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As a fresh, still innocent year began, the usual crowd gathered for an evening's refreshment at Wollensky's Grill in midtown Manhattan just off Third Avenue. And if you took seriously the barroom concerns of this mini-slice of America, this was what we were thinking about, these our concerns:

Life after "Seinfeld"; the slaughter of chickens in Hong Kong; all those Buddhist monks protesting on behalf of the chickens; the Super Bowl; whether Mayor Giuliani would ever be president; the death of yet another Kennedy; El Nino; and would the stock market continue its dizzying climb?

Not much anyone can do about "Seinfeld." Or, beyond prayer, the poor chickens. But the market? Well, there's a more complicated matter.

It's not that I fear a fall in the Dow average. On that I can be lofty and uncaring, having just a year ago outsmarted everybody by getting out when the Dow stood at 7,000; thereby missing a year in which the Standard & Poor's index rose 31%.

As the gunnery sergeant in a philosophical moment used to say, "Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you."

No, I am at peace with myself (and poorer, for it, I admit, having socked the lot into Treasury bills), but I do fret about my friends. Not about a market crash. But can they continue coming up with legitimate but creative ways to spend the money?

Over the last three years the returns have been so good, men simply didn't know how to spend it fast enough. Wine, women & song come to mind of course, but pleasures of the flesh have a way of aging a chap. It was the fellow with imagination who most truly seems to have enjoyed the financial boom of the '90s.

Take Peter the Portfolio Manager. He really put some thought into it and spread the wealth, buying an historic old farmhouse and outbuildings on a dozen acres in extreme eastern Connecticut, a few miles inland of Mystic seaport. Then, naturally, came several sets of wheels, including a BMW and a sports utility job. He already had a couple of boats, one if by sail, two if by stinkpot. Then he bought some hunting dogs and had them shipped out to be trained. And there was his collection of rifles and shotguns. And his vineyard (Peter grows the grapes, squeezes them, does the fermenting and takes care of the bottling and even the label design). As he freely admits, the first vintage wasn't much, but then again, it took time even for the Widow Cliquot and Baron Mumms to get it right.

His most ingenious investments were in livestock.

He put in bee hives. You'll probably recall how he lost 40,000 bees last winter when, during a cold snap and trying to do the right thing, Peter plugged the entryways only to have all the bees die of constipation, since the little critters are too fastidious to perform their tiny bowel movements inside the hive and need to go outside.

Peter's most dramatic acquisition was of a herd of alpacas. And there it was that Peter encountered not only tragedy (a la the bees) but mystery. Just the other evening he was at Wollensky's Grill, morose and agitated. A mutual friend phoned me in East Hampton next morning.

"It's the alpacas again."

Peter the Portfolio Manager and his alpacas were becoming soap opera. First, it took 18 months to get the damned animals sent up here from Chile, quarantined, vaccinated and delivered, with Peter muttering about "the alpaca cartel." Then, when in a moment of distraction, he entered his own alpaca corral, still wearing his beekeeper suit and mask (size XXL). The alpacas stampeded in alarm, bowling over their devoted owner, butting and kicking him black & blue.

"What is it this time?" I inquired.

"One of them died. They're doing an autopsy at Tufts. Peter says it'll cost $650 to do an autopsy."

"Then why bother?"

"Peter thinks someone bumped off the alpaca. He had the vet in. He says it was the healthiest male in the herd. They're talking `Murder at Mystic.' "

Dirty work afoot, indeed. But whodunnit? Was "the alpaca cartel" striking back? A jealous neighbor? An old girlfriend? A Wall Street rival?

Had "chicken flu" reached Connecticut from Hong Kong and begun to strike out at other species? Had Peter's alpaca, like his bees, succumbed to constipation? Were there cabals within alpaca-dom that resented this "healthiest male in the herd?"

Here was a man who'd solved the problem of too much money, diversifying his purchases and investing shrewdly, wisely, creatively. After all, how many T-bone steaks, how many bottles of Opus One, how many tickets on the Broadway aisle does one portfolio manager need? Man does not live by Lamborghinis alone.

Occasionally, he visits Chile and takes a flier on alpacas. Ending up financing autopsies at Tufts.

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