OFF THE END OF THE BENCH: from SEVEN SEVEN SEVEN

9/11 was another topic Larry and I talked about that night in Edison’s. It was a connection every New Yorker who was down there that morning had with each other no matter what their take on the Administration’s response to it was. So unreal and dreamlike it seemed in the months and years after it happened. So mind-boggling. When I looked up at the skyline the missing towers were always a reminder of that tragic day. But slowly things got back to normal. Slowly the rebuilding started. Slowly the emotional blow faded and daily life again prevailed. Other unavoidable things came up that made me forget what I saw and how I felt.

The week after Larry introduced me to the sweet, rich flavor of buffalo burgers Richard sent me to a conference at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale. He’d been travelling a lot those weeks, to San Francisco and Chicago and London, and spending three nights in Arizona wasn’t as appealing as he’d thought it would be when he registered for it.

“Which is why I’m sending you as my replacement,” he said jokingly. “Not that I think a Boston guy can do that but someone has to pinch hit for me and you’re the last player left on the bench.” But I had the feeling it was intended to be just as much a treat for my being a good, obedient dog around there. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. He said, “See what you can pick up and put something together for me. I’ll let a few people know you’ll be out there so you don’t feel like a party crasher.”

I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to pick up, if anything, but I didn’t press him for clarification, and I’d make sure to take notes I could develop into a couple of pages to cover my ass with in case anyone was interested in what I’d done out there. I also felt a rush of gratitude. It was just what I needed at the moment, to get out of New York a while and set my eyes on a completely different landscape.

I said bye to Lucy early that morning and sensed relief like a release of air coming from her that I’d be gone the next three nights. It didn’t bother me she felt that way. All the emotion between us had been expended and the thinking done and there was only to recognize it was time for one of us to make a move out the door and soon enough that would be me. By the time my plane landed at Sky Harbor and I took a taxi to Scottsdale I’d put all that behind me like a desertion from a war that was no longer worth fighting.

The ATIP Operations Conference & Exhibit took place in April, 2007, when all the borrowed money had people so flush with cash and giddy with the expectation there would be more and more of it that it seemed impossible it would or could come to an end a little over a year later, when the high risk game of Hot Potato would play out and the resulting losses would be staggering. But no one knew that then, or they didn’t care to know, and if they had any idea something bad like that was lurking in the afternoon shadows they weren’t saying anything. Why spoil the fun of a pleasant, air-conditioned dream on someone else’s tab? Why not create more risky financial products few people understood or knew the value of but intended to profit from? Why not believe the value of your property and retirement fund would continue to go up forever? Why not buy a home with a value ten or fifteen times more than you made in a year and fill the bathrooms in it with ten dollar bars of soap that would make you smell nice when you came out of the tub?

In theory, I went there to hear financial industry analysis and investment advice from key business leaders from Standard and Poor’s, the U.S. Treasury and The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation. In theory, attendees like me would get insights and tools to identify opportunities for new, efficient operational models at a time of tightening financial regulation. The list of speakers that would provide that was impressive: the Chairman and CEO of one of the country’s biggest banks; a New York Times columnist and bestselling author; the senior partner of a firm that provided tax reporting solutions to multinationals. I had no idea why a former Commander of U.S. and International Forces in Afghanistan was making an appearance and what he was going to talk about, but that was a speech I wasn’t going to miss.

In theory, ATIP would provide me with knowledge I’d pass on to Richard and use for my work at Beal and elsewhere. In reality, as a consulting Business Analyst, even a long-term one, I had little need to be there. But I didn’t quarrel the slightest with Richard’s decision to call me off the end of the bench and the next Monday I took an early flight with a business class seat out of LaGuardia and got to Scottsdale in plenty of time to register and look through my ATIP Orientation Packet that included folders of written material, advertisements and an ATIP t-shirt, neatly folded and a medium, as if the organizers knew that was the size I wore.

At seven that evening I crossed out the name on the tag the packet had also provided and added my own and stuck it to my shirt and went down to the Welcome Reception out on the patio. It was still over a hundred degrees and there were people splashing around the pool and soaking in the spas. Large fans and mist spraying systems were set up in several areas to keep the attendees cool. I accepted the glass of champagne offered by one of the waiters roaming around with trays in their hands and then I went looking for a tag affixed to a man named Edward Donahue.

Edward Donahue was the Executive Director of Global Technology at one of the largest computer services companies, the name of which I won’t mention though its three letter acronym was known worldwide. I’d found him in the packet and looked over his photo and saw he had an economics degree from Cornell and an MBA from Wharton and that the subject of his Tuesday afternoon presentation would be “Reducing Capital Investments in Applications, Operations and Information Technology Infrastructure.” And even if it wasn’t stated, I had no doubt the best way to do that would be by partnering with his company. Richard made sure to tell me going to it was the one thing I absolutely had to do for him. “Say hello after it so he’ll know you were there,” he said.

I recognized Edward Donohue before I read his tag. He was standing with three others by a huge potted cactus. Each had a glass of champagne in hand and they appeared to be involved in a rather amusing conversation. One man had black-rimmed glasses and had an athletic build. Another man with graying hair was around sixty, tall and hunched. The lady with them was thirtyish, wearing a white shirt and pastel-green shorts. Edward Donohue was dressed as if he had just come off the golf course, in a pink Izod jersey and tan slacks, and maybe that was the main focus of his appearance at ATIP, to spend the late mornings on the course a quarter mile down the street, a few power-broker foursomes that would provide some friendly competition and get a bit of business out of the way at the same time.

“Richard told me you were going to look me up,” Edward Donohue said in a voice that was assertive even when it was involved in easy conversation.

“As his stand-in, he said it was the first thing I should do,” I said.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Edward Donohue said, and I knew he meant it as a joke.

“I think I’m up to it,” I said. “But don’t tell him I told you.”

“He made sure to tell me not to make you an offer so I guess I’m prohibited from doing that,” Edward Donohue said.

The tall, hunched man’s name was Jack. “Then maybe I will. What kind of money you looking for, Robert? I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Well now, I think that number just went up,” I said, and there was laughter all around. After it settled down I humped my shoulders, and added, “Hey, Richard doesn’t have to know anything. What happens in Scottsdale can stay here far as my thinking goes.”

“That’s the case with most of these conferences, isn’t it Ed?” the lady who’d introduced herself as Eileen Foster joined in with her own comedic bit. She had an attractive smile and appeared fit, a runner or avid bike rider, or one of those types who did yoga before she went to the office and then spent an hour at night in aerobics class that was followed with a vegetable, a green salad and a cup of herbal tea before she poured the wine.

“And all this time I thought we were at the same ones,” Edward Donohue said.

“Sounds like I’ll have to make it a point to pop into these more often,” I said. “Not fair Richard gets to have all the fun. Not fair at all.”

“That’s an issue between you and Richard,” Jack said. “One I’ll be staying out of.”

“You know, I think I’ll be doing that too,” I said, and that started another round of laughs.

Not sure if custom permitted my staying there with them, I made a little nod and said I’d see them around over the next few days. Edward Donohue told me to be sure to sit at their table the following night and before I left them and moved on to the trays of catered food I thanked him for his kind gesture. After that, I ate and hung around a while among the chatter and networking, then I beat a hasty retreat up to my room and took a beer out of the mini bar and clicked on the t.v. and found the Celts-Bulls game which was just about to tipoff.

The next evening the Hyatt’s giant ballroom was set up with tables with white cloths and shiny plates and silverware and seating assignment cards. I found the card with my name on it on a table near the stage. There were two men sitting down and Eileen Foster was hovering around, a glass of something in her hand that looked a lot like sparkling water.

“What’s this, no champagne?” I said.

“I’ve been waiting for it, but I’m afraid I’ll be going without tonight unless I want to pay for it myself, and that wouldn’t be very smart business,” she said.

“I’m a lot like you. Once a standard been set I expect it to continue and can never understand why it doesn’t.”

“They like to start these off with a bang and end them with a bigger bang. They make a good impression and send you back feeling you got your money’s worth.” She seemed happy to have someone to talk to while she waited for her colleagues to fill the table. In fact, I noticed from the cards she’d be to my right and I also thought I heard a movie line coming out of her mouth that wondered if I wanted to buy her a glass of bubbly and then maybe we might get famous with each other from there?

But that wasn’t about to happen, and I said, “And the rest is filler to make sure you stick around for the whole thing?”

“No, the rest is cheap white wine and broiled chicken with rice and carrots. There may be a roast with potatoes too, if that’s the kind of thing you like eating.”

With a little more conversation I found out she’d had a good day. In the morning she went to the Fitness Room and then swam thirty laps. After that, she sat in on the Exhibit Hall Luncheon that had the simple, straightforward theme of “A Look Ahead.”

More and more people started coming in and soon the seats at our table were filled and we were served what the menu called New American Cuisine, or what I thought of as quite fine food that was so good I see no reason not to list my selection: beef tenderloin; wild mushrooms; fingerling potatoes with whole grain mustard dressing; shrimp, watercress and mango salad. There was no overcooked roast beef as Eileen Foster had mentioned earlier, though there was a fine tarragon chicken piccata with orzo pasta she had ordered and seemed to enjoy eating up.

“I grew up in Milwaukee, the suburbs, a place called Elk Grove,” Eileen Foster said as we forked our food. “I was such a wild kid my parents never thought I’d make anything of myself. Another case of suburban rebellion, I guess.”

“I looked over your bio and must say it’s quite something. Quantitative analysis and operations research at Sloan. Pretty nifty.”

“I work hard and keep the focus and it seems to get me where I want to go.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to the panel you’re on. Infrastructure, risk and efficiency.”

“It’s not my topic, but I have a few things prepared to say.”

After dessert, a fresh fruit tart with vanilla tarragon syrup for me, tropical fruit and berries with sorbet for Eileen Foster, more wine arrived and our plates were cleared and Edward Donohue pushed back from the table, stepped up to the stage and gave the opening introduction to the proceedings we were presumably there to listen to even more than to eat the fine food and drink the Gold Medal California syrah. He settled behind the podium and spoke in a voice that boomed out at us, “Tonight you’ll hear diverse views about the latest regulatory reforms and operational developments your firm will be able to benefit from. You’ll get a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent legislation on operational matters and how they might affect profits. You’ll get clear insights into future industry trends and business processes….”

At the end, Edward Donohue walked back to our table with a smile on his face and a nod here and there at the people he knew who were up out of their chairs clapping. When he sat down we hailed his speech in glowing terms. It was another proud moment for him, of the kind he was used to, I could tell, and he reveled in it for a moment before he threw out a few jokes at his own expense: “For those of you who don’t know me so well I’ll let you in on a little something. That’s the first time I didn’t have to pull my notes out in a panic. Isn’t that right Jack?”

“I’m not going to say anything about what you might have or might not have in your pocket,” Jack said, and he drew a laugh with that.

I woke at eight the next morning a little hungover with food and drink and called room service and ordered a pot of coffee. “That’s all I’d like at the moment,” I said into the phone a second time. When it came I doubled the total on the bill before signing it.

Out on the balcony the sky was blue, a deep unblemished blue and I sipped the coffee intending to go to the Fitness Center. I had hopes of running into Eileen Foster, who would have the same goal in mind, to sweat out the syrah, the fat and the sugar. Sitting there, I went back and forth on calling her. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, called a woman with the intention of getting together to do something that didn’t include Lucy. It was always better to work out with a partner: I’d use that starter line and add ‘at least that’s what I’ve read in the magazines I pick up around the gym when I’m looking for a distraction that can’t be loaded on my iPod’.

“Up for some time in the Fitness Center?” I said into the phone a few minutes later. Eileen Foster sounded sleepy and I wondered if I woke her up?

“I need to get moving eventually,” she said, and suggested a run outside might be a better idea. “Can you give me a half hour?”

She was late, but not enough to be disrespectful, when she met me outside the Hyatt’s sliding front doors. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t make you stand out here for too long?”

“Not a problem, I’m enjoying this bit of breeze, little as it is,” I said, and then Eileen Foster described the five mile route she’d mapped out for us on her computer.

She wore her ATIP t-shirt, running shorts and a plain white golf visor. Her hair was clipped back and she gave off the confidence and appearance of the ex high school jock she was. Out of the parking lot, we veered right and I dropped off behind her single file as we headed down a long commercial strip with a lot of traffic and activity and then past the golf course I imagined Edward Donohue teeing a ball up on and staring down the palm-lined pipeline of a long par four. After that, we came to a bend and an open area of low, dry grass and fast food rubble and where, up ahead, there was a lot of dust and noise as a construction crew was building the framework for the foundation of a large structure. The pavement was smooth and past the dust and construction we went by an office park and then the road opened up again, a rolling landscape of earthy hues that in another mile fed into an upscale residential neighborhood of housing with red tile roofs and stucco walls and entranceway arches and crisp, clean Southwestern landscaping. The traffic was light and I pulled up next to Eileen Foster. She had an easy, loping running style and her head made a little bob every other stride.

“Hope you’re not feeling crowded,” I said. She glanced over at me and smiled. I was happy to share something with her even if it was nonsense.

“Nope, not at all. Plenty of room for everyone out here.”

“With all the building going on, it doesn’t look like that’s going to last much longer,” I said. “You’ve been out in these parts before I take it?”

“Sure. Haven’t you ever been?”

“Never. But I see the attraction, even if there’s no natural water source to quench the thirst of all these people that keep moving here.”

“I expect that will be figured out. I have great faith in human ingenuity.”

We kept up an easy pace, not slow, but easy enough. The sun was bright, the air dry. It wasn’t yet hot enough to be debilitating, but my breathing picked up and when I looked at Eileen Foster I saw the focus on her face, a wrinkled determination to finish something and move on to something else.

“I’d like to get my parents to move out here when they’re a little older, it’s a nice life,” she said.

We swung off to the right, around a bend. Up ahead, above the cypress trees, the top two floors of the Hyatt came into our view. It was a mile away but it seemed we’d gotten to that point sooner than either of us expected. Had we picked up the pace that much, in a hurry to get a bottle of water at the finish line? Eileen Foster said it felt like it but we were a long way from Olympic medal times.

There was a lot of bustle out front of the hotel as we walked into the entrance, sweaty and satisfied with ourselves to have that accomplishment out of the way. There were still four hours before Edward Donohue’s presentation and the vendor workshops that came after it, a dead zone in the lives of a couple of conferees that had to be filled up. I didn’t have any ideas for it other than getting something to drink and eat.

“Well thanks for coming along, I enjoyed that a lot,” I said.

“It was your idea, I’m glad you included me in it,” she said, then added, “I was thinking I might use the spa. Would you be up for that?”

The five mile run and twenty minute spa and the conversation relaxed us. So much so that when I saw her that night at the General Session in the Ballroom and we drank wine at another group dinner and after that occupied two chairs on the patio and talked some more, I recognized one of those convergences of events that had to be acted on in the moment or become another regret. And that’s what happened. I had one of those “oh why the hell not” shrugs of my shoulders and threw the words out there. “There’s a bottle of champagne in the mini bar we could share out on my balcony?”

I saw in her eyes and then heard in her voice the question relating to the ring on the index finger of my left hand. Without much of a pause I let her know Lucy and I were on the skids, as in something that was over. Then I said, “Leave no champagne behind is what I say.”

It was a pretty silly line, there was no doubting that, and I thought I saw her enjoying a laugh on the inside. A private giggle at another awkward proposition from another guy wanting to get in her pants.

Then came the surprise, and Eileen Foster said, “I could do that, sure, I think it’s a good idea.”

And so I waved her by and followed her out to the elevators.

(2012)

NOVEL IN PROGRESS: from CAMPUSES

Each time I went to the campus on the hill to be in the orbit of those students I let my imagination wander into their lives. The more I did the more I couldn’t wait to be one of them, to be as free, to no longer feel I was being observed as if I was in a prison I wouldn’t ever be released from, not even for good behavior.

Soon enough I was on my own campus, and once I was there it didn’t take long to figure out college life wasn’t all partying and protesting and hitting on the girls I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. And while it might have been freedom, more freedom than I’d ever had, it was a different sort than I’d anticipated. I’d been released from the jail cells on Eddy Street and Felton High to become a captive of those courses I’d registered for with that humored Teaching Assistant. My days became great efforts to divvy up the time to give to each of them.

How many hours to spend on the first two Books of the Iliad? How long would it take to reread the chapter on Hegelian idealism until I was confident enough to be tested on it? Just what did I think about social structures and stratifications and normative behavior patterns? Where should I start the essay about going to McGovern’s speech on that clear, crisp afternoon when I heard the rapid-fire clicks of that photographer’s camera and wondered if I’d end up on the front page of The Globe?

The whole experience overwhelmed. The orderly way I went about my studies at Felton, the ease I got A’s on tests and papers with, became a labor with no end point, a profusion of words and ideas and themes I organized as best I could in notebooks and 4×6 index cards I filed in a gray metal box that flipped open at the top. I kept checklists of things done and things to do and some of the things that were done would become items on those lists again. I reviewed notes in bathroom stalls. I highlighted important paragraphs I went back to to keep them fresh in my head. It was so consuming it was impossible to find time to break away from those stacks of hardbound texts and trade paperbacks and clips of loose-leaf pages and manila file folders that cluttered the three drawers of my desk and the shelves above it without the feeling I was ignoring something important, or I hadn’t got to something at all. Or the moment I thought I was in control an assignment would crop up that I’d struggle with two or three nights in a row to the detriment of everything else.

In the library, that charmless, U-shaped building smack in the center of campus, I worked like a drone at my favorite desk on a remote aisle on the lower level. Half below the street and half above it, a faint, grayish light seeped in the small windows. But it was the atmosphere I preferred to do my heavy duty booking in, an environment suited for the fierce undertaking required to process all of that knowledge. That featureless space was as comforting to me as the carrel deep in the belly of the learning beast I went to in Felton, and I was aware how I’d transferred the image of that to my own campus.

I settled in there four or five hours at a time, my squinting eyes rolling across and down the lines of text, a pen jotting notes in a loose leaf binder. I moved from The Inferno to The Canterbury Tales to a chapter on medieval social thought and back in time from there to Hellenistic Greece and around to each of them again the next night until another book or topic or the introduction of some new material replaced them and the juggling of texts and notebooks started over. It was rare for me to take a break for fear I might never get back to my work. There were plenty of distractions to run into on the upper levels. Plenty of friends to chat with and chicks with big smiles to sit near and sneak looks at and do nothing else. But most of the time I was able to avoid that until I crossed the avenue and got back to the dorm where the hallways would be abuzz, the doors to the rooms open, the laughter exploding off the cinderblock walls. More often than not I’d catch a whiff of marijuana, and if it were the weekend my nose would tweak in expectation of scoring a bone or two for the night. That was another way to relax.

That Thursday it took a few minutes to get through the gauntlet of “hey man, what’s happening” and “there he is, ready to rock” to get to the far end of the hall where I keyed the lock to room 324. When I opened the door I was surprised to find Willie sprawled on his bed with his head propped up by two bolsters; I had expected he would be out with his girlfriend Gail, an amiable red head studying biology. But there he was, reading a book titled Political Philosophy he used both hands to hold open. Sophomore year, we shared that boxy space with the view over the walkways and the grassy knoll known as “The Beach,” which we occupied by the hundreds when the weather was warm enough to sit out and chat and flirt and fling a Frisbee around. To do anything for a while but study.

Willie was tall and athletic, with a head of light, bushy hair. He was from a big Irish family on Long Island, New York, a family that, except for its larger size, was a lot like my own in that there wasn’t a lot of money and they didn’t want him to go to the war. I suppose those were good enough reasons to dump our freshman year roommates to share that space together. An obsession with basketball and our budding radicalism were two others.

Willie wore denim shirts and thick-soled construction boots and heavy hooded sweatshirts, though he was in a t-shirt and barefoot that night in our room.

“It’s a circus out there.” I kept my hand on the door knob.

“Leave it open. Time to put this down and let it come to us.”

“Or to let you out to join it is more like it.”

“How’d it go over there?”

“Went as usual. Kicked serious ass. Got everything I needed to done.”

“You mean everything except for that.” The quick flip of his head brought attention to my desk, where half a page of writing was scrolled in my portable Olivetti. I scanned the first few lines of that work-in-progress about hearing McGovern’s speech on the Boston Common. The speech when he made the claim to be tired of gray-haired men sending young people to a war they wouldn’t let their own children go to.

“Tell me, huh, what do you think of that shit?” The Captain had looked at me after he’d said it.

I was impressed, deeply impressed, I’d neglected to tell him and had just smiled instead. Yet, he must have seen I was moved by it from the look of amazement I felt glowing on my face.

The essay would have to be done by Tuesday, and while I had a couple of paragraphs on paper and thousands of words more about it bouncing around my head, I had to fit them all onto two white sheets in a shape that would impress my teacher. I was hoping the rest would come without too much brain strain, or retyping, a painstaking labor I might have to use half a bottle of white-out and lot of manipulation of the paper and release lever to get the revised words aligned in the right places. I was hoping, but typing wasn’t easy for me.

Willie went to his desk and fussed with a pouch of Drum tobacco and a folder of E-Z Wider papers and his cheap pocket-sized Zig Zag cigarette roller. At last he had the tobacco packed just right and he tamped an end down on the desk and used his other hand to dig into his pocket. A thumb struck the silver lighter that made a crisp, satisfying click when he snapped it closed. Thursday night, 9:30, I was antsy to get out, and with the instinct of a homing pigeon Willie knew where I wanted that to be.

“I know you’re thinking you should be drinking at Dixon’s,” he said. A few puffs of residual smoke leaked from his nostrils.

“Picking up Gail on the way?”

“Gonna book. No distractions, she told me. No sugar tonight in my coffee.”

“Well, let us gather the proper documents in case this is the night Mr. D. decides to card us,” I said.

“Never happened. Only paperwork Mr. D. wants to see from us are green on both sides.”

“Still got to have the appropriate identification should The Man come a calling.”

“And the Man’s not calling on Dixon’s unless a white person’s stabbed in there, and more than one.”

“Right-o there, dude. I’m sure it’s happened once or twice. But let’s just go way out in deep space and say The Man does make a visit, he ain’t believing a word on this anyway.” I flashed the fake, though professionally produced, laminated I.D. card me and half of the campus had scored at Beta House for twenty bucks a pop. It was in my back pocket as Willie and I headed for the elevators and went out into the darkening night.

The weather was warm, one of the last mellow nights before the chilly weather kicked in and the wind that whipped off Lake Michigan stung our flesh and the heavy snows fell for hours at a time and put the city’s streets to sleep. Do I know for certain the weather was warm that night or if it was the last temperate day of the year? Or was there a rich, cool autumn breeze in the air? I’m not sure, so I went with the former. And why not? Except for a few surface effects and an embellishment here and there, none of this is made up. What happened is all true, so why not say it was warm outside as we started across the walkways and kept up a quick pace, past the lit windows of the big rectangular-shaped dorm across from ours, where a female shadow passing by a closed window caught my eye, and through an open crack in one next to it my ears filtered out all other sounds as the ding ding ding of a telephone rang out. Soon the Administration Building was behind us and we were on the sidewalks of the North Side with their squalid addresses and dark, grim alleys. It was a neighborhood where all the other lives lived out of public attention. Each walk through it prompted Willie and I to talk about doing anything we could to undermine capitalism, an ideology that accepted the crushing of a thousand for each one it rewarded.

“It ain’t no friend of mine or anyone’s around here,” Willie said.

“Ain’t no friend to any of us at all,” I said to keep the drift going.

“And if it ain’t a friend then it must be an enemy.”

“Right on. If it don’t like us why should we like it?”

“Don’t mean a flying fuck to me.”

“Free enterprise is free for some. Ain’t for just anyone.”

“You’re a poet and you know it.”

“That I am, but I’m no Uncle Sam.”

(2013)

A TIME OF UNRAVELING: from SEVEN SEVEN SEVEN

– from my novel about the stock market crash of 2008-2009

“One of these places should be left to stand or fall on its own.” The Junior Economist was talking to the Head of Equities. They were a few feet from my desk on Consultant’s Row.

I was back sitting there after my walk with Larry. It was an hour before it was time to go out and get a sandwich or salad. Not that I was feeling hungry after the large carrot, beet and apple juice that wasn’t mixing so well in my stomach with Larry’s and my back and forth about a situation that was dominating world news. I couldn’t help hearing the Junior Economist go on some more about cutting off any more rescue efforts by the Administration and Fed. Twenty-five years old, he was a few years out of Columbia and quite unsentimental about the plight of those billions around the globe that capitalism used up and threw out like lunch napkins when it didn’t ignore them completely. And in that way, the thought intruded on me, economists were a lot like surgeons applying the sharpest scalpels to sick patients. They might save them, they might kill them, but I never felt they cared so much about the outcome. It was all about the process instead, interesting and unsure as it might be. And in economics that process would eventually, over time, turn around as it always had.

“They created their own problems and they should stand on their own two feet or go down,” the Junior Economist continued as the Head of Equities gave him his full attention. “No way taxpayers should have to pay for that. You get yourself into something, you get yourself out of it. That’s what we all have to do, so why not them?”

One month later Lehman Brothers Investments had got themselves into it and the help they needed to stay in business wasn’t forthcoming. It was as if the federal agencies and the big banks able to rescue them had been with me on Consultant’s Row and overheard what the Junior Economist had to say and taken his advice. There was even a term going around that was being used to justify it: “moral hazard.” One of those places had to fail to send all the others a message. The finger in the dike holding the water back that would surely drown Lehman would be pulled and just like that the company would be no more. That night on television, it was a Monday night I believe, I sat in front of the t.v. and drank a beer and watched Lehman’s employees carrying boxes of their belongings out of the building up on Seventh Ave. It had been going on all day, that displacement of employees from one of the world’s biggest investment houses, a collapse no one was going to agree to keep afloat another day longer. That reportage was all over Beal’s flat screens and I caught a lot of the nervous laughter and the tinge of fear in the voices on the trading floor, even if, in the days before that, as the Junior Economist had been so emphatic about, letting one of those places go down had been talked about, even suggested in a boastful way, as a way to get the message going around that everyone was responsible for their decisions and only the smartest and fittest should be allowed to survive.

Whatever message was being sent, a confusing time had started, a dreadful time that would change everything. Some kind of universal justice seemed to be descending on a system that was out of control and no one was accountable for. Things were unraveling and sorting out, it seemed to me. The day had come. Jin’s programs and all the programs like them had compounded the problem. Or caused it. Who knew? I sure didn’t. I did know they all passed along assets with nothing backing them up. Nothing. The Hot Potato Theory was still being played out and, as usual, only the suckers ended up holding them.

The unraveling got momentum one day late in 2007 when the nation’s biggest subprime lender sought bankruptcy protection. Then mortgage defaults increased as people couldn’t refinance or sell their depreciating homes. Then Bear Stearns had to bail out one of its hedge funds by loaning it 3.2 billion. Then the credit crisis began; the credit markets froze up and the companies with money to lend no longer wanted to do that. Then the Fed cut interest rates to try to get credit moving. Then Bear Stearns was sold to Citicorp, a company, it would be learned later on, that itself wasn’t in the greatest financial shape. Then the shares of Fannie and Freddie fell dramatically. Then the stock market dropped a few thousand points. Then no one wanted to spend money. No one had any to spend. It had been there, on their bank statements and in their houses and retirement plans, and then it wasn’t. Where did it go? People wondered? I did. I wondered how it happened even as it was happening. I didn’t believe. I didn’t want to believe. How does something that was there dissolve into the air? If the banks were getting short of money then who had it? Where would a habitual bank robber like Willie Sutton go to get a few bags of cash when he needed them? We the people united were puzzled, all of us. That was for sure. Even if it was obvious what was happening. Even if the world was no longer the same and, it was being said, it just might never be the same again.

Maybe you were also worried those days during the middle of the crash. Maybe you were aware more bad news was coming. Maybe not. I don’t see any reason to go into all of those details. I’m pretty sure I mentioned early on this wasn’t a rehashing of those events. I will note in September that year Lehman was caught short with sixty billion in sour real estate holdings and had little to back them up. No company could be found to take them off their hands and take on that debt without guarantees. Government regulators refused to get involved and, after all other routes were closed, Lehman had to file for bankruptcy protection. Then on that Monday of mostly blue skies in New York the people who worked there went into the midtown building to pack up and carry their personal items down to the street and into the lights of the television cameras where they expressed their disbelief. The next day, as I’ve said, stock markets around the world did the same, expressed their disbelief one of their own had been left to fail.

An alien looking down at all of this, trying to figure it out, would, I feel pretty sure, ask themselves how so few people could be allowed to do that to all the others? How could that be when they were the same species and essentially the same community? And then I remembered from my readings how capuchin monkeys would express their outrage when they saw one of their own getting more treats than they and their fellow capuchins were, and not just more, but better quality treats too. I also recalled that ancient cultures responded to internal threats to the broader community by eliminating the problem as a surgeon with the sharpest scalpel lanced a tumor, to send the offenders off on their own or to burn them at a sacrificial stake. Those approaches had changed in these modern times. It wasn’t just in my view that it had changed dramatically. Now, it was clear, there was a reward for depleting the country’s wealth and sending people to the streets and, in the years to come, telling those same people still on the streets to take a hard look in the mirror and blame themselves, that it was they, their neediness to want what they hadn’t earned who were responsible for the system’s failure. The banks and markets had merely responded to that threat the only way they knew how. All the while I wondered just how the hell were they all allowed to get away with it and at the same time continued to live isolated from the world they created?

After Lehman, that same group of men in custom-made suits and shirts, who represented the Fed and Administration and Big Business, men who had been and were rewarded mightily, were back in front of the cameras to say they were going to bail out the banks, a move they were sure would get the economy moving again. It was spoken as if they, in their lofty positions, in positions that had a direct connection to the things that were the problem, had had nothing at all to do with them. As if what had been going on for months was caused by an errant stroke of lightening or random act of nature and had thus been unforeseen and uncontrollable.

The whole time, those months when all that had been built by men and women and all the possibilities implied in it went awry, my head was abuzz as if a thousand bees had nested in it and were searching for a way out. A dizzying, painful, disconcerting feeling I could never fully rest from as if my heart were always racing even when I was asleep. I saw on the faces of others that the same shocking pressure was building in them. And I wondered how many heart attacks had this painful time caused? How many future heart attacks had it set the stage for? How many families had it broken up? How many cases of spousal and child abuse had it generated? How many suicides and long-term cases of depression? How many divorces and cases of alcoholism was it the foundation of? I didn’t know the answers. But I knew the weeks, as they passed, became more confused and difficult to bear. Every day the market dipped. Every day there was talk of the end of it only to have another vicious blow to the wealth and welfare of the nation. Those were outlandish events and days, that was for sure.

(2012)

OF BLOOD AND OIL

– one reaction to the first Gulf War, 1991

This is not so much a report about an involvement in a protest as it is an observation and evaluation of one. My hope is that by now reason and calm have broken out between America and Iraq instead of war. And yet I fear we’re watching bloody images of men and women on both sides slaughtering each other over the price of a barrel of oil.

“I count thirty-four,” he said. “Not what we were hoping for.” He was tall, middle-aged, with red-blonde hair. He wore blue jeans, a heavy beige sweater and dirty running shoes. I didn’t get his name but he feared the military buildup in the Middle East even more than he feared the one in Vietnam. He thought it would make peaceful countries around the world enemies and divide opinion in the States as much, if not more, than had Vietnam. “All U.S. college and university affiliations in Rome, other institutions and friends, friends of friends…were told about this. It may take another terrible war to get them thinking again about what’s important.”

The reports from US and European news media were mostly negative. Neither Bush nor Hussein seemed willing to back down from the threats and counter threats they’d been making as the chief representatives of their countries, and war seemed a certainty on January 15th, the first day United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 authorizes the use of force. Word was being passed along to Americans that if you’re planning to return to the States then you should do it before the UN deadline. American institutions in Italy had already been threatened with attacks in the event of a war.

This protest by Americans living in Rome was held in conjunction with others in Paris, London, Bonn and Geneva. It took place across the street from the American Embassy on Monday, January 7, beginning at noon and ending at two p.m. It was warm, the sun bright; perfect weather. The protestors walked in a circle on the sidewalk on Via Veneto. Factoring in the noise from the putt putt engines of Fiats and Nissans and motorini, it was just within shouting distance of the tall, black iron embassy gates, where carabinieri and polizia protected it from intrusion. Some of the protestors held posters with the expected slogans: NO MORE VIETNAMS; SAY NO WAR IN THE GULF. They broke into a chant now and then: “No blood for oil” was the most popular.

The protest’s organizer was Susan L, an energetic and cheerful woman, who is also a medical doctor. She seemed undisturbed by the small gathering. She distributed leaflets, spoke to the few newspaper and television reporters, and talked to any interested passersby about the importance of showing that opinion in the States and around the world was growing against war.

She handed a leaflet to me. “This outlines our position,” she said. I read: “We condemn as much as anyone the Iraqi ‘annexation’ of Kuwait, and we are no supporters of Saddam Hussein. We support the economic sanctions… We are particularly alarmed at the suddenness with which the military buildup was undertaken… For these reasons we oppose the massive military presence in Kuwait…” And finally, these demands for the President and Congress:

  1. Conduct no military offensive, regardless of the January 15th deadline, and make sure our forces are not provoked into drastic unilateral action.
  2. Continue to support those sanctions voted by the United Nations that fall short of military action.
  3. NEGOTIATE! Seek a diplomatic solution to the current crises that can be supported by our allies. It’s not too late!

“Why are you here?” I asked a short man with brown hair. He wore a gray parka and held out a copy of the leaflet to the cameras, photographers and those walking past. “I don’t think thousands of young people should be killed because two men are having a conflict of egos,” he said.

“That’s been a fact throughout history,” the woman behind him in line said. She was well-dressed, mostly in black, and carried a poster above her head: DON’T ATTACK IRAQ.

A few questions formed I didn’t bother to ask. Why have there always been leaders and a great many people to follow them whenever and wherever they’re asked to go, even if they’re poor and twenty and it’s to their deaths? Why is it leaders, no matter how good or evil, are recorded extensively in the history we read and are taught while the many who build the civilizations they’re given credit for are referred to in only a few lines? The reason, it seemed in that moment, was that the many had succumbed to the egos and ambitions of a few instead of following what was in their own hearts and thoughts.

History has been dissected and analyzed by some of the best minds of each generation, but any lessons or insights that might be drawn from that knowledge seem to go unheeded during confrontations such as the one between America and Iraq. It seemed that if there was one lesson that could be learned it was that individuals and individual events have a will and destiny of their own beyond history’s influence. This confrontation, and the individuals involved in it, were no different. How it’s resolved will depend on those in positions to say yes and no for all. Most I spoke with on this day felt both sides would say yes to war.

It’s inevitable humans will continue to confront and combat one another for power, wealth and pleasure. It seems less likely that they’ll unite to prevent such occurrences.

No one from the embassy came out to acknowledged the protesters, and that seemed expected. At the iron gate carabinieri held their fingers on the triggers of automatic weapons. In the Saudi Arabian desert over 600,000 troops and thousands of tons of hardware, two-thirds of both provided by America, were assembled for the purposes of winning a contest of nerves, or, more likely, a war. Across the street from the American Embassy in Rome thirty-four protestors, who didn’t think the troops or the hardware should be there for the reasons they were, walked in a tight, uneven circle.

When it was over Ms. L told the group, now circled around her, “There’s another march on the 12th. I hope to see you there.”

(1991)

NOVEL IN PROGRESS: from CAMPUSES

It was only that we hadn’t been to anything like it yet ourselves that after school we rushed up to the campus to join the rally. I supposed the students sitting all around us knew that was why we were there even if we didn’t dress like them or didn’t raise our fists and only Michael shouted out while the speaker at the microphone waited for the approving voices to go silent.

The weather was warm that day, it was spring, finally, and the birds sang and shot in and out of the trees and the sleeves of my cheap department store shirt were rolled up to my elbows. We were late getting there and had to find a spot at the back, just a few feet from the frog pond where the grass was damp so we had to sit on our book bags to keep the backs of our pants dry. Out ahead, the students filled the big, wide field, their eyes attentive to the small platform stage with the speakers and microphone, more denim and long hair and beads than we’d ever seen in one place. And there we were in our stiff school clothes and buzz cuts that met Felton High’s strict appearance code. The campus security and police were there too, of course, many of them, and we recognized a few. Sergeant Ryan, whose son Rick was the tight end on the football team and Danny Cardillo, who’d graduated from the high school five years earlier. Overall, it was the kind of event I’d seen plenty of on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The anti-war protests and police barriers and the entertaining posters with slogans and peace signs and doves drawn out in big bold lines.

The speaker wore faded blue jeans and a purplish jersey. At first I didn’t pay much attention to her, my eyes more interested in the coeds in cut-off shorts and halter tops or loose cotton dresses. But her voice was forceful and I saw she’d captivated everyone else and eventually I listened up too. She was black, and the college was the only place we could go to see them in Felton, as if it was a trip to an exotic land we were making. Which it might just as well have been for us in those days. In one hand she held a sheet of paper she glanced at before jerking her head out at the microphone. Her other hand was tightened into a fist she used to hammer at the air. This war was an illegal war, she said. It had no clear goals nor end to it, she said. The Vietnamese people should be left to settle their own affairs, she said.

Imagine that, I thought, tightening my arms around my legs, a female, one not so much older than us saying stuff like that in public. That wasn’t the way I’d been brought up. Women, especially young women, my sister Susan I’m thinking of who was nineteen at the time, weren’t supposed to raise their voices. They weren’t supposed to have opinions or make demands.  And if they did they were called problems or some other names I shouldn’t mention but that were much worse.

Behind me came a tiny plopping sound in the pond, and after a pause the speaker raised her voice and said: “We insist the President tell us the truth about this war. We insist he stop bombing Vietnam’s citizens. We insist he bring our boys home and start bringing them home today…”

We were sixteen that year, from the neighborhood of square blocks with pot-holed streets you got to by going down the hill to the rows of triple-deckers and small, single family homes, with the variety stores and markets and pizza palaces and greasy spoons our families and the students went to for supplies and food.

“Oh, these kids here, they‘re all right, they’re just townies,” one of the students had referred to us as at a party in the Usen Castle we’d crashed one Friday night earlier that year.

She’d said it with a smile, and it didn’t offend us. We knew who we were and there was no making believe it was otherwise. We, I say, referring to me and my friends, Michael and Bobby most notably, who were as fascinated with what went on up on the hill as I was and couldn’t keep away from it just as I couldn’t. Michael with that strange inflection and those far out sentence structures that started people wondering about him “We’s been here over an hours long, no actions a-curred ba‘tween the long-hairs and blue men that those newsies might hunt and gather ta tell to the pop-u-lace,” I recall him saying later that afternoon. And Bobby, red-haired Bobby, with his violent family life and brother Billy on his second tour of duty in that far-off land that was the reason for the event we were attending. In another year he would be the next in his family to suit up and go over there, but unlike Billy he’d make it back standing on his own two feet even if not completely in one whole piece. And there I was sitting between them, nothing so quirky about me and nothing so tragic, a little of both maybe, quirky and tragic, the most normal of us you might say, or at least I was content to give off the appearance of being that way and so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

After more speeches and rallying cries (“Not a son or a gun for Vietnam” “Hell no there’s no way we’re going to go”) the rally broke up without incident and the students went off to their dorms or the library or wherever they went to do whatever they had to, have sex maybe; our interested ears had heard there was plenty of that going on up there.

We took the path through the woods and down the hill and an hour later I was back on Eddy Street, late for the pork chops and side dishes my mother had cooked and that left a fatty, pungent odor in the back stairway I went up. There were four apartments in the building, two on either side, and we lived on the second floor, on the left-hand side as you faced the front with the five cement steps and screened-in porches. I sat on the top step and took off my shoes so I didn’t track any dirt in and save my mother from having a fit with me. “Don’t you ever listen to anything I say,” I could hear her telling me in declarative form. She didn’t tolerate dirt or dust or bugs or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be living with us, anything that might leave a poor impression on neighbors and visiting relatives. She was at the table with my father and sister, finishing dinner. There was a plate and silverware and a paper napkin set up for me at the chair I always sat in, the one with its back to the windows that framed the houses behind us.

“You forget your own phone number?” my mother said. “You know you might have called to tell us where you were and you’re going to be late.”

She was on her feet with my plate in her hand and brought it over to the stove where she used the carving fork to stab at a chop in the frying pan

“He didn’t have a dime, Mom,” Susan said. She sat across from my father with a big grin on her face.

“I was hanging out with Michael and Bobby, that’s all,” I said and started off to my room to change. “We weren’t sure what time it was.”

“Well, why don’t you just wind your wristwatch and you could find that out real easy,” my father joked. But his attempt to lighten the mood failed once again.

(2012)