Published June 1990 in Central Penn Business Digest
Everyone who ever met Malcolm Forbes, no matter how casually, has now written his or her piece about what a character he was. I was hoping to resist the temptation myself, but a strange coincidence has made me reconsider.
It was Saturday, February 24, and I was on my way to New York. That was the day Forbes. died. As the train sped through New Brunswick, just a few miles from his Far Hills home, I had a strong flashback to a day two years ago when I’d stood on that very platform, head still somewhat in a daze, waiting for a train to take me home. It was a Monday and I had spent the long weekend as Forbes’ special guest, motorcycling in France. I’d asked one of his staff to drop me at the nearest station.
All the memories came rushing back to me: Meeting him, fresh from a dinner at the White House, on his private 727, the “Capitalist Tool.” Landing in Normandy. Cycling through the French countryside and attempting to launch one of his massive hot air balloons at a local motorcycle rally; fabulous dinners, fabulous wines, his own 18th Century Chateau. I could go on forever with anecdotes.
But the thing that was strongest in my mind was the contrast I’d experienced as I stepped onto that Jersey Transit local bound for Trenton. There was a tired old black man in the back of the car sipping furtively from a bottle in a bag. There were a couple of elderly ladies across the aisle and right behind me was a Puerto Rican woman and what surely must have been her young son. I kept catching glimpses of the boy’s reflection in my window. He was a wonderful little boy, animated, his eyes full of sparkle.
She spent the whole trip telling him about her previous night’s escapades with a boyfriend and as the tales of her flirtatious adventures spun on and on, and the drab New Jersey landscape flew by, my euphoria started to turn into deep depression.
I thought about the wealth I’d just shared in and the poverty and neglect that was now surrounding me. Most of all I thought about that little boy, not too much younger than my own son, and what he was doing at night, probably all by himself, while his mother was running around. I thought about all the little kids like him. The neglect. The squandered potential. The human tragedy. My eyes got moist as the emotion welled up in me.
As the train ground to a halt I rose to leave and, acting purely on instinct, I reached in my jeans and took out the last of the big French coins Forbes had passed out to us for “treats” at the rally snack bar. It was a souvenir intended for my son, but turning, I flipped it through the air in the boy’s direction. He grabbed it deftly. “That’s a very lucky coin, kid,” I said. “Keep it and you’ll do OK.”
I walked outside into the late afternoon sunshine. All my depression was gone and I felt good. After all, that’s what Malcolm Forbes stood for. Feeling good about all the good things that capitalism and our free market economy can provide. It may not be the ultimate system, but, as the world seems quickly to be realizing, it sure beats the other options.
Maybe that kid will never make it, but at least, in America like nowhere else in the world, he’ll have ample opportunities. What more can any of us ask for? Who knows, someday he might even grow up to be another Malcolm Forbes. We sure could use a replacement.