Brian MacMillan

City of Rats

BM City of Rats

City of Rats

This story is a very fictionalized account of my time at Lehman Brothers in the years around the Millenium (1999-2001).

Chapter 1: The Nonsense Virus

The subway ride downtown is as much of a circus as usual. This morning’s entertainment involves a slightly nasty competition between a busker who is playing for tips and a gospel singer who is performing for free to advertise her church in Astoria. Fortunately, the hostilities are limited to looks and not deeds so I easily remain detached.

The jostle caused by the train leaving City Hall station allows me to read a headline over a nearby shoulder: US adds $3 trillion to economy, year to date. I think, “One entire Canada and one quarter to go”. Unbelievable. The companion story laments traffic congestion in the Tri-state area.

Our train screeches into Fulton St. station and half-empties. The rest of the passengers will get out at Wall Street, the next stop. At the exit turnstiles, the passengers from my overcrowded train mix with passengers from 10 others, the locals maneuvering for minor positional advantages in order to exit as fast as possible. I loose this round of turnstile arbitrage to a large black woman and her wide-eyed child, which is just as well because the child looks like he is about to die from fright.

Once out of the subway I figure I’ll easily see the World Trade Center. I can’t. All that I see is a cluster of grungy, though ornate, retail buildings on Dey Street. I catch a headline from CNN news, on a television in a bar window: record volumes result in record highs on both NASDAQ and NYSE. I follow a swollen stream of people west across Broadway, and then the Twin Towers swing into view. They are huge, more so in contrast with the small, beat-up walk-ups around me. The crowd pushes me westward past Century 21 and across Church St. I flow through the WTC plaza, the book store Borders is on my right and a silver and gold sculpture of a meteorite on my left. I enter the North Tower through an anonymous, though impressively arched alcove. I take the escalator down into the shopping concourse where security is located. The concourse is a clone of every rich mall in America, with striking exceptions. In the heart of the main promenade there is a bank of escalators to the Port Authority trains up which cascades an endless, well-dressed stream of commuters from New Jersey. More people than I’ve ever seen before, and they keep coming. On the north-east corner there is a microscopic shoe store in which there are sales people wearing head-mounted microphones. Two people standing side by side with outstretched arms can touch facing walls and they have head mounted microphones. They probably have a direct connection with the vanity store’s owner. I imagine one sales-model reporting through her headset, “Honey, we just sold one pair of shoes and a handbag in New York. You can buy that hacienda now.”

Security is the tightest I’ve experienced outside of Germany, and just as efficient. Before I know it I’ve got a temporary photo id and am on an express interior elevator to the 38th floor. There is no reception. Of course. Information Technology never has admins. Except the CIOs. My photo-id doesn’t work on the scanners near the frosted doors, so I sneak into the offices behind some soon-to-be co-workers.

I’m intercepted by Debbie from Human Resources, who is primly, yet sexily dressed in a pin-striped blue blazer, skirt and white stockings. We’re both exactly on time.

She’s too efficient to introduce herself. She curtly says, “Now that you’ve passed your drug test…”

“I studied hard.”

“… all you have to do now is sign some papers. Here’s your contract.” She manages to be both brusque and desultory when she adds, “Welcome to the team”. Up until this moment I thought I’d just scored by landing this job, but her manner makes me feel like a loser. Nevertheless, I move to shake her hand, which I understand is appropriate whenever being welcomed to a team. She puts a letter into my proffered hand, on which I can see typed my three sentence long contract.

The typewriting – from an IBM Selectric typewriter – disturbs me, given my career goal of working with cutting edge technology, so I scan Debbie quickly looking for contemporary technology. I notice the tip of a cellphone peaking up out of the rim of breast pocket, and, to my surprise a pager nestled beside it. It had never occurred to me that a mid-level HR employee would need a pager. Is there ever that kind of urgency to hire … or fire, I wonder? The sinister thought lingers while I read what I’m about to sign.

Brothers International Enterprises (BIE) agrees to hire Patrick Coffey for $115,000 per year (US dollars); BIE may supplement Mr. Coffey’s salary with a bonus. For 1999, this bonus is guaranteed to be at least $15,000. Either party to this agreement can terminate it at any time, with no cause.

The last line makes me think of Debbie’s pager.

I pretend to read the dozens of pages of Compliance documents that are attached to the contract. I know what they say, “BIE owns everything that I do. If I fuck up they’ll fire me and don’t talk about business to anyone, least of all the investment bankers. I sign the last page, with a heave and a contortion that would make my personal trainer proud. With that, we’re done. I set out to find the so-called ‘fishbowl’, where I’ve been told my new office is located.

I follow the smell of stale farts and acidic coffee to a beverage station where I figure I can get both a coffee and directions. The lighting makes most people look sickly though the WASPS, with fair hair and skin, do look striking. It makes sense, given that this is their habitat. I impatiently wait in line as an overweight blond-haired man in a blue pinstripe suit with red braces fills a one liter Dunkin’ Donuts coffee mug with French Roast made on the espresso setting, to which he then methodically adds 5 packets of sugar. My powers of detection identify him as one of the contributors to the office’s methane problem.

As I prepare my own mug of strong coffee, I ask liter-of-espresso-man for directions to the fishbowl. He smiles knowingly (let-us-say-a-prayer for those less fortunate than us) then points north. I know its north because I can see Tribeca through the distant windows.

Although the gray, black and white décor is forgettable, the view outside the 15 foot high windows is terrific, though depressing. Metro News is right: today traffic congestion is general in the tri-state area. As I approach the northern windows I can see cars flow ever so slowly along highway 278 in Brooklyn and a mirror image of the BQE traffic jam on the FDR. The Brooklyn Bridge, joining the two highways, looks like a still-life. On the west side I see cars crawling north along the Hudson in a slow down that probably reaches to the Tappan See Bridge. In the far west I imagine that I can see the Meadowlands through a fog of roads and smog and airplanes.

The fishbowl is a seven metre square glass-enclosed room on the first isle beside the north windows. It makes no sense architecturally, but is enclosed for security reasons. Inside there are direct telecommunications connections to a dozen different exchanges on four continents, as well as to our trading floor on the 37th floor, and the Stock Exchanges all around us. The security concern is more that someone will trip and unplug a key computer in the middle of a batch, than hack something with a stolen password.

The fishbowl is so named because of its walls made of glass. Because very little about the work being done in this room is automated, yet, and yet it is so important there is always a human present and the boss, Ashulm, with his tinted mirror corner office, wants to make sure no one is slacking off. I enter noticed but not commented on. It is surrounded on all sides by windows only partially blocked by stacks of computer hardware.

“What’s going on?” The question comes from Ashulm, the guy with mirrored shades for an office. I inadvertently pushed him behind the door as I entered. In the half-shadows he looks like a stick drawing of a mean man: he has a spiky military haircut, horned-rimmed eyebrows and is wearing an expensive 30’s style suit that hangs poorly on his angular frame. His shoulders are elevated almost to the level of his chin, and rise and fall as he speaks.

The angles slide from Ashulm’s frame to the man beside him, Janus, whom I recognize from the second interview. Janus is shaped like a linebacker, so he is built of right angles, whereas Ashulm’s angles are acute. Janus too is dressed in Brook’s Brothers retro, though he makes a better Gatsby than Ashulm. (Ashulm makes me think of Warren Harding.)

The angles theme ends abruptly on the curvaceous torso of Opia, whom I met in the first interview. Though dressed in the same blue pin-striped uniform as Debbie, she manages to look both sexier and more austere. At least from behind. She is standing in front of a mainframe terminal, with her back to me. Beside her on a metal rack, within easy reach of her right hand, is a nest of branded accessories. She abruptly turns around to greet me, which stirs the air up enough that I can smell her perfume. Opium. We lightly shake hands; I vaguely bow. She responds by vaguely curtsying, and then turns back to her work.

My eyes continue to linger on Opia for several moments more. Fortunately my aural cache is still working. Despite a several second processing delay I realize that Ashulm is snarling at me. I blink stupidly. He’s just asked me what I know about nonsense.

In my book, two consecutive stupid blinks is more than sufficient for any encounter with a boss, but Ashulm’s comment mystifies me so I throw in a couple of stunned flutters for good measure. My savior is Lance, from interviews one, two and three, who prompts me with the word “virus”, which he lip syncs. Lance is the most comfortable looking man I have ever met. He doesn’t give the impression of someone who is comfortable because he has found his habitat, so much as someone who could be comfortable almost anywhere because he knows how to make places his own. Which he has indeed done in the fishbowl, if the surround-sound speaker system quietly playing Dark Side of the Moon is any indication. He flashes me a peace sign by way of greeting, and nods once, encouragingly, which I interpret as a vote of confidence in my ability to figure out what Ansulm is talking about.

I can and I do.

There’s been another virus attack. I’ve heard about it. The Nonsense Virus.

I remember thinking when the Melissa virus crippled Wall Street at the end of March that this was an event digital biologists would be talking about until the end of time. The first of many.

Here was episode number 2. I wondered if it would be as memorable.

The Nonsense virus is nasty because it scrambles data, but never adds or subtracts it. Most of the time its damage isn’t visible at all.

Realizing this, I say, “So all your check-sums work, even with invalid data. It could be worse.”

Peace Sign Lance smiles in a wan way that suggests it could be far better.

“How many trades are affected, and what’s your damage rate?”, I ask.

“1 million and we hope a damage rate of 1 percent.”

Ashulm’s snarly voice is less carnivorous now that he senses we have a plan, “Those errors are your 10,000 needles to search for. Fix those first, but all trades need to be verified. Achilles, restore Fixed Income from last night’s backup. Opia, continue working with our counter-parties to set up tests for our fail over. I’ll get you some help from Settlement.” As Ashulm speaks, Opia crosses between him and me. Strangely, her shadow seems to illuminate him rather than casting him further into darkness. I notice his red eyes, and the band of gray, mottled skin which encircles them. He’s not going home to sleep, though he needs it. Ashulm affectionately pats Opia on the back and turns to go. I notice that the tension in his neck and upper back has raised his shoulders up toward his ears.

He hrrmphs as he leaves. And then stops and turns to face us, the left side of his face in the shadow of the door. “Don’t think for a moment this is a trivial problem. It is not! Its an existential threat. Banks like rules. We get rich by making them. These viruses are anarchy and they’ve got to stop.”

32 hours later, blank eyed and barely able to move I slog along Dey St. to the Fulton St. subway station. Just west of Broadway I pass by a car that has fallen halfway into a hole in the pavement, out of which is hissing a cloud of steam. A couple of city workers are hanging around the orange pylons surrounding the scene, pointing at it and laughing. What else is there to do? The hole has been punched into what is probably the gnarliest piece of transit in this city of fucked up infrastructure: it goes down past the ACE, NR, JMZ, 2/3 and 4/5 subway lines, doubtless intersecting with one or two levels of hell on the way. Someone else’s infrastructure problem. I still have enough energy to smile, but don’t stop to look in case I’m too tired to start walking again.

I stumble upon a rat who has misjudged his scurry path and rebounded from my shoe into the hole I just passed. I’m surprised to realize that I’m more curious about where the rat just scurried to than revolted that it just bumped in to my foot. The workers are looking the other way so I walk through the security pylons and peer into the hole, looking for the rat. At first I don’t see it, then I spot a dozen proxies or more, depending on whether the clusters of white lights I see everywhere are eyes or reflections, peeking out through a mesh of structures down to where I know there is bedrock. A city of rats built on granite.

All the dingy shops at the subway entrance are closed and Fulton St. station is deserted except for a homeless woman who is fastidiously applying makeup, and a twitchy black man with gray, curly hair who I assume is her boyfriend. My metro-card is empty, there is no attendant and the card machines are broken. I just don’t have the energy for this. Fuck fuck fuck. Twitchy man approaches. “I’ll sell ya ride.”

“How much?”

“$1.50”.

$1.50 for one ride. Exactly what it would cost me to buy a token. I give him $2.00 and let him keep the change he claims not to have. He scans me in. Good trade.

The subway ride is mercifully, though terrifying fast. I exit through the main hall at Grand Central and take my glorious end-of-day walk home down Lexington, past the Chrysler building on my left and the Chanin building on my right. Lex turns residential at 41st St. Two blocks of brownstones later and I’m home.

Crazy Dewey is sitting on the stoop eating an ice cream crêpe that my roommate Earl has doubtless just given to him. He is tapping out a complex beat, as usual. “Hey Dewey”, I say. “Hey” he replies. I wonder if he even recognizes me. I nod as I walk up the stairs and open the door. The main entrance way is full of marijuana smoke. Earl and Gina are in good spirits, methodically preparing a tremendous meal of grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches with made-from-scratch ice cream crêpes for desert. The cooks are huddled around the stove with their backs to me.
I hear muffled sounds from Troy’s room – he’s probably fucking his boyfriend Angel. I discretely enter the kitchen, open my nightcap beer and exit through the living room to my bedroom with the sound of “Want some bacon?” trailing behind me.

“Naw. I’m beat. ‘Night.”

I don’t turn on the light. Still mostly clothed, I do a face plant onto my bed. My shoes fall off my feet onto the floor. I close my eyes. They pop open. I desperately try to catch some sleep. Even though my mind is moving at a million miles an hour I don’t succeed until moments before dawn.

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