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.
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.”
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.
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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