By Stephanie Ye
He would get in to work at around 5.50 a.m.: though it would be a good thirty to fifty minutes before the rest of the traders and salesmen arrived, Bianca left for JFK at 5.30, and though she'd always encourage him to take that extra half-hour of sleep, the only time they got to see each other on weekdays was in the mornings. So he would wake up early and sit next to her at the kitchen counter, his glass of orange juice looking somewhat toxic against the blue rubber placemat. And after he had walked her to the car and watched her drive away, he would walk four trapezoidal Greenwich blocks to the subway on Christopher Street, where he would catch the downtown 1.
The offices of Sloane Brothers were housed in the top seven floors of an undistinguished International-style skyscraper on Broadway, near St. Paul's Chapel. The trading floor took up the entire expanse of the highest floor: and this was another reason why Mark did not mind coming into work a little early. At that time of day, the vast space was deserted, the only sounds the hum of florescent lights, and the occasional whine of a police siren bleeding through glass. Telephone receivers slept in their cradles like smug black cats, their skins sleek with the oil of absent hands. The night cleaning crew barely went near the desks: they did not want to misplace a memo, or hit the wrong switch. They would, however, vacuum the carpet to a suede-like smoothness: Mark would take his shoes off and walk to the massive Chicago windows, leaning a shoulder against the cold pane as he sipped the black coffee he'd bought down the street at Grace Deli, the beverage so hot it reddened his fingers through the nested layers of Styrofoam.
Looking uptown, he could see the Empire State, which at dawn resembled a giant syringe injecting light into the brightening sky; also the Chrysler, Rockefeller Center and the Pan Am building, which didn't belong to the erstwhile air hegemon anymore but to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Closer to him, just across the street, was the Woolworth, the original "cathedral of commerce", the intricacy of its neo-gothic facade emphasized by the blunt shafts of the World Trade Center rising behind it. And Mark could see all those tiny figures, all in black, that hurried out of the ground, along the streets, and into these buildings, streams of people becoming stacks of people becoming a buzz of voices that would pour through phone lines, lines that connected the skyscrapers of this city, and of cities all over the world, in an invisible yet all-engulfing web. It was amazing how much business was done this way, done with a voice coming out of a black plastic receiver. He forced himself to wonder what these voices were doing now, if they drank their coffee black or au lait, if they ate breakfast at home or in the office, or at all. In this way he tried to see them as actual human beings. He never succeeded, though. He never managed to convince himself that out there, someone else was looking out the window, remembering how the smell of her perfume as she kissed him goodbye had made him feel, to his great surprise and unease, homesick, as they stood half a block and a full day's work from home.
His desk was in the middle of the trading floor, a desk in an ocean of desks, rows of faux wood surfaces that peeled at the edges. On the desk, rising from the anonymous debris of post-it notes and printouts, were two phones with multiple lines, a computer, and a Bloomberg machine. This was all the equipment he required to do his job, which was trading bonds. The bond market did not exist as a physical entity, unlike the stock market. The New York Stock Exchange, located just a few blocks down the street, opened with the ringing of a bell at 9.30 a.m., and closed with another at 4 p.m. In between the ringing of the two bells, traders were present bodily within the 36,000 square feet of the Exchange, running from trading post to trading post as they haggled over various stocks, buyers and sellers steeped in the heat and the smell of each other's bodies.
The bond market did not cling to the anachronistic notions of place that the stock market did. The bond market did not spring into existence at the clang of a bell, and it certainly did not shut down at the tinkle of another. The bond market did not exist in any physical shape or form at which a tourist could point and go: "I need a picture in front of that". Instead, in order to trade bonds, all you needed was yourself at your desk, and a warm body somewhere else, anywhere else: it didn't matter if said warm body was inhaling donuts a few floors down in your building, or was a sashimi-fed one sitting somewhere in Tokyo. All that mattered was whether this person had bonds you wanted, or wanted bonds you had. And that was why bond traders came in to work so early: the earlier you started to trade, the more time you had to make money. By 7 a.m., phones would be ringing, computer screens would be flashing, traders would be screaming at salesmen and salesmen would be smooth-talking clients. Trading had begun for the day, and would not stop till around 5 pm. Indeed, for much of the year Mark lived in a sunless world, entering the building before sunrise, leaving after sunset.
Since the bond market was essentially nothing more than vocalized numbers, the noise level on the trading floor was like Times Square on New Year's Eve. What made it different from a run-of-the-mill mob scene, however, was the fact that the noise the vast majority of the people were emitting was not directed at anyone within hearing range. Instead, rows upon rows of young men hunkered over at their desks, each of them talking into his phone with the passion of a teenage schoolgirl engaged in a fight with her boyfriend. Traders would yell choice expletives into the receiver, usually at a trader at another company who would respond in kind; then the trader would switch speakers and yell at one of his own salesmen, who might just be sitting a few desks away but whom the trader would rarely talk to face-to-face, firstly to save time, secondly because the noise level made conversation by the traditional means of sound waves through air next to impossible. And rising above all these individual exchanges, a foghorn blasting through the cries of lonely sea monsters, was the bellow of the aptly-named hoot-and-holler, the floor-wide P.A. system that traders used to announce completed trades, as well as updates on how various bonds were playing, slews of invectives directed at various financial institutions, and querulous demands for food.
Indeed, perhaps to make up for the bond market's lack of a physical institution, bond traders tended to partake, with great relish, in that most physically absorbing of pastimes: eating. Strewn amidst telephones and computers sticky with grease were candy wrappers, sandwich and pizza crusts, soggy leftovers in takeout boxes, crushed soda cans, half-eaten bagels, and the odd chicken bone. Trainees were sent on food-gathering missions, plunging into the canyons of downtown to emerge bearing huge slabs of meat-embedded pizza, boxes of glazed donuts, containers of fried rice, cartons of M&Ms, bouquets of foot-long subs, pounds of cheeseburgers and twice that weight in fries, gallons of soda and coffee, and five different flavors of Pringles. It was like a Fourth of July picnic every day, with fireworks and the Star-Spangled Banner replaced by the blink of computer screens and the peal of telephones, the air rent with the baying of ambitious men in service to Mammon.
Mark couldn't imagine a better job. From day one he'd jumped into the fray and had started making money, two phones in one hand and a donut in the other; and he thrived, as he always did in any situation that required calculating, bluffing, and getting the better of others. He had always been poor; now here he was at the age of twenty-two, just a year out of college, and already he had two hundred thousand dollars in his bank account (hell, for the first time in his life he had a savings account). Forget becoming a lawyer, a plastic surgeon, or (god forbid) a stock broker: it was 1989, the bond market was livelier than the Temple in Jerusalem, and bond trading was the job to get if you wanted to start earning a digit followed by five fat zeroes - provided that you had the balls.
Like Mark, his fellow traders at Sloane were young, smart, and wanted to be millionaires by thirty. They were all to a man male, white, and fresh out of college or business school. Everyone wore button-down shirts, no jackets, and held their trousers up with belts. No one wore suspenders on the trading floor: to do so was at best a sign of the nouveau riche, and at worst a cry that you were a self-important prick who deserved to have your suspenders mercilessly snapped, and bits of tuna secreted into your phone receiver. It was a lot like being back in high school, but without the teachers and with lots of money, money, money to be made.
After a tumultuous day of cursing, eating and trading, most traders would have marked their books and left the floor by around 6 pm, though this was not because they went home. Instead, nights were for wining and dining clients. Although the wooing of portfolio managers and rich investors was essentially the salesman's job, traders often had to go along because the savvier clients knew that the salesmen knew shit about the market, that they had to talk to the traders if they wanted the scoop. Mark spent almost every evening flicking pearls of wisdom at men twice his age while he masticated a bloody steak, and almost every night drinking Ketel One martinis at some swanky club hazy with cigar smoke (an especially trying experience for him since he'd given up smoking for Bianca). Mark thought he knew his city, but he hadn't realized there were so many bars whose sole existence was to present a veneer of sybaritic leisure as its denizens huddled over expense-accounted cocktails, discussing how to make more money.
By the end of the night, Mark would have convinced yet another troupe of be-suited, bewildered investors to place their trust and their bonds into the capable hands of Sloane Brothers; around 1 a.m. he would finally stumble home and flop into bed, unshowered (he saved showers for the mornings so the hot water could wake him up and burn away any traces of a hangover). His wife would already be in bed, fast asleep. Bianca would smell of cucumbers and melons and aloe: cool green growing things that made his victual-engorged, alcohol-soaked, smoke-infused body feel bloated and rather unsavory. Nevertheless, he would stroke her hair, nose her skin, poke his finger into her belly button, until a distracted rumble of subconscious acknowledgement escaped from her throat. He would fall asleep wondering how her day had been.
Once, while entertaining clients at a midtown restaurant, Mark encountered an old college friend. This friend was not so much a friend as a passing acquaintance: he had acted in several shows Mark had crewed. Mark found him rather pretentious, but pretentious with a heartfelt dedication that was rather impressive. He had graduated with a B.A. in English; like most English majors Mark knew, his friend was currently a waiter while dabbling in off-off Broadway theater. After Mark had concluded his business dinner, and his friend his shift, the two of them went for drinks at an Irish pub in Hell's Kitchen. They updated each other about mutual friends; then his friend told him all about a script he was writing, a "high concept" piece that involved taking famous characters of children from fiction and re-imagining them as adults holding soul-sucking jobs in modern-day America. Mark nursed his beer while his friend embarked on an impassioned explanation of how the iconoclasm of seeing beloved childhood companions re-imagined as corporate drones would force people to radically reexamine their lives.
"So, what is it that you do?" the friend eventually got around to asking Mark. And so Mark talked about the data he looked at, the calculations he did, the phone calls he made, and about how, if all went well, he would finally tell his counterpart, "You're done," meaning that the trade was done, there was no backing out of it, that in a business weaved out of verbal exchanges those words were, essentially, his bond.
After he'd finished, his friend didn't say anything for a while; but on his face he wore a look that Mark knew was supposed to be the pitying look of the morally and spiritually superior. Then the friend asked again, "So, what is it that you do?"
And this time Mark simply replied: "I make money."
The friend smiled, a smile too thin to fill out his face. "Fair enough," he said. And Mark knew that the friend was trying to make him feel bad, because Mark wasn't working towards changing the world, illuminating the human condition, or anything of suchlike noble bent.
But Mark didn't feel bad. He was good at his job, earned pots of money, and went home to a wonderful woman. And besides - it's hard to be made to feel bad by someone that you've tipped.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008