Life & Living IV (Work)

Aside from the radio station, and the three summer jobs that I had in Houston, I never worked anywhere but in the part of the world called Wall Street, which at the time was very much physically centered in Lower Manhattan. If you count the Empire Trust Company, which merged into the Bank of New York, as one employer, then I had three altogether. Before my family left for Houston, I worked for three summers and the better part of a year at BoNY. When I came back, I worked at the New York Stock Exchange, from which I was hired away by E F Hutton & Co. I never drew a paycheck after leaving Hutton, which was collapsing at the time, in 1987. So I’ve been out of work for nearly thirty years. This will not be a lengthy chapter.

The summer jobs were arranged; I didn’t have do a thing but show up, fill out a form, and report for duty. First year duty at Empire Trust put me in the mail room. It’s amazing that I was allowed back for another summer job at the bank, but, when I was, it was not as a clerk in the mail room.

To work in the mail room, I had to be bonded. My trustworthiness had to be demonstrated in some official way. I hope that there was insurance involved. I should also point out that most of what I knew about “working” I had learned from I Love Lucy. There would be laughter.

For most of the day, I pushed baskets through the offices, filling inboxes and emptying outboxes. This taught me the layout of the bank, and in no time I had my favorite stops, people whom I’d chat with and later maybe have a cup of coffee with in the cafeteria. It was mostly people like me who thought I was funny. One of them was also the child of a Panhandle employee, albeit one further down the ladder (but still senior enough to be in New York), but she was actually working at the bank permanently. She shared a flat with friends in the East Sixties — how sorry I am that I wasn’t old enough to appreciate that scene (I was all of sixteen) — and I would go to her wedding a few years later. She was peppy and fun. Then there was a young banker, an apprentice really, whom I had a complete crush on. Oh, how I wanted to be him. The primary attraction was his placid imperturbability. He had a delicate sense of humor, but he was not a source of violent movements. His life was not, like mine, a series of explosions (however amusing). He had a patroon name and was probably descended from Stuyvesants and Rensselaers. He was going to get married, so he was always looking forward to dates with his fiancée. He was a miraculous person to me for the simple reason that it would have taken a miracle, a major miracle, to clear away all the defects that kept me from being more like him.

One day, I was asked to convey a stack of bearer bonds to the First National City Bank. This would be a short trip down Exchange Place, to the back door of 55 Wall Street, which is where what is now Citibank took deliveries. It was hardly two blocks away, so I saw no need to fuss about packing the bonds in a bunch of the suitcases that were supplied for this purpose. The stack was really quite tall, but so was I, as well as was young and strong; and the bearer bonds were strapped together with an elastic belt. So I picked up the stack and carried it down Exchange Place. There was some commotion when I arrived. Bearer bonds don’t exist anymore, because they’re like currency: to possess them is to own them. There was no need to prove that a bearer bond was yours. It was yours because you had it in your hand. The elastic belt was sturdy enough; I don’t think that anyone worried that a few bearer bonds might have come loose and floated away. No, I think that what bothered the clerks was the retrospective possibility that the stack of bearer bonds might have been taken, by seasoned Wall Street habitués, to be a sign shouting “Mug Me!”

My other mail room reminiscence is also characteristic. I was charged with the mail room run to the bank’s branch in Rockefeller Center. It was a small branch, window dressing mostly, and there was never much mail. I was to take the subway to 51st Street and Lexington Avenue — well, I think they left the subway route up to me; the Lexington Avenue line was the only one I knew. From 51st Street it was a short walk to the branch. Next door to the bank, there was a Schrafft’s. One day, feeling peckish, I stopped in after making the delivery, and sat down at the bustling counter. I ordered an English muffin, with plenty of butter. It was delicious. I could tell that it was a Thomas’s English muffin, the comme il faut brand, because other brands taste funny, and this one was perfect. It was the most delicious English muffin that I ever tasted. And it was swimming in butter. Why didn’t they taste like this at home?

Once I had enlarged the delivery route to include a stop at Schrafft’s, I began to think of the midtown mail run as a junket. I began taking taxis from Rockefeller Center to Grand Central, where I could hop on an express train. Once, on Vanderbilt Avenue, I opened the taxi door on the traffic side, and it came off, just like that, although with a lot of crash and breakage. A serious oops. I was delayed at the scene for a while, but if there were further repercussions, I forget what they were. Yes, but though I forget, I tingle as if mildly electrocuted when I read a story in which such a calamity befalls a character who doesn’t have the safety nets that good fortune always seemed to arrange for me. Over the long term, conscious has wrought some vengeance. The climax of these escapades was a trip to the entral Park Zoo. It was a beautiful summer day and even I, even I understood that we were put on this beautiful planet to spend the day outdoors. When I decided that it was time to get back to work — not that, by this point in August, anybody was keen to see me — I realized that I had best take a taxi the whole way. On the kerb, getting in, I bought a helium-gas balloon.

Did I know what I was going to do with it? I can’t remember. As I stepped out of the taxi at the intersection of Broad and Wall — you could drive there in those days, even though the streets were teeming with lunchtime crowds — and, as I did, I released the balloon. Then I stood to one side and watched everything come to a halt. Everyone stopped to look up at the rising balloon. People stopped in crosswalks; traffic came to a standstill. Just because of a red balloon. (It may have been salmon pink.) This was my idea of a simple pleasure. It was also the distillation of a long career of disrupting class.

The next year, and the year after that, and the year after that — they were no fun at all. I graduated from the mail room to the custodial services department. This had nothing to do with mops and buckets, and let’s not think what it might have been like if it had. The bank provided custodial services to mutual funds. It received and accounted for the payments; it liquidated individual accounts and sent checks to customers. The mutual funds in question were aimed at low net-worth investors, people who were trying to save money regularly while making more than the interest offered by the bank. The catch was that, once you’d signed up with a fund, you were committed. If you stopped making payments, or just wanted your money back, you were slapped with huge penalties. I don’t know how long you had to comply in order to be spared the penalties, but they struck me as pretty gruesome.

I was a clerk, plain and simple. I did nothing but add up checks. I was not as bad a Lucy, by any means, but I had yet to perfect my ability to type numbers, even on an adding machine, so it was heavy going. In the custodial department, there were a few other interns (not that we ever used that word), but almost everyone there for life. Everyone lived in an outer borough, with a sprinkling from New Jersey. No one had been to college. Most were smart enough to have done so, but money was still an obstacle, and culture an even bigger one. Anyone who dared to pursue higher goals would have been stigmatized with the most dreadful dismissal in New York: stuck up. These two little words, which were almost unimaginably more potent then than they would be now, because in those days the force of dirty words was expressed by toxic euphemism, signified not only conceit and delusion but betrayal of family and friends. If you had been a child genius since Sister Mary Catherine’s second grade math unit, then you might be excused — but as a freak. People of normal but useful intelligence were expected to stay put.

The folkways were unfamiliar to me, of course, but I was unfamiliar to the folk, too. I wasn’t what they expected. Everyone knew how I got there. Some people were tolerant; most were resentful, especially as I wasn’t very good at the work. But work was not the issue. Especially during the third tour of duty, which lasted so much longer than the others, I bungled a lot of personal relations. They weren’t friendships; they certainly weren’t what in the polite world is called acquaintanceship. There were people toward whom I gravitated but with whom I didn’t know how to behave. There were also people who were dazzled by my socioeconomic superiority, which, combined with glowing health and bubbling wit, made me something of a god. I knew this and didn’t know it at the same time. In one case, I had to be told to lay off.

Olive was a plain but interesting-looking girl who was very shy but coltish. Sometimes, she seemed barely capable to speaking more than two sentences together; every now and then, the talk came out of her in sheets. She was very thin and she reminded me of tubercular opera heroines, not that I had first-hand experience of these. I took her out to lunch a few times — to the Schrafft’s on Broad Street — and we had lovely lunches during which I encouraged her to be more assertive. Of course I kept us away from the office for longer than the allotted time. It was all very pleasant; for once, I felt like an adult. So it was doubly wounding to be told that I was an idiot. I’d made the poor thing fall in love with me; were my intentions honorable? Beyond enjoying lunch, I had no intentions. I don’t think that I could enjoy lunch if I had intentions. Lunch, for me, was even then an Arcadian time, a vacation, right in the middle of the day, from care and concern. Honorable intentions? I thought of other operas that I had not seen, and shivered.

When I showed up in the winter of 1966, having ejected myself from Notre Dame, I could fairly bask in the Schadenfreude. I wasn’t even good enough to stay in school, which was the one thing a smarty-pants like me was supposed to know how to do. It was a long term. Somehow, incredibly, there was also the summer of 1967. I don’t remember a thing about it except a conversation that proves that I must have been there. I had fallen in love with the Ring cycle during my second freshman year, and I mentioned this to the wrong person at the bank. She was getting on in years, and she spoke with a German accent. I expect that she had gotten about before the camps were set up, but there was an implacability about her that I had never encountered before. Fairly spitting, she told me that I was fool to like Wagner: he had stolen all of his melodies from Mendelssohn. She spoke with such conviction that I wondered, briefly, if she might be right.

My father liked to drive to work. I think that it was his time off — although he did a lot of napping at home. His office was only a few steps away from wherever I was working, so I took to commuting with him. At first, I think, it was to save money. The commuter train was expensive, especially given what they were paying me the first summer, and even then I had to get myself to and from the station. We experimented with my taking the subway to Gun Hill Road, at the northern edge of the Bronx. My mother would pick me up. She liked to drive as much as my father did, but not, I think, to the edge of the Bronx. So I settled in to years of accompanying my father.

The rides were usually pleasant enough, but for the traffic, which was inevitable. Dad listened, invariably, to WNEW, the radio station that played popular music for adults. Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Lane, Jo Stafford, Louie Armstrong endlessly during the run-up to Hello, Dolly! The cynosure was of course Frank Sinatra, the singer who tied up traffic on the West Side Highway by honeymooning with Mia Farrow in a sailboat tied up at the 79th Street boat basin. (No, I never saw a thing.) I wasn’t crazy about this music, but it wasn’t because I would rather have listened to the Beatles on WINS. My taste in popular music was already more venerable than my parents’. I liked early Sinatra, the crooner of “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” who never got carried away with crazy rhythms and who never ever raised his voice. (By the time he sang “Strangers in the Night,” a song that he is said to have hated, the cream in his voice was gone, replaced by regrets.) I liked Fred Astaire, as a singer I mean. During their romantic youth, my parents had been fans of Eddie Duchin, but I still liked him. I was crazy about the way Patricia Norman sang “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” with his band. (And I still am.) That’s what I wanted to listen to. But it wasn’t on the radio, not anywhere. My father could sort of understand my interest in classical music, as a cultural thing. He thought that my taste in pop was weird. So did almost everybody else.

I tended to get to work a little on the late side, but I never knew whether this made things worse for me or it I was already in the zone beyond which there was no worse. The drag was that Dad didn’t leave work at five. I would go over to his office and sit. I would fool around. I would call up friends from other executives’ speakerphones. I would steal office supplies. I would exasperate the switchboard operator, a lively woman who, years later, would introduce my father to his second wife. Sometimes I sat in Dad’s office and listened as he talked to lawyers. It was always lawyers who paid him late-afternoon visits. My father was in charge of certain regulatory matters. These had nothing to do with the safety of the pipelines but everything to do with the rates that could be charged for the natural gas. There was a Commission in Washington that oversaw these regulations, the Federal Power Commission. There was another commission that oversaw financial things, the Securities and Exchange Commission. I don’t know what my father had to do with stock filings, but he did address the security analysts every year. That was a very big deal; in those pre-Internet days, the security analysts collected all the inside dope about companies. My father also addressed the annual stockholders’ meeting, along with an ever-thinning cadre of more senior executives; eventually, he would be top banana. Well, top banana with an asterisk. But that was Houston.

The way my father talked to the lawyers was not like the way he talked to his friends in Bronxville. To tell the truth, it was the lawyers who were his friends. They spoke seriously, speculatively, always with a fine humor, always aware of the role of personality in business affairs. They spoke, for the most part, in low voices, and not because they were sharing secrets. They were altogether adult, and I was certain that I would never be like them. And I never would be like them. The years in Houston and then in law school taught me how to be plausible on Wall Street, but I never belonged.

***

It ought to have been more humiliating than it was to spend the first three years of my return to New York working as a paralegal clerk. People who pass the Bar exam usually get better jobs, doing something, somewhere. By now, my father had remarried and, charmed by Kathleen, forgiven my defection. I wrote a million letters to law firms in the fall of 1980, but didn’t even hear crickets. My stepmother intervened. She called a former employer, a man who happened to have served as the President of the New York Stock Exchange, during the time when it was a job that rotated among Members. He found me a spot in the Exchange’s Enforcement Department. The good thing about this job was that I came to spend a lot of time talking to lawyers at member firms, trying to explain why the Exchange was punishing an account executive. Being able to see both sides of the question stood me in good stead here, because the lawyers whom I talked to liked my attitude. Eventually, one of them asked me to think about working for his firm, which was E F Hutton. At Hutton, I got to call myself a lawyer.

Just as I had spent seven years at the radio station, so I was to spend seven years on Wall Street. I was at the Exchange from the autumn of 1980 to the spring of 1983, and thereafter at Hutton until the autumn of 1987. My term at Hutton fell into two periods, before and after, with the event in between — for once it had nothing to do with me — being a lawsuit brought against the firm by a district attorney in Pennsylvania. This would lead, first, to a management upset at Hutton. Then it would force Hutton to merge with a rival. By the time of the merger, I was gone. Among the senior officers who were obliged to retire was the firm’s General Counsel, a good man with whom I had, against all the odds, worked very well. His successor and I were never on the same page. That’s what makes me appreciate Thomas Rea, the outgoing man, all the more. With me, it is very easy to be on a different page. Although he had nothing to do with hiring me, I regarded Tom as the relative or old family friend who gave me a really good chance to prove that I could do a normal job without being a complete doofus.

Once every so often — once a month, I suppose, I would go into Tom’s office with a list of names and occupations. The names belonged to Hutton account executives. The occupations were their other, or “outside,” business activities. For a stockbroker to have another job, or for a man who did something else to be a stockbroker, was not uncommon; I don’t know if that has changed. Quite a few account executives were also airline pilots. Hutton was not disturbed in the least by moonlighting, but only so long as the outside activity was not financial in nature. If a branch manager discovered that one of his salesmen was doing something with money, he was required to tell the legal department about it, and the person in the legal department to whom he had to speak was me.

I struggle to recall examples of iffy financial outside activities, but can’t think of a single one, not only because it has been thirty years since I gave the matter any thought but because there was one instance that so explosively flouted the firm’s prohibition that it obliterated all the others. It involved a book, and I still have a copy in storage: I saw it the other day. It was written by an account executive in one of the Chicago branches, and it was entitled Riches Without Risk. It would take me a long time to think of a title that could be mentioned in public that would offend the sensibilities of the SEC more than Riches Without Risk. The very idea of riches without risk is an existential insult to the Commission, which was established in part to make sure that nobody out there in moneyland was promising anything of the kind.

Kathleen reminds me of something that I suppose must of come in through my inbox. It was a request from a branch manager to open a strange kind of account. The only thing that wasn’t strange was that everyone was going to get rich. As more such letters were received, they came to be called Arab Money Deals, and in a modified version they would later make quite a splash in Nigeria. The original scam was set up to obtain a letter, on Hutton letterhead, stating that the bearer had an account at the firm — and then the footwork got fancy. Without actually stating the balance in the account, the letter insinuated that it was or would be or had been considerable. If you didn’t read the letter too closely, you got the impression that the bearer was a big customer. You got the impression especially if English wasn’t your first language, or you lived far away from banking centers, at an oasis, say. It was really all about the letterhead. The letter would be used to swindle real money out of trusting marks. Then, if the mark had any sense, he would sue Hutton. That was the idea, and as I recall somebody had actually been sued somewhere. The case wouldn’t stand up, but it would be embarrassing and unnecessarily costly to defend. The managers who received these offers — themselves no less seduced by the figures proposed than the actual victims would be — could never understand why we New York lawyers forbade them to sign the letters. There was almost always the offer to make a trip to New York, complete with Sheikh X, to establish bona fides.

There was a feudal aspect to the hierarchy at Hutton; some branch managers had more powerful regional bosses than others. These bosses were smart guys, and usually saw through the scams right away, but they had no reason to make our lives any easier. Certain that we would never permit such foolishness, they would complain to their managers that we punks were standing in the way of their enrichment.

The main part of everybody’s job in the law department was to oversee the handling of customer complaints — customer complaints that had sparked, or were about to spark, legal action. We did not talk much to customers; we talked to their lawyers. What we usually did was either work out a settlement directly, proceed to an arbitration, or retain a local lawyer to fight the claim. I did a lot of the first and the third; I did the second once, and I discovered, as if there had been any doubt about it, that I was not cut out for trial advocacy. I did not disgrace myself, and there was no question that the account executive hadn’t failed to make sure that a customer received a prospectus, but I felt nakedly unprepared throughout. The entire session was an ongoing series of vistas, at the far ends of which lay the information that I might need to answer a question, if it arose, information that I didn’t have because I hadn’t done my homework.

Where I think I had a gift was for consoling branch office managers who had to clean up really spectacular messes that cut into their bottom lines. There was an account executive who persuaded his customers that margin debits were actually assets in their accounts. This lasted for a few months and went through a lot of money. The goal was not to negotiate lower settlement amounts (although keeping them from mounting was a concern), but to propel the manager through all the stages of grief as quickly as possible. I was good at that. I was quiet about the damage, always behaving as though things like this happened all the time, which they did not, or we’d have been out of business. I apologised to customers and their lawyers. I avoided any taint of arrogance, and ate a lot of the manager’s humble pie. I don’t think that I ever met one of the offending account executives. I have one reason to believe that my technique failed catastrophically with a manager in upstate New York: he remembered me with displeasure.

Somehow, in the last years, I discovered a skill for public speaking. As long as I thought I knew what I was talking about, I could address a roomful of successful men, hold their attention, and even made them laugh. This only made sense when I was actually doing it. The rest of the time, I couldn’t imagine how I did it. I had done nothing to hone a skill, except of course talk a lot on the radio — but that seemed entirely different. I have to suppose that it wasn’t. Even odder is the reason for my being asked to speak to these men, who were financial advisers. Whether it arose through my outside-business-activity gig, I can no longer recall. But it had something to do with “soft dollars,” and it led to my specializing in a tiny slice of the laws enacted by ERISA. In other words, I became a kind of labor lawyer. It would be too complicated to explain even if I could remember it, which I can’t. The soft dollars were actually computers, along with other peripheral equipment and services. Account executives would provide these, gratis, to financial advisers who directed pension funds under their supervision to trade with the account executive’s firm. It was a form of kickback that, while illegal, could be difficult to trace. The fact that computers were involved explains the fact that something clearly illegal was regarded as a “grey area.” Personal computers were new, and, although they all had pricetags, nobody really knew what their value was. Nobody knew what they could do. Was it okay to give a computer to a money manager who didn’t know how to use one? Incredibly, I developed enough familiarity with “soft dollars” to enable me to speak for forty-five minutes. I was asked to do so often — even, once, after I was fired.

At both the NYSE and Hutton, my most constant problem was my conviction that everything could be managed better, especially if computers were used. Mind you, this was in the days before the email and the Internet. (They existed — somewhere far away.) I can’t imagine how you would use a computer without Internet access, but I do remember being really shocked when (when?) either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates predicted that computers would become instruments of access to the Internet. (Personal financial management applications were rudimentary or extremely expensive.) Even without computers, I could always imagine a way of doing things that was better than the way things were being done. Now, I don’t think that I could have sold you anything in those days even if two bruisers armed with dangerous weapons were standing behind me. (They’d probably shoot me.) My approach to persuasion was  to scold and complain. My suggestions fell on deaf ears, not least because I didn’t bother to make myself understood. (Nobody wanted to hear that the sky was blue.) I would fall into a state of frustration that made it difficult to work. I could not stop imagining how much more efficient I would be if only…

When Tom Rea had to leave Hutton, he was replaced by a man with whom I quickly established terms of mutual contempt. As is usual in such cases, we began with the pretense of distant toleration, but it didn’t take long for me to hand my new boss what he needed to get rid of me. He asked for a memo outlining the principles according to which outside business activities were evaluated. What was the procedure. I replied that there was no procedure. Each case was unique, because each presented a unique political problem. With the exception of such egregious monstrosities as Riches Without Risk, Tom and I approached not the activity itself but the account executive’s manager. As in the Arab Money Letter situations, managers could get pretty dim when it came to account executives who kept a big book and who might defect to another wire house. Weighing and considering the liabilities and the improprieties and the odds of disaster was what made outside-business-activities fun. Tom himself got involved in the big cases — it was he who gold the author’s manager that all copies of Riches Without Risk must be pulped. When I explained all of this ad hoc advocacy to the new man, he pretended that he hadn’t heard. “But what were the rules?” If there were no rules, then I couldn’t have been doing my job.

The end did not come all at once. The end was announced, and then postponed; apparently, they still needed me. For a while, I hoped that the sentence would be reversed. Then I hoped that it wouldn’t be. Finally, I decided not to wait for the axe to fall. Having gradually withdrawn the bulky stuff, I packed up my diplomas one afternoon after lunch and took the train home. Technically, I quit, by not showing up. I wasn’t too worried about what kind of a mark this would make on my resume, because it was clear that the firm was foundering. When Hutton talked, the wrong people were listening. On one of my few visits to the old neighborhood, I passed a group of former colleagues in the street. They were on their way to the offices of the firm that had absorbed Hutton (and that would be absorbed in its turn by a chain of ever-larger fish). They were on their way to apply for their old jobs at the new place. I didn’t envy them.

I looked around for a new job, not very seriously. As my colleagues were discovering, jobs like ours were disappearing along with our employers. I should have liked to find an ERISA-related job, by my corner of the field was too marginal, and I had never actually been trained to work in Labor law. In the fall of 1987, I stopped looking. I let my beard grow on a vacation in New Hampshire. A lot had changed in the past two years. My father had died, and I had come into some money. Kathleen and I had bought a house on Candlewood Lake, in Connecticut. She had just become partner at a law firm. And I was not sure how much energy I wanted to expend on life in Manhattan. Everything seemed up in the air. In this unsettled time, it seemed not unreasonable to step aside for a stock-taking breather. But in fact I would never work again.