Today I was taking care of some paperwork and a phone call came through. Now we only have a land line. No smartphone paraphernalia so I have to go over to the phone to see who’s there. Well, the phone number was from the New York City area and was unfamiliar so I let it go to voicemail. When the caller started leaving a message, I immediately recognized the voice and as he started leaving his name, I found out I was right. It was a guy I worked with back in 1987. I left the City in 1988 and I guess I never expected to hear from him again.
I immediately picked up the call and we started catching up. Apparently, he retired last year and was cleaning up some old letters and photos from the time period and he decided to try and look me up. We did the usual back and forth talking about the people we worked with back then and it was amazing how many details were at our fingertips even after thirty-four years. As it turned out both of us left the field we were in at the time. Which is not surprising. He and I had separately drifted into the securities industry by getting our Series 7 license to work in Manhattan’s Wall Street district during the bull market of the 1980’s. The fact that we both left after the 1987 crash is hardly surprising but it is gratifying to know that he also found a safe haven in the economy of the time.
Well, we swapped stories about what had happened to us since that time and then we asked each other if we knew of any of the other people we worked with. But mostly we had lost touch with a former life. And then we reflected on that life. We agreed it wasn’t a place you would want to stay in for long but that it taught you a lot about people and a lot about yourself. We exchanged info and we plan on getting together for a reunion.
But it’s got me thinking about some of the things that went on back then. And some of them are pretty good stories. I think they’re worth relating.
I got involved with Wall Street when I ran out of money to complete the last few credits of my engineering degree. I had a wife and three young kids and bills and things that needed buying. So, I decided to become a “stock broker” and make my fortune or at least get enough money to finish my degree.
That was a different world. You see the retail brokers of back then were being replaced by the “discount brokers.” And shortly both would be replaced by electronic trading that would sweep away the old Wall Street completely. But back then we still had accounts and clients and commissions and had to wear suits and ties. We had to know the floor brokers and know how to deal with the various options exchanges and we had to at least hint to the customer that we could do magical things with his order. There was a definite P.T. Barnum aspect to the customer relations side of the job.
And this bull market was a magnet for people looking to live in the New York City area and wanted to “get rich.” Almost all of the brokers traded their own accounts and many of them dreamed of building up a stake and making a living day-trading. And it was this powerful force that ensured that the entrants were a motley crew. We had all kinds. And some of them were quite colorful. Some were actually crazy. This was partly due to the drug culture of the time. Several of the people I worked with had a cocaine problem. One fellow in particular named Joe eventually was forced out when he started having real problems. Joe was a colorful character. He was always using small exercise devices to strengthen his hands and wrists and he was constantly throwing karate punches and blocks in the air around his desk. He was quite a sight. On Halloween he brought in a black velvet bag that had what looked like an actual human skull. And one evening when his supervisor Rich was berating him for not handling his fair share of the work load Joe picked this little man up by the forearms and walked him over to one of the windows and asked him if he’d like to be thrown out. Joe was a pretty big guy and we were on the 15th floor of an old building that had old style windows that could be opened. Nobody thought Joe would throw Rich out the window, except maybe Rich, but it was a serious breach of office etiquette to say the least. Luckily for Joe, Rich never said anything about it and afterwards gave Joe a wide berth.
Later on, I was Joe’s supervisor and he came to me to complain that people were talking about him. You can imagine I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear this. So, I took him into a conference room and asked him to tell me about it. He said that he heard them talking about him in the lunch room. He was sitting next to the soda machine so he was sort of hidden from the rest of the room. He heard some comments about himself that were very insulting. They made him pretty mad but rather than start a fight he came to me. I complimented him on his restraint and then asked him who made the comments. He said, “The soda machine.”
Well, that slowed me down. I said, “Joe, I’m going to have to kick this upstairs to Bill.” Bill was the senior manager for the brokers. I said, “Bill deals directly with all vending machine related issues.” Then I told Joe that he looked a little tired and considering what he had been through I thought he should take the rest of the day off and get some rest. He thanked me and went home. When I passed this along to Bill his eyes bugged out and he told me to leave this to him and not mention it to anyone. Joe never came back to the office. But about three months later he called me at home and told me that the company had helped him find a good rehab program to get off the cocaine. And he had left Wall Street behind and was working for his uncle who had a printing business in Brooklyn. He sounded as happy as I’d ever heard him. Joe may not have been the craziest guy I worked with on Wall Street but he was surely one of the most colorful. And he had one of the happiest endings to his story there.