At a friend’s encouragement, I met with a man named Joe to discuss “a once-in-a-lifetime entrepreneurial opportunity.” To be exact, my astute, older, wiser friend said, “This guy’s the next Walt Disney, and he’s looking for a partner.”
Who can say no to Walt Disney? Especially when you’re a miserable, self-hating corporate lawyer working for a joyless and sadistic law firm with a prestigious name and oversized reputation.
Twelve hours later, I walked into a glass conference room to find 15 enormous stuffed animals, five eerily human blowup dolls and various other slightly insane inventions and gadgets. I didn’t know what to expect, but I sure as hell didn’t expect that. A few moments later, a thick man in a much-too-tight Gucci shirt with black curly hair walked in, smiling ear-to-ear. If he said he was “the other guy” from Hall and Oates, I would’ve believed him.
“Hi, I’m Joey. I created all this,” he said, his tiny hand sweeping across the sea of dolls and trinkets. And then, after a 10-minute delusional monologue, he made me offer I’ll never forget. “I’d like you to help me become rich and famous?”
“Let me think about it,” I said, dumbfounded by the absurdity of his abrupt proposal. If nothing else, my five years of M&A experience taught me one thing: Never say yes right away. Especially to an insane man surrounded by stuff animals. And when I say “insane,” I mean insane. Detached gaze; grandiose visions and ramblings; nervous twitches and facial ticks. He wasn’t some sort of polished lunatic like Bernie Madoff. He was in-your-face crazy. No ambiguity. The only thing missing was a tinfoil hat and floppy clown feet.
So why the hell did I meet him two days later and accept his offer?
Today, the answer to that somewhat disturbing question is obvious: I was the most bitter, disillusioned lawyer in the history of the world. I woke up every morning, and went to bed every night, with a relentless, soul-crushing depression. In other words, I hated my life so much that I was willing to forego my secure, six-figure salary and fancy business cards for a chance at doing something creative and entrepreneurial—for absolutely no money. I’m almost (okay, I am) embarrassed to admit this, but there was no guaranteed money in the deal. He refused to sign a contract too. Joey wanted to keep things loose and breezy. “We’ll figure it out as we go,” he said. “But don’t worry, if I get rich, you’ll get rich.”
Here I was, a sophisticated corporate attorney on track to make partner at a top firm, and I was ready to quit for the chance to work with a stuffed-animal-making madman—without a contract or foreseeable income stream. But let’s face it, when misery and boredom conspire against you, you do stupid things. Like call ex-girlfriends. Or surf the “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist for possible “dates.” Or throw away your lucrative career to work for a stuff-animal-obsessed loser with a penchant for tight-fitting shirts.
Luckily, due to my intensive legal training, I was still kind of a pussy. Though I said yes to Joey, I hadn’t told anyone else about my bold, life-changing decision. I wanted to think it over for a day or two; make sure it felt right.
The following night, Joey called and demanded that we have a drink to talk business. I was actually excited that he called. I loved his determination and resolve. He really wanted to hit it big. Just like me. We may have been total opposites, but that didn’t mean we weren’t a perfect business fit. The creative, eccentric genius and the hard-charging, rational businessman/lawyer.
I left the office early, around 8:30 or so, to meet Joey at the dark, empty bar inside his sad, budget hotel. I spotted Joey and a gigantic stuffed animal alone in the corner. Once again, his shirt was too tight. I waved, but Joey didn’t wave back. I kept walking; waved again, but still no acknowledgement. Finally, I said, “Joey. It’s me. Jim.”
“Right,” he said. No smile. No hint of embarrassment.
Despite this disturbing lack of short-term memory, I sat down next to him and a bright red and green tucan/parrot named Tooper. I studied the five-foot tall bird for a moment, then cracked a joke, hoping to break the thin and increasingly creepy ice upon which I was suddenly standing.
“What’s the matter, Julia Roberts wasn’t available?”
“You know I dated her for a few weeks,” Joey said. Again, no smile, no irony, no levity. He was dead serious.
“Really. She’s, she’s a great actress.”
“We broke up a few months ago. But we’re still pretty close.”
Before I could respond, Joey barked out his first official business mandate. “Set up a dinner with me and Annette Bening. For tomorrow night. I want her to be the voice of Tooper.”
I just looked at him, searching for some tiny hint of sarcasm—or sanity. But there wasn’t any. In fact, the more I searched, the scarier it got.
“Feel free to use my name. She knows me. We went skiing together in Aspen once.”
It was now horribly obvious that Joey was mentally ill. Even to me. And let’s face it, at that precise moment, I was close to clinically insane too.
“How about Warren? You guys also pretty tight?” I asked, trying to amuse myself. Or at least convince myself that I still understood the difference between fantasy and reality.
“I wouldn’t say we’re tight, but we’re definitely good friends.”
I nodded sympathetically, then told Joey I had to make a phone call. I stood up and walked out the door. I haven’t talked to him since. It’s been ten years.
I’m no longer that insane. I’m no longer a lawyer. I promise you, there’s a correlation.