Wall Street wasn’t that bad when I reported for duty late in 1951. I mean it was cool, which is to say moderate, by today’s standards. Old Trinity Church’s blackened presence scowled at the head of The Street reprovingly, but it was said that Alexander Hamilton was buried there so that meant something. (At one point he had been a Wall Street lawyer himself.) And I was to learn that even then there was a modest Occupy operation going on there, where I was destined to grace a trading desk on the 30th Floor of 13 Wall Street. But I’ll get to that.
It was a relatively simple world 62 years ago. Moderate human greed, restraint in politics and the financial world, lingering patriotism, given the Cold War, a dash of religion and even human rights, just at that time a-borning.
I suppose the multiplier, the ratio of what the CEO made over the pittance given a drone like me on the trading desk, was 50:1 or so, perhaps reasonable in terms of our relative utility to the firm, compared with the 2,000:1 more common today. But the manufacture of fraudulent “products,” the double-down playing of both sides against the middle (and playing the middle itself), the outright felonious practice of the contemporary Street was years in the future.
They tucked Republican comic books (Vote for Bob Taft) in with our Christmas bonus, but we ignored them. A thinking fellow voted for Adlai Stevenson. And we largely ignored the Civil Defence Co-ordinator (I kid you not) who, wearing a white metal hat, appeared on our floor, urging us to participate in atomic bomb drills, to learn how to hide in stairwells, or at least under the trading desk, and practice first-aid measures in the event the Russians should drop one on southern Manhattan.
As we had learned at NYU and the Wharton School, the Street had an important function in helping to rebuild the post-war world, according to the Marshal Plan. We believed in Ben Graham, although Buffett was still a hick from Omaha, yet to make his start. Julius Grodinsky, an academic genius, understood markets better than any professional research analysts in New York or Boston. (“Did you buy Texas Instruments, like I told you to last year?” he would greet the incoming sophomore class. For a recovering Canadian like me, this powerful simplicity was light years from the academic world up North, where finance profs confined their thinking to theoretical models.)
But it was always a relief, a welcome change, from running position sheets and trading Long Island Railroad debs or tax-free munies. to get out and down into the narrow canyon for lunch. The fresh air, the city smell that is uniquely New York, the sunlight trickling between the topless towers, the dock and harbor sounds beyond the Battery and from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
And the spots around the corner on Broadway where a martini and a London broil could be had for a couple of bucks. And then a stroll back to Wall and Broad, where Willie was usually holding sway.
Willie was the Bishop of Wall Street. A middle-sized man of boundless energy, clad always in black that matched his hair and his piercing eyes. Willie had a soap box, a megaphone, a folded umbrella, which he might brandish for emphasis, and the mandatory Stars and Stripes fluttering overhead for legitimacy, like the ranters in London’s Hyde Park.
Willie’s delivery was powerful, straight to the point and fearless. His diction ranged from the patois of a Fulton Street fishmonger to the biblical. He challenged us, we whom he castigated as the scribes and the Pharisees, to trash the temples that surrounded us, to throw out the moneychangers and the false prophets (which he usually punned with profits). He told us that our salvation, and restitution was at hand, that everything below 14th Street would suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
With the adroitness of a master swordsman, he would engage two or three hecklers at a time (and they were always there, in the front row). His quick turn of phrase and repartee made him more than a match for his critics. Sooner or later they would turn away and weave through the crowd.
Once, twenty floors above him, a lone window washer shouted down at Willie some ribaldry, some comment on his ministry. Without missing a beat, Willie swung his megaphone skyward and shouted: “Repent, my friend, or you are as close to Heaven as you’ll ever be.”
The distant muffled response describing his ancestry that drifted down didn’t impress the crowd, who were forced to applaud Willie.
A year or so ago, Willie was replaced by a multitude. My ancient Wall Street dirge, “it wasn’t that bad,” no longer applied. Because it really WAS that bad. And the world knew it.
No one has yet adequately described or much less defined what was happening. The more pundits try, the more they sound naïve, even ridiculous.
“While the protesters in the U.S. haven’t put forth a clear agenda, their growing numbers suggest that many Americans are unhappy with the status quo,” pronounced Anne VanderMay, writing in Fortune Magazine. No kidding. That’s the equivalent of the Captain of the Titanic saying: “We may be a little late getting to Montreal.”
Michael Moore, front and center as usual, appeared at New York’s Zuccotti Park, noting that the beauty of what was happening was that there was no “clear agenda.” How the hell could there be an agenda, a leader, a single purpose in such a universal upheaval as this? Moore himself was and is the living icon of why what was happening was not political. This was emphatically not like the G20 bashes, attracting professional protesters who neither knew nor cared about the issues involved. This was more like Stan Persky, who once ran for Chancellor at my old alma mater, even though it is an appointed office, because “I just want to chancel.”
In fact the worst thing that could happen would be to let the politicians get their hands on this thing, to make it for and against, respond to it, debate it, filibuster it, trash it in committee, set up a Congressional Committee to study it, set deadlines, quotas, budgets and perhaps conduct an election campaigns with this as the main issue.
This is the way the world changes. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Although we can’t wait, it’s even to be hoped that we don’t see world-shaking changes in our lifetime, because those aren’t the good changes, just as this isn’t just about Wall Street or the poltroons who have warped it out of shape for three decades. This is about the people rising up and re-making the world not as it once was but in a way that can be better.
Restoring the earth’s green environment won’t be brought about by rich guys like Robert Redford and Bobby Kennedy, Jr. from the comfort of their fat-ass ranch or elite law school sinecure telling the natives of Alaska what to do, given the hard choice of a dying salmon run or 20 bucks an hour working for a resource company.
Nine billion earthlings by 2050 and twelve billion by the end of the century won’t have the easy option of going back to nature and living off the land, or listening to the simplistic lectures of earnest venture capitalists who profit every time they dream up another green enterprise.
Through eight decades I’ve watched and retained an abiding faith in the common sense of the common people – in America, surviving the Depression, World War II, Kennedy’s “long and bitter peace,” Joe McCarthy and an assortment of contemporary cretins.
In Canada, I’ve witnessed the emergence of a nation still trying to condition itself away from the destructive colonial legacy that still haunts its indigenous people, its courts and its parliamentary system.
So while we’re waiting for all of those shoes to fall, it’s comforting for me to remember how Wall Street was before Michael Douglas acted out its evil, before unbridled greed and criminals in Ralph Lauren suits took over. The Wall Street Willie the Bishop used to megaphone about.
Because Willie really started something.
He was still there when I left the Street to serve a different master. But I’ve always remembered his solitary voice in the Street, in the City, among what Thomas Wolfe called ‘the million-footed manswarm.”
Because Willie by himself, was the first to take arm against a sea of troubles. He was the first, 60 years before his time, to Occupy Wall Street.