The birth of “Freaks I’ve Met”
Back in early September 2001, I was freshly back from my third Burning Man-exhausted and hungover from some bad drugs I will never take again. Needless to say I was having trouble getting out of bed to go to work. I was burnt out in every sense of the word, but the main reason I was unable to muster myself, one that I couldn’t even blame on Burning Man, was that I was done with my job! But I didn’t have a backup plan..yet. Just a mortgage and a life style to go with it. My job was selling bonds to institutions for Gruntal (which in German means Green Valley if you’ve read “Freaks I’ve Met” yet..get it?), based in San Francisco, which meant I was supposed to get up and be at work by 6 am. Yet with our traders and bosses all in NYC, they were lucky if we showed up by 8 am. Plus we had long ago trained our sales assistants to cover for us, even imitate our voices if a trader came over the “hoot,” an intercom system that allowed you to bypass the telephone. Basically a telephone call that never hung up. It was just another example of corporate waste, and would probably be free today over the internet now, but cost our office over $2,0000 a month. Were we really that important? Or did the traders think we all had irritable bowel syndrome?
The morning in question, I had two Qantas “hosties” whom I’d met 5 years prior during a trip to New Zealand. They had just arrived on a 4 day layover and decided to fly up from Los Angeles and check out Nor Cal for a couple days as they could fly for just the cost of taxes. That morning the phone rang non stop. I of course ignored it, until the 4th incessant round of rings where I picked up!
“What!?” I growled.
It was my best friend and co-worker Lee Beau,(who gave me the title for the novel and has since sadly passed)
“Dude! Turn on the TV” He demanded.
“Fuck you! Call me later.”
“No, just do it”
I turned on my bedroom TV, just in time to witness the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. This was real, this wasn’t a Sci-Fi movie. The first plane, maybe an accident, the second, even Hollywood wouldn’t dare pull a stunt like this because no one would believe it. All planes in the US were grounded. San Francisco’s air was silent for the first time since commercial air traffic was invented. At this point the hosties were glad they weren’t Americans and were forced to rent a car to get back to Los Angeles. Buzz kill doesn’t describe the next months.
Our new swanky home office, now destroyed by Tower Two falling on it, was located at One Liberty, directly adjacent to the WTC. To make our company more presentable we had recently relocated from 14 Wall Street, an incredibly skanky outdated building, that had giant secondary air ducts blowing in the office to keep the circulation going on the overcrowded floor. During my last visit, smoking and free cheese danishes were still allowed at your desk, so this was a necessity.(read the dealbreaker.com post here) Danish My frequent visits to New York, to “get to know the trading desk better,” were really just junkets so I could party with old friends and get a free trip charged on the company. On this morning I knew better than to call in to the office. Thank goodness they all evacuated safely, but not unscathed. Only later would I hear tearful first hand accounts, that even I can’t shake, stories of bodies hitting the ground from 100 floors up that sounded like watermelons exploding. After this morning, the employees of Gruntal would never work for the 122-year-old company again.
By 9/11, Gruntal had been for sale for over 2 years. A team was hired by our holding company to find a buyer. Anything over 200 million dollars was theirs to split between the team and the holding company. Quite an incentive. Gruntal had 200 million in the bank, so it seemed like an easy sale. But it wasn’t. The looming lawsuits from angry investors, sexual harassment suits– things that every brokerage firm with over 2000 employees has to endure–made it especially unsavory. Gruntal had a reputation. Not necessarily bad, just inventive, and hard scrabble. Stephen Cohen from SAC cut his teeth there before he was a billionaire, and we creatively put together a 50 million dollar asset backed security based on David Bowie’s song royalties when he was in a lull period so he wouldn’t have to work so hard, things like that. But a brokerage firm doesn’t own anything proprietary, except its accounts. Brokers are nothing special, in fact, many play a game of getting up front money from competing firms to sign on, for a specified amount of time, and leave again for the next firm once their lockout period had expired–taking their precious relationships with them every time they leave. Their customers, loyal like they are to a favorite hair stylist, go with them, afraid that the next dolt might rip them off, or give them a bad perm if they stay. It wasn’t worth the risk to them, and it was just a simple form to sign, oh! and that box of See’s Candy was a nice touch at Christmas.
Gruntal’s mistake was hiring the man who put EF Hutton out of business, Robert Rittereiser. That’s right, someone who tanked a much larger company than Gruntal, was being hired to “save” ours. So that Christmas, Robert decided to bonus himself a few million bucks just because he is awesome! Sure! Why not! He had a damn fine handshake and a good smile. Ride that rocket right into the ground, instead of to the moon. Because no one is going to stop you. Until another 100 million was gone.
The holding company finally had enough, and on 9/11/2001 the papers were ready to sign for Prudential Bache to buy Gruntal for 80 million. We would all get to keep our “jobs”. But since Gruntal did absolutely nothing for our San Francisco office, we figured things could only get easier. They of course didn’t.
With the Prudential deal gone forever when the planes crashed into the buildings, it took over a month to get back to work. Ryan Beck, a small brokerage firm headquartered out of Florida, bought all the assets for 15 million dollars. Just to give us a place to get up and running. Truly the deal of the century.
“Aren’t you grateful?” I remember being asked by a Ryan Beck transition member.
Yeah, I felt like a Harvey Weinstein victim, and he was asking me if I wanted to “do it again” because I wanted so badly to be in his movie. Many back office people and secretaries who’d worked there for decades lost their jobs, or were offered positions in New Jersey, at their Livingston location.
“Manhattanites don’t go to Jersey, its the other way around.” My favorite back office lady mentioned as she took her small severance, and found another job.
Hundreds of people were screwed over by the greed of a few. It goes on every day in corporate America, and this was my turn.
About a year later, still picking my scabs from getting tossed out of the corporate truck going 90mph, I was having dinner with a friend of a friend who was a reporter for Fortune magazine. She was elated to have just finished an article on Oprah, and had just gotten word her piece would make the cover. (here’s the article) Fortune article She asked what I did, and I told her about the demise of my company, with the World Trade Center disaster being the final nail in the coffin. A week later, she and another reporter called me back at work and interviewed me in detail about the things I knew. Most of it was scuttlebutt, but ultimately true, as rumors often are. Things like the back office guys who embezzled 10 million from accounts that had no heirs, and when they po-po came to arrest one of them, they were told he mysteriously died that week, and had his remains cremated and scattered. Things like that. Except when the police drove by his house a week later, there he was cleaning his gutters. It’s a miracle! I digress.
Which brings me to the birth of “Freaks I’ve Met”. I’ve long wanted to write. In fact prior to writing “Freaks” I completed three screenplays. “Gonzagini” a comedy about American college students studying abroad in Italy who run afoul of Middle Eastern Terrorists. It explains the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for dummies, and pokes fun at Americans for being so clueless about why the middle east hates us as well as at the terrorists for being to stupid to think we even know who they are. It was written before 9/11, so I’m kharmically off the hook, but needless to say Hollywood wouldn’t touch it after the attacks. Drew Barrymore’s production company Flower Films was the only place in Hollywood to read it, and had just done “Donnie Darko.” Or, “Sellout” about the secret great grandson of Nikola Tesla, who was bequeathed the secret for free energy, and the powers that be who will do anything in their power to stop it. When I shopped that one around Hollywood, after the tenth agent asked “Who is Nikola Tesla”(this was 2003) I knew I’d had enough. No one outside of Hollywood reads screenplays. Lesson learned. But people do read books! And I was going to write one! Even if it took me 10 years!
I originally planned to do a tell-all memoir about my days in the bond market, and the countless characters I encountered, but after the Fortune article came out almost a year after they interviewed me (read it here) The Shabby Side of the Street the story was already done. And they did all the laborious fact checking. Plus there was no redemption, no feel good aspect to the story. Everyone got screwed over and just had to take it. Who wants to read about that? Plus researching every minute detail of the scandals that weren’t included in the article sounded awful, and like a huge waste of time. People want to laugh…even laugh at themselves, have empathy/sympathy and that’s where “Freaks I’ve Met” was born! And I hope you get a chance to read it!
PS I’m currently working on my second novel, and I hope it doesn’t take me ten years.. but it might!