This is not a simple time to be a banker. The new American villain.
“It’s a goddamn banker witch hunt,” Jack, a banker, laughs.
In Vienna, Virginia, a banker hangs himself by a cord from a piece of gym equipment in his mansion’s basement. There are bankers sitting in prison cells. There are bankers sitting in cubicles. In offices. In Congressional hearings. In their parents’ basement suddenly unemployed. This is not a good time to be a banker.
“Young people have gone to work for investment banks with the expectation that if you work extremely long hours you have the potential to earn a whole lot of money,” my father, the Vice President of KBC, a Belgium commercial bank based in Manhattan, tells me.
I ask three bankers to explain the reasons behind the choices they made which led them each into the world of finance. Why do people become bankers? How do they feel? Are they happy? Does happiness even matter?
Jesse Bull is twenty-six years old and he is a second-year financial analyst at Barclays Bank. He drinks cold coffee and tries not to pay attention to his surroundings and the time passes away.
When Barclays bought out Lehman Brothers in September of this year many of Jesse’s co-workers were let go in the transition and replaced by Lehman Brothers employees. Things were better for Jesse before the buy out. Work was more personal. Relations felt more human. There was more space.
Barclays has since moved into the former Lehman’s building on Seventh Avenue. Jesse sits in Lehman’s old trading floor even though he is not a trader. There are rows and rows of bankers. Higher-ups, first-years all crammed together. People shout to each other from one row to the next. There isn’t any privacy.
“I don’t think what I’m doing is that challenging,” Jesse says with his arms crossed. Jesse is tall with a fluff of blond hair and a strong jaw. His sleeves are rolled up. “For while it was and I felt like I was learning things I didn’t know but now that I mostly know them, I mean I’m not some expert, but still, I feel like a lot of the shit I’m doing could be done by a monkey. I mean, some of it would require a very intelligent monkey. And I don’t see it ever getting that challenging.”
Jesse is explaining to me why he is miserable.
When he finishes his work it’s 11pm. He emails it up to a faceless recipient on the 23rd floor. He turns off his computer and puts on his black wool coat. He takes the subway down to meet his friends at a dive bar in the East Village. Jesse buries his tie in his coat pocket and turns into the bar.
Jesse makes a few jokes with his friends. He has two beers and a shot of whiskey and then promptly falls asleep in the booth. The bouncer yells at him to get out. Jesse doesn’t wake up. His friends explain he’s not drunk, he’s just tired. The bouncer doesn’t care. Jesse’s good friend, Jack, punches him in the arm. Jesse stirs.
“We have to leave,” he yells over the music. Jesse doesn’t remember where he is. He rubs his eyes, blinking. He looks like a newborn baby.
Jesse goes home. Falls asleep on the couch. Wakes up at dawn. Goes to work.
“Politically, I don’t have respect for what I do. I don’t have some black and white anti-banking feeling, it’s a necessary industry but in the way it has developed and the way it works it’s corrupt. As we all know what has happened. There is that.”
Jesse is ticking off on his fingers the reasons he could not imagine staying in this profession forever.
“There are my other aspirations. My general dislike for wearing suits.” He itches at his arm. “And the whole corporate environment. If this could sound any cheesier, my dislike of authority. The type of people that work there.” He stops counting.
“It just ain’t my bag.”
Jesse smiles, sort of. And then he shrugs. “This is not part of my self image.”
Nobody understands why Jesse became a banker.
“The biggest fear I have,” he says one night in the basement of a Brooklyn bar, “is having gone down one path and then looking back and realizing, well shit, that wasn’t the right one.”
My father, Robert Snauffer, is sixty-four years old and thirty-seven years ago he accepted an interview at Irving Trust. He wasn’t interested in banking. He was interested in seeing his girlfriend in Maryland.
Robert was living in Boston and the interview was in New York City. Irving Trust paid for him to come down. Robert figured if he didn’t spend money on food he could use the left-over stipend to drive down to Maryland after the interview.
My father has always been deeply interested in figuring out the mechanics of things. He graduated college with a physics major. He started studying engineering in a graduate program at MIT. This was during Vietnam and shortly after beginning graduate studies he was drafted into the army for three years. Afterwards, on a whim, he taught high school physics for a year. He considers teaching one of the most fulfilling years of his life.
“I was seduced by Wall Street and all that it meant,” my father tells me. I am his only child and I am twenty-six years old. I have met him at an Irish Pub in midtown for lunch. He orders a cheese omelet and a Diet Coke and tells me he has to go back to work in an hour for a credit report meeting. It’s February. The recession has settled in and this restaurant, like many, is mostly empty.
Robert remembers the Irving Trust interview very clearly. “I was young and broke. The interview was on the 50th floor of this fancy hotel on Wall Street. There was a huge chandelier and you know, three waiters per customer. It was a little more luxurious than the metal desks of the engineering departments of AT&T and the U.S. Rubber Company in Detroit, which was where I had previously interviewed for engineering jobs. I didn’t have much of a banking background,” he says and puts down his fork and knife. He wipes his mouth with the cloth napkin and drops it onto his plate.
“I was just this kid from Pittsburgh. I didn’t know anything.”
Robert accepted the job at Irving Trust. And then he continued driving south to Maryland to visit the girl he had only met a few months ago. She was the sister of the wife of his close friend in the army. She is my mother.
“Looking back, I know I would have preferred working the fields of science or engineering. I would have rather worked in an industry or in research where you are actually creating something. Building something tangible.” He pauses and considers his words.
“I have never taken what I do in business all that seriously. Because I don’t consider it all that challenging.” He eyes for the waiter. Waves for the check. “Or that meaningful.”
“I don’t regret what I did because you know, I’m glad to have a good living. The financial stability that I might not have had elsewhere. What this all boils down to, it’s not true for everyone because there are people who don’t have other aspirations but if you do, if you have real aspirations, my advice is to pursue them. Don’t be afraid of taking a personal risk.” He lets it go there. I don’t ask him why he has never taken his own advice.
We get up to leave. He asks me if I need any money. My father asks me this every time I see him. I say no. I always say no. And then he gives me forty dollars.
“I never diluted myself into thinking I’m a finance guy. I want to be an artist,” Jack says.
Jack does not want me to use his real name or the name of the bank where he is a financial analyst, which is a major private investment bank that has received bailout money.
Jack is twenty-seven years old and tonight he has drank a lot of whiskey.
We are at the bar High Fidelity on Avenue A. It’s 9pm on a Thursday. It is a warm and damp night in March. A group of bums are drinking forties out front asking for change. There is a single line of piss leading to the curb.
Jack’s sleeves are rolled up. His tie and blazer are thrown into the corner of the booth.
Jack leans in. He tells me he secretly thinks the recession is amazing.
“I want New York City to go back to the 70’s and 80’s of dangerousness. I want it to be more of an art neighborhood than a finance neighborhood.”
Though, Jack admits, he is conflicted.
“When I hear news hosts on CNN or especially those congressional hearings, I feel like two or three years ago I would have been right on the populous side. But now, fuck you. First of all, you have no idea what’s going on, you’re attacking what I do. If you don’t bail us out I’ll have no money and be fucked.
“But obviously I totally see the other side. Where we screwed up and we should have salary caps. Wall Street and the financial world is a Wild Beast and you have to contain it. If there is a way to make money Wall Street will find it. The government should have had tighter reigns all along.”
Jack throws back the last of his whiskey.
“The recession is definitely crippling my lifestyle and my prospect as a banker. Not that I want to stay in this but there are so few opportunities for me to become rich. Which was never a goal for me in college but now that I see what money can buy you, it’s hard to go back. I like going out with my friends and not have to worry about how much I’m spending. I like taking my girlfriend out to dinner.”
Jack is thinking. He stares at the wall that is covered in album covers.
“I made a poetry book senior year of high school that was about communism and revolution. I don’t believe in anything. And these guys,” he pauses and then gains momentum. “These guys, the CEOs, I know they’re fucking assholes. They screwed us over. But they also paid my check.”
Jack went to high school with Jesse Bull in Nashville. A prestigious boys prep school. Jesse was number one in his graduating class. Jack was also in the top tier. Though Jack did not begin in private schools. “I was a public school kid. I was hoping to get into magnet school but the lottery for that is completely random. My father got depressed as hell. He was like, my kids are so smart why do they have to be in such crappy schools? So he sent applications around. Even though my family could not afford them.
“Then this really good private school calls back. I have to go there and take this test. I remember it was in this beautiful room. With those old big windows and there were kids playing tag football outside and shit. A couple days later I went on this class trip and when I came home my father told me I had gotten into the school.
“I remember that as one of the happiest days of my life. My father was very happy. He was proud of me.” Jack had received a scholarship based on merit.
“I realized that someone appreciated that I was smart and had this potential to learn.”
Jack explains how in high school the only thing he really cared about was getting good grades. “I didn’t want to be flaky. I wanted to be solid. I wanted 100% grades on everything. I wanted to be a doctor. My father is Iranian. He really supported this. He wanted me to be a doctor, too.”
Most of his life, Jack has looked up to Jesse.
“Jesse wasn’t my friend until junior year, but I knew about him since I started in 8th grade. He was in the cool kid section. He knew of girls. I knew no one. I was a fucking nerd. I think it was more of the following of Jesse’s footsteps, which is hard for me to say because he considered me as an equal. He was into school, he did all the clubs, so I joined all the clubs. He was really smart and kids respected him. I admired this about him.”
“I don’t really remember my childhood,” Jesse reminds me pretty often.
I do know that during high school Jesse’s father was dying.
“My memory isn’t good enough to say when he was and when he wasn’t sick.” Jesse explains. We are sitting at the table in my apartment and Jesse is staring behind me at the bookshelf. He has come over after work with pork dumplings he bought for a dollar in Chinatown. He had gone downtown initially to look for pig uteruses he wanted to use as a pizza topping for a Friday the 13th themed dinner he was making for a girl he was trying to impress. The dumpling’s styrofoam container sits open and greasy between us. The store was sold out of pig uteruses.
Jesse’s father, Sandy Bull, began his battle against lung cancer when Jesse was in middle school.
“There were times when we thought it was over. We thought he was fine. But then he would relapse.”
Like Jack, high school was a period of furious work for Jesse.
“I was working so fucking hard during high school,” Jesse explains. “I was a fucking cool ass kid. My superlative was “Hardest Working Valedictorian Ever.”
Jesse rests his eyes on the book shelf and pauses.
“I look back at the last few years of high school when I was so busy doing all this school shit. And my dad was so sick. I was always close to him, spending time with him. But I think maybe I was ignoring that part of my life by working so hard.”
“The way his fans know him, that’s from a different time. ” Jesse explains when I ask him about his father’s career.
In the 60’s Sandy Bull was considered by many as a multi-instrumental genius. He is credited with influencing the likes of Bob Dylan. He is also known for his heroin addiction that took him so far out of the music scene and so deep into some other world that many of his counterparts thought he was dead for decades.
“The thing with my dad,” Jesse continues, “is that the main part of his career happened before I was alive. He had some big records. Big with certain audiences. But then he went into this awful drug phase and almost died several times and went to jail and all this shit. I knew about all of this growing up. But he was clean ten years before I was born and never went back to it. It’s almost like he had two different lives. It’s always there, his stories. But he had finished that part of his life.
“We grew up in Nashville. My brother and sister and I all went to prep schools, colleges. So he made a conscious decision to live a different life. He was always around. He did the boy scout thing, the baseball thing. He always played music and he worked when he wanted to, he’d go and work in his studio. He was around when I was young, which was cool.”
When Jesse was in elementary school he remembers being embarrassed of his father. How he would drive Jesse to school in crazy Hawaiian shirts, in crazy old cars. “He wasn’t like the other dads who were attorneys or,” Jesse laughs, “bankers. I mean now I obviously realize how fucking cool it was. To have a cool dad.”
Hunter S. Thompson writes in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: “… and my ten-peso Acapulco shirt had long since come apart at the shoulder seams from all that road-wind. My beard was about three days old, bordering on standard wino trim, and my eyes were totally hidden by Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades.”
Jesse feels guilty. He knows he shouldn’t but he does. He was respectful. He was a really hard working son. But he was still a teenager.
“I was a high school kid and I was standoff-ish with my parents. At the same time I feel like all kids are like that. But I feel shitty. That my dad might have felt hurt by me. I’m sure he was wise enough to know that I was a high school kid, that’s how they are. Not mean. But disinterested in being your parents best friend.” Jesse pauses. He takes his eyes off the bookshelf and looks at me.
“But that happened to be when my dad died.”
My father commutes to his bank’s office in midtown from his home in central New Jersey. He drives to the train station and then takes two train lines to arrive at Penn Station. Then he walks or takes the subway to his office. This commute takes him about an hour and a half each way. The trains are always crowded. It is exhausting and he despises it.
“Some people don’t understand that life isn’t always going to be easy,” he goes. “That fundamentally, what you always have to keep in mind is that you have to support yourself. And there is always a trade off, short of a huge trust fund. Most people do things that they don’t like to a certain degree.”
My father has been commuting like this, three hours every day, five days a week, for over thirty years.
I was out to dinner with my parents and their friends at a country club in New Jersey. The dining room has big windows that face the golf course. The sun was setting. There were big, red curtains on the windows that bunched up like a 1980’s prom dress.
My parents’ friend tells us that she makes a point to read the town paper’s obituaries every week and that a man who my father might have known has died. She says his name.
“He’s dead?” My father asks bringing his face up from his plate. Before my mother and her friend were doing most of the talking. My father and I hadn’t said much. We were not very interested but we were trying to be polite.
My father considers this. “He’s dead?” he asks again.
“I think cancer?” she says.
“I remember him,” my dad begins. “He was sort of,” he pauses, “eccentric.”
“I remember, we were all standing on the train platform one morning, before the commute. You know, no one talks. Just stands around pretty miserable. There’s unwritten rules to the commute.
“And he must have just retired because he was there but he wasn’t wearing a suit, he was standing in the parking lot by his car and he just laughs. I mean really loudly. He just laughs out.” My father goes, his eyes are resting on the window.
“Then he hollers out, ‘You unlucky bastards!'”
My father is laughing out loud now.
“And we’re all just standing there, you know, no one says anything but we’re all just sort of looking around.” He shakes his head smiling. “I’ll always remember that.”
“Fuck em,” Jesse reads off his arm. He is pointing to the tattooed banner on his upper forearm which is part of a fire breathing dragon. He has rolled up his button up oxford to show me. “My sister didn’t fill her banner in, you know, because she’s a first grade teacher,” he says. “But my brother and I did. My mom love them.”
It was his father’s tattoo.
“We wanted to honor my dad. That was sort of his personal mantra, and it’s mine too. It took a year and a half after he died to actually go and get the tattoo. To face that he was gone, to have accepted it.” Jesse has been holding his forearm. He looks focuses on it before rolling down his sleeve. “It’s a pretty sweet tattoo.”
I had asked him who has had the greatest influence on his life. He thought for a moment before he answered-decisively- that it was father.
“People tell me I look like him. People tell me I act like him. And I have his tattoo. Which was his life’s philosophy. And I try to live by that mantra. Music is a big part of my life. A part of me wishes I followed his footsteps more in that regard. I’ll never be a musician like he is. I’m more into karaoke than he is,” Jesse laughs, “but I think he’d appreciate that.”
“My decision to be a banker for a while kind of goes away from him. But I sort of did it because it’s something people wouldn’t expect and it is something I wouldn’t expect of myself. But…” Jesse begins. He lets it go.
Something inside of Jack is unhinged. At Columbia University Jack was a John Jay scholar majoring in pre-med. But suddenly, half way through school, Jack’s furious obsession to get good grades snapped. He quit pre-med even though he had taken every course except for one semester’s worth of classes. He didn’t think his 3.4 GPA would get him into good med schools. “I don’t know why I thought that,” he reflects now. Jack switched his major to creative writing and English. His father didn’t understand what he was doing.
“My father always wanted me to be a doctor. He whole heartily backed me up. When I started to slack with it in college he expressed his sadness.”
Jack became obsessed with painting. He partied too much. His second semester senior year he got a “D” in a Beowulf course and to his shock he wasn’t able to graduate with an English major.
“I came into college on my fucking white horse thinking I was better than anyone else and then I graduated without a major. It was horrible.”
I ask Jack if someone told him in high school what his life would be like now, whether or not he’d be surprised.
“I would feel terrible,” Jack answers quickly. “I’m a banker. I’m not helping anyone. There is no one I help. It sounds like a pretty terrible experience.”
“But I have an amazing girlfriend, amazing friends. We are living in New York City.” Jack pulls out a pack of Camel Filters from his coat pocket.
“But yeah, I think I would be pretty sad,” he says. Then he excuses himself to smoke outside.
“There is this tension,” Jesse says, “between doing something that is actually important and doing something which you receive recognition for… and then there are all the areas in between where you are just mediocre. Which is the greatest fear of all, a mediocre life.”
After high school Jesse attended Brown University. He had applied to the slue of top schools but was pretty apathetic about it all. “When I visited these schools I could never tell the difference between any of them. They all had pretty green campuses. Blah, blah, blah.”
Jesse’s father always thought Brown was the right place for Jesse. Looking back, Jesse considers the years at college as the best years of life. He was in a band, he was making films.
Growing up Jesse wanted to be a famous director. His family assumed he would continue in a creative field. His parents and their friends were mostly musicians or artists. His mother always thought Jesse would make a great writer.
After Jesse graduated college he did a stint in Morocco. “Then I moved to New York City and started to make my way in the big apple.”
“I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but I had a good idea I wanted to do film. And I wanted to work in post production film.” Jesse moved into a very tiny apartment in Nolita with a friend from high school. He worked as a busboy in a nice restaurant while he was an intern on a documentary called “The Chicago Ten.” Jesse wasn’t being paid for the internship.
“Actually,” he reflects. “It was a fairly stressful time. I worked pretty damn hard at that internship. A few months later the director, Brett Morgan, who was Oscar-nominated for “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” asked Jesse to be an assistant editor for a television documentary series he was starting called “Nimrod Nation” that would appear on the Sundance Channel.
“This was really exciting. I quit my restaurant job. I helped them find an office. Started interviewing interns.”
But when the actual work began Jesse was the only editor working nights. “I was working in midtown alone from 4:30pm until 5am. Five nights a week. I was completely alone. I’d take the subway home everyday back to Bushwick, where I lived then. There was some weird shit on those subway rides. There was this couple I saw every couple of months or so, they were totally covered in their clothes like shrouds, the guy’s pants were lifted up and he had these huge swollen ankles, and the woman would shuffle back and forth, it was the most frightening thing. I think I lost forty pounds during that time. I’d only spend a dollar on dinner. I’d go to this 99 cent pizza place. Working a night job isn’t that glamorous. And I started wondering, what am I working towards? Yeah, eventually I might be an editor and then a big shot editor, but is that what I want to do?”
When the show ended the director told Jesse that in this business all you need is momentum and that Jesse has momentum so he should keep going with it.
“Of course,” Jesse laughs dryly, “I ignored that advice.”
Jesse and I are in my apartment. We have talked about this before but I can’t figure it out.
“I still don’t understanding why you decided to go into banking.”
Jesse drinks his beer and considers this. He puts the beer on the table and crosses his arms.
“I find it hard to separate the reasoning that I convinced myself at the time why I actually did it. Doing these interviews with you. I talk about why I’m doing things with this whole explanation. But really, I don’t know what I thought.”
“There was greed, not dirty evil greed but I wanted to save a little money. I know I never thought banking was what I wanted to do but I thought that, that doing it for a few years would open up other doors.”
“Do you think you wanted this sort of job because it sounded important?” I ask him.
He nods. “Yes, I think part of it is being important that I can do these things that other people can’t do because I’m smart enough.”
“But I mean, I also remind you, it was pretty much just because I happened to be on that boat…”
“I remember specifically,” Jack says. “There is this diner on 9th and Stuyvesant called “Around the Clock.” Jesse met me there. At the time, I barely, I wasn’t even a real banker yet, I was a research analyst. Jesse had gone on two interviews that day. He said how depressed he was, that he had nothing going on.”
Jack was Jesse’s only point of reference into the finance world. “Even though he could never properly explain what he did at work,” Jesse laughs.
But Jack wore suits and he made money. He had a decent apartment on St. Marks and he had a good girlfriend. And at the time, to Jesse, who was existing on dollar pizza and cigarettes, this might have looked desirable.
“The whole time I was telling him, you’re so talented. You’re a great film editor. I don’t know what you want to do but if you want to get into banking you’re totally capable.”
“He saw me as a really good friend,” Jack says, “who was slightly successful. It might have been a reversal of our roles. I was following him through high school and college. And possibly, now I was bestowing on him this path in Manhattan.”
“That being said, he must of known I wasn’t happy.”
Like my father’s casual decision to interview at Irving Trust, everything happened because Jesse was invited to spend the afternoon on his friend’s father’s boat. These are the random moments that shape the journeys of our lives. This is how people come to find themselves as bankers. This is how life goes.
After the end of “Nimrod Nation,” Jesse had been interviewing at different corporations for different positions but really had no idea what he was doing. He had gone to China for a while and thought things would come together when he came back. They hadn’t.
His friend’s father worked at Barclays.
“I was talking with her dad about looking for a job. About this hedge fund I had interviewed for. He said why don’t you come and interview at Barclays we need another analysis. Don’t take that hedge fund job it sounds like a crock of bullshit. So I went to take that interview and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“I wasn’t that surprised Jesse moved into banking,” Jack admits. “Because he’s a guy who’s capable of any situation that confronts him. He can adapt. He’s capable of becoming a doctor. A Ph.D. in Slavic languages. Sure. Jesse’s capable of being a banker but he’s not made for it. He needs something that will get his name sketched in marble. He needs a drink named after him. He’s not going to be a fucking middle aged banker making 250 K and having decent vacations.”
“Jesse’s exceptional and being a banker,” Jack has been staring into his drink, he snaps his head up and looks straight at me. “Being a banker is a pretty boring job, you know.”
I explain Jesse to my father.
“Yes, you have a lot of people like that. They are smart and they think they can make a lot of money and then go off and do what they want to do. But you know, it’s hard not to allow inertia to take place. Because while you’re young if you don’t do anything, you don’t make an active change in your life, the years start to slip away and you find yourself at 50 years old doing the exact same thing. And somehow your whole life has slipped past.”
In high school and college, I went away a lot. I studied abroad for a year when I was twenty-one. And various summers during school. My father always supported this. Financially and emotionally. He thought it was good, he thought I was learning something.
Growing up, I didn’t understand how privileged I was. I didn’t understand a lot of things.
I remember calling my father with my feet in Adriatic Sea, the waves were licking my toes. I called his office number. He picked up. He was happy to hear from me.
I went everywhere. Temples and mosques and mountains and deserts. And this whole time my father was commuting back and forth to work. Every day, every year. How do you thank someone for this? For doing what he had to do to allow me to do what I wanted to do.
I was in a hot crummy hotel in Bangkok, in the Peace Corps, the day my father’s heart stopped. It was in the middle of the night. He was in bed in his home in New Jersey. His alarm was set for six am, as it is every week day. But when the alarm did go off that morning the bed was empty and unmade. The room was silent. The two cats were sniffing around confused. The alarm continued to beep. Many miles away my mother paced a hospital waiting room.
I think back and try to piece together the exact time of his heart attack, and then I try to figure out exactly where I was at that moment. I want to know if my body shuddered. Even a little bit. If a part of me felt my father stop.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said a day later from the hospital, hooked to machines. “I want you to stay.”
And so I did. For over twelve more months.
When I finally came home he met me alone in the airport in Newark, New Jersey. Hunched over, smaller and more frail than I remembered. He couldn’t carry my bags so I did. We said nothing of this. We spoke of the flight. Of what my mother was making for dinner at home.
We pretended I hadn’t left for so long. We still do.
“Money gives you freedom,” he has drummed in. My father grew up poor. An immigrant family in Pittsburgh. “I didn’t want you to have to work like I always had to work growing up–through school,” he would tell me when I was younger. He told me about working cleaning sewers through college. “I want you to be able to focus on school, for school to be your job,” he said.
This is what my father gave me. By being a banker. By going to work every day.
I didn’t expect to see Jesse tonight. I bump into him on Bedford Avenue at Brooklyn. It’s 9pm and I’m tired. He is fiddling with his blackberry. There is music from a band. It suddenly stops and soon after a parade of kids dressed mostly in black stumble outside to smoke cigarettes.
We catch each other’s eyes.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. I’m surprised.
He doesn’t answer right away. He drops his phone in his pocket, looks up at me.
“I think I left my ATM card at a bar on Saturday night.” he says, then he pauses.
“I’m going to quit my job.”
I stare at him.
“Lets get a drink,” he goes, turning into the bar.
Earlier that day Jesse was called into one of the big boss’s office. Jesse was about to be told the size of his annual bonus. He had been preoccupied with the price of this year’s bonus for some time, considering everything that has happened this year.
This was after the AIG bonuses had been announced to widespread outrage. President Obama had declared that, “People are right to be angry– I am angry.” In the newspapers the words “Wall Street” and “excess greed” went hand in hand.
“He was apologizing,” Jesse explains later. About the moment his boss told him his bonus price. “He was trying to play it off as not that bad. Saying after next year you’ll get the second half of it, half of it was deferred, and I was just nodding my head. I was thinking, Well shit, this is 20% of what I got last year working my ass off on 16 hours days. And then other co-workers started talking, everyone was pissed off. It wasn’t just me.”
At the bar we had pizza and beer. “In a way,” he says, “I’m very happy to have this instigating moment. Of seeing my bonus. I think that is what I was waiting for, something to justify that I had had enough. I’m going to try to get back into editing. I’m going to try to get a day job instead of a night job,” he laughs. “I know I lost two years of momentum.” He drinks some beer.
“It’s time to pull myself up by the boot straps once again,” he says. He is sort of joking. But not really. Jesse is in a good mood.
“I wish I had the balls,” Jacks says. “No, I wish I had the self esteem. I would quit, just like Jesse is quitting. But I’m worried about my financial stability in New York City as a whole. I love this city. You have no idea how much I love it. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m confident that Jesse is going to find another job, that he’s going to be able to stay in the city. And that makes me feel good.”
It is Thursday and Jack and I are at a bar in the East Village. Jack seems particularly anxious and he keeps excusing himself to order a beer, or a whiskey, or smoke a cigarette or to piss.
Sometimes Jack thinks he is going to die. He went to the cardiologist last week during his lunch break. The doctor clapped him on the back and said, “Congratulations, you have a heart of an athlete.”
Jack didn’t know what to think.
Sometimes at work, when he starts to feel bad, he’ll see what people are doing. If people are pre-occupied he’ll get up from his desk and walk to the bathroom. He’ll go into the handicap stall. Lock it. Hang his suit jacket on the door’s hook. Jack will slowly lower his back onto the floor and stretch out. Put his hands under his head. The tiles are cool.
This is disgusting, Jack thinks. But the maids come in twice a day he reasons. He looks up. But the bottom of the sink, his head is under the sink, no one has cleaned that. He closes his eyes. He stops thinking.
Jack comes back from the bar with two bottles of Miller High Life. He hands me one. He sits down.
His eyes are empty and he stares at the wall.
“I know I’m going to do greater things outside of what I do. I think about that a lot. I know I am.”
He goes home later, drunk. He pulls out an old canvas and covers it in giant sweeps of white and other things. When he wakes up the next morning his pants are splattered in gesso. He changes his clothes, goes back to work.
For the banker, the whole equation has changed.
“In view of today’s economy and the bailout the types of extreme compensation and bonuses are over,” my father is explaining. I am sitting in his office. It’s 5 pm and soon he is going home. “The whole game has changed. In the past anything was possible. There was no,” he pauses, “implications. This go, go, go mentality of being extremely aggressive at all costs and disregarding future implications, that’s all gone now. So the volume of business out there for your investment bankers is much less than it was before. I’m not saying people won’t earn good money but it won’t be like it was before.”
After we finish talking, he gathers his briefcase and coat and we walk out of the building together. There are speckles of empty spaces. Offices and cubicles. Like most banks this year, there have been layoffs.
We walk to the subway and say goodbye. My father is not comfortable hugging people, or being sentimental. Or saying I love you.
I turn to leave.
“Wait, here, let me give you this,” he has pulled out his wallet.
“Dad, I don’t need it. Don’t worry about it.”
It doesn’t matter what I say.
He shoves forty dollars in my hand. Puts his wallet back in his pocket.
“Okay,” he says and walks down the stairs to the subway.
I am left standing there. I know by now what it means to him. That this is how he says I love you. This happens every time. These are our goodbyes.
It’s Saturday night and Jack is at a bar. His blackberry goes off.
“Want to see what a banker email looks like?”
I read it.
“They call you Dude?”
“They’re also asking me to do work now.” Jack stays for another drink. Then he goes back to work.
Jack writes me an email later, when I ask him about his new work schedule, how things are going.
“It’s hellish,” he says of his new working hours, which have increased dramatically. Jack works every day. Six to seven days a week, works into the middle of the night. It’s endless.
A half finished painting collects dust leaning against his bedroom wall. “I have no free time and I continually feel exhausted. When I do go out, I go overboard with drinking, with partying, more than I ever did before.”
On Sunday morning Jack’s blackberry wakes him up. He reaches for it. He is hungover and near tears when he read the message. He gets up. He drinks water and changes his clothes. He goes to work. Finishes at 11pm.
But Jack doesn’t know. In a way, he appreciates that he has a job where he is doing real work. That people need him.
“I actually feel like a real banker rather than some poseur who just collects the check. I’m working hard and through it I’m learning.”
“It makes me feel more important,” he adds.
So there is that.
But his father is worried. He is worried about Jack’s health and his happiness. He is worried that the hours aren’t natural and that they’re not healthy.
He wants Jack to quit. He wants Jack to be a doctor.
“I don’t think he really knows what I do,” Jack says. “But he knows I’m working hard, and he’s proud of me.”
The last time I saw Jack it was in Brooklyn. We were playing trivia at a bar. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “I’m thinking of moving to Iran. Or Syria. Really. I’m being serious. I have never even left the fucking country. Seriously. What do you think?”
I don’t think Jack will move to Iran but I don’t tell him that.
He buys me a mint julep. He asks me where I’ve lived, where I traveled. We talk.
Jesse is patted down by security guards before he is allowed to go downstairs to the underground karaoke bar in Brooklyn.
Jesse stumbled upon this particular lounge a few months ago because he heard the music when he was walking home, and he followed it. It is below a restaurant. The caliber of karaoke is a much higher level than many bars and sushi restaurants throughout the city, most of which Jesse has already explored, the sort of places where groups of girls share a microphone laughing through renditions of “Country Roads.” Jesse performs a much higher level of karaoke.
When Jesse walks down the stairs into the main lounge nobody is impressed. He knows how this goes. He writes down his song’s number and gives it to the waitress with ten dollars. “You have to tip them or they never play it.”
They sing so well here a first timer might not even realize it’s a karaoke lounge. Most people hit the notes. People dance to the music. Jesse loves this bar.
A very electric young man’s performance of The Bangle’s “Walk Like An Egyptian,” ends to strong applause. The MC takes the mic.
“Jesse Bull,” she reads off the list, “Aerosmith’s. I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing.”
Jesse walks to the stage.
Jesse is still working at Barclays.
“As soon as I can get a job—any job—I’m out of here,” he says.
But this a recession and there are no jobs.
“I’m responsible. I’m not going to just quit without having anything lined up first.”
“There are so many pictures of you when you’re a kid in you’re apartment,” I notice.
“Yeah,” he says, scratching his hair. “I don’t know why I did that. I think they’re funny.”
I point to one.
“I don’t remember when that happened.”
The photograph is when Jesse is four or five. He is wearing yellow roller-skates. His hair is fluffy and yellow. He’s leaning his head to the side and he has a broad smile. He can’t skate. His father and sister are on either side of him holding him up. There is sunlight tangled in everything.
Jesse is on his knees. His back is bent. He is wailing into the microphone. The audience is dancing. They are clapping and cheering.
He receives a standing ovation.
There’s no question. It was a very strong performance.