My Empire

On a Sunday, 2002, at our dining table

They’d already given up on mom. So Ravi tried something different.

“Uncle, you’ll understand this. If you wanted to start a business, what would you need?”

My dad began processing this broad question, not sure where to begin.

“Money, right?” chimed in Ravi’s down-1, Samir. “You spend some first and make more later. Just like a restaurant.”  

“So this is an internet restaurant?”

“No,” Ravi jumped back in. “But what we’re offering Adi is the opportunity–while he’s still in high school–to buy a business, provide for both of you one day, and become an even better leader.”

I started to choke up.

Mom started laughing.

Was this the vision my new friends had for me?

I couldn’t hear much else of what was said. You see, like a true leader, my ear was pressed to the door and I was overhearing this conversation. And before this leader embarked on his million dollar idea, he’d need his parent’s approval. And 400 bucks.

While they deliberated further, I thought about how I’d got here.

Two days ago, I was in Ed Chen’s basement listening to techno music. But this wasn’t a regular high school party, this was a business meeting for a company called 2by2 Net.  There was the regular assortment of nerds but also Tracey Hazlet.

Having worked up the courage to talk to her, I hit her with my best line:

Hey, do you know what this meeting’s for?

But no one in the room knew what the business was. Though we all had been told repeatedly what it wasn’t: which is to say it was definitely NOT a pyramid scheme.

Ed, the graduating class president, finally arrived to cheers. He told us how we could flip burgers or join the World Wide Web revolution. He had joined and now was just a few thousand dollars away from getting his Acura NSX.

I wasn’t sure what that was, but there was an audible collective gasp in the room.

As a point of reference, our family’s car was a Honda Accord SE. The SE meant we had a sunroof that opened up but sometimes didn’t close.

After 30 minutes of hearing all of Ed Chen’s aspirations, we finally saw what this would cost. And then we saw the business plan.   

It was a chart of employees. Each tier referred to as down-1s, down-2s, etc. They got bigger in size the further down it went, ultimately making a shape best described as … triangular.

“Ok, neither of us like this plan, but we want you to fail and see how hard it is to make one dollar into two.” My mom’s inspiring words snapped me out of my daydream. And, with that, I set out to become a titan of the World Wide Web.

Because I’d joined so quickly—and perhaps because there might be a God—it was none other than Tracey that became my left-side down-1. Her friends–three cheerleaders, two dancers and the only attractive color guard–signed up and filled out the left half of my down-2 and down-3 within a week.

Within a month, Ed Chen purchased his NSX and announced that the 2by2Net founder would be speaking at the Hilton in Times Square.

“Yes, the Times Square in New York City,” Ed patiently explained to a starry-eyed down-4 whose middle school-ness was showing.

The train ride into the city was something to behold. Ravi, Samir and I were flanked by a fleet of cheerleaders, dancers, and flag wavers, a first for us.

We decided to treat the team to lunch beforehand at a nice restaurant in the heart of Wall Street, a symbol we’d arrived.

After some quick research into restaurant prices, we settled on a Panera just outside of Wall Street.

We scuttled back to the subway to head to Times Square. I was the last to swipe my ticket through when two things happened: the train was arriving and I had insufficient fare.

I looked at the turnstile, the gaggle of attractive girls waiting for me, the business meeting I had to attend. Should this meaningless $1.25 fare stop an empire?

So, I hopped the turnstile.

An undercover Giuliani-era cop rose out of a group of homeless people and immediately apprehended me. There was a flurry of harsh words. I was stunned. The cop eventually broke her rhythm when she realized I was catatonic.

“Do you even speak English?”

I saw an out but also saw Tracey looking at me with vague concern or mild annoyance. At the time, it was probably the greatest moment in my life.

With a flair for the dramatic, I started breathing again, looked at Tracey and said:

“You need to go on. (dramatic pause)

Go on without me.”

She left without protest.

“You do speak English.” And a fine of $76.45 was written out.

I made my way back directly to New Jersey rife with fines and Panera debt. A new friend on the train explained that I could avoid my parents finding out about the ticket if I sent something called a money order.

My new companion also felt this advice was worth $10 and it became clear there’d be no opportunity to negotiate this.

The convenience store attendant at the Edison Quik Chek patiently explained how to get the money order. He also uncomfortably explained how to mail it.

I’d never used a stamp before.

That Monday, I found out that Ed Chen and the 2by2Net founder had been arrested and both walked through Times Square in handcuffs. Everyone else was detained and my entire team was fined heavily.

A detective eventually tracked me down in school. I was in tears the entire walk to the principal’s office.

Apparently, because I had only filled out my left side and failed at signing any non-cheerleaders, I had not made a cent of profit.

This made me a victim and not a suspect. I was offered the opportunity to join a class action and left with a box of tissues and no punishment.

Well, almost no punishment.   

My parents eventually got a strange receipt from the New York Metro Transit Authority.

“We’re disappointed you didn’t tell us about this ticket,” frowned dad.

“I just can’t believe this idiot learned how to send mail,” said mom.

I looked at them, my real left and right Up-1s, and realized there are no shortcuts.

And this is the only empire I’ll ever need.

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