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08 Apr 98

I Face Global Banking for the Very First Time

My New Career

In my bag, the books Wall Street Words and How to Invest, last night's purchases. I arrive at The Enormous Financial Institution, Inc., 400 billion in assets, 65,000 employees, and a new office opening absolutely everywhere. My notebook is yellow. The lobby is the same red as the bathroom in The Shining. The logo hangs above, tall as nine of me.

I will be writing a speech. Tenth floor. Adjust the tie.

The Big Boss (second in command to the Southern CEO) tapped me to do this, because the other writer, the one who scripts for soap operas, was out for the day. "Can you write?"

"Sure. I can write," I said, feeling a little guilty to admit it.

"A speech?"

"Yeah, why not?" Jesus Christ, can I? "Four score and seven quarters ago, I had a dream. A dream that our profits and loss would be as follows...."

But in the cab uptown the Big Boss (second in...) liked my outline. "This is good," he said. My five minutes as a fat little corporate rock star had begun. "What's your last name again?"

"Ford, same as the car." I always say "same as the car." Otherwise people hear "Force," or "Fern," or "Fork." I think I mumble.

The night before the meeting, I'd volunteered to sleep over at the shelter. So I had gone back to Brooklyn, gathered formal clothes, and went up to the Ethical Culture Society. I washed my dirty white shirt with pink hand soap in the bathroom sink, and hung it to dry off the back of a folding chair. In the morning I stood naked in the bathroom and scrubbed myself with a wet towel--no shower. From a green cot in the basement at a homeless shelter, to the Securities Division of a company larger than Africa, within three hours. Rags to riches, with me between.

Banker One introduced himself, a big guy, handshakes. "Let's get coffee," he said. So we walked through the labyrinth of offices until we found the coffee room, where large shiny machines ground, processed and spit out liquids of whatever caffienated strength you dialed, like the food processor on a spaceship. "Can it balance your checkbook?" I asked. Dumb, neutral joke. Banker One smiled. I began to feel, mistakenly, safe.

We returned to his office, and then the mind wrenching obliteration, the destruction of my cash-poor soul, began. "Paul, we need these guys to understand that foreign exchange, derivatives, triple-bees, whatever, it's the relationship that counts. And the way we emphasize this is by boats." He paused for effect. "Put a big boat in with a cash-dividend invested common municipal quirgitz, and we see the spallnish experiate in a syncopatico mammalian dubritz." He saw my eyes leap from my skull. "Okay. Let me back up. Let me explain the world financial market to you. This is a box. This is another box. This box represents a forest, this one the trees. Now, the trees need cash."

"Trees need cash?"

"They're not really trees, Paul."

"Oh."

The Big Boss (second in...) said, "we've got that. But what about the smillish grabnotzen?"

Banker Two, previously unseen, burst into the room. "I have a vision!" he announced. "But I don't know how big." He ran out again.

Perhaps it was not quite this bad, but I was out of my league. The Bankers One and Two were genuinely nice people, both helpful, but bankers. I only had a night to grasp the enormity of their corporate culture. I felt like a finger-counting savage presented with a programmable calculator. Square root? That's something under a tree. Sin? I commit 'em. Exponential? The ponential of the person you divorced.

It was like one of those intensive Spanish courses where the teacher speaks no English from the first day. After a while, the language wall broke down. It had to, because I was there for five straight hours, four of those without The Big Boss (second in...). He had the clout to extricate himself, after it turned clear that the meeting might never, ever end. "I have a thing to do over at [other financial giant]," he said. "See ya guys later. Paul, you okay?"

I felt like a six-year-old boy whose father had just said, "It's midnight. I'm leaving you alone for a couple of days. Don't worry about the child-eating serial killer in the closet. He won't be hungry again for a couple hours."

"Sure, I'm in good shape," I said, smiling and nodding like the freshly lobotomized.

That was last Thursday. I finished the first speech on Sunday at 2 AM. All three minutes of it. 30 hours of agonizing writing and rewriting, looking up terms in "Wall Street Words," reading the Wall Street Journal for tone. I tested the speech on an empty conference room, around midnight. The president of our company (one level below the Big Boss [second in...]) walked into the office at ten after midnight, finding me alone, gesturing to an empty room, and shouting. It took some time to explain what I was doing.

Speech number two, the "vision" speech, should only take six hours to write. There's a learning curve; I've straddled enough of it to get on. Those bankers put the fear into me, until I remembered that I can write. For insurance, this weekend I bought books of exemplary speeches, and hand-holding texts about speech-making. They're all charged to an expense account. I'm reading them for helpful hints and rhetorical strategies.

Before I left work today, Banker One called and said, "Good writing, but you got the message wrong. I didn't explain it to you correctly." He wanted a call to arms, I gave him an infomercial. The whip, it cracks again.

So I'm returning to the tenth floor tomorrow, alone, at 2, without The Big Boss (second in...). Straighten the tie, deep breath. Pray for me, please? And if you can tell me exactly what a derivative is, call.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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