Current Commentary

Coming Next


TV Series Theory

LA in the 1970s:

Experimental Finance


Part I: The Long Goodbye

Comes of Age





March 11, 2013


Mutual Funds
Risk Management
Experimental Finance
Online Articles
Books and Articles
Finance Notes
Rigged Online
About Us
Contact Info

The Golden Age of Wall Street: Part IV


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 2, 2004

In wrapping up this series about my Wall Street summer job in the days before financial deregulation, I will look at the things that we going on outside of the office. I left things hanging in Part III by noting that my primary reading material for the second summer was a book that changed my life. That book was Watson's Play of the Hand, a comprehensive offensive and defensive guide to playing out bridge hands. Although it is still in print, very few bookstores carry it. In a world of books for dummies and idiots, Watson's book just doesn't fit in.

Though I earned my poker chops in the summer of 1970 playing all-night games with a bunch of kids from West Texas (Odessa and Midland mainly—I'm not making this up), it was not until I arrived at Caltech that I got serious about bridge. Dabney, my infamous student house, had a bridge game going from lunch 'til dawn. During peak bridge hours, before and after dinner, two games were usually going—one for freshmen and one for upperclassmen. Freshmen tended to bid according to Goren's standard American and beginners' mistakes were rampant. Upperclassman used the Precision and Italian Blue Team bidding systems and would compete in local tournaments on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometime after midnight, the two tables might merge and then a special bidding system that incorporated "frosh transfers," which assured that the upperclassmen would get to play most hands, would come into play. A mastery of Watson's "Play of the Hand" was much of what it took to graduate to the big leagues of Caltech bridge.

Play of the Hand is an exceptional book because it takes an extremely complex problem, how to play a hand of bridge, and structures so that although it cannot in any formal way be "solved," it can, with substantial effort on the part of the reader, be understood. Working through the book takes dedication and persistence—the book is not so much meant to be read as to be reread. But Play of the Hand, like any truly great book, is really a book about learning how to think. Perhaps that's why it is so hard to find these days—serious thought, especially concerning problems with no neat solution, has gone out of fashion.

I must have purchased Watson's book in Pasadena because nothing like it was for sale in the Wall Street bookstores of the time. On Wall Street proper, across from the New York Stock Exchange, was a trading and investing bookstore that I occasionally wandered through but whose books were out of my price range. Mass-market paperbacks, which were still under a dollar back then, were sold at the Hallmark store on Broadway. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I'm OK, You're OK were the big books of the day and there were displayed across from a mass of Snoopy paraphernalia.

Most of my book-browsing came during my half-hour lunch break. McDonald's was still in the suburbs—it had yet to discover it's true calling as an inner-city food service provider—and so the only truly fast food were hot dogs and such from street vendors. Battery Park was home to several vendors and that was where I had lunch most of my first summer. (Mister Softie, the ice cream truck not Bill Gates' company, is one of the few survivors from that era.) At the main intersection of the park, a bona fide bible-thumper sermonized atop a wooden crate. I would occasionally be his audience of one.

The only sit-down eatery that I frequented was a Chinese restaurant on Trinity Place that served a big plate of chow mein topped with fried noodles. It was cheap and temporarily filling. There was always "The Chock" on Broadway, but I had already outgrown my addiction to their chocolate milk and powered wheat donuts.

For much of the summer of 1972, I had pizza and calzone for lunch. Broadway Pizza, also known as "Pizza Pizza" because of the sign outside of it, was a literal hole-in-the-wall on Exchange Place between Broadway and the New York Stock Exchange. Unlike the Rayified pizza of contemporary Manhattan, Broadway Pizza's pizza was usually served hot out of the oven. As each pie came out of the oven, the crowd that spilled out onto the sidewalk would jockey to get a slice. Novice and impatient eaters would suffer serious burns to the roofs of their mouths. Their pizza was certainly good enough, though better was to be found back in Jersey and across the bridge in Brooklyn (John Travolta's placement of their product was still a few years away).

Broadway Pizza's specialty was its calzones. Although calzones are commonplace now, they were a rare item back then. One day, I brought a calzone back to Graphic Scanning and one of my "bosses" (after Miles skipped out, my only real boss was Barry) wanted a bite. He immediately became hooked. I ended up not only bringing him back a calzone every day, I would get him dozens of uncooked calzones so that he could take them home and cook them up for parties. If this sounds familiar, it's because there is an episode of Seinfeld in which George Steinbrenner becomes addicted to calzones that George Costanza brings him. Maybe I should sue.

On days when I was feeling especially prosperous, I would get a sandwich, a potato knish, and a pickle from Wolf's Delicatessen on Broadway. While the food was not quite as good as the midtown delis (and the atmosphere was a bit lacking as well), Wolf's had no competition in the financial district and was always crowded at lunchtime.

When it was either rainy or beastly hot and I had time to kill, I would go over to the visitors' gallery at the New York Stock Exchange. There was no more than token security back then—you just walked into 20 Broad Street, took the designated elevator up, and there you were. It had a small theatre where a short film about the Exchange played continuously, some exhibits, and a view out over the Exchange itself. Sometimes, I was the only visitor; other times, I shared the place with a Girl Scout troop or such.

My most recent visit to the Exchange was with my younger daughter in August 2001. We had to get tickets and then wait in a line that snaked through New Street, the famous alley behind the Exchange. We went through airport-style security and the pizzas that we being delivered to the exchange passed through a van equipped with X-ray equipment and German Shepherds—we called them "pizza-sniffing dogs." Pizzas can no longer be delivered to the Exchange and visitors are not allowed further notice.

Before financial deregulation and FNN (which merged into CNBC), Wall Street simply wasn't a tourist attraction. Most of all the tourists in the area were in Battery Park waiting to take the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty; however, the more adventurous ones could be found wandering among the tombstones next to Trinity Church.

Next week, I shall return to the dangerous present with "Uncle Possum's Handbook of Mutual Fund Scams."

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