So, this week the stock market melted like ice cream on Georgia asphalt. Lehman Brothers is gone. The bomb that would have blown up the American International Group (AIG) was defused by the Federal Reserve at the last moment. And fiscal giants like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley look as wobbly as lean-tos in a hurricane.
This is obviously not the first time that a Wall Street bubble has burst, but this collapse makes me feel a little old. My wife used to work at Lehman when it was Shearson Lehman/American Express in the mid-1980s, and her office was a seat at a lengthy trading desk on the 104th floor of Two World Trade Center.
It was a very different world back then. I look back at my wife’s and my small place in it with a combination of wonder and wistfulness. Sometimes from her vantage point on the 104th floor she would look out the window toward New Jersey or the Statue of Liberty and there would be a helicopter in the New York harbor that was below her. She would actually be looking down at the rotors as they spun. When I would visit her for lunch or meet her after work, the elevators would tremble as they lurched their way to the top. Sometimes, she said, on their way back down they would seem to plummet like cars that have accidentally raced over a cliff. (I’m happy to report that they never hurtled like that when I dropped by.) There was a reason that French tightrope artist Philippe Petit once strung a wire between the tops of the twin towers and walked between them. They were tall and they were magic.
There was also a definite, “Bright Lights, Big City” electricity to the air. In the evening, it felt like a thunderstorm was in the offing, even when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. One morning my wife was walking past the large fountain that existed in the midst of the buildings that comprised the World Trade Center on her way to work, and there was her trading partner washing his face in the fountain. He hadn’t shaved and he was wearing the shirt and suit he had worn the day before.
“Think anyone will notice?” he asked.
Given the energy that some of the traders expended in extracurricular activities in the small hours of the morning, it was likely that a lot of people wouldn’t have noticed — or cared. But my wife encouraged him to go home anyway, which he did.
My wife and I were in our early and mid-20s then. We were newlyweds. We were young and we savored that fact: In my opinion, New York City has never been a bad place to be young and in love, and that was certainly the case in the 1980s.
Though most of the people my wife knew at that trading desk have left Lehman, we both found ourselves mourning the company’s demise this week. Make no mistake, we also feel anger at the executives who made stratospherically large bonuses while Rome was starting to smolder — and made business decisions fueled more by speculation and greed than common sense.
But it’s impossible not to grieve simultaneously for the thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs, many of whom are not the high rollers earning six (and seven) figures, but are instead the assistants and entry level administrators who earn considerably less. Likewise, it’s hard not to lament the families who will lose massive chunks (if not all) of their savings and retirement plans. Gluttony and ineptitude may have sunk the great glamour ship Lehman, but most of the victims weren’t responsible for steering it into the icebergs.
And on a personal level I am bidding adieu to something meaningful largely to me: My youth. The eminent icons of Wall Street may have been shortsighted and superficial, and my connection to them is merely the tenuous link that I am married to a former trader. But I know what they once were and what they have become. And it just isn’t pretty.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 21, 2008.)