My daughters know I had a career as a journalist before I went into personal finance and eventually started my own firm. I am not sure they knew, until now, that their grandfather almost made me a limo driver.
I was working for The Associated Press in Albany, New York, in the spring of 1982, when The AP offered me a terrific career opportunity. That summer, I would transfer to Washington to become New York’s regional reporter in the nation’s capital. I could cover anything I wanted - Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court - as long as the subject matter was of interest to news outlets in the state. With the city’s focus on commerce and the arts, upstate’s emphasis in agriculture and tourism, and the Midwestern orientation of western New York’s aging industries, I could report on almost anything.
Five days after I was offered the Washington job, I met my future wife at the wedding of an AP colleague. Linda lived in New Jersey and worked in marketing for the publishing industry. By the time I moved to Washington, we were seeing each other every weekend, a practice we continued thanks to pioneering discount airline People Express and its $19 one-way fares between Newark and Washington’s National (now Reagan National) Airport. We became engaged that autumn and planned a wedding for the summer of 1983.
Soon it became clear that I would have to move to New York. The country was just struggling out of a sharp recession, and Linda could not find marketing work in Washington - or at least, nothing that would not have posed potential conflicts of interest with the broad range of subjects I covered. Neither of us wanted to interrupt our careers, but there was just a limited range of places I wanted to work in journalism in the city. I did not feel equipped to jump the divide that then existed between print journalism and broadcast. An AP friend connected me with a business editor at The New York Times, but they had no openings, or at least none that they were interested in offering to me.
That was when Linda’s father stepped in. Nicholas Field was a quiet, thoughtful man, in his middle 60s at the time. Both of Linda’s parents were Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust. They met in the displaced persons camps in Germany just after the war and immigrated to the United States in 1946. They arrived in this country speaking no English. Nicholas, who had been raised on a farm, found work in a machine shop populated largely by Jamaicans. He thereafter spoke English with the soft lilting accent of the Caribbean, pronouncing his wife’s cleaning apparatus as a “VAY-kyoom.” Later Nicholas started driving taxis - his daughter remembers a vintage Checker when she was growing up in the ‘60s - and he scraped together the money to buy two New York City taxi medallions, which provided a decent living and which also proved a solid investment.
He was still working in the taxi industry when I met Linda. By that time he was leasing his medallions to other drivers, and he also worked in the city’s “black car” industry. These were fancier cars that were not licensed to make street pickups. Riders called a central number, which dispatched the drivers by radio. When I needed a job so I could come to New York to marry his daughter, Nicholas offered to let me drive one of his black cars.
I was a little taken aback at first. I was doing well in a highly competitive field, and my AP career had advanced pretty rapidly in the five years since my graduation. I had thought of myself as a journalist since I started college when I was 16 years old. Was I supposed to give that up to drive a car?
When I thought about it more, I realized that Linda’s father was not trying to take me down or hold me back. Quite the opposite: I wanted to marry his daughter, and I needed a job so we could make a home and a life together. Nicholas had taken whatever work he could get in order to start his own family, and he was giving me an opportunity to do the same. If I wanted to marry his daughter, he was willing to do what he could to make it possible.
What else could I ask? Life comes with tradeoffs and compromises. You have to set priorities.
I did not end up driving the black car. The AP found a place for me covering federal courts in New York City, and while I did that, I earned the master’s degree in business administration that launched my finance career. But the black car conversation was the start of a decades-long process through which my father-in-law coached and changed and, I hope, improved me. His lessons were always taught by example, never by lecture. The man listened much more than he talked.
Nicholas never raised his voice. He doted on his daughter and, later, his granddaughters. When my 10-year-old eldest bought herself a parakeet, he became the bird’s babysitter during our vacations, and as well as his designated claw-clipper. It must have been that Hungarian farm background. That background also made him a pretty self-reliant homeowner, though we learned together that DIY-ing ought to be kept within prudent limits.
Linda’s father helped me install a new dishwasher in our first apartment. The water line connection did not quite fit, so we went to the hardware store and bought an adapter. That adapter connected perfectly on one side but not on the other, so we bought a second. And a third. I don’t recall how many trips to the store we made that day, or how many adapters we bought, but the final product looked straight out of Rube Goldberg - and when we finally turned on the water, it jetted out from about a dozen places. The building superintendent, who corrected the hookup, was amused in spite of himself.
My father-in-law valued almost any sort of honest work. He remained employed or self-employed until he was 80, when diminished vision got in the way. Congestive heart failure nearly killed him in 2004, but a newly developed type of pacemaker gave him the vigor to see his wife through the early stages of the decline that eventually claimed her life; by the end, he had acquired a team of home health aides who simply switched from caring for her to caring for him. The aides were from Guyana, but they learned to cook Jewish and Hungarian delicacies and to join him in watching nearly every Yankee game. They stayed with him in shifts round the clock, made possible by the proceeds of his investment in those two taxi medallions. He became, as my wife put it, “the most pampered man in America.” Near the end, his greatest joy was to just sit in his recliner, holding the hand of my wife or of one of his granddaughters. Occasionally he would motion at me, usually napping on the couch, and inquire as to how Sleeping Beauty was doing.
Nicholas Field died Sunday morning at the age of 96. Pampered as usual, he awoke early and had a cup of tea and a sucking candy in bed. His aide went downstairs to put some linens in the washing machine, and found him when she returned a short time later.
We will say our final goodbye today in a snowy cemetery close to the home where Linda and I raised our family. My daughters are in relationships now with young men who had the chance to meet my father-in-law before he left us. I don’t know if he ever asked what kind of work they do, but I know he cared about what sort of people they are. That is what I care about, too. It is a lesson I learned from a fine man who saw the value in any kind of honest work.