published in Volume 6, Issue 4 on December 31st, 1999
The reception area of Hibbert-Burns Securities is festive as young guys in conservative suits and psychedelic ties excitedly discuss the coming games.
"I’m giving two-to-one odds on Robinson’s Jack Dempsey," says Delamater, an overweight, ex-semi-pro hockey hopeful.
"You’re going down, Delamater!" says Robinson, the firm’s token black man.
"There’s no way," says O’Brien, " that a Jack Dempsey can beat a South American cichlid of equal size, especially when the cichlid has home field advantage."
Everyone listens to O’Brien because he’s the firm’s expert on aggressive, territiorial fish.
"Let the games begin!" says Lou Wosniak, the branch manager. He enters the reception area nervously bobbing his head and holding a mug of coffee. The mug looks like it’s made of money. So does Lou.
Robinson holds his fish above his head, in a plastic baggie full of water, clear except for a few worm-like fish turds.
"Last chance to take the underdog," he says.
"Wait a minute, you gotta let the visiting team aclimate a little," says Lopez, the firm’s token Hispanic, ex-insurance agent. "You gotta let the Dempsey get used to the water and hold back the cichlid."
"What do you think homefield advantage is?" asks Lou. "Dump the Dempsey into
the tank. My cichlid’s gonna win anyway. Let’s get this over with, we got work to do."
Robinson opens the baggie and pours the Dempsey into the fish tank next to the receptionist’s desk. She’s trying to talk with a client while the brokers cheer with the prospect of seeing fish gladiators in battle.
The Dempsey is disoriented when he goes into the fish tank, and the cichlid, after sizing him up for a few seconds, attacks with a fury, battering the Dempsey repeatedly, sending its scales, the debris of battle, throughout the tank. Within two minutes, the battle is over; the Dempsey is floating around at odd angles, punchdrunk. As Robinson rescues his fish with a net, the cichlid makes one more joust, latching onto the net and not letting go until the net is out of the water.
The stockbrokers, meanwhile, are animated, and after the Dempsey’s defeat they happily relive the fight in their conversation as Delamater collects money from a few of them. Lou disappears and returns a second later with a baggie full of guppies.
"To the victor goes the spoils!" he says, as he pours them into the tank, amid backslapping enthusiasts. The cichlid comes out of its cave and quickly devours three guppies, whole, and everybody cheers. It catches one more with a little more effort, then, after a fifteen second break, it takes down one final guppy, is unable to swallow it all, and the guppy’s tail sticks out of its mouth while it swims around, bloated.
"Bastard can really pack ‘em in!" says Wiggins, an unsuccessful broker who’s about to be terminated.
"He’s smoking the big cigar of success," says Delamater, who lights up his own.
"All right, all right, enough of this!" says Lou. "Susie, the coffee pot’s empty. I told you to keep it filled, I want my brokers to have coffee available at every moment of the day."
"Sorry Lou," she says, in a cute little voice. "That was Mr. Spinelli on the phone. He wants you to get back with him as soon as possible."
"Yeah, yeah," says Lou.
"Did you bury him, Lou?" asks Delamater.
"Slightly," says Lou. "I fed him 100,000 New Care warrants last week."
"Ouch," says Delamater, giggling. "Good chop, though."
Lou wiggles his fingers to show that he made a lot of money despite screwing a client.
"All right, guys, I want you to get on it. You’ve had your fun, you’re all fired up now, get on the phone and sell stock."
The crowd disperses except for a few of the guys who like to linger around Susie, and we all get back on the phones.
"So you work in this place?"
The question was put to Kevin as though it were a statement.
"Unbelievable, isn’t it?"
Doug exhaled smoke from his cigarette and shook his head.
"Have you made any money yet?"
"No, nothing," said Kevin. "But there’s money to be made. Some of these guys are young, really young. Just out of school young, and they’re driving around in Porsches and telling me unbelievable stories about rags to riches in six months. Of course, a lot of them get fired."
"For their own sake—that’s what Lou says, anyway—they’re not producing, and with a commission-only means of livelihood…"
"Oooh, they’re not producing," said Doug. "The dogs should be shot for not producing. Producing what, movies?"
"For not generating business," said Kevin. "Not making transactions."
"What’s this language you’re using all of a sudden? A month ago you’re an actor at a dinner theater, when you’re lucky, and a clerk at the Seven-Eleven when you’re not—in either case you’re starving—and now, after a crash course in financial wizardry and three days on Wall Street you’re using language right out of the business section of the newspaper."
"It’s not like ‘producing’ and ‘transactions’ are big words, Doug. And the office is on Bramble Lane, not Wall Street."
"Well," said Doug, crushing out his filterless, generic-brand cigarette, "I hope this fancy new job of yours doesn’t turn you into some kind of a financial dickhead, as opposed to being a mere theatrical dickhead."
"The fact that you’ve referred to me as a theatrical, rather than an ordinary dickhead, pays me a great compliment."
"Ordinary dickhead is what I meant," said Doug.
Doug Truman was an actor, a student, and a laborer for a concrete company. He was still a student at twenty-nine because he was working on yet another major—American literature this time—after acquiring majors in philosophy, theatre, and art. None of them had proved to be financially fruitful, so he’d gone into construction labor at twenty-four to supplement his student grant/ loan income. He enjoyed the work because his crew was made up of pot smokers and malcontents; people he got on well with.
He sat on the stained and mildewed couch of his living room, darkened at midday because its sole window was covered by an immense bookshelf, and because he was averse to well-lit rooms. The glow of the silenced television provided the only lighting, and its sheen danced on their faces.
"So they actually gather in this stockbroker place to watch, even bet on fish fights?" asked Doug, tilting back a Budweiser.
"Bizarre, isn’t it?"
"And you’re okay with working in this place?"
"Sure," said Kevin. "I doubt the guys at Merril-Lynch have half as much fun."
"Uh, huh. You’ll be back at the Seven-Eleven selling Big Gulps and Doritos before you know it," said Doug, rising from the couch and working his way through the shadows to the naturally lit kitchen, piled high with dishes. "I’ll bet you’ll go for a week or two without selling a single share of… whatever it is, and what’s-his-name will fire you for not producing. Another beer?"
"Sure," said Kevin. Kevin sat in the armchair facing Doug’s only other room, the bedroom, equally dim. He tossed his empty beer can into the small pail already overflowing with beer cans from the last two visits. "Well, who cares? What have I got to lose? It’s worth a try, and it might make me rich."
Doug re-entered the cave with two beers and a bag of potato chips. "First of all, you’ve got your integrity to lose, then you’ve got the $400 for your license, two weeks’ lost wages, and the missed opportunity for that part you wanted with the Valley Players to lose."
He tossed a beer to Kevin, opened the chips, and set them in front of the TV, where Big Ed from Big Ed’s Used Cars was frantically pantomiming to get their attention.
"Second," he continued, "you’ve got as much businessman in you as I’ve got. You’re not going to pick up the phone, talk to some strange, wealthy investor, and convince him that he should invest in something that you, polyester pantalooned, second-hand shirted, snap-on tied and Goodwill shoed Kevin McDougall suggest he should invest in. What are you going to do when Mr. Bigwig J. Investor asks about your background? ‘Uh, well, at the Seven-Eleven I had to count out change;’ or when he wants to meet you for a martini, and you show up in your smoke-belching ’76 Grand Prix and your previously described wardrobe? You can still audition for the part of Tom in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ which you were ranting and raving about before this maniacal conversion to Darwinian tooth and claw, suit and tie, frenzied fish fighting bread and circuses stockbrokering because of a ‘help-wanted’ ad in the local newspaper."
"How often does one find an ad in the ‘help wanted’ section asking for stockbrokers without experience? I’m a stockbroker now, Doug, a stockbroker. Next time Ma calls I can say…"
"I know, I know. You can say, ‘Look Ma, I sell stock after watching fish battle to the death at the Coliseum.’ She’ll be proud of her boy."
An old Western with John Wayne and Glen Campbell flickered on TV. For a minute or two, the two of them forgot about everything as John Wayne, with feet propped up on a table, shot a rat that scampered along the base of a wall. With his gun still smoking, a Toyota commercial came on.
"Look, Doug," said Kevin, "I’m never going to amount to anything being an actor. We both know that."
"So true, my friend, yet there’s a certain tragic dignity in never amounting to anything in the art world. Look at us, in this professional student’s abode, pure in our aims, like nuns in poverty, devoted to God, our God being the theatre, our chastity being against our will, and a direct result of our poverty… the Delphic oracle says we will die forgotten, unknown; yet we struggle tragically to overcome our destiny, perhaps, somehow, in the struggle fulfilling our base ends."
"Well, you can play the part of Oedipus, but…"
"But you can play the part of Willy Loman, Kevin, because in giving up the theatre and taking up selling stock you’re not going to avoid tragedy, you’re just going to make it pathetic."
Again, there was a brief pause in the conversation as bikini-clad women waved from an isolated butte in Utah while surrounding two men with a cooler full of beer.
"I know a guy who almost made it into that series of commercials," said Kevin.
"No shit?" said Doug.
"Really," said Kevin. "Anyway, all right, you play Oedipus and I’ll play Willy Loman, and we’ll see who brings the house down."
"Yeah," said Doug. "We’ll see."
Other than Lou, Delamater is the best in the office, because he’s absolutely unafraid to ask for an order. He sits back in his chair, feet on his desk, and tells somebody on the other end to buy 10,000 shares of Yummy Cakes because the fledgling company is a prime takeover candidate, which is bullshit. He sounds so sure of himself, however, that he gets the order, and when he gets it, he doesn’t blink an eye. He walks over to Lopez or O’Brien and gets a high five from them, but he doesn’t get all excited like the other brokers do if they sell a smidgeon of stock that’ll pay for their gas.
"What’s the matter with you guys!" says Lou, bouncing in. "Why’s it always so quiet in here? You’re not a bunch of financial anal-ists, you’re stockbrokers! Stockbrokers don’t make recommendations, they sell stock! Get on the phones! Get on your feet! I want everybody working on Yummy Cakes—it’s a good little company that’ll probably show some upward movement but if you don’t open new accounts and get people involved they’re not gonna be able to thank you later and ask for more business…"
As Lou goes into his speech, brokers stand up and pick up the phone—the cords are extra long so that the brokers can walk halfway across the office and get themselves worked up—and they make honest efforts at selling stock, but they don’t have the icy sincerity that Delamater has and they sound like they’re trying to sell something and nobody buys.
It’s a brand new office, and most of the brokers are inexperienced, and the lack of production continues for weeks before Sol Rothstein arrives with the script.
The script comes from the firm’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, where Lou Wosniak learned the trade after leaving the surfboard business. Boca Raton is full of big-gun brokers; guys who gross $30-40,000 a month and have their own personal cold-callers, secretaries, offices. And among them Sol Rothstein is a legend, a guy who showed up three years ago running away from bill collectors; a guy who’d sold everything salable and been good at it but better at spending more than he made. But Sol found that by selling stock he could out-earn his spending habits, and he became known as a legend because of three things: he did business on two phones at once, he fired clients that didn’t buy what he told them to buy, and he was an account-opening machine who followed, word for word, the script designed by Hibbert and Burns themselves.
That morning when everybody strolls into the office, Sol Rothstein is sitting at an empty desk. Nobody knows who he is, and because Lou never shows up until 9:30, nobody goes to work until 9:25. Until then, everybody talks about football betting lines, or they read the paper; Delamater has a brief chat with his bookie on the phone before walking up to Sol and saying, "Can I help you with something?"
Sol doesn’t say a word; he just sits there with a scowl. Delamater stands there for a moment, shrugs, and walks away.
Then somebody, Robinson, notices that, piled atop each quad computer—a quad is a group of four desks shaped like a +, with a computer in the center that gives real-time stock quotations, called a Quotron—atop each Quotron is a stack of scripts, one for each broker.
"Yeah," says Delamater, already working his way into the firm’s inner circle, "these are the scripts they use in Boca."
"You’re not gonna hear me using some script," says Peters, the newest guy in the office.
Robinson takes the scripts from his quad and throws them into the garbage. A few of the other brokers make a weak attempt at using the scripts, but they sound like they’re reading scripts and they’re hung-up on. Even Delamater sounds weak using the script—mechanical—and as he’s feebly ending a conversation with an uninterested prospect, Lou walks in and sees Sol.
"Sol, how are ya?" he asks.
"Your brokers really suck," says Sol. "I’m not gonna waste my time with these guys."
The brokers all silently mouth various profane words to diplay their dumbfoundedness, and Robinson quietly takes the scripts out of the trash, uncrumpling them. Delamater points to Sol Rothstein sideways, with his thumb, and silently mouths "Sol Rothstein" to the rest of the office.
"That’s right Delamater," says Lou, "Sol Rothstein. They suck, huh?" Lou asks Sol.
"They’re pathetic wimps. They’re all fuckin’ afraid to pick up the phone. You said you had one decent broker, Lou. Which one is the decent one?"
Lou hesitantly walks over to Delamater, stands behind him, and puts his hand on his shoulder. Delamater leans back in his chair with his hands folded on his big belly. He’s the man.
"Jesus Christ, Lou, this office is gonna fold. Your ‘decent’ broker spends his morning talking to bookies. He sells stock like an anal-ist. You’re going belly up, like that fish I saw in the reception area."
"My fish is belly up?" Lou asks. "Susie! Is my fish dead?"
"Yeah!" shouts Susie.
"Shit!" says Lou. Lou’s really in a bad mood now. "All right, listen," he says to the brokers, "Sol, here, is gonna do us all a big favor, aren’t you, Sol?"
Sol rubs his eyes for a few seconds before answering. "I really can’t write off this trip as a business expense unless I do… yeah, I’ll do you a favor. What do you want me to do, train ‘em?"
"Sol," says Lou, "please, please train these guys."
The brokers maintain their silence, looking at each other like bad little boys, swallowing hard.
"All right, " says Sol, "can I use your office?"
"Sure," says Lou, without conviction. He’s no longer in control.
"Give me three bodies… and bring your scripts!" says Sol.
Lou volunteers Robinson, Peters and Grimaldi, and they silently file into Lou’s plexi-glassed office—‘The fish bowl,’ it’s called. They carry their de-crumpled, de-trashed scripts with them. Sol closes the door behind them, and shuts the blinds. My last impression of them is of three wide-eyed, terror-stricken boys. As Lou runs out to investigate his cichlid’s death, I get on the phone, motivated by fear, glad that I wasn’t selected to go in with the first wave.
But you did have to go in, eventually?"
As always, Doug’s question sounded like a statement.
"Yeah, I did," said Kevin.
The two of them were in Doug’s apartment, in their usual places, in the usual darkness. As always, the television illuminated their faces, which met with Budweisers at regular intervals. Pee Wee Herman pranced about the TV screen in the usual silence. The two of them paused, enthralled by the strangeness of the boy-man.
"If you take away the children’s-program aspect, it’s like experimental theatre," said Doug.
"I always wanted a part like that," said Kevin.
"Well, Kevin, if you consider this stockbroker thing for what it is, then you’ve got a part like that."
"It’s funny that you should mention that," said Kevin, "because after being trained by the legendary Sol Rothstein, I was struck with the realization that successful stock selling is, in fact, the direct result of a brilliant stage performance; and I’m not speaking metaphorically here about acting, in general, like a businessman. What I mean is that each phone call is a complete performance. Off the phone I’m backstage; on the phone I’m Kevin McDougall, in the limelight, acting out the part of Mr. MegaBroker, and the guy on the other end is merely another actor, who, in one performance, buys, and in another, doesn’t. When I hang up I lose the Mr. MegaBroker identity, and I prepare for the next performance."
"This guy, Sol, led you to some kind of profound insight. Is that what you’re telling me?" asked Doug.
His face pointed towards Kevin, but he was watching a commercial from the corners of his eyes. On the commercial were two boys holding armor-clad robot men, one representing good, the other representing evil. The good robot man blasted the evil one with a nuclear hydrogen blaster, and the evil one dropped dead as both kids cheered.
"If I were the kid with the mean monster, I would make it immortal," said Kevin.
"That’s because you’ve chosen the dark side," said Doug.
"Yes, well, Sol ‘Darth Vader’ Rothstein is my master, because I have, in fact, made over $1400 this week, and opened nine accounts."
Doug said nothing with this revelation, but looked at Kevin with a look that could have been disbelief, displeasure, even interest. He pulled a generic filterless from his white cigarette pack with black labeling, and when he lit it, the glow revealed eyes that penetrated Kevin’s soul.
In response, Kevin drank down half a can of beer in a single tilt, and belched.
Finally, Doug said, "So what, exactly, happened behind the closed door and shuttered plexi-glass walls of Lou’s ‘fishbowl’?"
Kevin leaned forward in his chair, while Doug reclined on his couch with legs crossed, cigarette in hand.
"The man," said Kevin, "is an actor, and the life he’s spent as a salesman, or the life he thinks he’s spent as a salesman, has, in fact, been the life of an actor, and a very good one."
"So big deal, he puts on an act on the phone, so what? That doesn’t make him an actor."
"Doug, listen. He told us, in so many words, to drop the non-profitable act of the friendly financial advisor, and to assume the very pointed, intensive, performance centered… audition, to put it into my own words."
"Each phone call is an audition," said Doug, "and if you are good, you get the part, the part being stock sold."
"Exactly," said Kevin. "But Sol didn’t just give us a theory to work with. He had us go through this script, each of us, word for word, and he coached us like a meticulous director who knows how to use every word to suck in an audience."
"For example…" said Doug.
"For example, first we’ve cold-called these guys, so we know that they’re market players. Hibbert-Burns sends them a market newsletter with a recommendation, something the firm is pushing…"
"Just get to the meticulous directing, Kevin. I don’t understand this market player firm pushing blah blah blah."
"All right, all right, so now we’re calling these guys to make some money. They pick up the phone. ‘Hi, Mr. Jones?’ I ask congenially. ‘Yeah?’ says Mr. Jones. I identify myself. I can hear the guy sigh. ‘The reason I’m calling,’ I say, ‘is because I contacted you previously and I promised I’d get back with you when I had a major market recommendation.’
Now, if the signals are good, I keep going with my pleasant, but firm manner, but at this point the signals are nearly always negative. Different signals, different acting. The guy says, ‘Thanks, but I’m not really interested right now.’ This, says Sol, is where you have to grab the guy. At this point, you either make the sale or lose it. Most people make a weak second attempt at this point, like, ‘But Mr. Jones, I’m sure you’ll find this very interesting,’ at which time Mr. Jones says, ‘No thanks. Bye.’ Click. Dial tone. But what does Sol have us practice over and over until we’ve all got it right?"
"I’m absolutely dying to find out," said Doug. "You’ve kept me in suspense for long enough."
"I love this part. Rather than coming across as being apologetic, or pushy, or anything else salesmen generally come across as, you tear into the guy. ‘Look Mr. Jones! I’m certainly not calling you to waste my time!’ You can almost hear the guy’s jaw drop open, and he may answer with, ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ve got something here, please tell me about it.’
But if the guy’s still playing hardball you keep hammering for a while. ‘I told you I would contact you, and I’m keeping my promise! I’ve got something here that’s poised for a dramatic market move!’ Sol the director has us practice this phrase, ‘dramatic market move’ over and over until the words are heavily but evenly weighted… I mean, listen to the alliteration there, the even intonation, the 3-2-1 syllabic regression, ‘dra-ma-tic-mar-ket-move…’"
"Jesus Almighty," said Doug. "Okay, you’re performing this role brilliantly, but what about the other guy? I mean, somebody goes into the theatre they’re willing to let themselves be conned, they hope to be conned, they’ve been wanting to be conned all the way to the theatre, but these guys you’re calling, they have no idea you’re all show. Are these stocks really that great? Or are you P.T. Barnum with a stockbroker’s license?"
"Well, of course there’s always the element of risk in the marketplace…"
"Come on, Kevin! Listen to yourself! You’re not talking to a customer…"
"Client. Seven-Eleven has customers. Stockbrokers have clients."
"Oh, God," said Doug, sitting up quickly and dismissing Kevin by waving his hand. He put out his cigarette. Pee Wee Herman was having a conversation with Chairy.
"You may think there’s a world of difference between what we do now," Kevin said, "but there’s not. True, regarding acting, I’m employed and you’re not, but otherwise… I’m an actor now, who just happens to be paid very well for very brief performances on the telephone."
Doug stretched himself and yawned. "You bore me," he said. "You’ve just come up with an interesting excuse for intruding into people’s lives and pitching worthless stock, that’s all. I don’t generally associate with greedy capitalists."
Kevin laughed, then said, "Doug, I’ve always thought of us as partners. You’ve put me up here more than once… found me a part once or twice, though that last audition you put me up to… with the singing and dancing…"
"Hey, it was work."
"Right. So… I’m doing well all of a sudden, you’re eating generic-brand macaroni and cheese twice a day… let me loan you a couple hundred. What say you? Will you yield, and this accept? Or guilty in defense, starve to death?"
"You could loan me some money… to alleviate your guilt," said Doug. "Besides, I suppose your stealing money through the telephone is really a bit like your own, private, People’s Revolution. You’re re-distributing wealth. They’re all fairly wealthy bourgeois types that you rob over the phone, aren’t they?"
"Yes, exactly! So while I may appear to be a greedy capitalist, in fact, I’m performing revolutionary theatre. I’m a regular Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor—namely…me."
"There you go!" said Doug. "Now get out there and produce some transactions for the People—namely…us!"
On the TV, Pee Wee Herman clapped gleefully.
Bob Lewis had been home for a day now, having spent the last eight in the air or in various places around the country. The first day back he always shut himself in a room, not answering the phone or the door. By the second day, however, he would face the task of tending to business at home. He would have that recurring problem in the Volvo taken care of, spend some time with the kids, take his wife out to dinner, tend to his orchard, cut the grass. He’d have a look at the mail that had accumulated, and at the phone messages, mostly from salesmen, that his wife patiently noted down from the answering machine.
On this particular morning, as he had coffee alone—his wife was at her job as a graphic designer, and the kids were at school—he noticed a recurring phone message from a Kevin McDougall with an obscure brokerage, Hibbert-Burns. The guy had called four times last week. While looking through his mail he found a newsletter from the same obscure firm, and remembered the call, two or three weeks earlier, when this McDougall had called to offer the newsletter and an occasional recommendation. Bob had told the kid to go ahead and send it, just to get rid of him.
"It’s like inviting a vampire into your house," he said now, looking at all of the messages.
After separating the good messages and mail from the bad, Bob settled down to read the morning paper. His Baltimore Orioles were in contention for the pennant, so he turned directly to the sports section.
As he marveled at the low earned-run-average of the Oriole’s ace pitcher, the phone rang. He considered, for a moment, letting the machine answer it, but thought it might be his friend from the golf club, Dave, who’d also been a pilot in the Air Force before flying commercially.
"Hello," said Bob cheerfully, picturing Dave’s has-been fighter-pilot face, with phone to his ear at the bar of the golf club.
"Hello, Mr. Lewis?" said an equally cheerful voice that wasn’t Dave’s.
"Yes?" said Bob.
"My name’s Kevin McDougall, with Hibbert-Burns Securities. How are ya today?"
The voice on the other end was so contagiously happy that Bob could only say, "I’m just fine! How are you?"
"Great!" said the salesman. "The reason I’m calling is because I spoke with you a few weeks ago…"
"Yes, I remember…"
"…and I promised I’d get back with you if an unusual opportunity came up in the stock market…"
"Yes, I remember…"
"…and I’ve got something here that I want to tell you about, okay?"
"Well, look…er, Kevin, isn’t it?"
"Kevin, I’m really not interested in anything like…"
"Look, Mr. Lewis! I’m certainly not calling you to waste my time!"
"Er, uh…" said Bob.
"I told you I’d contact you, didn’t I?"
"And I’m keeping my promise! Now I’ve got something here that’s poised for a dramatic market move!"
"Uh, huh," said Bob, clearing his throat and swallowing.
Suddenly, the intimidating voice of Kevin softened to an almost fatherly tone.
"I just wanted," said the healing voice, "to run this situation by you, Mr. Lewis. Hear me out, okay?"
The voice said ‘okay’ in a friendly, chuckling way.
"Okay," said Bob, swallowing hard.
The voice proceeded to tell Bob all about a wonderful opportunity in the stock market, a new little company called ‘Yummy Cakes’ that was on the verge of contracting with several major supermarket chains. What made this stock especially attractive, said Kevin, was that Yummy Cakes were made of low-fat, cancer fighting grains, and that everybody wanted that kind of thing these days.
"Hmmm," said Bob.
The whole thing sounded a bit ludicrous to Bob, the idea of investing in a company called ‘Yummy Cakes,’ , but this broker sounded so damn sincere.
Just to test the waters, he asked, "So Kevin, what kind of price-earnings ratio does this Yummy Cakes have?"
Bob really didn’t know about things like price-earnings ratios, but he thought it sounded like an intelligent question for an investor to ask.
"The P/E ratio of Yummy Cakes?"
"Uh,huh," said Bob.
Kevin laughed a hard laugh and said, "Don’t ask, please don’t ask."
"Okay," said Bob, mesmerized.
"This is an opportunity to invest in an aggressive growth stock, Mr. Lewis. Yummy Cakes has a pathetic balance sheet. Do you want me to go into all the details?"
"Er, no," said Bob, confused by the salesman’s tactics.
"Good!" said Kevin, "Because if this company had a wonderful balance sheet, P/E ratio, et cetera, et cetera, then it would have already had its day in the limelight. You get involved now, Mr. Lewis, and you’re getting involved while it’s still cheap. Do you want me to call you back when everybody’s bought the stock and the P/E ratio is impressive and Yummy Cakes is at its all time high? Or do you want to get involved now, Mr. Lewis, before the news pops that Yummy Cakes is being sold at your neighborhood supermarket?"
"Uh," said Bob, stalling. "Uhmmm, er," he said, stalling again, expecting Kevin to say something that would take the weight of the question off. But Kevin was silent. A full minute passed, while Bob frantically tried to think of a way out.
"How much is this, this Yummy Cakes?" he asked at last, stalling, but losing ground.
"It’s at three-quarters, seventy-five cents a share, " said Kevin.
"Uh, huh," said Bob. "So you think this stock will do all right?" Bob felt himself sliding into a black hole.
"Like I said, Mr. Lewis," said Kevin.
Another minute passed, and Mr. Lewis wondered if Kevin was still there. The silence was, for Bob, very uncomfortable.
"Well, Kevin," Bob said at last, "I don’t think so, er, maybe you could call back in a few days. Give me time to think about it. Or you could send something in the mail. How’s that sound?"
"Not good," said Kevin. Then, more silence.
"Well, because, I mean, how much do you think I should put into this thing?"
"Mr. Lewis, this is your first trade ever with me, right?"
"Right. Exactly," he said. A way out, maybe.
"And the first trade is the most important trade, isn’t it?"
"Uh, well… yes… it is…"
"Then let me say this: I’m willing to stake my reputation and the prospect of any future business between us on this one trade, Mr. Lewis. I make money with clients over the long term, not on a single trade. If you were one of my regular clients I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending 50,000 shares right now. Let’s go with this, Mr. Lewis. Give me a shot, okay?"
Damn, thought Bob. He really did hate stockbrokers.
"Listen Kevin," he pleaded, "I’ve got a couple of brokers already, you know? Thanks for the call, but…"
"Mr. Lewis, you’re an astute investor, aren’t you?"
"Well, yes," he said.
"Then you should know that diversification is the key to success, and that means not only diversifying investments but diversifying brokers. Give me a shot, Mr. Lewis. I’ll give you results. Let’s go with 25,000 shares right now, while we can still get this at ¾, okay?"
Bob wasn’t sure what 25,000 shares came to at seventy-five cents, but he knew it was too much.
"I don’t have that kind of money… right now," said Bob. He added the ‘right now’ because he didn’t want Kevin to think he was a small investor.
"Mr. Lewis, you’re not gonna sit on your hands, are you? You need to add this to your portfolio. Toss me a bone, Mr. Lewis. Invest in 10,000 shares; that comes to $7500, net. Just give me the go ahead and you own the stock while it’s still low. You want it while it’s low, don’t you? Am I right or wrong?"
All right, all right, thought Bob. But he would fight to the end and buy on his terms.
"What’s your commission, Kevin?" he asked.
"No commission, Mr. Lewis. We’re market makers, we own the stock. The commission is built in. Seventy-five hundred net."
Bob had no idea what Kevin was talking about, but he didn’t want to sound like he wasn’t an astute investor.
"All right, Kevin," he said. "You sound like you know what you’re talking about. Let’s go with 10,000 shares."
"Okay, good," said Kevin casually. "I’ll need some information from you to open the account, okay?"
"Fine," said Bob, feeling spent.
"What’s your social security number?" Kevin asked.
"And just like that you made $500?" asked Doug, in the usual manner of a statement, in the usual darkened apartment, with the usual glow from the TV.
"Just like that," said Kevin, without the usual Budweiser, but with a Mexican imported Sol with a slice of Lemon stuffed into the bottle.
Doug sat cross-legged on the couch, leaning forward, with his elbow on one knee and his hand holding up his chin. An Orioles baseball game illuminated the room, with Cal Ripken at bat with the bases loaded at the top of the sixth.
"I don’t get it," he said. "How do you make five-hundred bucks off of a $7500 investment with no commission?"
"Because the stock isn’t traded on an auction market, like the New York Stock Exchange. Hibbert-Burns owns the stock. If someone wants to buy Yummy Cakes it costs them 75 cents, but if they sell it to us they only get 50 cents."
"So when ol’ Bob bought this Cakes stock it was only worth 2/3 of what he paid for it?"
"Right," said Kevin.
"That was okay with him?"
"I don’t know. The law requires commissions to be revealed, but not spreads between buy and sell prices. He doesn’t know what the bid price is."
Doug hit himself on the forehead with the palm of his hand at the precise moment that Cal Ripken swung the bat for a base hit. Kevin laughed at the coincidence.
"What is this," asked Doug, "1902? So where does all that money go? Let’s see, Bob gave your seedy company $7500, $2500 magically vanishes… oh, yeah, you got $500 of that. Who got the other $2000?"
Kevin was only half listening because he was watching Orioles baserunners move counter-clockwise and Yankees fielders scramble helter-skelter.
"The O’s are on top now," he said.
"What?" asked Doug.
"Who got the other two grand?" said Doug.
"Uh, well, the chop…"
"The chop, the commission…"
"That was a dime per share, so the office got $500, you know, and Lou gets a piece of that, and, well, the rest only comes into play when Bob sells. If he were to sell today, and I had another buy arranged for an equal amount—that’s known as a ‘cross’—then I’d split the difference with Hibbert-Burns. Without a cross, just a net sale… hell, I guess the big shots at the top pocket the money."
"They’d make $1500 on your phone call."
"I’m really not sure," said Kevin. "With a two week crash course to get my Series-7 license, well… some things slip through the cracks. Anyway, I know I made five hundred bucks in ten minutes, and I’ll never do any other kind of work for the rest of my life, and I can’t understand why you don’t come talk to Lou yourself."
"Because I’m too enamored with being a tragic hero, remember?" said Doug.
"That’s right," said Kevin, "and I guess I’m no Willy Loman, eh?"
"Not yet, anyway," said Doug, "but it took him a lifetime to realize the awful truth."
Kevin gulped down his Sol and belched as the Yankees’ pitcher walked off the field, head held low.
Three or four of the brokers are working late, it’s about seven-thirty, when Lou comes in unexpectedly—he almost never comes in in the evening. Instead of giving the brokers his usual inspirational talk, though, he decides to waste time and shoot the shit. Maybe he’s had something to drink or smoke or snort.
He goes on about when he first started selling stock, five or six years ago; how he was a surf bum trying to scratch out a living making surfboards or dealing dope; how one of the guys he sold a surfboard and a pound of Jamaican Gold to was a broker for Hibbert-Burns; how the guy, over a joint, convinced him to use his dope money to take a crash course for a Series Seven license; in short—an American Dream, rags-to-riches success story.
The only glitches in the story are the three failed exams for his license, but Lou explains that he passed on the fourth attempt.
"The fourth time? Jeez, we thought we were dumb," say the brokers, laughing along with Lou.
Lou’s really casual tonight; there’s nothing business-like about him. He’s like a big brother who usually picks on his kid brother, but tonight he’s chummy, and the brokers are eating it up.
Then he takes a good look at who’s around, and, seeing that Wiggins, Peters and Robinson aren’t, he decides to talk about them. The brokers all squirm around; they’re uncomfortable with this, and now they all wish Lou would shut up, but they listen to Lou, feeding him with nods and vocal agreements.
"You guys," he says, "are here, and you’ll stay here, because you guys work hard and want to make money, you know?"
Nods and "Uh, huhs."
"Some of these other guys, though, and I won’t mention any names… Wiggins… Peters… Robinson…"
Lou says these names like he’s coughing, and the brokers laugh.
"…they’re not gonna be around much longer, you know?"
Nods and "Uh,huhs."
The sound of a door closing in the reception area goes unnoticed, at least by Lou.
"I mean," he continues, "you guys aren’t afraid to get on the phone, you aren’t afraid to ask for an order; some of you guys, like you, McDougall, and that fat fuck Delamater who should be here but isn’t, I’d say you guys are animals, man…"
Laughter, nods, looks of envy.
"…and that’s what makes this business, and what makes money—being a no-prisoners, women and children first, animal. Right, McDougall?"
More envious looks.
"But guys like Wiggins and Peters and Robinson are financial anal-ists, you know? Because they want to make friends with people over the phone; they don’t want to offend them."
Lou really stresses the word, ‘offend.’
"So they don’t make money, but they walk around in suits like they do, you know?"
"But you guys are the first to know that tomorrow I’m firing Wiggins and Peters. They’re history. Unfortunately I can’t fire the nigger—oops! I mean… Afro-American."
Very uncomfortable laughter, but laughter nevertheless. Then from Grimaldi, the idiot, "Why not, Lou?"
But Lou jumps on it. "Because it would look bad, Grimaldi. You know where Robinson got his degree from?"
The brokers look around at each other and shrug.
"From Harvard, man."
"No way," says Grimaldi."
"From Harvard. Now," says Lou, "if he’s so fucking smart, what’s he working here for? Why isn’t he at Solomon Brothers?"
The irony escapes Lou, and most everyone else.
"I’ll tell you why. Because he got into Harvard because of a quota, man."
"No shit?" asks Grimaldi.
"No shit," says Lou. "So I’m gonna keep him, because he’s an Afro-American and a Harvard grad. But you guys keep this under you hats, all right?"
"All right, Lou," say the brokers.
"Yeah, well, to change the subject and get you guys back to work, starting tomorrow, right after I give Wiggins and Peters their one-way tickets—they’ll starve to death at the rate they’re going—right after we’re starting a contest."
"Cool! All right! Great!" from the brokers, relieved that the subject is changed; that they can stop being accomplices.
"Here are the rules," says Lou. "You have to gross at least $10,000 in 30 days, just to be eligible. Beyond that, the two brokers with the highest gross get a limo trip with me and Sol Rothstein, who’s coming up again from Boca. There’ll be two limos."
Then the sound of a door closing again in the reception area.
Lou cocks his head and says, "What was that?"
"The door," says Grimaldi, and Lou goes out to check.
The brokers look around at each other and shrug, then Lou comes back.
"I just saw Robinson going into the elevator," he says, and that’s why Robinson unpacked his desk and left this morning.
He quit because Lou called him a nigger?" asked Delamater.
"Well, yeah, obviously, and because of everything else that was said, " said Kevin. "Wouldn’t you quit?"
"Nah," said Delamater. "He called me a fat fuck, huh?"
"Well, yeah, I think that’s what he said… no, I’m sure of it. Yep. That’s what he called you. A fat fuck. But what do you think of this thing with Robinson, man? It’s a little strange, isn’t it?"
"People walk out of here all the time. They can’t handle it. He said there’s going to be a limo trip, huh?"
"What? Oh, yeah, whatever that is. I left last night to try to catch Robinson, so I missed all the details on the limo trip."
"What did you try to catch Robinson for?" asked Delamater.
"I don’t know, to apologize?"
"You didn’t say anything , did you?"
"No," said Kevin, "but maybe I should have."
"Phhh, don’t worry about it. I’m going on this limo trip, McDougall. I heard that in Boca when they have these things they’ve got the back seat full of booze and coke and pussy."
"Damn," said Kevin.
"Damn right," said Delamater. "Can you imagine? Riding along in the back of a limo, you’ve got a hooker giving you a blow job while you hold a mirror with a line of coke in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. And your bookie on the phone. Go away, McDougall, I’ve got a contest to win."
The darkened apartment on this particular Sunday featured a silent televangelist, whom neither Doug nor Kevin had ever seen before.
"Now there’s a high-paying acting job," said Doug.
"I wonder how difficult it would be to get into that sort of thing, you know, from the televangelist end?" said Kevin.
"Well, you’re not far from it now, " said Doug. "You draw on people’s faith in the American Dream, you paint yourself as a red-blooded American boy who wants to help them fulfill that dream, you take their money, they wait for something good to happen…"
"Yeah, yeah, it’s not far from that," said Kevin. "It’s just that I happen to believe in the American Dream. I happen to believe in God, too."
The televangelist was crying, for some reason, on stage. People in the audience, the camera revealed, were crying too.
"While I remain, as ever, unmoved by your sentiments, your speech has moved them to tears," said Doug. "Beer?"
"Maybe later," said Kevin. "It’s early."
"Never stopped you before," said Doug, rising to go to the kitchen. He fetched an imported beer that the wealthy Kevin had bought on another visit.
"Nothing like a Guiness Stout on a Sunday morning," said the beer supplier.
"Nothing like it," said Doug, popping the top open.
They watched the theatrics of the televangelist for a minute, then Kevin said, "This guy, Gerald Robinson, a black guy, walked out on Friday."
"Yeah," said Kevin. "Lou said all kinds of crap about him and he overheard, so he walked out."
"What kind of crap?"
"The usual kind of crap said about a black guy."
Doug lit a cigarette while a mailing address flashed on the screen.
"Write down that address," he said, "so you can send your check before it’s too late."
The two of them watched the screen flash until the televangelist returned. He was hugging a woman, who was smiling.
"I can just see Gerald come back in on Monday with the local chapter of the NAACP and a ‘60 Minutes’ film crew, just to stir things up."
"It’d serve you guys right," said Doug, "except for one thing."
"I’m going to be there too, for an interview."
"No," said Kevin.
"Yes," said Doug. "I called this Lou fella up on Friday. Told him I was a friend of yours, an animal like you, a moron like you… he loved it. Wants me to come in for an interview."
"I don’t believe it," said Kevin. "Why? What happened, you get fired?"
"Nothing like that. It’s just that I’ve been tossing this around, this stockbroker thing, and as evil as it is—should evil exist apart from our tiny perspective—the only other choice, that of being good—should good exist apart from our tiny perspective—is a losing battle. You know the old saying…"
"Nice guys finish last," said Kevin.
"Yeah, or Bertold Brecht characters."
"Right! Exactly!" said Kevin. "We’re exempt from trying to do good because our man Brecht says it’s impossible without having that businessman Darth Vader dark evil side."
"Yes, yes, more or less, we could twist it that way to fit our evil purposes."
The two of them sat in the dark with their eyes gleaming.
"Did you know I auditioned in Philly the other day for a part in ‘The Good Woman of Szechuan’?" Doug asked.
"I did. No cigar."
"Damn, Doug, I’m sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, well… so I’m not making it acting."
"Right, well, that televangelist there, he’s doing okay."
As if to acknowledge Doug’s compliment, the televangelist stretched his open hand out to him.
"So then at work on Friday," Doug continued, "I’m watching Ernie, our finisher, a real slob… vulgar…"
"More vulgar than us?"
"Makes us look like we were trained in etiquette," said Doug. "So I’m watching him, and I realize for the first time that the man is an artist… when he gets down to finishing concrete he loses all that baseness and he becomes a sculptor of sorts… and I realize that there is, in fact, artistry in every endeavor, probably even is selling cheap, worthless stock…"
"Now you’re talking…"
"… and furthermore…"
"And furthermore? Hallelujah!"
"And furthermore," said Doug, "I thought about Jack, Jack Biddle, the owner of the company, a real jerk-off, and he’s the kind of guy I’d be selling worthless stock to…"
"You’ve been filled with the Stockbroker Spirit!" said Kevin, imitating a televangelist.
"And I’m not Promethean enough to die a tragic hero’s death, and I want to make $500 for a brief telephone performance, and it is just a stage, Shakespeare said so…"
"And do rich guys give a damn about me? So why shouldn’t I get something back from them? We’re just modern day Robin Hoods is all."
"Or just modern day hoods, but no matter—Amen, brother!"
"Or you could say we’re getting Republican-rich-business-Philistine types to finally support the arts, though our method of getting them to patronize us is somewhat underhanded…"
"Praise the Lord!" said Kevin.
Doug took a long drink of his stout, put out his cigarette, and reclined on the couch. Kevin just smiled and kept nodding, knowing that this was just a dramatic pause in Doug’s performance.
"In conclusion…" said Doug.
"Amen," said Kevin.
"In conclusion, I say…"
"In concluuuusion…" said Doug, standing now.
"Go on Amen hallelujah brother Douglas!"
"…Despite the fact that Hibbert-Burns is dishonest…"
"…Despite the fact that Hibbert-Burns is racist…"
"It is that, brother!"
"…Despite the fact that I weeel be amakin’ a pact with Satan his own self when I make a pact with Hibbert-Burns…"
"You’ll be selling your soul, brother!"
"…Despite all of that…" said Doug, sitting again, " …I will be there on Monday."
He took another long drink as the televangelist lifted his hand up toward God.
Lou came out of his office with Doug, and stretched his hand out to the six quads, as if offering them.
"You get your license, you’re in business," said Lou.
"Thanks," said Doug.
"Your friend was an actor. You an actor too?" asked Lou.
"Was," said Doug.
"Well, if you open as many new accounts as Kevin, I’m only gonna hire actors from now on. You can be like Hamlet on the phone; a stockbroker Hamlet."
Doug chuckled politely along with Lou.
"And if the other actor’s no good—the other actor being the prospect, as Kevin explained to me—then you can hang up and find a better actor, one who’s gonna buy, right?"
"Yeah." The two of them chuckled again.
"Your friend Kevin’s a machine, an animal."
"And an actor. Sounds like determinism is the philosophy of the stockbrokering world."
"That’s right," said Lou. "Determination is what makes a successful sale."
Most of the brokers were on their feet, and on the phone. Except for Delamater, who could be cold-blooded without the script, the brokers were all making the same pitch. Kevin could be heard in the background.
"I’ll pick up 3,000 shares of Yummy Cakes for you," he said, "and I’ll call you back in thirty minutes with a confirmation on the trade, okay Mrs. Evans?"
He nodded a few times, said "okay," and hung up.
"Kevin McDougall, animal!" shouted Lou. "How many new accounts is that already today, Kevin?"
"Three," said Kevin, beaming.
"And how much gross?"
"Uh, that’s about… about $1100 gross so far today."
"Hey man, bottle!" yelled Delamater. He’d just hung up the phone with an unsuccessful pitch, and he rolled his wheeled chair across the carpet to give Kevin a high five.
"Get the Jose Cuervo tequila," said Delamater. " A leetle lime, a leetle salt, mucho good-o."
Lou gave Kevin a soft high five as he took the new-account form from Kevin’s hand. Kevin punched Doug’s arm.
"Yikes!" Lou said.
"Her income is only $20,000 a year, she’s 82 years old, and her net worth is $75,000… but she’s only buying, what… $2200 worth of stock… ahhh, go ahead. You told her the risk, right?"
"Yeah, you know, more or less."
Lou laughed, then yelled at the brokers. "You hear that? You anal-ists are afraid to call people at dinner time, at lunch time, at their quality-fuckin’-time-with-the-kids-time, you aren’t making money, and new guy Kevin here opens three accounts, grosses over a grand, wins a bottle of his choice, all before lunchtime."
Lou’s head bobbed animatedly as he spoke.
"And when I ask him if the old lady on food stamps he just got as a client was warned of the risk, he says ‘more or less’! You’re gonna be just like Kevin, aren’t you, Doug?"
"I’ll sure try," said Doug.
Then, from the reception area, where Lou had replaced his South American cichlid with an African cichlid, Susie called out, "Lou?"
But Susie didn’t have to answer because Lou saw the police officers waiting beside the fish tank.
"What the…?" said Lou, going to meet them.
Delamater immediately jumped up, along with a few other brokers, to look down the hallway into the reception area. Delamater turned to the rest of the office, pointed at the cops with his thumb, sideways, and mouthed, "Cops."
More brokers came up to peer down the hallway, unable to hear what the police officers said but able to hear Susie cry out, "Oh, my God!"
They saw Lou put his forehead in his right hand. Susie sat there with her hand over her mouth and tears welled up in her eyes. Then Lou and the cops headed down the hallway towards the office, scattering the brokers and sending them back to their desks.
Once they had gone inside Lou’s office, Delamater hurried over to Susie’s desk. She had broken down and was sobbing now. Several other brokers followed Delamater, but Kevin and Doug remained in the main office.
"I’ve got a bad feeling," said Kevin.
"Gee, you’re intuitive," said Doug.
O’Brien returned from the reception area.
"What’s up?" asked Kevin.
"Gerald killed himself," said O’Brien.
Kevin sank down in his chair and said, "Shit."
Two other brokers returned, one of them saying, "Man, I’m not going to be able to sell any stock today."
Then Grimaldi ran in. "Robinson shot himself," he said. "Did you hear, McDougall?"
"I heard," said Kevin.
Grimaldi excitedly discussed Robinson’s suicide with the others who’d returned to their desks, while Kevin and Doug sat in silence.
Twenty minutes later the police emerged with Lou, one of them chuckling half-heartedly about something Lou had said. The cops left and Lou said, "All right, everybody sit down and shut up."
The brokers all sat down.
"Delamater took Susie home," said Grimaldi.
"I’ll bet he did," said Lou. "All right, listen up. I’m sure a lot of talk has gone around already but I’ll just tell it like I told the gentlemen who were just here. Robinson killed himself early this morning, as you all know, which is tragic. Apparently he’s had a lot of bad things happening in his life. He graduated from Harvard Business School and worked for Solomon Brothers, then quit, then for Merrill-Lynch, then quit there, then Dean-Witter, same story, then finally here, and he quit here too. Apparently he wrote a note and it said that he quit all of these places because he couldn’t work for, and I quote, "immoral institutions."
Now we all know that all of these places couldn’t have been immoral, so that shows you how a guy ends up killing himself, because he’s paranoid, or something. Which is tragic… I mean… we all liked the man, but…"
"Did he quit all those firms, Lou?" asked Grimaldi, "Or was he fired?"
"He quit, Grimaldi, and that’s what I want to emphasize and what I told those cops; Robinson was not fired, and some of you guys can attest to that. The man decided to quit because he had some unrealistic notion of the world and just like he quit all those firms he quit life, too. Again, you know, I feel bad about it. Now I know you guys aren’t gonna be able to sell shit today, so you can go home and be ready to get back in the saddle tomorrow. I need a volunteer though, and I’ll pay you, to hang around and handle incoming calls."
"I’ll stay, Lou," said Grimaldi.
"All right. The rest of you can go and pay your respects or whatever."
The next day all of the brokers but Lopez showed up for work, while Doug Truman began pre-studying for the Series Seven crash course.