Going Insane

Crazy Eddie lives! All of us who lived in or near New York in the 1980s had the Crazy Eddie TV and radio spots permanently burned into our subconscious. Breathless and google-eyed, Crazy Eddie would offer unbeatable deals on consumer electronics, including offering to beat any other retailer's advertised prices. There was an air of genuine madness in New York in those days: Ed Koch was mayor, Wall Street was giving the "Go-Go 80s" their name, and the whole city seethed with a dangerous cultural fever. Crazy Eddie was the visible sign and symbol of New York: in your face, fiscally irresponsible but irresistable, a wheeler-dealer's wheeler-dealer, always one step away from spontaneous combustion or institutionalization.

It couldn't last, of course, and the SEC caught up with Eddie Antar in 1987, when the Crazy Eddie empire collapsed as the enormity of the fraud behind it became clear. Investors in the chain -- which had held its IPO just three years before -- lost almost $150 million, the vast majority of which went into Antar family bank accounts overseas. The legal proceedings took a decade, partly because in 1990, as things were turing against him, Antar shaved his beard, obtained a Brazilian passport, went on the lam, and was finally tracked down two years later in a luxury condominium in Israel. Extradited to the US, he stood trial, was convicted, and managed to have the verdict overturned due to judicial predjucice, before finally pleading guilty in a retrial and going to jail. The sheer audacity of Antar's scheme has become the stuff of accounting legend. Part of me beams a little at the scale of the deception and the raw chutzpah involved: only in New York, I think proudly.

Even after the final verdict went against them, some of the Antar clan reopened a store under the Crazy Eddie brand name in 1998. Sometime since then, they decided to get into this 'internet' thing and established web presence. The site is mostly a portal, in the most derogatory sense of the term: it features a form to submit price quotes to be beaten (response via email) and an 888 phone number for similar inquiries. The after-hours response at the phone number should be charming to anyone familiar with the distinctly New York subculture of Orthodox Jewish electronics merchants, as the message lets you know that their Friday hours are "from 10 until half an hour before sundown" (and closed all day on the Sabbath), but doesn't tell you what time zone those hours belong to. New York's advanced case of monomania has survived the turn of the millennium intact.

Far and away the best part of the one-page site is the set of old school radio commercials. It's all there: the motormouthed announcer, the manic repetition, the inspiringly tinny music, the sometimes strange lack of specificity, even that final drawn out landing on "insaaane!" Depending on whether you were exposed to Crazy Eddie in your formative years, they offer either a flash of nostalgia or a window onto a strange parallel universe.

I'm comforted, in a way, that Crazy Eddie has entered the the high-flying and fast-crashing world of e-commerce. So many elements of the Crazy Eddie saga fit the classic dot-com stereotypes: the unsustainable business model, the ferocious and offbeat advertising, the fiercely self-destructive price competitiveness, the vague seediness of the behind-the-scenes operation, the colorful personalities, and the dramatic IPO followed in close order by an even more spectacular flameout. There's not so much new under the sun: investor folly and business fraud are older than bricks and mortar, and will survive, not unlike Crazy Eddie, far beyond any one boom-and-bust cycle.

Am I going insane? Perhaps. It can be hard to tell. Maybe the 'insanity' of the contemplations I'm starting to have is part of the appeal. Prepackaged madness is an easy sell, especially when it's so safe. But remember also this possibility, that my frauds are not always as easy to penetrate as Crazy Eddie's. 3'12'00