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The Golden Age of Wall Street: Part II


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 19, 2004

Before I bound ahead with the details of summer life at Graphic Scanning in the early seventies, it is worth observing that in many ways the Wall Street of that time is not the Wall Street of today. Most notably, it was a much smaller place any way you measure things. Manhattan's swinging sixties building boom was largely concentrated in midtown, birthplace of the steel-and-glass rectangular parallelepiped. Besides the up-and-coming World Trade Center, the Wall Street area did have a smattering of nouveau skyscrapers. The most notable among the crowd that I traveled with was what was then known as the Marine Midland Bank Building. The building, just up the street from Graphic Scanning at 140 Broadway, was not the attraction, rather it was the large, obscenely red cube with a hole through it that stood in the plaza in front of the building, which was what Thomas Schelling would call a "focal point." Whenever a friend of mine would meet me for lunch in the City, that is where we would rendezvous. Indeed, just about any time during the working day you could see someone waiting by the cube looking out for his or her other half.

The Wall Street area of the early seventies was like a small village peopled largely by clerical workers during the day and by mostly bums (the "homeless" did not officially exist back then) on nights and weekends. There were no hotels and no residential population to speak of—Battery Park City did not exist and the conversion of office space to luxury apartments would have been considered lunacy. If you said the word "Tribeca," people would think you said "Trifecta," as OTB was the hot new thing back then, and there was no reason to give that area a name.

One measure of how Wall Street has grown is the average daily volume on the NYSE. In 1971, it was a bit over 15 million shares; now it is pushing 1.4 billion shares. And given the growth outside the NYSE as well as in bonds and derivatives, this hundred-fold growth is probably an underestimate. While downtown office space has expanded several times over the past thirty years, it has not grown anything like a hundred times. Instead, jobs either been automated out of existence or moved elsewhere, first uptown and across the rivers and then across the oceans. My summer job was doubtlessly among them.

There were probably all sorts of interesting things going on back then that I failed to notice. Indeed, the things that made an impression on me are exactly the kind of things that one would expect would catch the attention of a seventeen-year-old boy.

I had lost my financial services virginity the previous fall working the occasional evening sorting cancelled checks in the back room of the main office of the Central Home Trust Company. (I was bonded so that if in a fit of madness I decided to stuff my book bag with cancelled checks, the bank would be covered.) At this job, I learned that reasonable but not excessive efficiency coupled with a healthy air of detachment made for regular paychecks with the least hassle on everyone's part. My early days working in message area rewarded my talent for acting like a mindless drone—a role that I played so convincingly that I remember very little of my first days at Graphic Scanning. Still, certain regions of my brains still have "We are all sold" burned into them as well as the admonition not to confuse the two Huttons. (Although I don't remember a specific incident, I suspect that I must have done exactly that early on in my professional typing career.)

I can also remember my boss, a cat named Miles who reminds me more of Superfly than of the jazz legend. Miles was a great boss because he wasn't there most of the time that I was. He would breeze into the office late in the afternoon and presumably stay until midnight, while I was out of there sometime between five and six. (The time clock was located by the messengers and we had to punch in and out. More on the clock and overtime next week.) Miles clearly had other business interests and one day he simply vanished.

A few weeks into the summer, I was no longer the "new guy." That honor fell to Neil (maybe that was real name, if it wasn't, it should have been.) He has significantly older than I was and was very Brooklyn. He kept talking about this place called New Paltz where he supposedly went to college, but I had never heard of the place and figured that he made it up. I also remember him talking about stealing typewriters from MIT, but I'm not certain that he was ever a student there.

Neil might have made for reasonable company, but, in retrospect, it was clear that he had taken The Catcher in the Rye way too seriously. I don't know if he went on to assassinate any celebrities, but if he did it wouldn't surprise me. He talked about Bob Dylan incessantly and provided me with detailed analyses of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "Just Like a Woman." He was into the sexual imagery of these songs and that was why he wouldn't last very long.

At some point during the summer of 1971, Neil and I were promoted to more complicated typing tasks. The pay was the same, but the work was more interesting. We were situated at three pristine IBM Selectrics arranged in a triangle so that the typists facing one another. The third member of our troika was a recent summer college hire. Her name was Sharon (not really, but you never know who might read this) and she was put on this earth to drive Neil crazy so that he could fulfill his Holden Caulfield fantasy.

I think that Sharon went to NYU, but what really mattered was that her "boyfriend" was an English professor there. It also mattered that she was a dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty with a knockout body. (More on that very soon.)

Sharon had two tricks. First, she would recount in astonishing detail what she did to/with her boyfriend on the previous night. Second, playing every inch the liberated woman, she never wore a bra. On normal days, this was distraction enough given that low energy costs led to universal workplace over-air-conditioning during the hot Manhattan summers. Sharon's pièce de résistance, however, was on random days to wear very loosely knit tops that were clearly designed to have something substantial worn under them. To be pornographically precise about things, the weave of her tops was larger than the diameter of an erect nipple, which, according to some fundamental physical law that Caltech never taught me, always managed to find its way to freedom. There are certain images that one can never get out of one's mind.

Fortunately for me, I figured that even if Sharon were not three years my senior, I was no competition for a true New York intellectual. I could easily ignore her because my mind was already somewhere else. For Neil, things were not so simple. When he was not off on one of his frequent trips to the mens room, he was hitting on Sharon with only humiliation to show for it. Within a few weeks, Neil left, Sharon soon followed, and I was the only from the back office to make it through the summer of 1971 and be invited back for greater glory the following summer.

Next week, I will tell of life in Graphic Scanning's front office.

Copyright 2004 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to