David Riordan, Post-Recession Renaissance Man
On a warm Thursday evening, an upturned, black top hat rests on the bar where David Riordan is perched on a stool, watching the door for customers. He’s expecting twenty people, give or take, a small crowd compared to his forty-person-plus Saturday night sessions.
“I’m getting a little sick of it,” he whispers. “It’s the end of the season.”
Spotting the Riordan Tours logo embroidered on his black polo, a woman approaches. “Your group here for the tour?” Riordan asks. She’s alone, she answers, visiting from Colorado.
“Where?” he asks, and she demurs, explaining it’s a small town. “I am intimately familiar with Colorado,” Riordan insists. “I sell coffee to people in Colorado.”
He used to sell real estate to millionaires in Spain. Before that, wheat futures to buyers on the commodities market. But the recession was not kind to Riordan. Now, at fifty-three, he works in customer service in his family’s native St. Louis, driving a cab on the side for extra cash. And at night, he sells ghost stories for $20 a ticket.
When the hour strikes seven p.m., Riordan jumps off his stool and strides to the exit. Customers empty their beer bottles into plastic cups and follow him outside, where the Mississippi River reflects the sunset’s pink glow. Three carriages wait for passengers on the cobblestone street as steam rises through manhole covers.
Top hat planted on his white hair, Riordan climbs onto a brick porch to survey the assembled audience.
“St. Louis is the fourth-most-haunted city in America,” he says by way of introduction. “It can’t compete with New Orleans, Savannah or St. Augustine. But your tour guide is No. 1.” Several people titter politely.
“Two hundred fifty years ago, St. Louis was founded,” he continues with the spirited cadence of a town crier. “These people were river scum. These people were not at all like you. They drank, smoked and gambled.” A few more laughs. A horse snorts.
“I’m a seventh-generation St. Louis person,” he says. “My family’s been here since 1832.” He goes on to explain how they owned well-respected businesses in town, which were mostly known for their off-color slogans: “You furnish the girl, we’ll furnish the rest,” promised Grimm's furniture.
“I’m extraordinarily politically incorrect, too,” he promises.
Riordan’s seen a spirit, he assures them—not in St. Louis, but he’s seen one, alright. It was at age thirteen, while staying at the Getty mansion in England with his stepfather, a Getty Oil executive.
“I don’t expect we’ll see ghosts tonight,” he cautions, since it’s more a haunted history tour than a real ghost hunt. “But you can never be quite sure.”
The route itself may be the most frightening part of the experience, running far from the sloppy bars at Laclede’s Landing, under subway tracks, through alleys and onto the forested Gateway Arch grounds. Most St. Louisans don’t hang out downtown after dark, and certainly not near the river, where the homeless people make them nervous.
The tour guide knows this. “If someone comes out of the woods with a chainsaw, run like hell,” Riordan says. “It’s the real thing.”
He hops down from the stoop and takes off into the night.
* * *
“Do you know Fibonacci? You do?” Riordan leans forward on his bar stool. “My dog was named Fibber. Fibonacci’s my hero.”
He’s sweating, having just led a ninety-minute tour only a few hours after working a full day selling coffee by phone to Hyatts and Marriotts, Days Inns and Super 8s. It’s late, and his teenage son is recording the game for him at home. But Riordan has one more story to tell, and his audience of one is attentive. The glimmer of a grin crosses his face.
“Markets react in Fibonacci ways,” Riordan says. As he explains it, financial markets reflect the properties of the famed Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which predict natural patterns such as the swirls of sunflower seeds and chambered Nautilus shells. “I’m a student of Fibonacci. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever studied seriously in my life.”
That last part’s not true. Riordan studied public policy at Duke, business at Columbia and law at William & Mary. Before that he learned to write at Phillips Exeter Academy. He picked up Spanish in Spain when he was in his twenties by studying six hours a day for five months while between jobs. “You’re gonna have a hard time finding anybody to play 'match the degree' with me,” he says. But Riordan specializes in hyperbole, and anyway, the details don’t matter—the story matters. The facts can be fluid.
“I got a job working for Continental Grain Company,” he says, “my first real job,” at the age of twenty-five, in a grain elevator across the river on the outskirts of St. Louis. There, the young schemer pulled off “the most brilliant thing I ever did in my life.”
It was the drought of 1988, the country’s costliest, which left some states more parched than they’d been in a century. President Ronald Reagan called it the worst natural disaster since the Dust Bowl.
“Corn and soybean prices went crazy,” Riordan says. It’s not clear how this relates to the Italian mathematician, but Riordan is a master of the long exposition. “Traditionally—you’re gonna have a hard time understanding this—traditionally, wheat’s worth twice what corn’s worth. For the first time in history, ever, in the history of world, corn was more expensive than wheat.”
For three days, Riordan watched the prices rise, salivating over the unusual opportunity. He was new to the commodities company, “a peon,” in his words, but he analyzed the market to confirm what he suspected: There was money to be made.
“I went so far out on a limb,” Riordan says. “I sent an urgent memo to the president. I urged everyone to hedge wheat with corn.” It was risky, but Riordan bet the market would turn, as Fibonacci patterns of price hikes and plunges predict. And his boss bit.
Riordan takes a long drink. “Our local office made $22 million,” he says finally. “I was a friggin’ hero.”
His trajectory seemed certain: an oil executive’s stepson with degrees from the right schools, fresh off his first major coup, poised to become a commodities baron. But it didn’t work out that way. As he likes to say, “Shit hit the fan.”
* * *
The orange harvest moon hangs over the tour guide’s right shoulder as he sets his back to the river. The air is rich with the aroma of yeast, carried north from the original Anheuser-Busch brewery. A few stories in, Riordan hits his stride, recounting duels, fires and demon possessions with the easy manner of a professor. He punctuates his stories physically, laying thick foundations and constructing layers of detail until he shoves the punch line into place—then races away, leaving his one-liners to linger.
“This is Clamorgan Alley, the most haunted place in St. Louis by far,” Riordan says as he climbs the steps of a neglected brick building. “I have smelled death here.”
Bodies once were piled high in this alley, a depository for the victims of the 1849 St. Louis cholera epidemic. In those days, horse droppings mingled on the street with the contents of chamber pots. Sewage ran right into the river. It was a sanitation disaster, and cholera spread quickly.
“Symptoms include uncontrollable vomiting and explosive diarrhea,” Riordan says. He points to a woman holding an infant. “You know something about that, don’t you?” Couples scoot closer as Riordan describes the mounting death toll and the Irish laborers tasked with taking the bodies to a cemetery outside town.
The tour takers amble into the woods in silence. As Riordan starts a story about lead poisoning, the group rounds the corner and catches sight of the Gateway Arch, its graceful limbs gleaming. They reach for their phones to snap pictures, and for a few minutes, nothing Riordan says can recapture their attention. He doesn’t seem to mind. “If people aren’t listening, that’s fine,” he says later. “I’m selling an experience.”
* * *
Dissatisfied with the small raise Continental Grain offered in return for his winning gamble, “I quit,” Riordan says. “I threw a hissy fit. I shouldn’t have. I was a star at the company, probably would have been president by now. I was an asshole.”
For the next seven years, Riordan invested his own money on the Chicago Board of Trade floor, staring at blue screens and elbowing through hordes of frantic traders. “I wasn’t intellectually stimulated,” he says, even though the payout was impressive. “It’s a lot more physical and a lot more boring than you think.”
He tried law school, hoping to “change the world, make a difference, help people,” he says. “I sucked at it. The only thing I’ve ever sucked at in my life.” He means he made Bs. “I was average, and I’ve always excelled at everything. I’m always in the top two percent of everything I do.”
In 2001, after a short stint in private practice, Riordan moved with his wife and two young kids to Spain, having first fallen for the country during his half-year language immersion and again while honeymooning there.
Two hours from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula lies Frigiliana, one of the White Towns of Andalusia, named for the bleached houses that cling to the mountains surrounding the Alboran Sea. Flowers spill from clay pots that line the steep streets. Moors, Jews and Catholics left traces in the city’s crevices, their histories layered like pavement over the town squares. Riordan fell in love with stories here, on the cliffs overlooking the Moorish Mediterranean.
In Frigiliana, he sold real estate and worked recording ads, playing music and telling jokes on the air for 97.6 Coastline FM, the English-language radio station he bought into after the owner told him he had an exceptional radio voice. Enamored of the town’s white homes and winding lanes, Riordan was shocked to find tourists were unimpressed. “I saw people get off the bus, look around and go into the new part of town,” he says.
He sensed an opportunity. Waiting by the bus stop, the entrepreneur offered, for a few Euros, to show travelers centuries-old chapels, the sugar mill and El Fuerte, the hilltop battlefield where Christian forces defeated rebelling Moors in 1569. “I did it as a public service,” Riordan says. At first, only a few visitors took up his offer. “Then, I’m getting fifteen people, and guidebooks are recommending me,” he says. Soon he was up to two tours daily, five days a week.
The restless renaissance man discovered a passion. “I adored my tours. I developed material I wanted to share with people. It just grew and grew,” he says. “I became morbidly obsessed with the Spanish Inquisition. Do you know what a garrote is? They would tie you to a chair, and they had a screw that would screw into the back of your neck. Just for the heck of it. They were sadistic bastards. It was really disgusting shit. The highlight of my tour life was when I had a woman throw up in the middle of my descriptions.”
Marching past his neighbors’ homes in the dark and talking about torture earned the loud American some enemies in Frigiliana. An irritated British couple banged their shutters to disrupt him. He retaliated with a birthday party full of nine-year-olds. “‘Children, there’s a witch and warlock who live on this street,’” he recalls telling the kids. “‘If they come out of their house, they’ll probably be ranting. You be quiet and let them have their say, then give them a big round of applause, it’s all part of the show.’” The homeowner threw open the door and berated Riordan for disturbing his dinner party. “At the end, they clap!” Riordan laughs. “It was the highlight of my life.”
He left a legacy in town, the annual Three Cultures Festival, inspired by the title of the guidebook he sold in local shops: “Frigiliana: The Village of Three Cultures.” Riordan devised the phrase after noticing a 500-year-old ceramic marked with intertwined Islamic, Jewish and Christian symbols. “It kind of stuck,” he says of the slogan. “The Spaniards all thought it was great.” The mayor asked permission to use the image for a cultural celebration. Riordan, who’d copyrighted and printed it on 10,000 souvenir keychains, was tickled. “It’s invented out of whole cloth,” he gloats. “This American gave this 2,500-year-old village its identity.”
The village helped Riordan find his identity, too. But he abandoned it when the 2008 recession hit Spain harder than almost anywhere else. “I lost like four million dollars in Spanish real estate,” Riordan says. “I owned nine different houses and apartment houses that were worth seven million dollars, but I owed the bank three million, and then overnight they were worth half.” He offloaded the properties as quickly as he could. “It was smart to sell them,” he says. “I got out and still have my ass.”
“But my wife loved me more when I was rich,” he adds. “I said, ‘We’re moving back to America,’ and she said, ‘I’m not.’”
He returns to his drink.
“I’m not rich anymore.”
* * *
On less haunted nights, the tour guide drives a taxi. He’s the only Yellow Cab part-timer in town, putting in twelve to fifteen hours a week in the summer, more in the winter. It’s flexible, he explains: As long as the cab company gets $300 a week, they don’t care how often he drives.
“If I have a date, if my kids have a game, I don’t go,” he says. Riordan usually ends up telling a few jokes to his clients; in the winter, he practices new ghost stories. He laughs at the cabbies who wait for hours outside the ballpark and the airport, as he finds it more lucrative to instead make frequent runs across the county. “Most make $25 or $26 an hour,” he says. “I bring in about $41 an hour. I wouldn’t do it if I were average at it.”
He could have settled anywhere five years ago, but returned to St. Louis because of his family’s roots and his aunt’s invitation to house him and his kids while he looked for work. His first gig was part-time, selling prison care packages for $12 an hour. Then he was promoted into the company’s coffee sales division. Every day, he makes sure hotels have enough decaf and dark roast and French vanilla. On his lunch break, he returns calls from bachelorette parties and alumni groups who want to hear about ghosts.
He loves his tours, but they’re not just a hobby anymore. “I need to make money, I’m a single dad,” Riordan says. Both of his kids moved back to the U.S. with him; his daughter is currently in college and his son attends a private middle school.
“I work eighty hours a week. I’ve got a middle class-plus job, I’m working my ass off, but I’m providing for my kids, and I’m proud of that. The cab is easy, this is really easy, the coffee job is easy, it’s so low-stress.”
Still, he’s restless. “It’s not my dream,” he shrugs. “My dream is to sail around the world and write. I could have done it when I was twenty-eight years old; I didn’t because I wanted to be responsible. I’m still gonna do it. Five or six years from now. I’ll get on a boat and sail away.”
* * *
After pointing his customers to the parking lot, Riordan removes the top hat with relief and heads toward the bar. He’s a little impatient when a young man stops him to ask a history question, but Riordan pays full attention when he offers to help design tour t-shirts. “Email me tomorrow,” Riordan says. “You can have a free one.”
Inside, Riordan stirs the ghosts of his former lives, marveling at chances taken and missed and enjoying his own retellings. “The tour in Spain was about twice as good as this, twice as successful. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my life,” he says. “Since I know it’s not as good as the Spain tour, it eats at me a little bit. But I’m working to make it better.”
He must sense a punch line coming, because without warning he jumps off his stool and hurries to the door. Or maybe it’s just late; he’s got a son at home and work in the morning. Halfway down the street, he turns back to call out, answering a question about what he plans to do next. “A bed-and-breakfast in Mexico,” he says. “I’ll do tours. Every place has good stories.”
* * *
Rebecca Koenig is a St. Louis-based journalist who works as managing editor for Town & Style, a weekly culture and lifestyle magazine. Originally from D.C., she also writes for sports blog Crim Del Harris. Follow her at rebeccalkoenig.com and on Twitter @becky_koenig.
Benjamin Hoste is a non-fiction photographer. He born in New Jersey, raised in California, studied mathematics in college, and holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. See his work online at benhoste.com, follow him on Tumblr at benhoste.tumblr.com or on Twitter @benhoste.