every few years.” He laughed, climbed into his brand-new Chevy truck and drove off.
Copyright 2021 Michael Simms