Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bon-bons in the small, hot room.

I stepped out of the elevator and expected to see polished mahogany walls, leather furniture and an attractive but protective receptionist behind a huge desk. Instead, the elevator doors opened into a huge room that was chopped into smaller spaces by cubicle walls. In fact when I stepped out, I nearly bumped into a cubicle wall that extended without break in either direction as far as I could see. Apparently space was very expensive on Wall Street and not a bit was wasted on aesthetics.

There were no overhead lights on, but there was a glow. The glow of hundreds of computer screens.

I heard screams and clacking keyboards coming from the other side of the cubicle walls. It was disorienting. I followed along the wall for some time, lost, and was relieved when my friend 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 except one older man who had an entire wall and six monitors to himself. When I entered, not one person looked up to acknowledge that a new person had entered the room. Instead, the older man 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 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 but it was all gibberish. 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 a couple of other guys in the room. 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 so that no mistakes were made. So, for example, GI wasn't called out as Giant Industries, it might be called out as "Gay Indian". DF wasn't Dean Foods, it morphed into "Dick Face".

The guy who sat in the corner, a mathematics whiz, began to react to a trade he was involved in. He was short 3000 shares of a bank stock. He called me over. We watched the stock tick lower and I saw how his p&l increased with each trade down (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 and I 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.

I left a couple of hours later, squinting into the sunlight. It was warm and I decided to walk back to my apartment even though it was all the way uptown. 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 had a look on my face. I was contemplating a career change. I had a whiff of freedom there in that small dark room. When I would return a few weeks later to sit in again, I would catch a whiff of something altogether different but nonetheless compelling.