Peter The Wolf, Or, The Interview

Note: This is Part 6 of a continuing series of posts about proprietary trading in the “early days.” For the full series, check the “my history” category.

Once Albert left, Peter acted like he was alone. He walked back to his desk, sat in his chair, and lit a cigarette. He caught the smoke in his lungs and exhaled. For a moment, he looked tired. Like a stage actor whose scene had just ended, he needed a break..

Peter turned his chair so that his back was facing me and faced a large map of the world that took up an entire wall of his office. It had been abused by tacks. He opened a drawer, removed a shiny gold- colored thumbtack, and walked over to the map. He stood in front of it, contemplating, smoking, and then stuck the tack. “CYPRUS!” he said. The significance of this was not yet apparent.

What did all the thumbtacks mean?

He sat down again and rolled back to his desk. Two fans blew air back and forth, moving like search lights on either side of the room. His thin hair blew on the top of his head. He stared at his screens with a tired intensity. It was February and cold but the windows to the office were wide open. Nevertheless, Peter sweat through his shirt. Air moved all about the office. It was like the pressure had temporarily been released and every item in the office was exhaling. Every paper in the office, and there were stacks of paper on every horizontal surface, clicked and flittered. I sat silently.

Something on the screen made him smile. He picked up the phone, held it a few inches from his red face and punched a few digits into the keypad. “JIMMY CHU IS UP TWENTY-THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS. WHO IS GOING TO CATCH HIM?”

His voice echoed. It was raspy and powerful. Like a slave worker whipped by his owner, it worked harder than it might have if given a choice. I heard it not just from his mouth, but also from a speaker in the ceiling. It was a squawk box. He had broadcast the taunting message to the entire office.

Peter broadcast taunting messages over the squawk box.

Someone poked a head in the door and asked, “What’s he in?”

“FIGURE IT OUT!” Peter roared. The man looked at me, laughed and closed the door. And then as if he had snapped out of some trance Peter noticed I was with him in the room.

“IS ALBERT BETTER THAN YOU?” he roared across the desk at me.

After all the silence and the quiet hum of the fans, I was taken aback by the question. Before I could answer, he held up two sheets of paper, our resumes, shook them at me and boomed, “HE BEAT YOU IN COLLEGE!”

He was reading our GPAs. He was obsessed with GPAs.

Now that he had engaged me, his office seemed suddenly smaller. His voice and his presence were too large for this cluttered place. From the corner of his desk, he lifted a stack of resumes. He thumbed through them. On each were illegible scribbles in red pen. Peter’s desk was littered with red pens. He began to read the GPAs off the resumes to me, “THREE POINT EIGHT! THREE POINT SEVEN! THREE POINT NINE! FOUR POINT OH! OH! OH!” He read through the stack, and not one was lower than 3.5. He smiled. He was in control of this stack, these traders.

He patted the pile with his hand and yelled, “ONLY THE BEST! THE BEST!” Peter was proud of his traders, like they were his children and he their twisted father.

He looked directly at me, breathing loudly through his large nostrils. Like bull-nostrils, I thought. His forearms were large but oddly, hairless, and they rested on the desk. His thinning hair was a mess. He had strange eyes nearly lost in his puffy face. Sweat. Sweating. February. I couldn’t guess how old or what nationality he was. He was like no one I had ever met before. And his voice. You’d expect to hear a voice like that screaming through a storm on a doomed ship.

Peter's sounded more like the captain of a doomed ship than a Wall St. guy

“WHERE’D YOU GO TO COLLEGE?” but he knew. It was like he was putting me through a ritual more than an interview. He held the stack of resumes up and shook it at me again before I could answer, “THESE GUYS WIN.” He threw the stack of papers down. I didn’t know if I should say anything, so I didn’t. Peter stared at me, and without breaking the stare, he reached for a red pen, bit the cap off and spit it on the floor. He picked up my resume and started to dissect it, circling my GPA and making notations in the margins. What could he be writing down?

“GOOD SCHOOL!” He flashed the wolfish smile again.

But a second later he looked up at me shaking his head, and sneered, “BIRDWATCHING?”

Maybe I should have left the “Hobbies”section off the resume. “YOU’RE NOT GONNA MAKE A MILLION BUCKS WATCHING BIRDS. YOU SHOULD SELL BIRDS, THAT MIGHT HAVE SOME PROMISE!”

He snorted at his own joke but I wasn’t overly amused. He looked at me like he had just bestowed some great truth upon me and I didn’t get it. He seemed disappointed. A look of boredom crossed his face. He put my resume down and looked back towards the flashes on his computer screen.

The interview didn’t seem to be going well.

He continued to watch the screen, eyes darting back and forth, up and down. Now he smiled, then, he frowned. His brow furrowed, then it went calm. He seemed to be on some kind of mental roller-coaster but he was just staring at flashes. He was completely absorbed and again seemed to forget I was even there.

Minutes passed.

He was watching profit and loss numbers and Anvil’s volume totals. I guess to him it must have been like watching a horse race where you see your winnings pile up regardless of who comes in first. The room was silent and the screams and clatter from the trading room outside the door which once were so disconcerting, now seemed comforting.

Didn't matter who won just that the horses were running.

Suddenly, as if a spell had been broken his face snapped away from the screen and he began to scrutinize me with those crazy eyes. He had been gazing at the screen for so long that I thought I could see little numbers and blips of red and green reflected in his pupils. He was number-drunk.

“WANNA TRADE?” he bawled across the desk.

I hedged. “Yeah, I’m really thinking about it…”

“DON’T THINK.” He interrupted. “TRADE.”

And with that, he yanked open a drawer and produced a huge blue vinyl-clad binder with the words “Series 7 Examination Manual” embossed in gold across the front. He thrust it across the desk at me knocking red pens onto the floor.

“TWO CENTS A SHARE, EIGHT DOLLARS A TICKET. GO GET THE PAPERWORK.”

He stood up from his desk, swung open the office door and yelled “NEXT!” to no one in particular and then stormed down the hallway knocking thumbtack-stuck papers off of the cubicle walls.

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Catch up on the series! Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

A Wolf In Wolf’s Clothing

This is Part 5 of a continuing series of posts about proprietary trading in the “early days.” To see all the posts, click the “my history” category in the sidebar.

I told Albert that I was ready to commit, full-time, to trading. The next step, he told me, was to come downtown and sign up with the firm.

I brought my resume and found Albert trading in the small hot room. He was up over $4000 and, as it was the middle of the day, ready to take a break. He stood up from his station and the math guy asked, “You gonna bring him up to meet Peter?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.” said Albert.

This made me nervous. Looking around the twilight of the room I received a bunch of glances that said, “Oh, you’re in for an experience.” The guys were snickering. Albert and I walked out into the tiny gray hallway and made for the elevator. In the elevator I asked Albert what was up with the guys.

“Well,” he said. “Peter is a bit of a character.” And the doors opened into a large room.

Voices straining. Phones ringing. Keyboards clacking. Palms slamming. Buzz. Heat. Buzz. The trading room.

Buzz. Heat. Buzz. A trading floor.

Just off the room was a glass cube of an office, no blinds. It looked like a zoo exhibit. Inside, a man stood over another who was sitting in a chair. The standing man was waving his arms and yelling at the guy in the seat. There were obvious sweat rings under his arms even though it was February. “That’s Peter,” said Albert, pointing.

He looked like a wolf circling his prey.

The story I later heard was that Peter’s entire family worked for “The Anvil.” Apparently, he was the family outcast and had been handed the small, unprofitable trading division to keep him employed and out of the way. He wasn’t trusted to run anything properly and no one had realistic hopes for the trading operation. He was crazy and reckless. There were rumors of drug use, violent behavior, and car accidents. When he took the trading division over, it had only a handful of traders.

There were rumors of drug use and car accidents.

When I left Anvil a couple of years later, there were well over 1000 traders and the operation was wildly profitable. If nothing else, Peter was a masterful recruiter.

Albert casually poked his head into Peter’s office. Peter stopped mid-sentence when he saw Albert and walked over to grasp his hand. He flashed a brief, wolfish smile, nodded at Albert while looking proud and said simply, “YES!”

The man in the chair was visibly relieved that he was no longer alone with Peter. Peter looked at me while he shook Albert’s hand. He stared and exhaled heavily through his nostrils. Were his eyes crossed? Jesus, this guy was freaky looking! I had to look away. Albert began to introduce me, “This is the friend I was telling you about…”

Peter stood there, shaking Albert’s hand, staring at me, breathing, when he boomed, “ALBERT, YOU TELL YOUR LITTLE BUDDY HERE THAT YOU’RE GONNA MAKE A MILLION BUCKS THIS YEAR?”

Then he gave a twisted smile. He was not a good looking man. Did he have a lazy eye? Jesus.

Albert tried to say something, and I was speechless but Peter continued. He reached over and gave the man in the chair a light smack on the head. The trader, looking fearful that he might be hit again, glanced nervously over. “YOU SEE THIS GUY?” he asked while sticking his finger in Albert’s chest. “THIS GUY IS GONNA MAKE A MILLION BUCKS THIS YEAR. HE DOESN’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT HIS COMMISSIONS!”

Each word was punctuated by sprays of spit. I wanted to run.

“YOU COME IN HERE AND TELL ME YOUR FUCKING COMMISSIONS ARE HIGH?” he yelled at the trader. But before the trader could respond, Peter continued.

“FUCK YOUR COMMISSIONS, I SHOULD RAISE THEM!”

He walked behind his desk and looked into his screens. His voice was hoarse. It needed a rest. He shot air out his nose. It was almost as if he sucked energy from the numbers he was watching. He began to yell louder. “YOU JUST DON’T WANT TO MAKE A MILLION BUCKS! THAT’S YOUR PROBLEM! COME BACK AND TALK TO ME WHEN YOU WANT TO MAKE A MILLION BUCKS!” He pointed to the door.

The trader left without a protest. Cowed. Peter watched him leave the office with a frown.

The door now shut, Peter snapped his unsteady gaze back to Albert. He smiled and with a controlled calm said, “Go. Trade.” Albert looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Well what can you do?” and left.

Peter turned to me and screamed, “YOU, SIT!”

And we were alone.
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An Open Window In A Small Stuffy Room

This is Part 4 of a continuing series of posts about proprietary trading in the “early days.”

The woman with the lipstick smelled of mothballs. I was always last to board the train and the empty seat next to her was my reward.

The moment the train lurched forward, she would reach down into her purse and pull out her mirror, a tube of lipstick, and other “beauty items.” I tried to read but was distracted by the sticky sounds she made as she applied and then reapplied lipstick. She was fastidious about her task.

Smack lips, look in mirror, shake head, start over.

The routine began to depress me. If you ever find yourself getting too happy, watch people unconsciously doing the same thing repeatedly for any length of time. It’s a great way to bring yourself down.

Routine is insidious. Maybe you’re stuck and you don’t even know it. The safety of routine offers you false comfort. Like a low risk, low reward trade it’ll bleed you to death through a thousand tiny cuts.

This was the lesson I learned just after college when I lived with my father and I rode the train to work. When I took a different subway line to sit and watch Albert trade the day after I quit my shitty internet job, I realized that I too had nearly become a victim of routine.

Someone once said to me, or maybe it was Confucius or Bob Dylan, that if you find yourself in a stuffy room simply open the window. I hated that internet job because it didn’t make me feel good about myself. I didn’t enjoy the work and I didn’t enjoy my place in the company. If you’re in a situation like that, do what you can to leave as soon as possible. Open a window.

So I exited at Whitehall and walked north through the financial district to Wall Street and then east to Water Street. Old Manhattan. I loved the diagonal streets, the forgotten cobblestone, the city before the imposition of the grid. On the best mornings when the sun was still low in the sky and the buildings cast long cool shadows, it was like hiking through a glade. Fountains were everywhere. You just had to imagine moss creeping up from the sewers to cover the buildings in a green velvet carpet.

The wind was blowing off the east river that day and carried with it the smell of the now defunct, Fulton Fish market. I’m a sucker for bursts of nature in the middle of urban areas and the smell of fish reminded me that I was on an island. I liked the feeling. I smiled and entered the building where Albert worked.

Fulton Fish Market

There were no polished mahogany walls, leather furniture or attractive receptionists on Albert’s floor. Instead, the elevator doors opened into a huge room that was chopped into smaller spaces by grey cubicle walls. The distance from the elevator to the wall of cubicles was only about five feet. This wall extended without break in either direction as far as I could see. Aesthetics was not the concern here.

A cold glow rose over the grey wall. The glow of hundreds of computer screens.

With the glow came screams and clacking keyboards. It was disorienting. I followed along the wall for some time, lost, and was relieved when Albert peeked his head out from behind a door and waved me into his office.

This room was smaller but just as strange. It was darker and uncomfortably hot. Ten traders sat crammed elbow to elbow staring at their screens. No one looked up at me. One older man sat apart. He had an entire wall and six monitors to himself. Presently, he picked up his telephone receiver and began to pound it over and over again into the phone cradle. He did this for 10-15 seconds until the phone broke apart. I was the only one in the room who seemed surprised. I thought, thinking back to my old job, “Maybe he could use a ball pit.”

Picture 5 More Trading Setups.

I wore a suit. That was my first mistake. Everyone in the room was dressed very casually, even sloppily as if they hadn’t left the room and showered or changed their clothes in days. Albert was involved in a couple of trades but it was nearly impossible to follow what was going on. He tried to explain. The background on his screens was black and all the quotes were red or green. The quotes flashed rapidly. He showed me graphs, the execution system. He explained what a “bid” was, what an “ask” was. He told me the specialists screwed everybody… whoever they were.

He introduced me to the guys. No one looked away from their monitors for more than a couple of seconds. Apparently they all had similar or at least complimentary styles of trading. They called out ideas to one another. When they called out a symbol they wouldn’t use the letters, they would substitute words or lewd phrases for the letters. They all spoke the same language. MMM was “Monster;” DF morphed into “Dick Face.”

The guy who sat in the corner, a mathematics whiz, began to react to a trade. He was short 3000 shares of SWS or, “Swiss Miss.” He called me over. We watched the stock tick lower and I saw how his profits increased with each trade down (Also remember, this was back when the market traded in 16ths… so every 16th was approximately $180). It was interesting in a way I didn’t think my parents would have understood.

Swiss Miss

It was especially dark in the corner. Sitting there, cheering some alphabet letters lower I felt a strange sense of detachment. I also felt like I was in a war-room fighting a battle against some vague enemy. We were winning.

The door to the room opened (I had already forgotten that there was a way out) and an attractive girl entered carrying a platter with snacks on it. She brought it over to Albert, then to the older man, then to the math guy. The older man said something to the girl. Five minutes later she was back with the platter and on it was a new phone.

“That’s Peter’s rewards program,” someone mumbled. “The best traders get the perks.”

Hours later I left, squinting into the sunlight. It was unseasonably warm. I took off my suit coat and slung it over my shoulder. A stranger called out to me, “My, my, aren’t we comfortable today?” And I imagine I must have looked pretty happy. I was making a career change. I couldn’t wait to tell Judy.

I got a whiff of freedom in that small dark room.

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A Romantic Post About Brooklyn Before Hipsters

“No one will ever visit you in Brooklyn,” a Manhattanite friend cautioned.

Whatever.

My college roommate J.D had introduced me to the borough. Judy and I had visited him and his wife in their Brooklyn Heights apartment. The place seemed huge. They had a kitchen that was separate from the living quarters. Places like that just didn’t exist in Manhattan!

“Do you have any prostitutes or dominitrixes living here?” I asked, looking cautiously out his peephole.

“No,” said J.D “Why?”

“Forget it,” I said.

And we were sold. But we wanted even more value, so we centered our hunt in Park Slope.

“The sky is huuuuge,” I said to Judy, wide-eyed, as we stepped out of the Grand Army Plaza station.

“You sound so gay sometimes,” she said.

The Arch at Grand Army Plaza

I went to school in the city and then lived there. Dorm rooms and cheap apartments had apparently cramped my brain. It sounds silly as I write this, far from any urban center, but Park Slope was leafy. When you looked down at the sidewalk you could see shade, from a tree! In fact, one of the first things we did was walk up to a tree that had “interesting bark.” We touched it together, like it was some alien thing: a lamppost in the middle of Narnia. It was probably an Oak tree. Who knows?

Anyway, for what I was paying in Manhattan, Judy and I got nearly twice the square footage in Brooklyn. Better yet, we were now living together and splitting the bill. An old Italian lady lived below us. The only thing we heard coming from her apartment was boiling marinara sauce. There was no longer a “building management company” that ignored our requests and complaints. We saw our landlords every day when we walked down from the third floor of their brownstone. They were great people. They even lowered our rent when we offered to paint the apartment.

The landlord, a guy named Gordon, explained to me that he had done very well in a biotech stock. I forget which, because I still wasn’t involved in the stock world. Basically, he was a regular dude who had gotten lucky and sold the tippy-top of a pretty monstrous move. He had cashed out and bought the brownstone; no mortgage.

When we walked down the block there was a sense of neighborhood. On nice evenings, people sat out on the stoops in front of their brownstones. They had “stoop sales” on weekends. And at night, behind all those windows, families slept. Although the car service dudes would honk at all hours of the night, Brooklyn just seemed sleepier.

A stoop sale. Photo via brooklynflea.com

We even had a local drug dealer who we came to know. He worked the corner by the car service. He was actually a nice guy who occasionally helped old ladies carry their groceries. The problem was that the car service owners didn’t appreciate him. They routinely called the cops. Once when Judy and I were walking home from our favorite bar, “The Great Lakes,” we heard footsteps quickly approaching. Cops were running hard in our direction. Not knowing what to do, we ducked. They flew past us and tackled the dealer who never saw them coming. Cuffed and dragged away, he was back in two weeks and laughing at us for ducking.

My favorite memories of Brooklyn however, came from our rooftop. We had full access and we’d sit up there and watch the sun set on the World Trade Center. It could be warm and humid down on the street but there was always a breeze on the roof. We followed the Mets in the summer of 1998 and we’d listen to the games on the radio. Since we had a real kitchen, we learned to cook. It didn’t matter if our Manhattan friends couldn’t make the trip. Things were simple. We sat on the roof eating our food experiments and let the summer pass.

Not from my rooftop, but you get the idea.

The point is that something clicked for us in Brooklyn. We were young, in love, and nothing bad had happened to us yet. We probably thought the garbage was nicer there too. That would change, and I’d be leaving Brooklyn angry and anxiety-ridden only a year and a half later, but that’s a future post.

Judy worked for a local retailer and I was commuting into the city to work for the internet company. Things there sucked. I had way too much self respect to continue on as a whipping boy for the sales team. In the late fall, my mother slipped on some wet grass and broke her leg. She lived alone. When I told my boss I’d have to take a few days off to help her out he wasn’t happy. Without looking up from his desk he said, “If you have to do that, whatever.”

I should have quit then but I didn’t. I was still poor but I had just been awarded a few hundred shares of the company with a strike price of $9. I didn’t know what that meant, but I now had a friend, Albert, who worked on Wall Street. He seemed like a pretty good guy to call for advice.

The stock was set to debut in a week.

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Exit Music.

How A Sex Worker Got Me To Trade Stocks

I was introduced to the stock market while driving a rented truck over the Brooklyn Bridge. I guess I should have been suspicious when Albert agreed to help me move. It wasn’t like him to do manual labor. Now he was sitting between Judy and I as we fled Manhattan for Brooklyn. We were stuck in traffic and Albert hadn’t stopped talking for thirty minutes.

“So there’s this guy on the floor of the stock exchange called The Specialist,” Albert said. “He sees all the order flow, this one guy, and trades for his firm against it, in order to keep things moving.”

“What things are flowing?” I said. “He owns the firm? What?”

“Order flow. The bids and offers,” he said.

And then for the next thirty minutes, he went on to explain what bids and offers were. It was all a tedious blur. I tried to make sense of it. If there was one thing that caught my attention, other than the uncharacteristic rudeness he was displaying by dominating the conversation with a topic that me and Judy couldn’t care about, it was the potential riches. He said people were getting rich. And you didn’t have to work your way up through some structure or anything. You didn’t have to be old.

Regular dudes just out of college were getting rich.

Meanwhile, I was poor. The most expensive personal item I was moving with me to Brooklyn was a $450 futon I had bought a couple of months earlier. I remember being really pissed when I loaded it into the back of the truck and it caught a scratch. I think I still owed Visa like, $417 for it. Worse, I was wearing the free t-shirt that the Visa rep at my college campus had given me when I signed up for the card.

I was paying over 8% on my $30k of student loans. $30k in college loans may be nothing in 2011, but in 1998, it was a lot. I remember when my father went with me to the bank to get the loan. He told me it was a good deal. Now I was paying off that loan and trying to live in the city. An internet company was paying me $28k a year, and feeding me pizza now and then.

My biggest expense was my apartment. I was paying $795 monthly for a psychological torture chamber. Judy had found the place a year earlier. We weren’t yet living together, she lived uptown. Anyway, my neighbors, a lesbian couple, were happy when I moved in. They told me that the previous tenant was a squatter.

The walls were practically see-through. I heard everything that went on in their apartment. One of the women was very small, the other very large. Every night they’d either have loud rapturous sex or throw plates and threaten to kill each other. Either way they would blast the Madonna song “Ray Of Light.” Whenever I bumped into them in the hallway, which was often, it was awkward. They’d smile, as if everything was completely normal. Perhaps it was.

Down the hall lived a woman with a misshapen head. Her forehead was lumpy. Just, trust me. She was older and tried to be motherly, in a very strange and incestuous sort of way. She’d bring me soup so I was guilted into inviting her into my apartment and then flirt with me. She always wanted to smoke pot together. Since I was poor, I didn’t smoke much. The spare change I had went to music.

I remember buying the Spiritualized album, “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.” I laid on my bed one day, perfectly sober and listened to that in my headphones. It was sublime. I decided, what the heck, I’ll go smoke pot with my neighbor and bring this along. The girls next door had been blasting “Ray Of Light” all day and I needed to relax.

It was a mistake. Maybe 10 minutes after we smoked she told me how she always wanted to be in a band. “Have I ever shown you my axe?” she asked. She brought out a very pointy Van Halenish looking guitar. She put on some awful hairband music. She took off her shirt. Nothing good was there. Stoned, her forehead was lumpier looking that ever. I pictured Gremlins popping out at any moment.

I somehow escaped.

The woman who lived upstairs was also interesting. She kept strange hours. She was a sex worker of some sort, maybe a dominitrix. Often I would hear her return home at 4am. The reason I heard her was her boots. They must have been huge. Either that, or when she took them off she’d spike them, touchdown style, onto her bare wood floor.

After a few months of this, I became obsessed with what was going on up there. I’d wake up at 2am, just waiting for her to return home. I couldn’t relax. Judy, who doesn’t really believe bad or mean people exist, finally convinced me to go upstairs to talk to her. “Just go upstairs and ask her to gently remove her shoes,” she said. “She’ll understand.”

It was a weekend. Back then Judy and I would get a copy of The Times, a couple of coffees and bagels and just laze around the apartment. I heard the dominitrix up there. She was eating Cheerio’s or something, doing whatever dominitrixes do during the day when their powers slack. Everything was so mellow in my apartment. Judy was sipping her coffee, petting the cat. It was actually quiet. I decided to go upstairs and talk with the girl. I didn’t even tell Judy where I was going. I felt confident and figured it would be a nice surprise if I just settled the problem.

I walked up the stairs and knocked on the girl’s door. It swung open immediately, violently. She was slight. She wore a wifebeater, no bra, and black underwear. She was very attractive. She was talking on the phone. She looked at me, dumbfounded, and said, “Hang on a second” into the receiver.

“Hi,” I began.

She smiled at me and slammed the door in my face.

I was somewhere between very angry and sexually aroused. I figured I’d like to either throw a plate at this woman or have sex with her. I knocked again. The door swung open. I decided to talk quickly.

“If you could just remove your boots quietly…” I said.

“No,” she said very sweetly and again, slammed the door in my face.

In a way it was the dominitrix who forced me to leave my apartment when the lease was up. This had huge ramifications. Not only did it encourage me to share an apartment in Brooklyn with my future wife, but she also made that truck drive with Albert possible.

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