THE HERMIT V: IT TAKES A SPECIAL UNDERSTANDING
Andy’s father Erwin was a motivational speaker. He fashioned his seminars after the big names of the talking circuit of the late 1970s. ‘Everyone goes an extra mile, but you run an extra mile and get there first,’ was his signature phrase. He had modest success, booking a few events across the Rust belt towns, and later he branched out into recording the speeches on video and selling the VHS tapes for $19.99 a pop at midwestern dentists’ and real estate agents’ conventions.
Motivational speaking isn’t a bad occupation in itself, until one begins believing his own schtick. At one of his seminars Erwin met a timeshare salesman, who invited him to give a speech, for a good fee, to a retirement community. Erwin rebranded his spiel from ‘Everyone goes an extra mile’ to ‘Build value while you sleep’ to tailor the message to a new audience. The timeshare sales went up, and Erwin was booked for more events, and pretty soon he got an offer to join the business as a partner, with some money down, but a guaranteed income. Erwin mortgaged their Washington Heights apartment to come up with the money. The whole scheme turned out to be a fraud when his partner took all the money from the customers and fled the country. Erwin, although a peripheral member of the whole operation who wasn’t even allowed anywhere near the finances, was convicted on a series of wire and mail fraud charges and got sentenced to fifteen years in prison and a fine of a hundred thousand dollars. Others involved in the scheme walked free or got smaller sentences. To Andy, the fact that Erwin had allowed himself to be the fall guy, meant that not only was he reckless, he was stupid.
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Erwin showed up in New York after his release, two weeks before Andy’s wedding. He got off a Greyhound bus at Port Authority bus terminal, and walked three blocks east straight to Andy’s office, carrying all his belongings in two plastic Walgreens’ bags. Andy met him at the downstairs atrium of his office building.
“Look at you, my boy. A serious man. A businessman.” Erwin put down his bags and shook Andy by the forearms.
“I’m not a businessman,” Andy said, unclasping his dad’s hands.
“Who are you then?”
“It’s not important.”
“Well, you work in an office, and you wear a suit and you make big decisions.” Erwin smiled. He had missing teeth. “Doesn’t matter what you call it. I hope the money is good.”
Andy asked him if he had had lunch and, ignoring Erwin’s meandering answer, walked him quickly outside, to a nearby coffeeshop.
“I’m getting married, Dad — ” Andy said as they sat at the table.
“Ooh, who is the lucky girl?”
“ — and you can’t come to the wedding. I just wanted you to know that I’m starting a family and I don’t plan for you to be any part of it.”
Erwin deflated and ran his hand over his thinning, sweaty hair.
“Okay, I understand. I don’t blame you. I did my things. I wasn’t planning on staying here anyway. Thinking of going down to Florida. A new opportunity opened up there.”
A flock of traders that Andy was friendly with stepped into the coffeeshop. They noticed him and looked with bemusement at his father. Andy thought that he’d have to come up with a plausible story when he gets back to the office.
Erwin dipped into one of his plastic bags and produced an old VHS tape.
“Here, I think this one has some good marriage advice in it. If you skip forward towards the end, I think. I remember recording it when I took mom on a cruise. The idea is that one should spend more time planning the marriage than planning the wedding. A wife should always be treated like a queen.”
“You seem to know a lot about that,” Andy scoffed. “As a matter of fact, I plan to do just that. And do it in a way that I don’t end up in jail.”
With his hands shaking, Erwin peeled off the top from a Coffee-Mate cream capsule and poured its contents in his coffee. He picked up a spoon and stirred it. The spoon jingled unevenly against the ceramic surface of his mug. He put the spoon down and played with the paper napkin, rolling it into a strap, then flattening it back out.
“I loved your mother. I wanted her to have a good life. Sorry it turned out this way.”
Edna, Andy’s mother, quit her job as a secretary when Erwin’s speaking career took off, and she did not bother herself with the details of the family’s finances. Erwin bought a summer house on Fire Island and the family vacationed in Florida every winter. After Erwin went to prison, they lost the house and the Manhattan apartment, and had to move into a one-bedroom walk-up in Newark. Edna went back to work as a department store cashier. She never recovered from the shock. She died when Andy was in college. Her autopsy showed a mix of alcohol and sleeping pills.
Before parting ways, Andy took Erwin to the Times Square Marriott and paid for a one-night stay. He asked the concierge to help arrange a one-way ticket to Orlando for Erwin and then, after a moment of hesitation, wrote Erwin a check for two thousand dollars. He left his father in the hotel lobby, walking quickly outside without looking back.
He never saw his father again. Madeline and Ava both learned that Andy’s family was something he didn’t want to talk about, although Madeline knew Erwin’s story, rehashed in a more benign light for her consumption.
Sitting at his desk, with his chair turned towards the window, Andy stared at Park Avenue traffic and thought of Erwin. How insufficient it is to go an extra mile without making a proper assessment of the direction and of the shifting landscape, he thought. How easy it is to miss the point at which unexamined zeal becomes self-destructive. And how many bright, ambitious people fall into that trap, confusing enthusiasm with efficiency.
Twenty feet away a group of young traders gathered around someone’s desk for a brief recreational activity: watching a video on YouTube. The sound of a human voice in severe distress came from the computer’s speakers and the traders mimicked the sound, braying and laughing. Andy stood up and walked over to the neighing crowd. On the screen he saw a video compilation of farm goats that bleated with a shockingly anthropomorphic candor. “Aaah, aaah,” the goats shrieked like a jump-scared person. “Aaah, aaah,” the bros echoed. Upon seeing Andy, the group dispersed. The traders went to their desks, but continued to randomly recreate the chilling sound, tying their high-pitched wails either to the market quotes on their screens or to the Tinder images on their phones.
Andy went back to his seat. And how rare it is to see a person who possessed an ever-present sense of urgency and an inhuman level of focus, and, at the same time, an almost artistic mastery of the craft, attuned to shades and whispers and pitfalls. Because there’s no formula in what we do; one has to tread a new path every day.
Andy searched for this kind of mindset in all of his hires. He monitored the flocks of summer interns, hoping to find a delicate mix of rote obedience, curiosity, and initiative, but quickly found that he could get obedience, and he could get initiative, and he could get brains, but that those rarely came in the same package. Once Andy hired a young analyst — a nerdy kid with a PhD in applied physics. Andy had misgivings about the kid’s concave chest and bad breath but wanted to give him a chance. Taking the advice of watching and learning too literally, the young nerd spent most of his time standing behind Andy, gawking at the numbers on his screen, eavesdropping on his phone conversations and then pestering him with stupid questions: Why is this bond priced at this level? What’s the point of being long and short at the same time, isn’t that a net wash? The kid thought that he was entitled, perhaps on account of his PhD, to stand there and receive answers from a head trader when all the other analysts were busy jacking off — as they should! — the VLOOKUP function on their Excel spreadsheets. Annoyed, Andy told him to get lost, but the kid didn’t budge. Maybe he thought it was some kind of a loyalty test. Eventually, Andy’s patience snapped, he turned around and punched him in the face. The poor kid was marked for death after that. He had to go back and apply his physics in academia. And for what? For a lack of understanding. With all his scholarly brilliance he failed to figure out that sometimes there’s no context, no secret test, no initiation ritual, and that if you’re told to fuck off you should just comply. After this incident Andy gave up on quixotic attempts at proselytizing and reconfigured his hiring bias in favor of duller, meatier in flesh and attitude, and thus more reliable business school graduates.
The only person in Andy’s entire career who displayed a rare divine spark early on was a young intern named Joanna. Back in the summer of 2003 Andy’s team and their lobbying firm were working on an amicus brief for an upcoming legislation on prepayment penalties guidelines. The interns were collecting and combing through gigabytes of prepayment data on the pools of residential mortgages. Joanna sat quietly during the morning meetings, eschewing the bravado and idle performative posturing of the gang of Wharton bros, listening to instructions, taking notes, and then completed the boring, numbers-crunching task with no errors and before the deadline. Andy took a mental note of Joanna’s auspicious blend of skills. Joanna spoke up only once, when they were discussing the impact of the penalties on homeowners and their likelihood of default.
She raised her hand in charming overachiever fashion and inquired, “They’re punished for responsible behavior?”
Scotty, the brattiest intern on the team with a school ring on his pinkie, rolled his eyes and let out a dramatic sigh. Scotty saw dollars — an admirable quality, while Joanna’s seemingly naïve question hinted at her systemic understanding of how the whole sausage factory operated. Scotty opened his mouth, but Andy shut him up with a raised hand. He then went on to explain to Joanna that early prepayments by homeowners carry a risk, an optionality that the bondholders would like to be compensated for. He could tell that she was not satisfied with this explanation. It’s not that she didn’t understand the rationale; it’s that she, correctly, concluded that his answer did not address the question she asked.
“I understand that,” she said impatiently, “but they’re not making any mistakes to be charged those fees.”
Andy made a steeple with his fingers, leaned back, and bounced in his chair, thinking of how best to address the dilemma without alienating this bright young woman. She was too smart to be placated with jargon and platitudes.
“It’s possible to commit no mistakes and still lose,” Andy mused. “That’s life.”
Joanna stared at him. He caught an impudent glint in her eyes.
“But we can, uh, reprogram the simulation, no?” she probed with a grin.
Andy perked up: The girl received and returned a sci-fi reference only a Trekkie would know.
“No, because we don’t like to lose,” he replied, gratified by this unexpected back-and-forth. He wondered what she might be like in a sack, what kind of clever wordplay they could have engaged in between the sheets, but pushed that thought away.
Scotty fidgeted, nervous that he lost track of the conversation. As they walked back to their desks, Scotty whispered in a conspiratorial tone:
“Does she know what’s going on, what we’re doing out here?”
“Better than you,” Andy replied loudly enough so that Joanna could hear him.
Scotty had nothing to worry about. Every bond desk in New York runs on people like him. Joanna, however, was a special find. Somehow, she discerned that we could reprogram the simulation if we wanted to. Maybe that’s because women have a fine-tuned, high-fidelity reality scanning mechanism, Andy thought. An evolutionary side-effect of being the weaker sex. Andy knew that her naive objections to the mechanics of business were driven by her youthful maximalism and the finite, uncreative way women saw the function of money — as protection from the elements, sickness, and old age. She needed mentorship. He would teach her how to look at money properly, like a player — as a mere tool, a means to an endless quest. In time and with the right guidance, soaking in the right company, watching the right people, she could be molded into a weapon. Down the line, in crucial moments people like her could identify and solve the problems that the Scotties of the world couldn’t even fathom existed. Then, after she will have fought a few battles and got a few scars, she will grow to appreciate the beauty, the poetry of bond finance, the magnitude of its worldly implications, and the power of levers at her fingertips.
Andy itched to spearhead that transformation, to watch the progress firsthand, to showcase her and to take credit later.
At the end of that summer Andy made Joanna a generous offer with a five-figure signing bonus, and she accepted. Several months later, however, she got poached by a bigger shop. Andy was enraged when he learned that she was leaving. He made her a counteroffer and almost made a scene trying to convince her to stay. But she left anyway. He had to hide his anger from the other traders who couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.
That was eleven years ago. Now, in her mid-thirties, Joanna had grown into a well-connected derivatives saleswoman at a credit desk at a large European bank. She entertained clients at all the major business conferences and industry get-togethers. She knew who got poached where and who had what trade on. She knew everyone’s risk appetites and axes and book sizes, but also the grudges, the rivalries, the silent wars. She had the best intel and the best gossip, and people sought her company.
When Andy and Joanna ran into each other at the conferences, she was, as any successful saleswoman should be, cordial and ever ready to do business, probing him for what kind of ‘paper’ and ‘yield’ and ‘risk’ he was looking for, and Andy felt that behind her friendly front there was always a sly dig at his heartfelt attempt to keep her under his wing all those years ago. “You are ‘credit,’ and I’m ‘investment grade,’” he would usually tell her, and she always laughed at this explanation.
On his turret phone Andy pressed a button that had a pre-programmed direct connection to Joanna’s desk.
“Hi, Andy,” she said with a welcoming, smiling voice. “Long time no hear. What can I do for you?”
“I need to get a quote on something,” he said.
“Where would you guys sell protection on Concordia-Walden?”
“Since when are you trading credit?” Joanna asked and didn’t wait for an answer. “What size?”
“Uhm. How about ten?”
He heard her keyboard clicking fast.
“Huh. It’s not a name that trades a lot. I have to run it by my guys. Let me get back to you.”
“Andy. I’m glad we’re doing business again,” Joanna chirped. “Give me half an hour or so. Don’t call anybody else. I’ll show you a good level.”
For the last few years, Joanna had been dating Misha Pomerantzev. The two were jetsetters and foodies, who could get a reservation at Momofuku Ko with one phone call. They once flew to Copenhagen for one day just to have dinner at Noma, the world’s top-rated restaurant. But then Misha quit his job and showed up alone at Andy’s birthday party, unkempt and in a sort of searching, unmoored state, and rumors began to swirl.
Joanna’s number displayed on Andy’s turret five minutes later. He picked up.
“So,” she said sounding a bit subdued. “Because it’s such a cuspy name, my guys will show you nine points upfront and two hundred running.”
“What? Come on, really?”
“They say it’s still a pretty good deal.”
“Nine points upfront, that’s robbery.”
“So, a ‘no’ then?”
“Not at the moment, no. But thanks for the offer,” Andy said.
“Always happy to help.”
“Let’s grab a drink one of these days.”
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