the museum of americana

a literary review

Passive Trading: A Story of Resistance on Wall Street — Fiction by Matthew Mercier

The new trader is rocking the boat. I knew he would. Listen to this. On his first day, middle of 2007, after the final bell, we invite him out to Scores to watch the girls and the Giants game, but what does he say?

“I prefer not to.”

Look, you hate football and strippers, okay. Or you’re just anti-social, anti-American. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m easy. You want to be left alone? Fine, I’ll oblige. But what kind of turkey says, “I prefer not to?”

What he “prefers” to do—and frankly it’s the only thing keeping his head above water down here—is make money.

He pulls it in. Every week. Gobs of it. He missed being the top earner one month only because he was out sick for a week. And I thought I was hungry. This screwball hardly ever leaves the office, and he’s been crashing in his cubicle—there’s a sleeping bag rolled under his desk. Landlords and security would have a fit if they knew, but I’m no snitch. My good buddy is first in come morning and last here at night, pecking at his keyboard and talking to the screen as if the SMP is talking back. And hey, maybe it is, but our coffers are full and investors are happy, so you’ll get no complaints from me.

Still, he’s a strange one. No family photos on his desk, no ring on the finger, no social life at all. He’s a jockey—five-foot whatever with floppy bangs and the hunched posture of a gargoyle. Maybe that’s why he’s so good. Size matters not in the trenches of finance.

And the floor, let’s be real: the Exchange doesn’t exist anymore, not really. It’s how quickly you swipe, click, type, like, text, tweet, delete, update, refresh and re-jigger. So this guy, he’s a stocks nerd, probably got picked on at recess back in grade school for being good at math but is now reaping the benefits.

Me? I’m the boss. I’m here to work and party, party, party. Maybe I’ll be happy someday, I don’t know. I haven’t truly been happy since my kid brother Mikey won the devil’s lottery and died of cancer at fifteen. I’ve tried to be happy, I want to be happy, but it’s hard. I eat my veggies, drink my milk, keep my head down, and do what I’m told like a good boy. I’m here to make bank, not stir the pot. The easiest way is the best way, you feel me?

But this new guy worries me. He’s an obsessive loner, hunting the big score, the white whale. I believe in money, but I also think you need to enjoy it. Spend it. And quiet people scare me. I can only take so many secrets. We’re a team here, dammit. If he’s skimming the cream or, worse, if he knows something we don’t—a big something—I aim to get in on the ground floor.

So one morning I sidle up to his tree house with coffee and donuts, all friendly. “Hey, what’s shaking, man? Your name is Bart, right?”

He flinches and looks up, pale and frightened, a stand-up who’s suddenly forgotten his jokes. (I used to want to be a comic. Worked this job and the open mic circuit six nights a week and it nearly killed me. Point is, I know the look of flop sweat.)    

“It’s invisible,” he says. “All of it.”

His tie is purple and his shirt is light blue. He’s got yellow stains in his armpits. “What’s that now, chief?”

“Invisible. All invisible.”      

“Invisible. Got it. Maybe you need a coffee first. And how about a donut? Some morning sugar? Give me some sugar baby. You look a plain sort of guy, am I right? Here, saved you a cruller.”      

I go to place the cruller on his desk, but he’s already got an open sleeve of gingernut cookies spilling crumbs into his keyboard. He scowls at the donut as if it’s a turd. Doesn’t even say thank you. Christ, even I say thank you.      

“Now listen, Bart. Is that short for Bartholomew?”

He nods, I think. Just sort of pushes his chin to the ground and silently brings it back up.

“I know we don’t know each other, but you seem like a nice guy. You’re keeping to yourself and that’s cool, but I’m worried. Seems like you’re really working hard, too hard, so if you don’t mind me asking.” I clear my throat and lower my voice. “Is there a special horse we need to place bets on?”

He reaches for a vial in his shirt pocket. Pills. White pills. He pops one in his mouth and swallows it without water. I’ll tell you this, they’re not Tic-Tacs.      

“It’s all invisible,” he murmurs.

“Right, we covered that. What’s invisible?“      

He swallows, looks at me again like he’s touched. “The money.”     

“Oh. Right. Well, sure.“

“And it’s all going to vanish.”

Okay, look, I’ve seen this before. A virgin trader, MBA still fresh from the oven, and he’s suddenly shocked, yes shocked, to find gambling going on in this establishment. You realize all that paper you’re pushing around is so much fairy dust, that it’s all just floating up there in the cloud, the money cloud, and you haven’t touched a red cent in years. You get nervous, find Jesus, and freak out. I had that moment years ago, and either you live with it or you don’t. Most people buck up. The feeling comes and goes like the tides. So when he says this, I go with the flow. I understand him.

“Vanish? Sure. I feel you. What’s taking the plunge today?”

He shakes his head. “All of it.”

“All of it? You need to get specific, Bart.”       

“I prefer not to.”

See? Who says that? He’s depressed. Or repressed. I glance at his screen. He’s looking at housing stuff. Mortgage bundles. Not sexy.  

“The subprime? Seriously? Tell me what’s going on.”

“I prefer not to.”      

“So you won’t share?”

“I prefer not.”

“Fine, you want to split hairs, be my guest. But you forget I’m your boss. You need to trust me.”

“I prefer not to.”

“Wow, at least you’re honest. Look, you’ve lucked out. I’m great to work for, and plus I’ve been here longer than any of these other pricks. I know the system backwards and forwards. You feel me?”

“I prefer not to.”

“Okay, you’re not listening. It’s my fault. I’m not making myself clear. I’m a bloodhound with a nose for trouble and I can tell when somebody on my team is in too deep and you, my friend, are drowning. It’s so obvious. Be lucky that I’ve noticed it first. Plus, I’m your supervisor. If you make a mistake we all go down with the ship. Understand? I need you to be a team player.”

“I prefer…”

“Right, Jesus. Listen. That slogan is just is not going to fly down here. You need friends. Allies. You’re my top dog in here so I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. But if I find out that you’re sitting on something, it’s over. So. What do we need to know?”

“All of it. Invisible.”

“Okay. You’re a broken record.” He’s blowing smoke, I’m sure of it now. “If you feel like confessing, I’m in the corner office. The one overlooking the brick wall.”

How did I let this happen? He was making money, that’s how. If I fire him, I lose some top-drawer talent and somebody else will pick him up, but hell, Bart can’t survive without me. He goes to work for someone else and he’s toast. I don’t do small talk, but other bosses want it, and Bart wouldn’t last one round on the golf course, at the strip club, or the whiskey bar. Hell, if he’s going to advance beyond this office he’s going to have to learn the language of bullshit and brown-nosing. None of this “I prefer not to” garbage.

But maybe he doesn’t want a promotion. I know guys who prefer to be small time. Punch the clock five days a week, do the work, then sit in traffic on the eastbound LIE while their wives cook dinner in their modest three-bedroom in Port Jeff. Except Bart doesn’t have a wife. Or a family. Or a past as far as I can tell. Did we get him on a reference? I forget. Come to think it, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his resume. Which kind of scares me.

Well, screw it. Whatever secret Bart’s got stored in his pipsqueak brain will have to wait until somebody smarter comes along to pry it out of him. For me, he’s a numbers nerd, garden variety.

*

Later that week, my boss comes in, hopping mad.

Every boss has another boss in this brave new world. You know that, right? We’re like those nesting Russian dolls—one under the other under the other. I’m somewhere in the middle. So the big boss calls a meeting, corrals all us grunts into the long room overlooking the East River. Only the major players powwow in here, so I know it’s huge. Maybe we’re all getting laid off. No biggie. I know someone at Lehman who can pick me up if I fall.

But my boss, a Harvard man, this master of the universe, he rolls in with that barrel-chest leading him to the head of the table, and right away I know it’s bad. He’s not wearing a tie and smells of salt water and coconut suntan lotion. Obviously flew straight in from the Hamptons. Blue jeans, sport coat, wrinkled shirt. The flop sweat is gleaming off his cue ball noggin and darkening the triangle of ginger hair framed in his open collar. He keeps scratching it as if it’s poison ivy.      

Then he lays it out. The real estate market, of which we own a giant slice, is about to take a giant dump and we need to get out there with our digital pooper-scoopers and unload, sell, delete, and hide as much shit as we can.

“Any questions?” he says.

He doesn’t really mean this. He doesn’t really want questions. It’s just a formality, a pretense of democracy. But now we’ve got Bart raising his hand like we’re in second grade.

“What is wanted?”

“Sell it all.”

“I prefer not to.”       

Harvard blinks. “Hey. I prefer you don’t either. Just trade—put your head down, make us some money, and snap to attention when I walk in the room. Ha! But seriously, get cracking. I hear you’ve done some good work for us.”

“I prefer not to.”

Harvard caresses the lumpy rings on his fingers. No wedding band. Just bling. He’s fussy about his jewelry. “You don’t want to do good work?”

“I prefer not to.”

“Or you don’t want to do good work for me?”

“I prefer not to.”

“Right. Okay. Lovely. I get it. Look, now is not the time to develop a conscience, son. We’re all a little dirty. The firm is in major trouble. Major. And I need everyone. All hands on deck. So, you’re asking what I want? I want you to clean house. Dump all these toxic bonds. No swaps. We’ll survive if everyone pitches in.”

Bart’s skin is the color of milk and his mouth opens, but nothing comes out. Oh boy, here we go again. I honestly don’t know what this guy is doing in finance. He’s got the brains but not the balls. All of a sudden I get that older brother vibe. I don’t want him to talk, to sound like a baby, the way Mikey always did around girls and adults. I want to protect him, the way I couldn’t protect Mikey, feeble and nervous and dead before he could drive or screw or love.

I lean over the table to offer free advice. “Bart, team player. Remember? Time to man up.”

“I prefer not to.”

Another Cambridge golden boy, who’s only been with us a few months, bursts out laughing. A pair of ladies from Vassar, who are more than a match for their frat boys colleagues, cover their smirking mouths and look at the table. My face gets red. I’m ashamed for my adopted little brother.

Now the boss leans in, takes a cue from me and talks to Bart as if he’s a child.  

“Listen. It’s Bart? Good name. Maybe you didn’t understand. This is non-negotiable. I need you to unload these bonds…”

“I prefer not to.”

Harvard blinks. Again. I’ve never seen the boss speechless. He rolls his tongue in his cheek and looks at me like, “This is your boy?” then dismisses everyone except Bart. We file out, leaving the condemned man to be executed. Through the glass, we can see him sitting alone at the table, playing with his tie, popping a pill, and looking at the ceiling. When the boss finally starts yelling (beware the wrath of the patient man) Bart stares straight ahead. I can see his lips moving, and I imagine it’s more of the same.       

I get the stand he’s taking. I mean, this is a nasty business, but orders are orders, and if the big boss says jump, you jump. I’m sorry, that’s how it works.

By the end of the day, Bart’s gone, bedroll and all. Slips out without a word, leaving us to do the dirty work.

But word spreads about what happened up here. Word spreads about the words Bart used, how he told the boss to politely go to hell in five syllables. So our office, and a few others nearby, suddenly go all Spartacus, with desk jockeys mimicking Bart’s backtalk. I mean, they don’t actually say, “I prefer not to,” (only Bart can say that) but they hum variations on a tune. “I won’t.” “I refuse.” “I can’t.” “Fuck off.” You get the picture.

A few more drones walk the plank until it’s just me and a handful of first mates, swabbing the decks, everyone acting as if the sky is falling.

And then it does.

First, Iceland melts. Overnight. Stocks nosedive 700 points into a cement pool. Fannie and Freddy get divorced and implode. My father’s 401k evaporates. Bernanke and Paulson blow each other on CNN and tell us everything will be fine. And then Lehman and AIG go belly up. Moody’s rated them triple A. The world is turned upside down.   

But the kicker? After I unload all that crap? I’m cut loose. Boss says he can’t afford to keep me, plus Bart was my boy and look at what that fucker started. Unbelievable. I throw a chair and bust a lamp, which earns me an escort for my exit interview. I’m told I’ll never work in this town again, but fuck this city. Fuck this business.The federal reserve is bailing out Bear Stearns and now Lehman is crying for the same life preserver. I say let them drown. They knew the risk. All these so called anti-government self-made men are getting mighty cozy with Washington, and after the Fed buys AIG for $85 billion, that’s the last straw. I make like a wino, trolling Chambers and Battery Park as the end times roll in.

It only gets worse. Morgan Stanley. WaMu. The Auto companies. Only bright spot is Obama. Never thought I’d live to see a black president or the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Why did they have to arrive together?

*  

One afternoon in January, soon after the inauguration, I’m stumbling past Trinity Church and there’s a bum wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on a bench. Bird’s nest beard, white face, glassy eyes—a face that reminds me of my little brother.

“Bart?”

Same blank look, a raccoon in the headlights.

“It’s me. Carl. From the office.”

“I know you,” he whispers, icy breath, “and I have nothing to say to you.”

Wow. He digs deep for something new to say and that’s what I get? Not my fault he’s homeless. But then I realize he’s saying this with a smile.Why the fuck should he be happy? God, the world doesn’t make sense anymore.

“I did it Bart,” I sob. “I did their dirty work. I unloaded all the bonds, all the shit you were looking at, and what do I have for it? Nothing. Nothing!”

“It’s all invisible.”     

“Oh God. Oh God, you’re right. It’s all fairy dust. Fairy dust money. We should go back to the gold standard. The barter system.” I slump next to him on the bench and hold out my flask. “Drink?”

“I prefer not to.”

Of course. Of course…not. It’s the new meme. Brand that shit. Make t-shirts. Start a movement. But look, we all can’t prefer not to. Who’d run the world? China? No. Prefer not to? That’s fairy tale pie in the sky. The adult world needs men who do, and I’ll keep doing. It’ll be okay. We’ll soon have a black prez and I’ll find a new job. Things are okay. They will be okay. I’m sure of it. Tomorrow is a new day, hopefully a cloudy one, with a little bit of sun. We’ll have a happy ending.

God, drinking makes me sentimental. I wish I was twenty-five again. I wish Mikey was alive.

Bart and I walk up to Ground Zero. Seven years later and it’s still a gaping pit. All that humanity, gone in a moment, crushed under invisible money and steel. Listen to me. Invisible money. Buried under invisible money. Vaporized by ghostly stocks and bonds. But it’s true. Now I’m weeping. Why not? It’s too much, this world, this stupid dance we call humanity. Bart saw the collapse coming and he was right to walk out. Maybe I’m a horrible man. A sellout. A fraud.

I wipe my tears, take another shot, and toast the victims. Maybe one day I’ll be as brave as Bart. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage of my convictions, whatever they are. Maybe this moment is a turning point. Maybe I can change, transform. But you know what? Right now?      

I prefer not to.

 

~~~

Matthew Mercier is a writer and storyteller who’s lucky enough to be living on a wild patch of forest and wetlands in upstate New York. He’s worked as a tour guide at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, run a youth hostel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, been slimed as a salmon packer in Naknek, Alaska, provided showers for homeless men on the Bowery, and proudly served four years as docent and caretaker for the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in The Bronx. He earned an MFA from Hunter College, where he taught writing and children’s literature. His stories and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Mississippi ReviewGlimmer Train, Rosebud Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and The Fairy Tale Review. He’s told stories live on stage with The Moth and been heard on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour, as well The Story Collider, RISK, and The Truth podcasts. Most recently, he was awarded the Leon B. Burstein scholarship for Mystery Writing from the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America to complete his first novel, currently titled Poe & I, based on his time in The Bronx with Edgar.