Death and Work

I use to work at a bond shop where seventy percent of the people that worked there are now dead.

When I moved to NY in 1994, I worked at at bond brokerage shop. For those unfamiliar with the business of brokering bonds, here is a brief primer. The major banks trade bonds all over the world with their clients, and if they can’t find a counterpart for their trades they will use bond brokers to sell or buy bonds for them. The business is very lucrative, but it is very demanding and stressful. A mistake at work can cost you your job and it can cost you lots of money.

trading pitI worked with a collection of characters that made each day an adventure. Frank M., my boss, was brilliant. He had been taught by some of the most brilliant minds in finance. Aside from that, he talked to himself all day long and would think nothing of suddenly breaking into an array of Broadway tunes. Rich C., a recovering alcoholic, was Frank’s partner. He was  so paranoid and manipulative that the two of them would literally have fist fights every few weeks.  In his previous career, Rich had worked on a cruise ship and as he put it, he was “the male companion for all of the older lady’s on the cruise.” Joe K., a repo broker  who used to print money all day long, could talk non-stop for hours. He had 5 kids and loved his family dearly. Antonio R., from Italy, spoke as if he had marbles in his mouth. Nobody could ever understand a word he said and he used to jet set every weekend to someplace new. He was rumored to have been super wealthy with a ton of money stashed away in the Caribbean. Rob W., so fat he would break a chair every week because the chairs couldn’t withstand his weight, would eat all day long nibbling on donuts and coffee that inevitably left stains all over his shirt. John S., a non nonsense tough guy from the Bronx, used to have such great relationships with his clients they would bend over backwards to give him business. Finally there was “Jimmy the Fish.” Jimmy was the youngest guy on the desk. He gambled all day long and was always  hung over and had a  disheveled look about him.

They each died young. And tragically. I have always maintained that desk was cursed and by the grace of God the curse passed me by. Most of them died as a result of the attacks of 9/11 as the majority of them worked at brokerage shops in the World Trade Center. After the attacks happened I knew that could have been my fate had I stayed in that business.

In 1996, I left the bond brokerage business of my own accord, even as I left a lot of money on the table as I knew the business would have killed me. In order to be good in the bond brokerage business, I had to go out five times a week. Many times I would have to play golf on the weekends with my clients (even though I don’t like the game and I am not very good at it). After 2 years I became so run down physically and spiritually I knew I had to get out. The tipping point came when I ran into a colleague of mine who worked at a different company. He proceeded to tell me that he had not spent a single night at home in three years as a result of all the entertaining he was doing to secure business. The guy looked like the walking dead and he knew it; but he was so hooked on the money he could not give it up. Tragically, he committed suicide about 10 years later. He walked into the woods in winter, took some sleeping pills and froze to death.

The other reason I left that business was that I knew the bond brokerage business would eventually have the margins squeezed out of them and the business would become primarily electronic. I don’t know how I knew but I did and for that I am grateful.

The lives of those with whom I formerly worked who still survived have been a mixed bag. Sean M., a fast talking Floridian who went bankrupt and got divorced, had to start over. Fred A. and Lisa A. have not worked in years. Wanda L., became a Jehovah’s witness. The rest of we lucky few moved on and have been able to find our own definition of happiness in life.

When I mentioned to my colleague Gil , who worked with me on that desk, about the “cursed” he looked at me with awe and terror. It seems he had never really looked at the brokerage desk in quite that way. When I mentioned that besides the tragedy of 9/11,  two of  our colleagues died after 9/11 (Jimmy the Fish died in his sleep at 34 while Bobby W. died in a hospital from obesity) Gil said he had never analyzed all the tragedy that had befallen our co-workers and was genuinely shook by my analysis. I  do believe I was blessed with a certain intuition that I followed. Perhaps my surviving colleagues would feel the same if asked.

As for now, I am in a new phase in my life. I’ve learned the importance of listening to and following the promptings of my gut. I am walking proof those messages are given for our protection and well being. All we need do is open to the possibility and trust in the guidance.

Steve Clark