THEO PANAYIDES meets a self starter who has spent his life on a series of almost runs but always does his own thing
Look for a blue door between two palm trees, instructs Darrin Wheeler. This is in old Kaimakli, probably the most Time-warped part of Nicosia, where streets are cobbled and old men (or just men with time on their hands) sit in coffee shops playing backgammon. I park the car close to the main road and set out on foot, down a side-road and round the back to an empty field. A dog barks. A car in a corner of the field looks like it’s been there for a while. I locate the blue door, flanked by palm trees as advertised, and push it open to find an L-shaped house in a courtyard with a high wall, a good place to sit on a summer’s night listening to crickets and the sounds of distant traffic. There’s a pomegranate tree, another palm tree, and an old bicycle: “My means of transportation,” says Darrin.
The house isn’t his; he’s looking after it for an old English lady who’s gone back home for the summer. I assume he’s doing it for the extra money – though it’s also worth noting that he’s the kind of person to whom an old lady might entrust her house for the summer. He’s walking with a limp, a recent sacrifice for a friend. The friend – another older expat – was being harassed by an obviously unhinged individual; Darrin happened to be at his friend’s house when the lunatic went by on his bike, lunged at the man and dislocated his knee in the act of lunging, an injury that’ll take months to heal. He really should’ve done it more cleanly, he laments, especially given that he played American football in his youth – but “I had so much frustration inside of me”. Years of disappointment and struggle came out in that lunge.
I assumed we might talk about racism. He is, after all, one of the few African-Americans in Cyprus (I don’t have any figures, but I’m guessing the community is small) – and was also married for 12 years (1993-2005) to a Greek Cypriot woman he met at university, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. How did her family view the relationship, especially when he first arrived 20 years ago? “It seemed OK,” he shrugs – though he does admit that he never really bonded with most of his in-laws, partly because of the language barrier. Was there also a racial barrier? He hesitates: “Mmmm… Maybe, to varying degrees”.
Generally speaking, though, he has no horror stories of having faced discrimination on the island. Did he ever get funny looks, when he went out in public with his wife and kids? (He has three children, now 17, 15 and 14.) “Uh, there’s a lot of staring that goes on here,” he notes with a chuckle, sipping a glass of iced cranberry juice. “When people look at you, it seems like they fixate on you like a laser, and follow you for a few metres before they take their eyes off you!”. That was new, and a bit disconcerting – but in fact his most vivid experience of his marriage being scrutinised by strangers came in America, while on the subway with his family. “We went for the train on the platform, and I just happened to look up – it was a predominantly black neighbourhood – I looked up and pretty much every black person was staring at me. And I was like: ‘Boy, this seems like Cyprus!’. I had never felt that before in my own country.”
This was in Philadelphia, in the very neighbourhood where Darrin grew up. His childhood wasn’t exactly spent in a ghetto, but it does sound a bit traumatic: his father died when Darrin was nine, by which time his parents had already separated. What did they do, job-wise? “My mum’s in retail,” he replies, “my dad was – his own man. He was out there, y’know?”.
“Doing his own thing.”
Which was what?
He chuckles: “Whatever!”.
Like father, like son, at least to some degree. On Darrin’s Facebook page, under ‘Works at’, he’s written: ‘Retired at age 45 and never working for a boss – EVER AGAIN!!’. Like his dad, it’s fair to say he’s ‘his own man’. At one point I ask about his lifestyle, and he seems a little taken aback. “My lifestyle is… gosh!” he begins, not really sure how to express it.
Does he mostly just stay home, on the computer?
“Yeah, I stick with myself. Because people have a hard time stomaching what I do, because they don’t understand it. Because I’m a diehard entrepreneur.”
On the table between us is a copy of a magazine called Black Enterprise, dated September 1997, filling in some of the blanks: “Darrin Wheeler, 31, owner of DW Leather Imports in Philadelphia, realised the potential of international trade while working as a sports agent in Cyprus, off the coast of Greece [sic]… After leaving athletics in 1995, he began training to become a stockbroker and, last December, started a home-based international trade business part-time. While his company is still in the development stages, Wheeler expects to begin importing leather goods from India and Thailand this year”. It’s not clear if this project ever came to fruition – it’s not even clear how Darrin could live in Cyprus and own a business in Philadelphia, unless he moved back for a while in the late 90s – but in fact he’s applied himself to several projects over the years. “I’m a big projects person. I love doing my own projects and working, building.”
I get the sense he’s slipped in and out of many ventures, some more successful than others. And meanwhile there have also been ‘proper’ jobs, mostly for a couple of years at a time. He worked in the financial sector in the 90s, as Account Executive for an investment company called Waterhouse Securities (not to be confused with Price Waterhouse) then a financial-services firm called Fiserv. He’s “scrubbed toilets,” as he puts it, working as a maintenance man at Toni & Guy after his divorce. He’s also worked in TV, as a floor manager at Sigma as well as playing small parts in local comedies; Lyke Lyke Eisai Edo on Ant1 was perhaps his most popular gig, people still remember him from that and call him ‘Willy’, after his character. He now works from home as an independent trader, probably the only person in Cyprus doing equity options trading.
It’s an unconventional life, a bits-and-pieces life – and also, it must be said, a sometimes frustrating life. In many ways, Darrin is a ‘nearly’ man. He nearly got a degree in Sports Medicine – but the government pulled the plug on him after two years, stopping his student loan with no explanation given, after which “everything just went to kaput” as he puts it. He nearly played pro football, but not quite (he came very close, making the ‘Final Cuts roster’ for the Toronto Argonauts). He actually appears in an Oscar-winning movie – The Silence of the Lambs was shot in Pittsburgh in 1990, and Darrin worked as an extra – yet he’s only semi-visible, the camera panning across his face as he turns. “I’d have to point myself out to you,” he explains, “because it’s a silhouette”. Nearly there, but not quite.
Looking back on his early life is especially fraught with regrets and what-if questions. Take the high-school football coach who (apparently) resented Darrin – even though he’d been named the team’s Most Dedicated Player – and didn’t pick him for the annual all-star game where he might’ve caught the eye of some college scout, “maybe gotten college-football letters, maybe a scholarship or something. But I didn’t get any letters”. Or take the assistant coach in college who, bizarrely, ordered him out of a walk-in meeting where he’d come to apply for the football team: “He started talking this jibber-jabber and saying ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here!’. So I left”. Then came the letter withdrawing his funding, then the move to Cyprus with his ex-wife. What if he’d stayed another year? What if things had gone differently? What if this or that person had been helpful, instead of obstructive? “I think about it a lot.”
Then came his divorce, of course – and he could’ve gone back to the US, after all he wasn’t even 40. (He’ll be 51 in November.) “I was debating that,” he admits, yet he stayed in Cyprus for the sake of the kids, having been advised that “if I leave, I may never see my kids again”. His family life – like his working life – is a bit unconventional: he also has three children in America, from a previous relationship in his early 20s, though he and their mother never married and are no longer in touch.
Do the three kids here know about their half-siblings?
“I’m not sure.”
Does he have a good relationship with his Cypriot offspring?
Darrin blows out his cheeks thoughtfully. “I had a great relationship then,” he muses. “Now? My oldest son, I have a speaking relationship with him. The other two are a little bit young”. His oldest – who’ll be 18 this month – is “a thinker,” he says proudly. Does the boy plan to study in the US? “He hasn’t told me what he wants to do yet,” says Darrin. “I told him I’ll help him out,” he adds earnestly. “He just has to give me a little bit of time.”
There’s frustration there, certainly – the same frustration that came out in that recent mad lunge, and put his knee out. Life’s had its ups and downs for Darrin Wheeler. “It’s been a hard grind,” he admits in a rare subdued moment. “Let’s put it that way, it’s been a grind. But the way’s getting smoother”. His latest project – the equity options trading, which he’s actually been studying since the 90s – is the most exciting yet, especially now that he’s “layered it” in his usual unconventional way. The work is straightforward enough; he has an account in the States and trades in equity options, mostly for Cyprus-based clients; “It’s similar to people who do forex”. He has special software, studies the market, carefully hedges his positions – but “I also do meditation as well”.
“I combine it,” he explains. “I kind of visualise what a trade’s gonna look like, or how a stock’s gonna move”. He’s been studying meditation techniques in recent years, and “it’s helped a lot, my intuition has gotten much better”. He gets what he calls “premonitions” now, and not just for equity options: he saw Brexit coming, and claims to have forecast a crash in the price of oil – even setting up an Oil & Gas Contingency Program – 18 months before it actually happened. Like a lot of people who spend time online, he’s also found kindred spirits (other “meditative individuals”) who’ve developed a “collective consciousness”, making predictions on, for instance, the US election. “Between now and November 8 there’s going to be other allegations coming up, and this might be enough to knock the wind out of [Hillary Clinton’s] sails,” he asserts, basing this insight on his team’s collective intuition. “And [Trump] is gonna be like ‘See? I told you so’.”
It feels like we’ve come a long way from the house in Kaimakli with the pomegranate tree in the courtyard. Indeed, it seems quite surreal to be sipping cranberry juice, with the crickets chirping outside, and making bold predictions about American politics – but Darrin is nothing if not bold, even when it makes him look a bit eccentric. “I’m a very, like, forward thinker,” he tells me. “I don’t get caught up in small things”. Very brash, in other words? Very positive? “Yeah, yeah, just a go-getter. Self-starter. You know, do my own thing, take my own risk. If I fall flat on my face I pick myself up, and I keep going”.
He’s fallen a few times over the years: a divorce, an assortment of jobs, a middle-aged man with a bad knee trundling around on a battered old bike, a long way from home. None of that matters: he keeps going. “I go through it,” he affirms. “I go through the walls of fear, instead of trying to go in the opposite direction. That’s the only reason I’m still doing what I’m doing”. His own thing, whatever that may be.