The Wall Street Kid by Randy Herman ©2020
I wanted to scream! Was that reflection in the full length mirror really me? Here I had just turned 17 weeks ago, and yet that little black girl staring back at me looked more like a 13-year-old kid, with breasts half the size of most girls my age, hair done haphazardly in corn rows, and a pudgy, baby face. To make matters worse, in a month I was going to have walk into Spence, one of the most prestigious private schools in New York City, as a stranger in a sea of sophisticated kids who had known each other for years. Shoot me now! Or God grant me some kind of miracle makeover. Let me wake up as a super model or at least look like what I am supposed to be – a senior in high school.
The buzzing intercom startled me out of my despair. After tripping over half opened boxes and fumbling with the unfamiliar buttons, I managed to hear Svetlana, our receptionist, announce that a Mrs. M Walters was coming up to visit. A minute later, there was a gentle knocking at our front door, and I opened it to see a thin, old woman (perhaps 80) with a rich, chocolate brown complexion standing in the hallway. In contrast to me, she looked like she was ready to go to a party, elegantly dressed in a long, rose colored dress and matching brocade jacket. Her silver hair was perfectly choiffed and she wore formal makeup accented her large eyes.
She smiled at me and I smiled back.
“Hello young lady, my name is Martha Walters, and I am here to see your father.”
“Sorry Ms. Walters,” I said, half hiding behind the door, “he went off to a meeting at his office.”
“Oh my, I must have gotten our arrangements confused, I thought he meant for us to meet here.”
“Do you want me to give him a message?”
“Would you mind, dear, if I came in for a moment?”
“Why…sure. Where are my manners? Mom’s out shopping and my brother Sam is at his summer internship, so I’m afraid that I’m the only one here.”
“That’s perfect,” she said sweetly. “You must be Mary. I was hoping to meet you.” And then seeing my baffled expression, she explained, “I’m one of your father’s business partners.”
I nodded politely and moved a few half opened boxes and discarded piles of bubble wrap out of the way to offer her a seat in one of our overstuffed armchairs.
“Sorry things are a so messy around here,” I said. “We just moved in a few days ago and are getting settled.” Then I muttered under my breath, half to myself, “Although my lazy brother has been camped out here for two months and only managed to unpack two boxes.”
“Boys will be boys.” She said knowingly, having heard me clearly through her hearing aid.
“Would you like something to drink?” I offered.
She asked for some water, and while I was in the kitchen letting the tap run, I puzzled over her name which sounded so familiar. Then it suddenly hit me.
“Can I ask you,” I said, handing her the glass with a coaster, “Are you The Martha Walters, the cosmetics queen?” MW makeup was used by every woman of color and preferred by many who were lily white. I had her mascara, nail polish, and lip balm sitting on the bureau in my room.
She smiled sweetly, “I am, my dear.”
“Wow! You are my first New York celebrity.”
She laughed and said, “Hardly that. But then you have quite a reputation yourself.”
Again, I was surprised and must have shown it because she explained, “Your father showed us the newspaper headlines: “Mary with the Midas Touch”, “Girl beats the Street”, “Teen is stock trading millionaire”. He is always bragging about you.
“Oh no,” I moaned. “My Dad likes to exaggerate when talking about my brother and me. What did he say this time?”
“That you know your way around a complicated stock transaction, have negotiated your way out of a kidnapping when you were 15, and had almost gotten shot recently in Brazil. He also bragged that you’ve started a charity…Ah, and yes, that you were initially reluctant to relocate here.”
“You know, my father has a big mouth!”
She chuckled again and said, “He’s just so proud of you, and swears that you have a brilliant future ahead of you.”
What do you say to this adult speak? I just smiled and nodded.
“It must be difficult adjusting to New York after Atlanta” she probed.
I was going to repeat one of Sam’s lousy puns that there were pit-falls whether you lived in the Peach State or the Big Apple. Instead, I modestly replied, “It’s only been a few days.”
“Well, I hope we can get to know each other and become very good friends,” she said. “I want you to feel that you can always come to me for anything, anytime at all.”
Considering we had just met, I thought this a rather an odd thing to say. Not that it wasn’t nice to hear, but it was the kind of comment a relative might make, not one of my Dad’s business partners.
Whenever I feel uneasy or nervous around strangers, unsure of how to act, my southern hospitality manners automatically kick in. Before I knew it, I had blurted out in my heaviest Georgian twang, “Why thank you Ms. Walters. That is just so kind of you. You are making me feel right at home.”
“Please call me Martha, and I mean it,” she replied, dismissing my gratuitous reply. “I think it providential that I am here and able to support you in achieving your life’s purpose.”
Now, our conversation was definitely getting weird! It felt like I was talking to a one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses who comes to your door claiming they know the way to salvation.
I repeated, “Life’s purpose?”
“Why yes – to help teens change the world.”
I stood there with my mouth open. I was floored! Just the night before I had written those very words in my journal. Not that everyone I know doesn’t wish that very same thing at one time or another. Yet, for an instant I had the crazy thought that perhaps Martha Walters was psychic. And then an even crazier notion that my parents had snuck into my room while I was asleep, read my diaries, and were broadcasting my secrets.
“And clearly you are one of those rare young women who has unique abilities and the knowledge of how to achieve such an ambitious goal,” she added.
“Why do say that?”
“Oh, I think you know why,” she said cryptically.
Strangely, I thought I did. “You mean because of my investing know how?” I asked cautiously.
“That, my lovely child, and your fearlessness. And to transform the world you will need to make vast amounts of money, dream large, and live bigger than you ever imagined. ”
Weird had now become surreal – an uber rich stranger had arrived in our new apartment promising to make me immensely wealthy. Yet ironically, at that moment, Martha Walters looked to me more like a feeble old lady than a financial wizard. For she was trying to get to her feet and having a hard time rising out of the cavernous chair cushions. I helped her stand up, and as I did, she gave me a little affectionate kiss on the cheek and handed me her card.
“Now be sure and call me tomorrow and let’s arrange a lunch for next week. We’ll devise a plan together.”
And with that, she was gone.
That evening at dinner, Thai takeout, I told my family about the encounter.
“Sounds more like a holy visitation than a visit,” teased my brother. He is always making everything into a joke. The odd part about Sam’s humor is that he always manages to inject bits of truth into his wisecracks.
My father laughed. “Yes, Martha can be intense.”
“Intense isn’t the word, Daddy. She knew secrets about me. Obviously she got the information from an inside source,” I said, looking pointedly at him.
“She can be an excellent mentor,” he said, not meeting my eyes.
“Martha Walters, well I’ll be!” my mother said simply. “It’s hard not to have admiration for a woman of color who started out with nothing and built a $1.5 billion company. Sounds like she has taken a shine to you already.”
“Bizarre if you ask me,” I said. “We only said a few sentences to each other, when she promised to help me.”
“Maybe Fate has intended for you to get free makeup for the rest of your life,” Sam mumbled, his mouth full of noodles.
“Or to change the world,” my father said.
My brother laughed.
“Now what is so funny about Mary wanting to make a difference, or become another Greata Thunberg, or Ophra Winfrey, or Rosa Parks?” demanded my father with annoyance.
“Oh, Daddy, I don’t want to be like them!” I replied emphatically. “I have far more ambitious plans than that.”
My mother, father, and brother all stopped eating and turned to me, waiting.
“I want to make sure everyone in the world is rich!”
As my aunt Addie used to say, “It was so quiet, you could have heard a feather hit the ground.”
“Well, I think that trying to eliminating poverty is a very noble cause,” my mother said finally.
“That is not enough,” I replied. “I’m going to make sure everyone in the world has all the money they need and want.”
“And just how are you going to do that?” Sam asked, “Sell lotto tickets where everyone wins? Become a modern day Robbin Hood-ess?”
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt for you to reach out and seek some higher ambition than filling your own pockets,” my dad said, annoyed at my brother.
“At least my ventures are realistic,” said Sam defensively.
“You mean like last semester when you were suspended from college for setting up poker tournaments and skimming the profits from your fellow students and teachers?” retorted my Dad, his voice rising.
“Why can’t you see me as enterprising like you do Mary?”
“Because criminals also call themselves entrepreneurs!” raged my father.
“There was nothing illegal with what I was doing,” Sam said, knowing perfectly well that the administration of Columbia University didn’t agree.
This was an old argument and a sore spot between my parents and my brother – his half-baked ideas. But he’s always been that way – full of schemes and devious plans. Like when he was seven years old and decided to sell spiked lemonade from a booth on our street. He thought since alcohol made adults happier, it would do the same for kids as well. He stole a bottle of whiskey from our parent’s liquor cabinet, and generously added it to the lemonade. As you can imagine, it didn’t go over too well when the neighborhood kids started wobbling home drunk for dinner. “But I made almost thirty dollars,” he had said to my parents. They grounded him with no TV for a month and locked away the alcohol. Then they made him go door to door apologizing.
“Does Martha Walters have children?” my mother asked, trying to avoid further argument and deflect my Dad’s anger.
“Two sons, but they aren’t close, and she rarely speaks of them,” Daddy said.
“Perhaps she’s looking for you to be the daughter she never had,” Mamma suggested.
“Now, that’s a great business to start,” Sam added haughtily, “Rent a Daughter.”
As heated as our discussions can get, my family isn’t shy about talking and disagreeing about any and all things: current events, impressions of people, financial matters, medical maladies, and ways to be and do better. It doesn’t matter the topic, my parents think that discussing everything frankly helps promote curiosity and prepare us for the “outside world” – whatever that means. I have to admit that very few of my friends down in Atlanta ever get the opportunity to speak this openly with their parents. My friend Darla said it best when she admitted, “Most of the time, I feel like I live in a house full of mysteries. My family are like strangers, staying behind closed doors and keeping secrets from each another.
I was soon to learn that keeping secrets had its own advantages too.