“Having a portfolio” was not something I understood while growing up in the rural Creek Nation AKA Oklahoma. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S & P meant nothing to me, but the commodity price reports did. Long and short described shoats and heifers, and stock was livestock.
I wish I had known then what I know now, and by “then” I mean during my working life. Explaining how I came to trade stocks and why people with backgrounds similar to my own should will be a heavy lift, and the purpose of this introduction is to nail down the “backgrounds similar to my own” part. If I can do it, anybody can.
I was raised by elders, my grandparents, and their lives were the only example I had of “retirement.” It did not appear to be something to wish for, except in comparison to the even grimmer alternative. Watching my parental figures suffer, I never contemplated retirement. I resolved to get a good job and work forever.
We did have a house, bought with a lump sum settlement my grandfather got when an oil patch accident ended his job as a driller. The house had a bathroom added on with two pipes from the kitchen. The add-on electricity was, I know now, dangerous. Everything was plugged into one light socket, and hung down from the middle of each ceiling. The wires were always hot and fuses blew regularly. My grandfather showed me how to put a penny in the fuse box when we had no fuses, and I learned the hard way that the penny quickly got hotter than the wires.
My grandfather got a veteran’s benefit from the Spanish-American War, in which he went to Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Both grandparents got a small sum from FDR’s “communist” Social Security plan. Total regular income was about $100 a month, which would be about $800 in today’s dollars. Naturally, we got “commodities.”
My grandmother supplemented this by watching the swell folks’ kids, whose disrespect toward her was something I noticed more than the money. She also washed dishes in every greasy spoon in Bristow at one time or another. I remember her at the age I inhabit now, fingers cracked, knuckles bright red like cranberries, crying as she applied the lotion she believed would make doing the same work the next day bearable.
I was the Indian kid these two people took to raise when they had nothing. They were the safety net between me and a Chilocco education, another kid in boarding school with nowhere to go. On the other hand, had I been a government charge, I would speak more Cherokee and I might have met Wes Studi.
I can’t say my grandparents were always able to feed me and clothe me by the standards of the day, but there was one thing I always got: school supplies. If I could say I “needed it for school,” they would somehow provide it. Not understanding the trouble involved, I used that big time. The school said get a three ring binder; I got a small briefcase. The school said get a ballpoint pen; I got a fountain pen. My grandparents borrowed money for a set of encyclopedias because they didn’t know any better. They also borrowed money for an instrument so I could play in the band.
You teach your kids more by your actions than your words, and these people of no formal education taught me that education is more important than food or clothing. There was always a newspaper in the house and I was expected to read it, front to back. While I didn’t understand a damn thing about the stock market quotations there, I did enter the first grade already reading. At the bottom of the rural Oklahoma hierarchy by both race and class, education became my sword and my shield.
My future ambitions were modest. I wanted a car. I wanted a house with electrical switches on the walls, and the plumbing built-in rather than added-on. I would achieve these things the same way all Indian kids were taught to achieve things, by working with my hands. Never mind that I lacked competence; Indians were destined to be working class or artists.
Education was not a means to my idea of material ends because there was nothing on offer to an Indian kid between manual labor and art. Education remained, to me, a freestanding value, to be pursued simply because it is always better to know than to not know. And, critically, Indians are just as smart as white people, and Will Rogers might have been the smartest man who ever lived.
While Indians were socialized to limit themselves to blue-collar aspirations, consistent with the presumed limits of their abilities, it could have been worse if I had been born black. To be Indian was better than to be black because there were more of us, blacks did not have the artistic option, and because we could sit where we pleased in the movie theater and eat any place where my grandmother could wash dishes, except the country club.
My view of the future did not include “retirement.” I would be much better off if it had. That realization leads to Wall Street because, in these times, saving is not saving. When the interest on a savings account does not exceed the rate of inflation, any attempt to save is going backward while standing still.
The other issue for people like me is not having anything to save in the first place. I hope to show that’s not true in the next column in this series, even for people who, like myself, need government aid simply to eat. The difficulty of saving is greatly exaggerated. The necessity is not. That which is difficult is not impossible.
Confessing everything above is my way of begging you to hear me out before deciding what is impossible.