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When I was younger and happier I worked as a drudge in an Investment Bank.  Actually, remove the happiness from that first sentence—the place was one of the most toxic & unpleasant environments ever.  Nobody there was happy.  The bank sucked away human life force…and so I destroyed it from within!  It’s gone now.  You’re welcome, world.

That all sounds pretty bad-ass, but unfortunately this story reads less like a John Grisham thriller and more like a Russian folktale about a slow witted bumpkin who kills a sorcerer by accident.  Although I worked at the investment bank, I was in no way an investment banker (thank goodness).  The bankers and analysts were all stressed-out type-A personalities who spent 14-18 hours a day currying favor and staring at columns of numbers.  A great many of them were hooked on amphetamines or other drugs.

I worked as a temp in the legal department where my job was to redline legal documents–a sort of grown-up “spot-the-difference” puzzle where one compares two nearly identical legal documents to see if the opposing bank has treacherously slipped new provisions into the contract (legal jobs tend to involve this kind of drudgery).  I also helped update and distribute officers and directors lists—a task which was especially onerous since the officers and directors changed with blinding speed.  Also the bank was really dozens of different legal entities and shell-corporations, each of which had its own board and officers all of whom overlapped considerably.  I completed these monotonous tasks in a freezing cold plastic workstation visible to everyone from all sides. My only joy was to surreptitiously cut arctic animals out of post-it notes with a pair of office scissors.  I had an entire Siberian ecosystem by the time I left.

The bank was on a 30somethingeth floor of a dull 80’s skyscraper in midtown.  The bankers were forever trying to modify the office to suit the whim of the latest leaders (who were always changing—see above), so what should have been a simple series of embedded corridors was instead a shifting warren of slate-green upholstery, sharp glass edges, faux mahogany, injured egos, and construction detritus.  The only constant (other than cold and fear) was an arrhythmic grandfather clock, which wheezed away the interminable hours.  Once I was sent to deliver a document to an obscure department on the far side of the bank.  On the way back, I got lost in a newly created hallway swathed with plastic sheets and plywood.  As I scurried along the passage I heard loud impatient footsteps behind me.  I turned and was horrified to see the president of the bank, a cold bossy woman, walking immediately behind me.  Why was she walking so fast?  How could I escape her? Then it occurred to me: there should be a doorway to the kitchen/breakroom ahead. I flung open the door to escape, but the president had ceased her rapid walking and was staring directly at me, her mouth hanging open in an “O” of surprise. With a touch of élan, I opened the door wider in order to let her pass (I was surprised she knew about the shortcut through the kitchen) and then I noticed the room beyond the door had pink tiles!  It was the women’s bathroom!  I screamed shrilly, dropped the door, and ran away down the hall.  It was not my best career moment… fortunately a new president was appointed shortly afterwards, and then another new president after him!

Anyway you want to hear about the destruction of the bank.

Above the little cubicle I was stuck in, there was a big air vent.  It roared incessantly all day, continuously delivering a stream of cold stale air on my shoulders.  One day, when the legal department was unexpectedly empty, I decided to try to do something about the vent.  Balancing precariously on top of my workspace I reached up into the evil grate and found a tiny rusted lever which would not budge, no matter how I pulled at it.  Desperate not to be caught, I swung my whole weight at the lever.  There was a rusty scream, a shower of dirty particles and a great dull “BOOM”.  I sprang down into my chair and looked busy, as martinets in pinstripes manifested from nowhere, but I heard an alveolar shift up inside the ducts of the skyscraper.   The hateful cold air was now directed somewhere else!

My moment of triumph it was short-lived.  The top boss of the legal department (famous for OCD & prickly disposition) came back to find that her fancy office was unbearably cold.  A normal person would have summoned the building engineers–who probably would have traced the problem back to the closed vent.  Fortunately that was not the way she did business.  Her first action was to have her paralegals find the contract with the building and flag the engineering/maintenance section.  Armed with contractual righteousness, she called the property firm and ordered them to raise the temperature on the floor by 15 degrees.

The legal department was on the cold dark side of the building.  The important bankers and financiers were portly men with window offices on the sunny side of the skyscraper.  While the rest of the bank suddenly became hot, their offices became ovens.  To lower the temperature, the bankers started working their way through successive levels of workmen, technicians, and engineers (I heard the angry conversations in the lobby) only to find that the temperature had already been changed by the legal department.  Both sides then began a violent squabble about the thermostat.

"...maybe I should go. You guys settle this on your own."

One day I just didn’t go back to the bank—in fact that was the only job I quit outright with no other prospects.  Later on I found out that, a few months after I left, the bank was gobbled up in its entirety by a huge New York capital management firm.  Perhaps it is wrong not to assume that some other factor was responsible for that place’s demise (its dysfunctional office culture or rapidly changing leadership, for example…or maybe the wave of banking mergers in the nineties) but I think anyone who has worked at an office where everyone is fighting about the temperature can correctly assign credit to me.

My first paying job in New York City was working as a temporary paralegal for a white-shoe law firm.  The gig only lasted a night–but that time was very instructive. I was called in because there was a task so boring that none of the extremely bored people who worked in that great temple to dullness wanted to undertake it.  I came in at 8:30 PM in the evening and worked straight for 13 hours–after which they called a Cadillac to take me home.

There was an immense stack of old-timey dot printed financial records (the ones that were attached to each other by perforated edges to form a continuous spooling sheet).  This huge primitive spreadsheet detailed all of the transactions made by a group of companies in all states, territories, and dependencies over all time.  My job was to go through everything and find each time a certain sequence of numbers came up.  I then noted down the relevant numbers that appeared beside the sacred sequence on a computer spreadsheet.

Welcome to New York!

The main difficulty to this task (other than not despairing at the absurdity of human endeavor) was to keep one’s place on endless nearly identical sheets of densely printed numbers.  I therefore asked for a ruler or a straight edge and was told I would be provided with one immediately.  An hour later, at 9:30 PM, an immense packing crate suitable for, say an industrial microwave, arrived, delivered by expensive private messengers.  I opened it and found the box was filled with packing peanuts.  In the very middle, nearly lost, were two 75 cent plastic rulers.

This was an important lesson about business in New York.  It doesn’t matter whether a job is done cleverly or efficiently or even well.  It only matters that it be done as quickly as possible in the most expensive way possible.  I have always remembered this when following the news of finance and legal affairs in the morning papers.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020