In my business, nothing good happens on Friday afternoon.
I’ve been at the game ten years. I know better than to hang around before the weekend starts. But there it was, nine minutes to the closing bell. Friday afternoon. Tangled in the stretch cord of my headset, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not anytime soon.
Elbows on knees and hands cupped over headphones, I perched on the lip of my swivel chair and gazed down at a stain on the carpeting. At this level, I could smell the trace odors from chemicals. Cleaning solvents had washed out the steel-blue fibers but not the soy sauce. Go figure.
Every so often, I glanced sideways. To my right, Cleopatra legs were going toe to toe with a pair of pin-striped pants. And I wondered who would kick the other one’s shins first.
If your head is under the desktop, as mine was, chances are somebody will ask if there’s a problem. He might even call the paramedics. That’s assuming you work in a reasonable profession like food services or publishing. Or you live in a reasonable place like Wichita, San Diego, maybe even Des Moines.
But if you’re a stockbroker in midtown Manhattan, nobody notices when you crouch under your desk. That’s our cone of silence, our ad hoc refuge when we’re on the phone and it’s impossible to hear because the bonehead three desks over is screaming, “I just bagged an elephant!”
Some people hear “The Call of the Wild,” and their thoughts turn to the Jack London novel.
I associate that title with stockbrokers. We fight and yap all day. We mark our territories. And you can take it from me. We’ve forgotten more about pack behavior than London’s sled dogs will ever know.
My name is Grove O’Rourke. I work at Sachs, Kidder, and Carnegie, or SKC for short. We’re a white-shoe investment bank, a place where the elite go for smart ideas and kid-glove service. From the outside, all you see are bright people and lots of panache.
Inside, it’s a different story. We could be Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, or any of the wirehouses. Backstabbing. Rival coalitions. There’s nothing pretty about slimeballs. Internecine warfare is the same in every firm.
So are the office layouts. Stockbrokers get crammed into tight spaces. No surprise given the staggering cost of office space across Manhattan. At SKC, there are 150 of us arranged in neat rows of high-tech workstations.
We make a ferocious racket: buying, selling, and nagging clients to shit or get off the pot. Throw in a dozen televisions tuned to CNBC or Fox Business, and the noise is more jarring than silverware in a garbage disposal. Our place is a nuthouse.
But stockbrokers, I mean the ones who succeed in our produce-or-perish business, get used to commotion. That includes military brats like me. Long ago I stopped asking, How’d I get here? I discarded my old notions about order, because survivors are the ones who adjust to chaos.
Take the phones. There are time-honored techniques for working them. Outgoing calls are easy. We grab mobiles and disappear into empty conference rooms for sensitive or personal topics. No noise. No prying ears. No big deal.
Incoming calls require finesse. Our quarters are so tight that everybody eavesdrops, whether intentional or otherwise. That’s why we talk to our wives and girlfriends, anybody phoning with a prickly issue, from down below. There’s no telling when loose lips will bite our sorry asses. Most days, crouching under a desk is business as usual on Wall Street.
That Friday afternoon the noise was deafening, over the top. I was on the phone with a client, not just any client, but Palmer Kincaid. I couldn’t hear myself think.
Scully, the world’s loudest stockbroker, was screaming all hoarse and bulgy-eyed at Patty Gershon, who holds her own in these ax fights. To be fair, Patty isn’t a screamer. Not usually. Guile is her thing, the closest you’ll ever come to meeting a tarantula in high heels.
The decibels had taken over, though. Every broker and sales assistant in the room gawked as the argument mushroomed louder and more fierce.
Scully: “Stay away from my client.”
Gershon: “Lowell asked me to mop up your mess.”
Back and forth, the two cursed. And I couldn’t hear Palmer, my client and mentor, the guy who got me into Harvard. He’d opened all the doors. He was the bigger-than-life presence, the shrewd coach riding a winning streak that would never end. At least, that’s what I’d always thought.
“I need your help.” He sounded shaky. There was none of Palmer’s trademark swagger. He had gone off his game, tentative and distracted.
The Palmer I knew was silky and genteel one minute, an invincible, maybe even ruthless, negotiator the next. He was the classic Charleston businessman, all charm and orthodontist smile, kicking the dirt, playing the small-town card, and taking the center cut from every deal.
Don’t get me wrong. Palmer was fair. He was honest. He had allies out the yingyang, and I was one of them. But let’s put it out there. Real estate developers don’t make $200 million playing Good Samaritan.
Palmer was unflappable. For twenty years, I had admired his grace under fire. All hell could be breaking loose, and he’d invite you into his office and chat about the family. He was never in a hurry.
Not today. Those four words, “I need your help,” sounded like Greek coming from his lips.
“Name it.” I was worried about my friend. I wished Scully and Gershon would shut the fuck up.
Palmer did not reply. Not at first. The seconds ticked by. The silence became awkward. When he finally spoke, I expected some kind of explanation for his change in behavior.
“Damn, Grove! What’s going on there?” Apparently, the noise was getting him too.
“Hang on thirty seconds, okay?”
I put Palmer on hold and stormed toward Scully. His face burned redder than a watermelon. His neck veins bugged out, fat and puffy like thick blue garden hoses.
He stopped shouting at Gershon, who took a time-out herself. The two stared at me, openmouthed at my intensity. So did the 147 other brokers and eighty-some-odd sales assistants scattered across the floor. Suddenly there was absolute silence, the calm before the storm.
Look, I’m not especially big. About six feet tall, and my girlfriend says, “Grove, you could use ten pounds.” You see me and think Lance Armstrong with ginger hair. It’s not my size that works in these situations, maybe not even what I say.
It’s attitude. When I hit my limit, I morph into a human wrecking ball. I become ruthless, brash, capable of flattening anyone who gets in the way. My Southern manners go AWOL. I have a temper.
“What do you want?” Scully boomed, more bravado than brains, surprised anybody would intrude on his two-person hissy fit. He glanced away, a fleeting nervous flicker, and it was game over. I had him.
Patty said nothing, which is typical. She’s more cunning.
Slowly, deliberately, I leaned over and squeezed Scully’s shoulder hard enough to make a point. I whispered into his ear, soft enough so nobody else could hear. Not even Gershon. I spoke without venom because conviction is ten times more effective.
Scully’s eyes dilated, saucer wide and jittery. The world’s loudest stockbroker lost his voice. But his face quivered, and his brow furrowed like a scared rabbit’s. “What’d you say?”
No need to answer. I stared a hole into Scully until he dropped his eyes again. The trick in these situations is to threaten once. Act like a hair trigger, methodical, outcome certain, ready to snap any second. Repeating myself, even a simple glance at Patty, would have broken the spell.
Thirty seconds are an eternity when you’re shredding somebody’s self-confidence. It took less than twenty for Scully to cave. “Let’s grab a conference room,” he told Gershon.
She looked puzzled, waving her hands and trailing after him. “What did he say?” The two left the room, Scully in the lead, trying to regain his dignity.
“Sorry, Palmer.” I was back on the phone, sitting upright at my desk. “What’s going on?”
But the moment had passed. His head was somewhere else. “I’ll call you Monday, Grove.”
“Don’t you need my help?”
“Give me the weekend to think things over.”
“Think what over?”
“Nothing the harbor won’t fix,” he said, not all that confident but somehow easing into his steady charisma. Palmer had forgotten more about Southern charm than half of Charleston will ever know. “You still seeing Annie?”
“Whenever I can.”
“Take her out to dinner. Get to know her.”
What’s that mean?
“I’ll call you Monday,” Palmer repeated.
Then he was gone, and the biggest mistake I ever made was not hopping the next flight to Charleston.
Copyright © 2012 by Norb Vonnegut