Memoir, Personal Essays, short story


“You’re fired,” not by Donald Trump, but by Dr. Kurt, a middle management medical administrator at Allina Health Care System. For 23 years, from age 51 to age 73, I was a PCP, a primary care physician extraordinaire at East Lake Street Clinic in Minneapolis. East Lake served an ever-changing inner city population. The euphemism, ‘Hennepin County Hospital South,’ gave East Lake Street Status relative to the county hospital. We were figuratively and literally one stop up from ‘the bottom.’

To work at ELS you need to be dedicated to the less privileged, less educated, less motivated, less compliant, less healthy, less skilled, more drug and alcohol addicted, more criminalized, more mentally and physically ill, more jobless, more poor, more on welfare, more diabetic, more diseased, more obese, more prone to violence, without being patronizing, without being judgmental, with an open heart and head. Otherwise you’re toast, you are going to fail and you might as well move to the suburbs!

As a student at the old Kings County Hospital in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I already had experience with a place like ELS. How well I remembered the dingy, poorly lit 10 bed wards filled with groans of suffering patients. A famous saying around Brooklyn was “if I get shot, take me to Kings County” – and many in the neighborhood did get shot.

Next it was on to Michael Reese in Chicago’s south side, followed by Mt. Zion Hospital in the Fillmore in San Francisco during the height of the Haight and LSD. I routinely got high on second-hand marijuana smoke on daily rounds through Mt. Zion’s wards – it was all very Cheech and Chong.

After earning my medical license, my first work was found in Central MN, with its post-glacial lakes and rocky soil, its poverty, its tacky fishing resort and its tar-paper shacks.

Then my odyssey took me to Truk Islands in Micronesia, driven by my love of the sea and a romantic vision of escaping to the South Pacific ala Paul Gauguin. The Trukese didn’t consider themselves poor if they had a breadfruit and a pandanus tree, land with brackish soil to grow taro, a piece of the barrier reef to fish on and most of all, a multi island extended family to rely on.

In ELS, my patient population included African Americans, Native Americans, Somalis, white blue-collar workers, newly minted immigrants of all races, drug addicts of all races. All of these were my ‘extended family.’ I gave to them and they gave to me. I studied their varied lingo, their mannerisms and made them my own. I ‘stole’ their pearls of wisdom and made them my own. I became, over time, intimate with my patients, redefining the definition of ‘medical boundaries’ and making our relationship the meeting of souls: naked, open, always with as much humor as could be injected into often catastrophic circumstances. I became my mentor, Gabriel Kirshenbaum, the Don of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

At age two and a half, Kirshenbaum charged head-long into my life and instantaneously inspired me to go into medicine. A huge bear of a man, gruff, alert, always moving forward and always out to make you better, to protect you even from yourself, even if he had to sacrifice himself to do it. And who, in all of Williamsburg, no matter white, black, Jewish or Christian, didn’t love the irrepressible force that was Kirshenbaum. G-ds tool, an avatar, a Kabbalah Tzadek, a Jewish Saint.

As much as I proclaimed, as a young man, that I had to make a choice between theatre and medicine, there really was only medicine. I had stage fright; I feared forgetting my lines on opening night and never recovering from the trauma. Yet theatre was always on my mind.

This why the examining room became my stage, ad-lib my style, my patients my co-thespians. With each new patient I expanded my repertoire. I kept thinking of my exam room as my medical ‘house of illusions,’ where reality played out.

“Did the cardiologists tell you how long you have to live?” I asked a patient once.

“Well, they said I was late stage and I guess that means not too long.” He had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition of an ever-enlarging heart that finally cannot pump blood – he was ‘end stage,’ having maybe 1-3 years to live. The condition was inherited: his daughter has it, his uncle died from it. The ‘cure’ is cardiac transplant, but he was being denied a transplant because he was positive for Hepatitis C. At 55, overweight, living on SS disability checks, he was depressed and had given up trying.

My job was to provide a ray of hope, not only for him, but through him to his daughter. The University of MN was less rigid in its transplant criteria. If his Hepatitis C could be cured, if he stopped smoking, he could be a transplant candidate. “I don’t know if I can do all that, go to the University and start all over,” he said to me.

“What about your daughter?” I asked.

“She won’t go to a doctor. She’s 16 and won’t listen to me, but she knows she has it.”

“If you die, she’s next.”

“I suppose so.”

“What if you somehow make it, somehow get the transplant and live?”

I met with him every month or more often. He went to the university. “They say they have transplanted other patients who got their Hepatitis C cured,” he told me.

It took time, but he gradually stopped smoking with the help of E-Cigs. The treatment of Hepatitis C was undergoing a revolution. “I really feel fortunate, the G.I. people at the University said they could pretty much guarantee they could cure my Hep C.”

Now his original doctors say they can transplant him too if he gets cured of his Hep C. “I know my daughter is watching what I’m going through. It seems to be helping her deal with it.”

The dance goes on. Will he make it to transplant and will it be successful? Hope, encouragement, that’s my role.

“Oh, I am so afraid to die.” Doris Redhorse shudderingly informed me.

“Why?” I asked, “Are you afraid to go to Hell?”

“No, no, I just don’t want to die like my older sister did. She had diabetes too, but didn’t take care of herself. I want to take care of myself, but you know I had to move out of my house and had all my medicine stolen. I didn’t even have money to buy my insulin or syringes.” Doris was 60 years old, modestly overweight, and all but homeless. Her type II diabetes had been out of control for years. Her fear of death was all but paralytic. She stopped drinking alcohol 5 or 6 years before but still smoked. She was ready to change, fear was driving her, but she has no road to travel on.

Doris and I hit it off. Through it all she still loved to laugh. “You know when we were kids we would hide my grandfather’s shoes. His memory wasn’t too good, so he would get blamed for misplacing them and then get all angry. We’d sneak ‘em back right under his chair. Boy, did that confuse him even more!”

“How about the Barking Walleye,” I said, not fully understanding the Native American reference. But just mentioning it makes Doris laugh.

“You know Jewish people believe animals are made to talk to tell G-ds truth. A carp in a barrel in a Jewish market in the Lower East Side in Manhattan told a Latino worker that the ‘End of the world was near,’ scaring the dickens out of him even though he didn’t understand English. He ran to get the Jewish owner of the shop and when the carp told him the same thing the frightened owner killed the carp!! Whose world did end?”

We both laughed.

Doris Redhorse slowly gave up cigarettes, she lost a few pounds and went faithfully to see the diabetes educator. She takes her insulin regularly, now. She sees me monthly to share jokes. Her last hemoglobin A.C. was 7.6 – down from 12. “I can’t believe it, this is the first time in years my diabetes is normal!” And her anxiety is, well, better too.

Sometimes it’s not so easy.

“Please call Dick Young at the Hennepin county coroner’s office regarding Evelyn Chace.” Evelyn was 65, has chronic arthritic pain and was on a modest dose of oxycodone, which she got when she saw me monthly. She was a model opiate-taking patient, clean urines, never a day early for her prescription refills, never asking for medication increases.

“Hello, this is Dr. Zuckerman, is Mr. Young in?”

“Yes, he is, hold on.”

“Hi, this is Dick Young, is this Dr. Zuckerman?”

“Yes it is, how can I help you?”

“Is Evelyn Chace your patient?” I don’t want to answer yes; I know what’s coming.


“Ms. Chance was found dead in her apartment two days ago. There were a number of bottles of medication in her possession with your name on them.” I must be hyperventilating, because my lips and fingers are numb and I feel like fainting.

“Did she O.D.? Were there signs of trauma?”

“There were no signs of trauma but we haven’t finished the autopsy or the drug analysis yet. Was she ill with any chronic disease that could have killed her?”


“Well, I will get back to you in 3-4 days with our results.”

“What pills were found in her apartment, any opiates?” I asked.

“Yes, a bottle of 5 mg oxycodone prescribed by you ten days ago.”

“How many are left in the bottle?”

“About 45.”

Some relief, I had written the prescription for only 90. I figured if Evelyn wanted to O.D. on oxycodone she would have taken them all.

“Thanks, Doc,” the coroner concludes.

I try not thinking about Evelyn – it doesn’t work. If she O.D.ed on oxycodone, well – I have been down this road before. Ten years ago a patient went into withdrawal when she couldn’t get “enough” dilaudid from me. She had been shooting the medication instead of taking it by mouth. I never noticed the needle tracts. The Board of Medical examiners raked me over the coals even though the patient lived, even though I monitored her and had no previous problem with opiate prescribing. It was two years of hell.

After hearing about Evelyn, I didn’t sleep the next three nights.

“Hello, is this Dr. Zuckerman?”


“This is Dick Young from the coroner’s office. The autopsy on Evelyn Chase is finished.” Here it comes. Heads or tails I think to myself. My stomach anticipates the worst.

“What did you find?”

“The patient had a lethal level of Methadone in her serum. She died of a Methadone overdose.”

My prescription hadn’t killed her. I vow to never give any patients opiates again. But I will.

“I have to be on disability, I have been working for thirty years for peanuts, with no man to help me. Can’t you get me disabled?” Caroline, my 60-year-old patient asked, demanded.

“Physically you ain’t there, mentally you might make it,” I say. “I’ll take it, I know I’m crazy.”

And Caroline did make it. I referred her to psychiatry where she got certified. Caroline carried her work ethic into her disability retirement years, taking her medication compulsively, exercising, coming to her appointments. She manages her SS payments and thanks me for “making her crazy,” and for the most part she is.

My Ethiopian patient returns from a trip home with a gift for me, a carved wooden bowl inlaid with pieces of porcupine quills. I now know porcupines live in Ethiopia. Another patient proudly presents me with two lbs of canoe-harvested wild rice, another with warm pastries baked by her husband that I waste no time heating up and eating. Others send me cards, “Thank you for being our doctor all these years,” or “You saved my life,” or “I can talk to you,” or “My husband, may he rest in peace, loved coming to you,” or “You are the funniest and best doc I ever had, don’t retire, my husband and I need you!”

My health is good, my brain still facile, I can do computers, eMR, well enough I feel. I am ‘booked solid’ a month in advance. I feel at the top of my career, the most accomplished as a human being. And then suddenly it is over, I am fired, at a time when I feel the most capable of being a PCP. The corporate megalith, Allina, that has bought our doctor-run group has other criteria than patient allegiance, patient satisfaction. I am at first bewildered by the computerized score sheets that claim to quantify the quality of my care and my patients’ satisfaction (patient experience is the new title). I am told I am unprofessional (for first time in my 60 year work career) and overly negative, buck authority and “have few friends in administration.” It feels like its character assassination – why? Well, a little, but well informed bird says I communicated about a pet concern of someone in power, in a manner that was inappropriate, out of “chain of command.”

I protest, East Lake Street is not the suburbs. I write a poem extolling East Lake Street (Ode to East Lake Street Clinic) that echoes Emma LaZarus. “The new Colossus,” I reproduce “letters to the staff at Allina,” from Ken Paulus, CEO, Rod Christianson, Medical Director, and others, requesting “feedback” from the rank and file – to no avail. The request for feedback is a ruse. I come to realize the doctors in administrative roles have truly gone over to “the Dark Side.”

Dr. Kurt is no longer my colleague, I cannot deal with him as such. If he spouts intellectual dishonesties, that is what corporate talk demands and he will obey. The corporate computer generates gobbledygook reports based on inscrutable alchemist’s formulas.

Socrates’ choice, to be ostracized, or sentenced to death by the cup of Hemlock. I chose “retirement,” at least from Allina.

I am angered by being cornered into giving up my practice, my patients. “Stephen Zuckerman, they are not your patients, they belong to Allina,” I’m told. My patients rail against my being fired, vote me savior, likeable and funny – all to no avail. I hate Dr. Kurt for his cold bloodiness. His indifference to all but his concocted reality ignores my relations with my patients – yet I thank him. He has freed me from the tyranny imposed by my vision of my needy patients. I could never abandon them until I was invalided or the grave opened up to suck me in.

Since the Allina buy-out, my work days have been tainted with the angst caused by the badgering of the likes of Dr. Kurt. I bite my nails and cuticles, I eat knosh food (caramel corn, tortillas chips, dried fruit for constipation, jelly beans, roasted, unsalted cashews) incessantly and avoid lunch to lower the daily caloric count. I really don’t want this type of practice anymore!

As for the Allinas and their Dr. Kurts, I feel they are building a square wheel, which will give them a lot of bad headaches and, worse yet, screw up their “bottom line.” New schemes will be invented, the same culprits will scramble to stay in power, but that’s no longer my concern, I suppose.

Memoir, Personal Essays, short story


I like to think of the amoeba as the building block of the animal world. Enough amoeba, enough blocks, and you have a human or a building. As far as life goes you’re supposed to be able to reproduce yourself and keep evolving. As such, amoeba are probably in the middle of life forms, somewhere between…say prions and top dog humans.

The nice thing about amoeba: the more you know about them the more “human” they seem. Prions, virus, algae, aren’t easy to feel kinship with, but amoeba, that’s a different kettle of fish. Amoeba do what we do – eat, defecate, avoid bright lights, know gravity can kill, prefer neutral ph, have sex (I would call it monosexual sex, not homosexual sex, as there aren’t two amoeba sexes) and best of all have well-meaning leaders, called head amoebas, who help organize the regular fellows into complex social orders (slime molds). Heck, about all amoebas can’t do, assumedly, is procrastinate since it is assumed they are of one mind (one cell).

I know, I know, any thinking person has to come to the conclusion that a minuscule amoeba, with no obvious brain, can’t have enough space to store all the things it knows. Then how the heck does it know what to do? I guess you would have to analogize with modern computer technology. The amoeba must have a non-stop connection to the big know-it-all in the sky, G—D, the universe’s cloud of knowledge. Heck, that fits right in with the Garden of Eden Story. One bite of the Tree of Knowledge fruit and bang, Adam and Eve got it all (although the first and only thing the bible mentions that they learned was that they were naked), all the knowledge G-d had. Some call that know-it-all, “intuitive know-it-all.”

Now, if this amoeba, like us, knows it all, what does the amoeba want out of this life? Must be the same thing we want. In fact, maybe this amoeba dreamed of becoming us to get what it wants and that is to know and fill the universe (or populate the universe).

Genesis, in the Old Testament, gives humans dominion over all that’s on Earth, but its G-d’s universe and ours too. Behind all that conquering of the universe has to be the belief that we, and the amoebas, will discover creation and figure out how G-d became the universe. Now-a-days it would be to figure out how G-d, the spiritual all, big banged himself, herself, itself into becoming all those stars and galaxies, full of gravity, mass, time and all that JAZZ.


Humor Writing, Memoir, New Cliches for the 21st Century, Personal Essays, zuckerisms

The Problem IS the Solution

A few longer zuckerisms from “The Problem IS the Solution” section of New Cliches:

* In the 1980s, the great threat to the airlines was cheap long distance calling. The airlines have since recovered, thanks to the torturous ‘on-hold’ button.

* I once ran into a patient with severe malingeritis. He required two years off work to allow the situation to resolve itself.


Artists use negative space as a powerful force to define the object of a painting. The greater the negative space,
the more striking the definition.

In music, the pause, or the absence of sound, parallels the negative space in art and intensifies the sound’s effect.

The ‘silent treatment’ in marriage also parallels this concept. What can one do in the absence of response but eventually look at oneself ?

Thus, I credit my ex-wife (who is an artist) with being my mistress of negative space. Without her, I never would have discovered myself.

Like what you’ve read? Be sure to check out the book! Only $3.99 on Amazon. 

Memoir, Personal Essays, short story, zuckerisms

Sneak Peek

Here’s a little sneak peek of a new (semi-secret) project I’m working on….

My life began falling apart in the fall of 1990 when I was getting close to turning 50. Seventeen years before, I’d left medicine to do missionary work in central Minnesota and then start up my own venture capital business. Medicine was always my first love, so I kept my medical license current every year. I found investing in new medical start-ups incredibly exciting and I was good at it. But as 50 approached, my work running venture capital funds and start-up companies had stagnated. Worse, I had none of my former enthusiasm. I was drained. All of the motivation that had made work so enjoyable – raising capital, pursuing investors, searching out nascent medical technologies with all the right stuff – was gone.

When my girlfriend of five years, Elaine, broke off our relationship with, “I don’t want to sleep with you anymore,” I plummeted into a depression that I couldn’t seem to crawl out of. I don’t mean that I was just blue or sad like I’d been at various points in my life. During those times I’d be out of sorts for a few days before returning to my old self. This time I was shrinking inward.

I was no longer sure there was an old self to return to. The whole world seemed out of kilter, like I had just stepped into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Everything was skewed – redrawn by some architect with a twisted sense of humor.

For months, sensations had been overwhelming me. Some were bodily sensations, some sensual, and almost all of them had an otherworldly feel to them. I was still me, and yet, I wasn’t. I was seeing things around me as if I was seeing them for the very first time – things that must have been there all along but I’d never noticed them before. My hearing tuned itself to a higher frequency. I suddenly noticed things like the whirl of the air in my good ear as I biked around the lakes. My vision telescoped in on details I had never bothered to notice – the throat of a bird, the luminescence of a flower, the music that clouds make. Sometimes, they were so poignant that tears would come to my eyes. Even my thoughts didn’t seem wholly my own anymore.

Looking back now, I know that I had suddenly become aware of the invisible aspect of our world – those unseen, unheard, unprovable things that exist all around us. Sometimes, I’d feel blasts of unspoken angst from colleagues when we tangled over sticky topics. Their facial expressions would say one thing, but there were emitting something quite different and I saw things that they were hiding.

Other times when I was in a deep conversation with someone, I’d be overwhelmed by epiphany and tears would begin to stream down my face. Sometimes, a secret they were keeping – something I could never have known on my own – popped into my head and spooked the hell out of them.

Other incidents were almost comical – like the powerful pain I had if I snuck a late-night nosh from the fridge that shot up from the wart on my left big toe. If I began to lie about something, I would suddenly drop words out of my sentences, forcing me to start the sentence all over. Worse, until I told the truth, it kept happening. Once, on a Saturday morning while I was cleaning my kitchen, I had a premonition that a horse I’d never heard of was going to win at Canterbury Downs, the local track for Minneapolis-St. Paul. I actually went to the track thinking, ”can this be for real?” Sure enough, not only did the horse exist, but it was running at 7 to 1 odds. I laid down a bet of $50.00 to win and came away $350.00 richer. So, I wondered, “is it possible to know the future?” If, as Einstein’s theory of relativity claimed, there was no such thing as linear time and everything is happening all at once – past, present and future – did this explain it?

That’s all I can share with you for now, but be sure to check back on the blog for more snippets of this top secret project!

Memoir, Personal Essays

A New Project

I’ve been working on a memoir for the past few years, and am now committed to finishing it by the end of this year. The project means a lot to me, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you all. Here’s the very first chapter of “The Voice” –

When I wrote down my to-do list that day in May of ’91, it did not include getting arrested and thrown into a locked psyche ward. My plan had been to retrieve the computer my ex-girlfriend, Elaine, had talked me into buying in exchange for work she never delivered. I’d been patient. I’d been understanding.  I’d been forgiving. But it became clear that she had played me. That day, I decided to stop to being her doormat.

I called Elaine to tell her I was coming over and somehow our conversation ended with me shouting, I’m gonna kill your ass… An hour later there was a knock on my door. It was my brother, who had come all the way from Texas without warning, making some vague excuse for being there. I told him I was busy – I needed to go get my computer.  He offered to drive so off we went in his rental car. In the wrong direction.

“Where are you going? I told you she lives the other way,” I said to him. He ignored me and just kept driving.

“Are you hard of hearing, Bobby? Turn around and go that way.” He kept going in the wrong direction. Now I was annoyed.

“Look, if you’re not going to take me there, let me out here and I’ll walk back to my place and take my own car.” He made no move to turn the car around.

“I said, PULL OVER!” I shouted, but he stayed silent. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t listen to me.

The traffic in front of us slowed down for a red light. I saw my chance and jumped out of the car. It was only 5 blocks back to my place, but I was glad to be able to walk off my rage. What the hell was his story, anyway?!

I don’t get angry much, as a rule, and I knew I needed to calm down. I sat in my kitchen and thought, it’s probably not a good idea to go over to Elaine’s all riled up – not after the screamer we’d had earlier, so I decided to head for the racetrack instead.

There, I spent the afternoon schmoozing with a few cronies and losing a few bucks, which was just what I needed to put my head back together. After the races I headed home for a nap.

Loud knocking woke me up and I opened the front door to two uniformed police officers.

“Was I Stephen Zuckerman?” they asked. I said I was. They asked if they could come in for a moment, so I opened the door, wondering if one of my neighbors had been robbed or something. They were friendly, almost too casual – asking me how I was doing. I made some joke the way I always do, and one of them said, “Well, Dr. Zuckerman, there are some folks who are worried about you.”

“What are they worried about?”

“Well, they’re concerned about your health and wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

“Really? What people are you talking about?” I asked.

“We were asked to take you over to Hennepin County Medical Center so they can check you out.”

“Really?  You guys make house calls? Don’t you have some more important work to do?  I’m really fine …”

“Naw, you see, we promised. So, why don’t you just come with us now and we’ll get you checked out. It won’t take long. You don’t have any place you have to be for an hour or so, do you …?”

Something in me stopped protesting. I haven’t had much exposure to policemen, but it was clear that they were going to take me whether I was willing or not. Since I preferred not to find out what handcuffs felt like, I went with them.

I had no idea, at that time, that behind my back, a conspiracy was fermenting. My brother, Elaine, my business partner, Jay – hell, even my mother back in Queens had all been in on the plot they called an intervention. Not the kind you do with alcoholics and drug addicts, but the kind you do when someone cracks up.

I got my quick and dirty introduction into the black hole of extreme rendition. That word wouldn’t become a household term for another 10 years after 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay, but I would become intimately acquainted with its meaning in the following months.

It’s not that I was tortured, at least not physically, but I would be imprisoned behind a locked door, without show laces to hang myself with, without sharp things to slit my wrists with and without a voice to raise in protest. All those trivial freedoms we take for granted everyday – what socks to wear, what route to bike to work, when and what to eat, who to call that day and who to dodge – were stripped away.

I didn’t realize how glorious it is to simply be able to walk out of my own house and go where I want. Like air – we don’t notice how very nice it is until we don’t have any.

In lock-up, there were cameras that recorded my every move, giant men without necks in blue scrubs who guarded the exists from my escape and who followed me into the men’s room – I assume because they were afraid I’d try to drown myself in the urinal. The only reading materials were pamphlets with titles like, Am I borderline? Or I’m OK But You’re a Jerk and Readers Digest, and a TV was turned up to its loudest setting on one sports channel or another.

Williams S. Burroughs once said, “a paranoid is someone who know a little of what’s going on.” I would soon understand exactly what he meant.

Doc What's Up?, Personal Essays

A Winner Every Time

Excerpt from Doc, What’s Up?

Even crooks, cons and hustlers can be elegant in their arts. It only seems to require a bit of chutzpah and sense of humor…

It was the Sixty’s and I was twenty years-old, working at Monticello Raceway in the Catskills or what we called the Jewish Alps. Here each summer, tens of thousands of escapees sought relief from the heat of New York’s Jewish ghettos. The Monticello Racetrack, which featured standard bred trotters and pacers on its half-mile oval, was a major attraction. Still, the amount paid for a winning race was minuscule, as were the wages for us part-timers.

A ticket seller’s work lasted only during racing hours, approximately four hours a night, six nights a week. Thus, it was no surprise that with fast money abounding, low purses and slave wages, off-color dealings were the norm amongst workers at the track.

There was little doubt that races were fixed. At least the drivers and trainers knew something that the betting public didn’t. The “know” was crucial to winning a race since the ones who were in the “know” seemed to win most of the time.

Those of us selling and cashing tickets rarely were apprised of the fixes but we had a more reliable way of cashing in. I called it “the hesitancy ploy”. It went like this:

The sucker bought two tickets at two bucks apiece, paying with a five dollar bill. The ticket seller would punch out the two tickets and then hesitate—as if the transaction was complete. Twenty to thirty percent of the time the harried horseplayer would run off to catch the next race, oblivious of the dollar owed him. If he didn’t run off, the seller would eventually get around to returning his change.

Cashiers did the same thing. When someone came to cash in his winning ticket for, say—$10.70—the cashier would present the ten and then stop, as if ending the transaction. Most of the time, the winner ran off to study the next race or calculate his victory and the cashier pocketed the seventy cents.

Another similar scam was an elegant yet simple ploy used by a few shady ticket sellers. If there were eight horses in a race, the seller would rotate his advice to each ticket buyer, advising the first buyer to hit on #1, the second buyer to hit on #2, and so forth. At the end of the evening, this would usually earn the ticket seller thirty to forty dollars in tips from the delighted patrons—winners because of his advice. This strategy was inevitably lucrative because someone had to be a winner. The winners thought the ticket seller was a genius and often became repeat customers for at least one more time.

About ten years ago, I was drinking the night away at the Harvard Club with a few of my New York venture capitalist buddies. I told them the story about running this con with my fellow ticket sellers during my early career at the horse track. It met with delighted howls and reminded one guy of a similar con used by his own New York broker.

His broker would go to seven or eight bars in an evening and buy drinks for certain patrons, pretending to get drunk himself. Then he’d advise those who’d listen to buy “such and such” stock. The trick was that at each bar, he advised a different selection of stocks. Once again, at least one of the stocks inevitably made money so he invariably got business from those he’d “let in on the skinny.” They thought he was a marvel and talked up his clairvoyance after their success, gaining further investment clients for him.

As I reflect on the art of con, I realize it is a fitting description of what financial advisors do all the time. When there are five hundred analysts with five hundred different opinions—someone has to be right. That analyst is hailed as a genius—and gets richer, at least for a while.