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July 15, 2024

Wall Street Blues

By Anna Sykora

Seven thirty already? To save time Bill bounded up the fire stairs, emerging on 56 right next to the Pool. Its rows of partitioned cells still clicked with loan agreements, court papers and legal memoranda entered by the second word-processing shift. Two proofreaders sat with their backs to the night-time view of the World Trade Towers.

Bill scribbled a buck slip and handed his longhand memo to the supervisor, a matronly blonde with a photo of Ronald Reagan on her desk: "Have a happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Clancy."

She grinned at his Midwestern twang, or maybe his rumpled shirtsleeves. "You too, Mr. Mason."

"If I ever get out of here."

"Don't hang around. Just go home, before they grab you."

He winked and hurried down the cream-carpeted corridor marred with coffee stains, stopping at a nook with vending machines to grab a Mars bar for the cab. Tomorrow he'd stuff himself with turkey at his mother's table; in Huskerville you had time to eat; in New York you couldn't pee.

He needed to go, but rushed on up the spiral central staircase, hand-delivering a need-it-by-Monday memo to the Partner from Hell's circular desk. The empty office on 57 reeked of cigars, ashes marred the Persian rug and the phone looked cracked. Mr. Castleton sometimes threw his phone.

Two partners down the hall were talking on theirs. "This deal's gonna tank if you don't do it," Bill overheard as he hurtled past, and "The difference between Main Street and Wall Street? They think finance a tool of industry; we know it's the reverse."

An oak door opened and Bill caught a glimpse of sour faces around the marble conference table stacked with paper. Must be a closing that wouldn't close...

The main thing was to get out now, with his rep for never saying no -- before he got assigned another chore. Taking the fire stairs, he hurried down past two grim bankruptcy associates puffing upstairs with a load of files. You want to be a partner, you do what they say. The markets never stop, the city never sleeps.

Back on 54, Bill dove back into his shared office and shut the door. Slender Linda Ono, a second year tax associate, sat filling out her timesheets (fussy work since the firm kept time by the six-minute unit). Glancing up she warned: "Better call a cab, man, or you're going to miss your plane." He was just tapping in the number he knew by heart when the door flung open, and his heart sank all the way down to One Choice Manhattan Plaza.

Poised in the door, in three-piece, pin-striped splendor stood Regina Price, scowling like an angry cop and clutching a legal pad. Balancing on designer heels that must have cost 600 bucks, she drew herself up to her pint-sized height and pierced him with her steel gaze. Without a word, Bill hung up and braced himself in his ergonomic chair, his heart beating like a big bass drum. He stole a glance at his Cartier wristwatch: 7:54. He was gonna miss his goddamn plane. If he'd only got out while the getting was good.

"I'm sorry, but we've got an emergency," Regina announced with funereal glee, and behind her Linda rolled her eyes and made a cut-throat motion with her hand. "Omar Zembrudian has launched a takeover of Melody Mattress. He wants to chop it up and sell it off; the real estate's worth more than the plant. I need some research on takeover defenses, and I need the results by tomorrow morning."

"But I've got a plane to catch," said Bill lamely. "I'm heading home to my folks in Nebraska."

"Not tonight. Listen, I had to cancel my plans too: a weekend in the Hamptons with my fiancé I haven't seen in weeks. Castleton dumped three cases on me before he flew off to London, and I need you to take the Mattress off my hands. Come with me, please."

With a despairing glance at his suitcase, his bladder almost ready to explode, Bill baby-ducked the senior associate down the hall to the elevator bank. Regina marched on ahead, like a drill sergeant setting the pace. Up for partnership next year, she never took the stairs anymore. That was for junior drones.

Suck it up and pee it out: no choice. Bill wanted to scream "Goddamn!" at the walls of the mint-scented men's room. His plane had flown. He zipped his fly and opened his mouth, but didn't scream. Other drones were hard at work, and you don't want the rep that you can't handle pressure.

Castleton could throw his phone. He was a partner at Slash & Burnham.

Washing his hands, Bill breathed deeply and tried to focus on his new assignment. At least the main library's Lexis should be free, and computer research went much faster ... The main thing now was to bill several hours to the client, to prove he always gave his best. He'd find clear answers to satisfy Regina, who served Castleton like a galley slave (who in turn was backing her for partner).

Rumor said they were having an affair. Bill didn't believe it. Who at the firm had time for sex? He hadn't had a date in several months.

His cell mate Linda claimed she shaved her legs on alternate days. "And what good's the money if I don't time to go shopping?" she complained.

Bill gathered up the file with Regina's twelve questions and copies of the cases she'd already found. Raising his chin, he headed for the spiral stairs and bounded up two at a time. Stairs were good exercise; they helped pump the oxygen back to your depleted brain. Not a window opened in the nine-floor hive, and the air breathed thick with smokers' smoke and fumes from copying machines and printers.

In the distance the Statue of Liberty gleamed, lit up all night long. He felt the urge to salute her but didn't (somebody might see): I'm just a soldier of the law, your law -- with a two percent chance of making partner. I always give my best, however; that's what they pay me for.

He nodded at the paunchy guard slouched at reception on 55. He ignored a column of pale green women pushing their carts down the cream-colored hall.

All the main library's lights were on. You never were alone at S&B. To his dismay a bony profile loomed in the wood-paneled Lexis booth. Smoke rings wafted out the open door: Malcolm Tweezer. Who else?

Nicknamed "The Ghost" for his grey pallor and habit of haunting the firm at strange hours, Tweezer, grimly devoted, billed over 3000 hours a year. A senior banking associate, he'd made a career of helping clients deregulate under President Reagan.

"I'm gonna get the Glass-Steagall Act repealed," he'd boast over coffee in the cafeteria: the only sustenance anybody ever saw him consume. Junior associates joked he lived off the law, metabolizing cases, rules and regulations.

Now how to dislodge him from the terminal? A second year corporate associate himself, he sure couldn't pull rank.

"Hi, Malcolm," Bill said tentatively, and the hatchet-faced drone gazed up at him through glasses that made his eyes inhumanly large. Malcolm, maybe 35, looked 20 years older and shuffled when he walked. Nestled inside the Lexis booth, with books and printouts piled around him, he looked like a soldier in a sand-bagged foxhole. Bill would have to beg on his belly: "Er, I really need this terminal. I've got urgent research for Melody Mattress, one of Mr. Castleton's clients."

"I am doing work for my senior partner. That's Thurbridge Beater, you know," Malcolm said matter-of-factly. "And I haven't been home since Monday; I've been sending my secretary out at lunch to buy me shirts I charge to the client. That's Pyramid Securities." (One of the firm's beefiest clients; Melody Mattress a minnow compared.) Calmly he went back to skimming his cases, which he did with amazing speed, like a machine.

Well, he's become one, Bill thought bitterly. He'll make partner. "Can't we kinda share here?" he suggested. "Like, you let me have an hour or two?"

"Why don't you trot on down to 49? The tax library has Lexis, you know."

"But they don't shelve any non-tax cases."

"You should have planned your research before."

"I couldn't plan anything tonight. I got the assignment at 7:54."

Malcolm puffed another ring, which wafted up and faded. "Tough, but that's what they pay you for. Have a cookie, Bill." Brushing aside pages of notes in his spidery, cryptic hand, he disclosed the back of a legal pad with gorgeous, gourmet cookies crowded together on a paper doily. Bill's stomach moaned.

"Where'd you get these?" He grabbed two.

"The secretaries stole them from a conference room, and I confiscated them, but they're too good to let City Harvest have. What would the homeless do with chocolate croquant?"

"Enjoy it, I suppose." Bill reached for another.

"Aw, take 'em all," said Malcolm coldly. "I'd rather smoke while I'm reading cases."

"Hey, what's happening over there?" Flames boiled up from a distant pier jutting into the East River.

"Probably arson." Malcolm dropped his gaze to the print on the monitor's screen. "For the insurance, you know. Only way to make money off those rotting piers."

"Well, please let me know when you're finished here."

"Will do."

"And thanks for the loot." Bill carried the cookies to a desk near the window, with a fine view of the spreading blaze. He heard sirens through the smog-streaked windows. Three dark-suited men in the building across the street stood peering at the flames.

Must be an investment house, Bill thought. He saw clocks on the wall labeled London and Tokyo.

So these were the Roaring Eighties, and Manhattan was burning down for the money ... while he burned his best years at the firm, hooked on the chance of life-time riches. Partners at the megafirms make millions every year.

How he hated this salt mine slog ... He'd do two more years, for his resumé, then seek out a smaller New York firm -- or maybe head back to Nebraska, having gotten his training here. Some training: he never saw a client, rarely saw a partner face to face. Arrogant seniors like Regina ran his schedule and his life.

No use whining about it. He had his marching orders. He gathered up index volumes and buckled down, working through the manual, key-word system to chase down relevant cases, studying them and then "shepherdizing" them to make sure they were still good law.

One case from Regina led on and on, while another proved a dead end. Why had she assigned it then? Was the point here just to rack up hours?

After its leveraged buyout, master-minded by S&B's Corporate Department, Melody Mattress was half-collapsing under the load of high-interest financing the markets call "junk debt." Nobody had suggested though that Bill go easy on billing his time.

Lucky thing, 'cause he couldn't find a clear answer to any of Regina's questions. No surprise: that's why she needed his efforts now.

His cat would kill him when he got home ... If he ever did.

After a while, the cases' fact patterns and holdings blurred in his mind. He'd gobbled all the cookies, still felt famished. More black coffee, that's what he needed -- though he'd had about eight cups today.

First, he marched to the nearest men's room, where somebody had penciled "shove this job" on a freshly painted wall. Bill chuckled and thought about adding a comment. You never know though; there might be a camera ... He headed for a nook with vending machines. The cafeteria had long since closed; the cleaning ladies had all gone home. The paunchy guard was watching a thriller on a large TV with gusts of gunfire.

When Bill got back to the library, Malcolm, shrouded in grey smoke, was still ensconced in the Lexis booth. Bill nodded to him and sagged back behind his own desk at the window, his muscles stiff, neck aching and eyes dry.

He should brain Malcolm with a book of cases and commandeer the Lexis terminal, before he ran out of gas for the night. But he could see the headline in the New York Post: "Rats fight on Wall Street; young one loses ..."

A tap on his shoulder startled him. "I'm all done," said Malcolm proudly. "Found even more than I needed tonight. She's all yours, and happy Thanksgiving."

"Thanks." Bill reached for a bottle of eye drops.

"I'm gonna repeal the Glass-Steagall Act," Malcolm boasted to the smoke-tainted stacks. "You know, the prohibition on banks trading for their own account."

"You think that's such a great idea?"

"You think Uncle Sam knows better than our markets? I'm a fundamentalist. Markets can regulate themselves." Malcolm's sweeping gesture took in the domineering World Trade Towers and all the lesser, high-stacked office boxes still alive with light. "Goodnight, Bill."

"Good night."

And the Banking Department's Great Grey Hope pivoted and shuffled away. From the back he looked like a broken, old man inexplicably garbed in a pricy suit, like one of the homeless men a scandalous artist had clothed and photographed.

Already 11:45 ... Bill felt trapped in a deep, down-sloping tunnel, a coal-mine without a single canary.

Resigned, he burned another three hours, struggling with scores of precedents. Maybe the majority could be read as supporting what Regina wanted to do ... Nothing clearly said she couldn't do it, so that would have to be his conclusion ... He'd go home and sleep a little; and look over his copies of key cases again before he met with her.

The paunchy guard ripped a cab slip off his pad. "I was a lawyer in Teheran," he confided. "It's a beautiful city, much cleaner than New York."

"Is that so?" Bill asked politely, signing the book for radio cabs. He filled in the client charge number, which he knew by heart. Let Melody Mattress pay; it should pay for making him miss Thanksgiving.

"Good night," he told the morose guard, and strode through the firm's bullet-proof glass doors. An elevator came quickly, hissing its stainless doors open and closed. Dropping, it bounced to a stop on 42, and a red-eyed suit got on from Whackem & Hackem, toting a crammed litigation bag.

The two exchanged a wry smile, but didn't speak. You weren't supposed to share any tidbits with the building's rival megafirm; you might betray a strategy or compromise a client inadvertently. For example, why were they both working so late on the night before Thanksgiving?

They got off at the sub-plaza level of the Choice Manhattan Bank Building. Workmen in surgeon's masks squatted on the pale marble floor, polishing the metal strips around the squares with jeweler's wheels.

Marching to the exit, the Whackem associate claimed the lone black radio cab: number 12, while Bill peered out at the dark streets anxiously for his own number. The lobby's guard sat erect at his marble desk, reading a newspaper in Spanish.

Where the hell was cab 22? Minutes limped past as Bill chewed his lips; he stopped when he tasted blood. Tonight, of all nights to have a problem. He couldn't take the subway with his suit and briefcase; he'd get mugged.

Finally a black limo barged around the corner and glided towards him: Number 52. Bill waved at the driver, who rolled down his window:

"Hey, can you ask your operator what ever happened to car 22?"

The turbaned driver clucked. "He got a flat tire," he reported soon. "They're sending another in 20 minutes."

"Wait a minute, son," a craggy-faced, tall man broke in: S&B's leading tax partner for real estate deals. "Let's save some time and share my ride," Mr. Rosenbaum offered, who wore an elegant tuxedo.

"Thank you so much," Bill cried and ran around the limo (an illegal maneuver in New York), so the partner didn't have to slide across the seat.

"You've been working late," he remarked as the limo pulled away.

"A takeover emergency ..."

"I was at a Gaudy Club benefit, but came back for some papers. When I was your age I pulled all-nighters, to impress the partners. I hope you found a clear result?"

"Of course."

"Glad to hear it, son."

Bill glowed. It was worth it, after all. Lucky he was wearing his best suit. His wingtip shoes were scuffed around the toes but you didn't notice in the dark.

As the limo raced up the FDR Drive, Bill gazed out on the night-time vista, with so many lights still on in the buildings they blotted out every star ... The tax partner got out at a warehouse in Soho converted to a fancy coop. (Rumor said he owned an entire floor.)

"Have a great Thanksgiving, sir," said Bill.

"You too. See you on Monday."

Now the driver, who had bulging eyes, as if from hyper-thyroidism, roared even faster through the desolate streets, towards the East Village. With the partner gone, he took the chance of probing for investment advice. Bill answered noncommittally and then wearily shut his eyes.

Unabashed the driver demanded: "Know anything about a merger between Titanium Corp. and Bangkok Fiesta?"

Bill laughed nervously. "I never heard of those companies," he admitted.

"My brother-in-law says we can make a fortune if we buy the stock at the right time. My question is, when's the right time?"

"Indeed," muttered Bill and clutched his stomach, nauseated as the limo jounced over potholes in Lafayette Street. At least he was almost home.

"Tell me, do you guys really earn $100,000, just starting out at those firms? That's what I heard on the radio."

"Remember, we pay a fortune in taxes."

They jolted to a halt on Waverly Place, and Bill getting out almost stumbled over a homeless on the sidewalk -- taking him for a sack of garbage.

"Watch where you're stepping, man," he grumbled, flashing greenish teeth.

"Watch where you're lying down," Bill almost said, but offered a curt "sorry." He dove into his building, a rental sans doorman, cheap at $1500 a month. The bent black man at the tiny desk jerked awake at the sound of feet, pulled a bundle of mail from a cubbyhole behind him and handed it over: "Have a nice evening, Mr. Mason."

Nodding, Bill boarded the clanking elevator, last inspected two years ago. Soon as he paid off his student loans he'd dump these digs for the Upper East Side ... Arriving safe on the 11th floor, he unlocked his two locks and dumped his mail on an overflowing chair. Queeny, his cream-colored Persian, threw herself at his shins meowing, her food bowl in the kitchen licked clean, her water bowl turned over for spite.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, and pulled off his suit jacket and dropped it on the floor. Then he picked it up and draped it over the chair; she shouldn't sit on the jacket and fluff it up. He refilled her bowls before staggering into his bedroom, where he kicked off the shoes he never had time to shine, and climbed into his unmade bed.

The cramped apartment reeked of cat shit, and Queeny had barfed on his mock-Oriental rug. Cats have ways of making their feelings known.

Bill wished he could throw up all over Regina Price. She'd probably sue.

Groaning he reached for his answering machine: ten messages, the first from his mother: "Son, why weren't you aboard your plane? All of us here are worried sick ..."

He shut her off. He'd forgotten to phone her, to warn her. And now he probably couldn't get home till Christmas. Too many year-end deals.

Already 3 AM in Nebraska ... He'd deal with his mom soon as he got up. He'd deal with the cat barf on his rug. It smelled awfully sour.

He flopped back on his pillow and shut his eyes, and Queeny jumped onto his chest. She purred in a circle, settled herself and started massaging him with her paws.

"I love you," he murmured and fell asleep.

The phone trilled on and on. He didn't pick up, and the caller tried again. Slowly, hand over hand, he pulled his way back up, out of sweet oblivion.

"Good morning," rasped Regina Price. "Don't bill another minute on Melody Mattress; Omar Zembrudian's takeover tanked. Or maybe it's just on hold."

"That's good news, I guess," Bill said lamely, glad to not have to report on his inconclusive research. Not yet. "Can I fly to Nebraska?"

"No, I need you on another matter. Since you're still in town."

He jabbed a middle finger at the peeling ceiling. Queeny meowed and nuzzled his foot, and he pushed her off the bed.

"Let me have it, Regina," he said bitterly. He had a splitting headache already.

"That's the spirit, Bill. That's what they pay you for."

Article © Anna Sykora. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-06-20
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