Life in America


Like so many immigrants I arrived in New York City with no clear idea of were to go. Less than a month later I had fallen in love again, this time with New York.

Here is what happened: When I grew up in Berlin, my parents used to wistfully talk about the Berlin of their youth in the 1920's, when for a few short years Berlin was the cultural capital of Europe: Kurt Weill, The Three Penny Opera, etc.

I grew up in post-war Berlin, surrounded by barbed wire (later a wall), the dead-end of the western world. I was always resentful when they talked about the old Berlin; I felt that I had been cheated out of the really good parts.

And then I came to New York, and there was everything I thought I had been cheated out of: the cultural and commercial capital of the western world, an exciting cosmopolitan city, with people from everywhere doing anything you could think of with the best theater in the country, the Mecca of the arts, the center of business and finance. New York was everything I had thought I missed out on.

And other than that they spoke English, New Yorkers were not very different from Berliners.

Berlin was a political island, Manhattan is a geographical island, so both cities had a clearly developed sense of "us" and "them." And like Berliners, New Yorkers thought they were smarter, funnier and more sophisticated than the rest of the country, which in turn considered them arrogant loudmouths.

I realized that I had come home, and I have never changed my mind. There is a whole section devoted to New York.

I had applied to colleges all over the East. By the time I needed to decide the answer was clear: I went to Columbia College in New York City.

Speaking English was never a big problem. I had learned it in school, and it took two months of living here before I dreamed my first sentence in English ("Wait a minute."). There was the occasional confusion: it took me years to realize that the "windshield factor" was really the "windchill factor" ...

By the time I met Beate 23 years later, my German had fallen into disuse. When she said "Let's speak German" on our first date, I couldn't get a word out.

I graduated from Columbia College in 1968 with a degree in political science and no clue as to what to do next. I had no male role model; my father and I had never got along well, he had cut me off when he realized I was staying in the US, and I had worked my way through college by doing odd jobs, like washing down the Haagen-Dasz factory in the Bronx on Saturdays.

Me ca. 1970

Klaus 1970

So for three years I drifted through several jobs in the travel industry while trying to find myself; I just couldn't think of what to do. Worried that I might get stuck permanently in travel, I quit to rethink my life.

I decided that I would try my hand at politics. All of us who grew up in postwar Berlin had been taught a high degree of civic responsibility in school, and it was a lesson that had stuck deeply with me. At age 26 I decided I would try politics, so that 40 years later I wouldn't end up bemoaning the fact that there was this great unfulfilled passion. Follow the link, if you're interested in the details of my political career.

After three years in politics as a legislative and political aide, I realized that I could never get elected to office in New York. New York politics is largely ethnic, and Germans are not a favorite ethnic group. If I was serious about elective office I'd have to move to some place like Wisconsin, but to me living in New York was more important.

I also realized that I didn't want to be a political aide; I wanted to represent my own point of view, not someone else's and I didn't want to be threatened with loss of my job if I didn't tow the political line. The only conclusion was to get a business job, so that I could pursue politics as an independent hobby from which nobody could fire me.

The only problem was: I still didn't have the faintest idea of what to do. By now I was in a panic. I had been through two career attempts, I was almost 30, and still had no clue.

An acquaintance threw out an aside: "Why don't you try to become a stock broker ?" That sounded as good as anything. I was grabbing for straws. I had seen those tables of numbers in the newspapers, and they always held a mysterious fascination. So I made up a resume and went on interviews. I got a job with Merrill Lynch; they had the best training program. They hired me, taught me the difference between a stock and a bond, gave me a desk and a phone, and I went to work.

Me ca. 1980 a long time ago ...

Klaus 1980

Two years later a got a phone call from a headhunter who was recruiting for Lehman Brothers, where I spent the next 15 years. The first few years there were some of the most formative years of my professional life.

I had a mentor, Bill Welsh, who was the manager and had been a legendary broker himself. Merrill Lynch had taught me the nuts and bolts; Bill taught it to me like an art form. It was like a medieval apprenticeship; for the next two years I was a disciple at the feet of one of the great masters.

In 1990 I joined [firm name]; see my professional page.


Home Up The Early Years Life in America Klaus' Political Life

1970's Pictures