These events all occurred more than a third of a century ago, a minimum of a dozen more years than he was old at the time they happened. Given that the cells of a human body are all replaced every seven to ten years, depending upon which sources you consult, he has been a different person three to five times over since then, so whether he may any longer say that these things truly happened to him back then, rather than merely occurring to me now, should be called into question.
The story begins ordinarily enough in mid-summer in the mid-1980s, with an image of him in the khaki worsted suit he still puts on once a year for a school graduation or a summer wedding, only with the waist let out an inch for each of the cellular iterations heretofore mentioned. He is lunching alone, seated on the wall of a fountain in the white travertine plaza of a famous Lower Manhattan office building, eating first rate falafel from a stand run by a genial Palestinian, who occasionally tells him disturbing stories that confirm his suspicion that he was lied to at Hebrew school about the blameless origins of the Jewish Homeland. He feels elated, not only because the day is fine and he is twenty-two years old, but also because he has in the inside pocket of his jacket what he thinks of as his Get out of Jail Free card. This is peculiar in that the jail is an investment bank where he works as a trainee bond analyst, a job for which someone like him would never be given even the briefest consideration today. The card is a round-the-world air ticket that cost him two weeks’ salary, which though modest by current standards in that egregious economic sector, is more than he will earn again until the next and present century.
The trainees in the bond division who are seen as being ‘hungry’— which translates to worthy of being there— are in the much larger corporate program. He has been assigned to the municipal or ‘muni’ department because he is rightly viewed as being where he is thanks solely to nepotism. This is entirely correct since it was his mother who got him the job through the husband of one of her close friends, a person in front of whose name he was expected to place the word 'Uncle' when he was growing up, even though he hardly knew the man, who appeared to cringe at the spurious usage himself. His mother has a tendency to remind him of the enormous favor she has done him in securing this sinecure for him. Every time she does so, he is sorely tempted to tell her that she did it so that she could boast disingenuously to acquaintances about the promising job he landed straight out of college. Of course, she also did it in the hope that he might go on to get rich enough that she could continue to enjoy the satisfaction of being able to brag thus for the rest of her life, or his, whichever ends first. In order to lessen her embarrassment and disappointment, when her grand plan falls through, he has booked his departure for a couple of days after the surprise fiftieth birthday party his stepfather is planning for his mother at a fancy restaurant in Midtown.
Although he has been in the program for only two months, he has already acquired a nickname by which he is known to all the other young male employees in bond analytics— Zero. Trainees are given topics to research and present and his was ‘Price Volatility of Long Term Zeroes’. Zeroes are bonds which do not carry the usual coupons that provide the buyer with semi-annual interest payments. Instead, all the interest is received at the end of the bond’s term, in return for which it is sold at a price heavily discounted from its maturity value. That these bonds yield nothing until the end of their term leads their value to fluctuate more than coupon bearing bonds, an attribute which can be exploited to the benefit of some investors...hence to the detriment of others. In an effort to make his presentation more interesting, he has spent hours upon hours in the Mid-Manhattan Library finding and printing off microfilm and fiche images of various public works projects for which zero type muni-bonds had been issued from the New Deal through the 1970s. Black and white pictures of huge concrete dams and vast suspension bridges in far flung states, both completed and under construction, and of the workers who built them, riveting and welding, wielding pickaxes and shovels, operating giraffe-like cranes and hippopotamus-like steamrollers. These efforts signally fail to impress the head of his department who repeatedly holds his forehead in despair at this irrelevant idiocy, while our hero/Zero, displays the lengthy sequence of 17 by 22 inch cards to which he has affixed his historic images, along with charts and graphs of illustrative bond price fluctuations during the mid-20th century, all painstakingly created by hand with rulers, french curves and marker pens in that graphically primitive era.
His immediate manager calls him into her office the following day to review the errors of his ways. She is the only woman in the department who is not a secretary of some kind, and is about a decade his senior and very pretty in a pixieish sort of way. She keeps her hair short, wears only ladies trouser suits to work and knows when to be, or not to be, one of the boys with his colleagues. Like his, her background is in the humanities, the only other person in the department so tainted. He can tell that chatting with him sociably makes a pleasant change for her, as it does for him. She asks him what his biggest mistake was in his presentation but he is unable to pinpoint it. She tells him that the principal thing that interests their boss about zero coupon bonds is the same thing that is of interest to him about her— their convexity. “So, does that mean there’s a non-linear relationship between your price and your yield?” he jokes, or tries to. She smiles tartly and warns him that he has “totally screwed up”, clarifying that all anyone wanted to see or hear from him was how and why the firm can take advantage of non-professional investors’ weak understanding of zeros to turn a profit buying underpriced and selling overpriced. Has she made this perfectly plain, thank you? He looks at the floor, duly cowed, at which she sighs, escorts him out, pats him on the shoulder and leaves him to his incompetence.
He has tried, earnestly tried, to make small talk and fit in with ‘the other guys’ at the office but both parties soon came to feel it was hopeless. What was there to say? He never watches sports on TV, nor has he ever had the least wish to go to a live football, baseball, basketball or ice hockey game. He cannot play golf, tennis, squash, or even racquetball and has never evinced the least desire to learn. He does know how to sail from an Outward Bound course in high school, but is only interested in wooden clinker boats, or old, tall ships of Melvillian ilk like those berthed at the South Street Seaport. The situation is as much of an impasse on the non-athletic front. He has no interest in owning a Rolex or other luxury timepiece, nor a Mont Blanc pen or similar fine writing implement. He does not read Fortune or Forbes to advance his career prospects. Neither does he consult Esquire and GQ to improve his sartorial and grooming style. He cannot drive and knows next to nothing about the different models of European sports cars present or past. He is hopeless when it comes to comparing the relative physical merits of female movie stars or supermodels. He has no interest in sex that is paid for, whether above the line with escorts and hookers, or below it with potential girlfriends or wives via the conferring of drinks, meals, designer clothes, jewelry, vacations, tuition fees, or at more senior levels, apartments. As one of his fellow trainees repined, “Guy doesn’t even like to get wasted so what the hell else is left?”
A couple of weeks before his departure, he confides his nefarious plan to his father, a hippie for a decade until a decade ago, but now a systems analysis savant to sizable financial institutions. Listening in on the conversation, his stepmother, closer to his own age than his father’s, and an old-fashioned Brooklyn gal drawls,“The Chuckaway Kid rides again, folks! Give him an opportunity nobody else like him can get and what does he do? Chuck it awaaay!” This is her 1950s TV show sobriquet for him. She also has a Vaudeville act epithet, ‘Mr. Monkey from the Zoo and his Maidens of the Moment’. His half-sister, eighteen years his junior, likes the sound of this one, though it recently caused him some vexation when she used it in the presence of the present maiden. His father is more sympathetic and tells him that he might have done something like this had he not allowed himself to be pressured into marrying at the age of twenty-one.
So supportive does his father prove of his travels that he insists on buying him a first rate backpack at a camping and climbing shop of an old fashioned type that he is surprised to find even exists in New York, and the likes of which has long since vanished from his native soil. It is narrow, rough hewn, badly lit and jam packed with all manner of equipment. Part of one wall is festooned floor to ceiling with spools of climbing rope of numerous gauges in bright variegated patterns. There is an old-fashioned glass case with many shelves, each one displaying an array of carabiners, pulleys, hexes, rings and spring-loaded cams, that remind him of the orthopedic surgical devices that are sure to be required if you do not use any of them correctly yet manage not to die. The try-on models of packs are hung on wooden pegs so close together that the straps are entangled. He is surprised when one of the two guys working in the store asks whether the pack is for him or his father. It strikes him suddenly that despite being fifty, and having worked in computing for his whole career, his father is only just beginning to evince signs of physical decline. He thinks it must be down to his dad’s walking everywhere and often taking over the cabling for his computer installations, or doing renovations himself after each of his numerous moves. The salesman sells him the cheapest backpack they carry, which is, nevertheless, over a hundred dollars (a lot of money for such an item then) and remarkably comfortable and durable. I know, though he has no clue, that he will carry it so frequently and so far that he will wear it out.
At midday on the final Friday in September he goes to tell his boss that having “given it a lot of thought” the bank is not the place for him and today will be his last day. She looks him in the eyes, nodding compassionately and asks, “And have you thought yet about what your next move will be?” When he answers that by the middle of next week he will be in the Fiji Islands, she darts over to him, puts her hands on his shoulders, exclaims, “Oh, but that’s wonderful!” and gives him a spontaneous peck on the cheek. Then she says, “I’m so glad you’ve spared me having to send you packing myself at the end of the year. I do believe this calls for a very extended Friday lunch. Do you need a moment to collect your things, or shall we go right this minute?” In the wake of this, he tells her he has nothing to collect but his senses. She slings her suit jacket over her shoulder with one arm and takes him by his arm with the other. She walks them over to their department head’s office, peers in the open door and winking calls, “I’m taking Zero out to lunch...and for that 'man-to-man talk' you and I discussed the other day.” On the way to the elevator she says, “That’ll make him think I’m persuading you to do what you’ve just told me you’ve already decided on. That way I won’t get any grief when I don’t return to base later.” In the elevator she suggests, “How about I take you to Delmonico’s? Don’t worry, I can afford it.” He tells her he knows she can, and more, but he is wondering whether she might like to let him show her someplace that is a more authentic example of old New York, one she might never otherwise find out about, and which could disappear at any moment.
He says that where he wants to bring her is not far, and inquires whether she might like to walk but she would rather take a taxi and promptly hails one. He asks the driver for South Street Seaport and she inclines her head toward him and raises her eyebrows dubiously. On the way, she confesses she has known all along he only got his job through a familial favor and he admits that he only took it only to placate his mom. She asks whether he knows that Schopenhauer's mother compelled him to enter a merchant house for two years, and that when he finally got her blessing to leave, he rushed out into the street outside shouting and weeping for joy...at which he confides that he does not yet have his mother’s blessing, which is how he has gotten away with getting away after only three months servitude.
They are standing outside Sloppy Louie’s, opposite the Seaport. Keep in mind it is the mid-1980s so it is still a rough and ready neighborhood shaped by the Fulton Fish Market on the next block north. Under the elevated highway between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges stretches Cardboard City, which shelters the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States. She is looking dubiously at the dusty maritime souvenirs in the half-curtained windows of Sloppy Louie's, and asks whether he really wants her to take him out to eat here. He reassures her that the place is a landmark; there was even an essay published about it in The New Yorker when she was still a little girl in the Midwest. “Well, that was then; this is now!” she objects but agrees to go in. Chairs, tablecloths, pictures on the walls, menu, waiters— It is all much as it must have been when his maternal grandfather, having successfully moved from baking bread to brewing beer— used to eat there in the late 1920s. She is the only woman in the place and the two of them are the sole customers under forty. He is no longer able to tell me what they ate; it is too long ago. I have looked for a menu on the web but the place closed in 1998 at the dawn of the internet era and I have been unable to find one. Still, he remembers that the fish, and everything else, was fresh and fine.
She is soon delighted with his choice, especially with the frosty beer, into which she dips her upper lip, and leaving the foam there, asks whether she fits in better with the other customers now. She keeps repeating that she must come back with a camera and take pictures before it all vanishes forever. She tells him about her college boyfriend, who has recently become her ex-husband, and how he used to take her round flea markets collecting daguerreotypes and platinotypes. He has left them all at their— or rather at her, since she pays for it— townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. He is a photographer, his bread and butter the portfolios of black and white mugshots for the horde of aspiring young performers who come to New York trying to make it in the theater and music businesses. She adds that although he was repeatedly unfaithful, in the end the reason she told him to leave that she was making so much more money than he was. She’d come to feel that she ought to be with someone who could keep up, or preferably, outdo her, so that she might, once she had kids, continue to live in the style to which she was accustomed without having to work.
During dessert— some delightfully waist enlarging, artery clogging classic like key lime or lemon meringue pie— she comes out with what has made him remember their conversation all these years so that I have been made aware of it now and find it prophetic... “Securities are all well and good, but in New York over the next couple of decades the really big, fast, sure money is going to be made in real estate”. They are near the window and she sweeps her hand towards it and says, “All this, in the course of the next twenty-odd years, it’s going to go the way of the Upper West Side and TriBeCa, even over there on the other bank of the East River. You wait and see.” He interrupts to ask how she is so certain and she tells him, “Because people like me and my ex, coming to the metropolis from the provinces and staying put had dwindled to a trickle of bohos by the 70s. But now more of us are coming every year because everyone has figured out it’s the rest of America that’s the wasteland, not the City. In the Nineties, even more will come and in the next century still more, you wait and see, until one day it gets so damned expensive they just can’t do it anymore and start going to other old, coastal cities.” Listening to her, it dawns upon him that they really are from opposite sides of the Bridge. He and the incarnation of the City he knows and loves are on their way out, while she and hers are on their way in. More than that, she obviously relishes feeling that things in general are arriving; that she, herself, has arrived. Whereas he already knows that he is all about departure, about seeking to commemorate that which is, and those who are, going or gone.
Outside in the street, once she has paid the check in cash, including an admirably magnanimous tip for their genial, elderly waiter, she asks, “You live out in Park Slope with your dad, don’t you?” He nods and smiles, “You can catch a cab across the River with me and go on from there...or maybe stop at my place and take a look at my daguerrotypes.” Well, well what has fortune dropped into his lap this fine day! She is literally asking him whether he would like to come up and see her etchings— a woman decidedly older, smarter, handsomer, richer, even taller than himself.
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. He is currently completing a longer memoir about his round the world trip in his twenties. The piece above is its opening.