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All I Could Getby Scott Lasser
We lived then in a prefabricated unit that sat on a sandy, sage-covered plateau just north of the Roaring Fork River. Our home, like the twenty-one others around it, was made to look like a log cabin; to me it brought to mind the Lincoln Logs I played with as a kid. One day I was out walking with my son along the old railroad bed that ran between our subdivision and the river canyon. My son was just four, bouncing along in a pair of new Stride Rite shoes that had set me back forty-three bucks. We were terribly short of money. I looked up at the ski mountain of Snowmass, where, in mid-June, the snow was finally fading from the upper slopes, and then back to my boy, who was pulling at a sage bush. A private plane rose from the valley. I covered my ears with my hands and watched the jet tear at the sky. I'd had enough. I don't know why I picked that moment to decide it, but I knew I'd had enough of putting off purchases of basic foodstuffs like peanut butter and bread, had enough of driving a pickup truck with duct-taped fenders and a flaky transmission, had enough of fearing the heat and electric bills, to say nothing of the rent. I grabbed my son and went to tell my wife, who, in her own way, had had enough, too.
And so that's how it all got started. I was thirty years old, and I wanted to make some money.
1. Bid Without
I last saw weekday-morning light in October. Now, as I crest the hill on Route 172, I spot a bluish-gray strip of sky along the horizon. Dawn, or at least the hint of it. It looks to be a fabulous day. For one thing, the air this morning has that special charge you sometimes get in the spring. I felt it when I left my house, my face tingling and raw from having just shaved, the breeze soft and warm on my cheeks. There was the smell of moist earth and the first few bars of morning birdsong. I took a moment to stand perfectly still in my driveway, where I took a deep breath and listened; it's such acts that can give ballast to the day. Right now I am driving with my nose tilted in canine fashion to my cracked and rattling window.
I'm going to miss this air at work, though I'm looking forward to getting in. I'm on a bit of a roll. I've just finished my most profitable month and am trading with confidence. Last week a mutual fund did a billion-and-a-half-dollar trade with me, and I actually made some money on it. The other guys on the desk are starting to take note. Also, it's my birthday, thirty-five. Old still to be the low man on the trading floor, but it looks as if my luck may be changing. I turn left into the parking lot by the interstate, where every day I meet my carpool mates. I coax the Escort's gearshift into reverse, ease the car into a parking space, and check my watch. It's 5:59.
Seconds later, Chip McCarty backs in his BMW 540 next to me and gives me a little salute, like the navy aviator he once was. This background gives him unquestioned stature on the trading floor. He flew submarine-attack planes, not fighters, but Wall Street doesn't make much of a distinction, and now Mac is the best-known U.S. Treasury five-year-note trader on the Street.
We get out of our cars, and I breathe in the smell of cut grass, mixed with a tinge of exhaust wafting over from the interstate.
Mac and I nod at each other, but don't speak. He stretches, reaching his long arms above his head, as might a football referee signaling a score. It's just light enough that I notice the hair on the back of his head, how it stops its descent to his collar in a neat, razor-cut horizontal line. He got a haircut over the weekend, though it's not easy to tell. He keeps his hair so short that I have to notice the difference around the edges.
"Good weekend?" Mac asks.
A Little League game, burgers grilled on the deck, my wife, Rachel, and I curled up on the couch Saturday night, watching a movie, a Sunday-morning bagel run with my daughter.
"Are they ever bad?" I say.
"Never," he admits. He looks at his watch. "Where the hell is Dino? Can't that guy ever be on time?"
Just then Dino Corsetti's Infinity comes squealing into the lot. He swings the car around and lunges it to a stop in front of us. The car does a little jig on its shocks. I climb into the back seat; Mac takes the copilot spot. Bloomberg Radio is maybe thirty seconds into its 6:00 a.m. financial-markets update.
"See," Mac says, nodding toward the radio for proof, "you're late."
"Eat shit," Dino replies. He pulls out of the lot, and runs a red light to turn onto the I-684 entrance ramp. He reaches around his tie, which hangs from the rearview mirror, and engages the radar detector. It responds with its normal routine of beeps and squeaks, and we're off.
The news on the radio is dire. Stock markets worldwide are crumbling. Panic selling has rolled through Tokyo, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. There are rice riots in Bangkok, strikes in Seoul, bankruptcies everywhere. Two market-related suicides have been reported this morning in London. It's midday there, and most stock traders are cowering under their desks as if awaiting a nuclear blast. The trading day is about to begin in New York, and fear is oozing out of the radio reports and, I'm sure, e-mail updates from Tokyo and London. In an age of instant communication, panic is never localized. U.S. Treasury bonds, with their excellent credit and guaranteed (albeit low) return, are on fire. Chip McCarty and I both trade U.S. Treasury bonds. The radio announces that the thirty-year bond, a benchmark issue, is up in price by twenty-seven ticks. This is a big move.
"Hee-hee!!" says Mac, who's gone home long. He raps out a drum roll of glee on the dashboard, taking special satisfaction in making money by betting against the Japanese, whom he hates for reasons that have never been clear to me.
I can tell from the vibrations that Dino has reached cruising speed: somewhere between eighty-five and ninety-five miles per hour. Outside the window, the day is fading in. We slip under a stone bridge--we are on the Hutchinson Parkway now--and past the glow of a Mobil service area.
"How come you never stop for coffee?" Mac asks Dino.
"How come you never come prepared?" Dino sips at the mug he always brings from home.
"There's no place to buy coffee in Bedford," Mac complains.
"Make it yourself."
"Yeah, right." Mac turns to the back seat. "What do you think, Barry? Wouldn't a little coffee for the ride be nice?"
The radar detector screeches, and Dino stabs at the brakes. Right now I feel I would donate a spare digit for a cup of coffee, but I'm tired of this routine. Dino and Mac have several running arguments, and this one is the oldest; they've been bickering over coffee for three years.
"You guys work it out," I say. It's my standard line.
"I knew he'd say that," Dino says.
I lean back on the leather seat. I have things on my mind. Today I will take the offensive with Court Harvey, the head of my trading desk. This year, I want to get paid. A lot. This means I have to work on Court Harvey now. As traders, we never know what we will earn. Instead, we're given a token "salary," and then a year-end "bonus," or "number," which is a trader's real pay. The bonus criteria are subjective. Trading profitably is important, but no more so than one's image as a vital member of the desk. The main thing we do is lobby management for pay. It's a sad but true state of affairs that we have to start this lobbying in April. If April isn't too late. I've seen Mac in with Court Harvey twice in the last month. Perhaps they were talking about something other than Mac's number, but I can't imagine what.
It will take forty more minutes to reach lower Manhattan. I close my eyes, and try to get some sleep.
I wake to find us stuck in traffic two blocks from our building. It's ten till seven, the light still gray and hesitant, as if the sun were unsure whether to shine on the city. Back at home I know that Rachel is curled up in bed with Jane, who's no doubt sucking on a bottle of milk and pushing her tiny feet against her mother. If Rachel listens carefully, she can hear our son, Sam, snoring in the next room. I wish it were still Sunday.
"What a shit show," Mac says. I look up. We're stopped dead. Construction crews have been working this area all winter, tearing up the street to lay pipe, paving it over, tearing it up, paving again. This morning it looks as if they're in a tearing phase. Ahead I hear and then see a huge piece of yellow machinery pounding away at the pavement like an overwrought dinosaur.
Dino slams his fist down on the horn, then laughs. At the futility of it, I suppose.
It takes ten more minutes to reach our building. Dino maneuvers the Infinity down a long series of ramps in the underground garage, descending four layers into the bedrock. Only senior vice-presidents (or managing directors, the one higher rank) can obtain spots in this garage, and in our carpool only Mac is an SVP. He lords this privilege over Dino and me, and sets the prices we pay for the commute. Dino and I suspect that the firm deducts the parking payment pretax from Mac's paycheck, but that he doesn't pass this savings on to us. Dino's Infinity has one of the two stickers awarded Mac, who always threatens to remove it for tardiness.
"Crowded," Mac says when we reach our designated level, and it is. Our usual spot and the one next to it are taken by a single Hummer. We prowl the row, looking for an opening.
"Would you look at these cars," Dino says. "Beemer, Beemer, Beemer, Mercedes, Beemer, Lexus. Beemer, Lexus, Jaguar, Beemer . . . What's that?"
I tell him it's a Bentley.
We park, and pull our suit jackets on for the trip to the trading floor. At the elevator, Mac says to Dino, "Are you ever going to pay me your commuting money? You owe on six weeks."
"You want money from me?" Dino says, affecting a Brooklyn accent, though he actually grew up in Kingston, a couple hours north of the city. "Get in line. Besides, it's only been five weeks." Dino puts his tie on in the reflection of the stainless-steel elevator door.
"What about this week?"
"It's only Monday."
The elevator arrives. "You know," Mac says, stepping inside, "I never have to ask Barry. He always pays on time."
"Barry's still new at this," Dino says.
I keep my eyes on the panel above the door to hide my embarrassment. This is not an issue of money. Dino probably carries three months of commuting money on his person at any given time, but he realizes that he can keep one up on Mac by owing him. This is trader mentality. It's all about leverage. I feel like a chump.
Five floors above, at the security turnstile, I run into Gretchen Barnes. Black skirt, white blouse, black blazer, put together like an ad from the Sunday New York Times Magazine. I know Gretchen from Dartmouth. At UCLA or Florida she would have been a goddess, but at Dartmouth, in the early eighties, she was worshiped for her beauty in a way that made her something other than human, like a piece of art. The intervening years have diminished nothing. I find myself openly staring at her. Her jet-black hair is now cut short, but she still has a lean, athlete's body--she ran middle distance for the track team--and those enormous black eyes that have probably gotten her whatever she's wanted from the time she was a baby. Her beauty is legendary among men at the firm. When they say "that girl from equities," they mean Gretchen.
"Barry," Gretchen says, "how you been?"
"Great," I say. No need to get specific--or even truthful--before seven in the morning.
"You still the bill trader?" she asks.
"Yep." I slide my identification card through the security scanner and follow her in. I have to hurry to do this. I've often noticed that having a conversation with Gretchen means doing it on the run. I can hear heavy breathing and the hurried jingle of pocketed change and keys as Mac and Dino struggle to keep up.
"I need something from you. I'll stop by your floor today."
I nod while she breaks off to go to the newsstand. I pause to watch her walk away, then continue on to the elevator bank.
"What could she possibly need from you that I couldn't give her?" Dino asks.
"Best legs in the firm," Mac says.
"Best everything," Dino gushes.
I shrug. I met her freshman year, on the weekend my girlfriend, Sarah, came to visit. Back then, Dartmouth still seemed ambivalent about being coed, and there were so few women that it was far easier to ship them in than to find a date at the school. At least that's the way we looked at it. Gretchen and Sarah made fast friends. When Sarah left, Gretchen latched on to me. I came to understand that she had no one in whom to confide. Her girlfriends were really rivals, and there wasn't a guy on campus who wouldn't have sacrificed his right arm to spend a night with her. Because of Sarah, I fell into a different category, even long after I'd given Sarah the boot. It was a sterile, neutered, and often difficult role, but years later I had a connection on the Street right where I needed one.
There is a moment, just before the elevator reaches the trading floor, when I can almost remember what it was like to wake in the morning and not have a thought about the markets, but the moment passes quickly. The doors open and I walk with Dino and Mac and the other traders across the wooden parquet floor of the reception area to the coat closet, a long, narrow, dead-end hallway lined with nonremovable hangers and dark, almost identical suit jackets. I hang mine at the end. It's April, so everyone wears navy or charcoal. Pinstripes are the allowable variation, though in this dark phalanx I do notice one glen plaid, standing out like the year's first robin.
From the Hardcover edition.
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