JAMES ALTUCHER: When I Wanted To Run Away

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I was about eleven years old and I was on the phone with the woman from the Runaway Hotline. We both sort of stood there on the line while she was waiting for a “counselor” to get on the phone with me. “Is there something specific you want to talk about?” she asked.

“No,” I said. And I wondered what I should’ve said. Were other kids being beaten? Is that why they run away? Was I supposed to be sexually abused or something? And then the other guy got on the phone. “Hello?” I hung up.

I didn’t run away that day.

Sometime in the future later I was on the phone with a man I had just made $41.5 million a few weeks earlier. “You know that $41.5 million?” I asked him.

Yes, he said, how could I forget.

“Well its now $41 million.” I had lost $500,000 for him that day. It had taken all day. It was a battle. One of those battles where you are hit right in the face right in the beginning of the day and you wobble to stand up and you know its going to be an all day event. Maybe once around 11am we touched even for him but how can you get out of a trade after you just fought hours to get even. So we stayed in and the market didn’t like us.

It might’ve been one of those horrible trades where we were betting against the market and the market was going straight up. Where everyone was having a party except for me.

I had a bad one like that when I was trading for Victor Niederhoffer in September, 2003. My dad had had his stroke a month or so earlier so I went in to visit. My dad was in a coma. Or something like a coma. The nurses said his brain wasn’t there and it was helpless. The doctor wanted to unplug him. His eyes were open and blinking. Don’t worry, dad, I said, I’m here.

But I turned on the CNBC next to his bed. The market was going straight up. I was betting against it. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of CNBC. Every point up I felt like someone was kicking me in the groin. It really feels painful to lose money. I can’t describe it. Trading is a horrible job. When you win, it feels like you are going to win every day. You can’t help but think that way. You’re up $3000 in your account and you think, great, that means I will make $750,000 this year (there are 250 trading days), but if you lose $1000 that day then that means you’re definitely going broke. Eventually. Because you’re never going to win at anything ever again. And on top of that your kids will hate you and you wonder if they will even cry at your funeral.

By the end of that day with my dad lying in the semi-coma, I had lost a lot of money. Goodbye, dad, and I was crying. But not for him. Because I lost a lot of money. He, on the other hand, had three more years left before he died. By the time he died the creatures they call nurses and doctors had dropped him on his head over a dozen times. He had bed sores that went right through to the bones in his spine. But the worst for me was that they lost his glasses. He couldn’t see without his glasses.

Back to my friend with now just $41 million. He said, ‘that’s ok, you win some, you lose some. Maybe you should just work for me. Manage my money across many investments. Give me advice and so on.’ He thought he was a great trader himself. I knew he was thinking he never would’ve made the mistake I had made. Nothing was ever his fault. But he didn’t have many friends.Maybe he wanted to pay me to be his friend. I was good at pretending to do that back then.

I was very upset. So of course, 36 years old, I called my mum.  I was walking by the river. “Just take a job,” she said. “This stress is killing you. How nice would it be to just have a job again?” She was comforting. My dad would never have said that. He would’ve said something like, “Call the CEO of Goldman Sachs. He could use you right now. You could be the next CEO of Goldman.” Something equally insane to what my mum was saying but the exact opposite.

I called Dan, my trading partner. “Time to sell diet pills,” I said. “We should do infomercials. Get a factory in NJ to make the pills. Get a pretty girl. Get a late night spot on Comedy Central. We’re in business.” He laughed. We couldn’t sell diet pills. We didn’t even know what that meant. What is a diet pill? Haha. What factory in NJ were we even talking about? Do they even have factories in NJ? Haha.

A train went by. I could get on it. End up somewhere else. An even smaller town. Work in a pencil store. Meet a Mexican woman who worked washing dishes in a restaurant. On a hot Saturday I could be in my t-shirt hanging outside with my friends. A bandana around my head. It’s so hot. Some sort of salsa music coming from my car radio with the door open. My friends and I playing domninos. How come I can’t do that? They all seem so happy. Everyone laughing. The dominos floating up into the air for a split second when I thump my winning domino down like in that music video I once saw. I don’t know how to play dominos…I don’t even drive…I can’t have a beat up car…I don’t speak Spanish…I don’t know how to wash dishes. Am I even being racist here? What’s going on?

11 years old. I hung up the phone on the runaway hotline as soon as the counselor got on the phone. His voice was so calm. “Hello?” He was what Jesus must’ve sounded like.

Why would I possibly want to run away? I was in a nice suburban middle class house. I had friends. I loved to read. I had a TV in my room. I watched Star Trek at 6pm every night. And Happy Days at 8pm Tuesdays on ABC. On weekends I would eat glazed doughnuts at the mall. “Hello?” Jesus said to me. And I hung up. There was no escape. It was time for me to go hurtling into the future until every option is finally exhausted.

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