by Katya G. Cohen
Berwick Court Publishing Co.
by Katya G. Cohen
Berwick Court Publishing Co.
Although this story was inspired by the author’s real life story, characters and events are not intended to represent specific people or events.
Berwick Court Publishing Company
Copyright © 2014 Katya G. Cohen. All Rights Reserved
Cover art by Kevin Loesch
Vika Stakhanova sat in her bathroom reading Departures magazine. It was 6:15 a.m. She had been reading the same page of the magazine for a few weeks now. She was trying to read it, but all she did was stare at the sentences while her mind wandered off. “Are you still showering with ordinary municipal water? That’s so old school!” the article began, listing the benefits of installing a vitamin C-infused shower in your bathroom. The over-the-top luxurious lifestyle featured in all
seriousness in the magazine carried an entertainment value for Vika, and she read it for laughs, to behold the creative depravity of high-end living. Besides, the magazine came free with her American Express platinum card.
Vika wasn’t laughing, however. As a mid-level employee at a proprietary desk at Royal Oakleys Bank PLC, a large British bank, she was worrying about the choppy bond market and unexpected moves by the government, all of which could affect her year-end bonus in a bad way. She was on a losing streak and was trying to get her money back. Vika had to be at her desk by 7 a.m. All bond trading, the kind that matters anyway, wraps up by 8:30 a.m., an hour before the stock market even opens. Yesterday, she was 2 points above water on her $15 million position in a synthetic bond index, but any sudden move would wipe out that thin advantage. Several times in
the past few weeks, she was in the money but failed to take the profits off, only to end up with yet another loss. She had to hurry up and get to work, but, in a spell of morning lethargy, she kept reading the same sentences over and over.
Vika worked in Midtown Manhattan. The commute from her Village apartment only took about fifteen minutes by subway, door to door. Instead, she preferred to take an eight-minute taxi ride to her office, as the quiet solitude of the back of a cab enabled her to get to work undisturbed. She loathed being distracted from her morning meditations by the subway masses. Even more annoying than the commuting rubes was the act of waiting for a train, even for two minutes. The wait, the idleness, had a suffocating effect on Vika. Her Blackberry didn’t have a signal underground and she didn’t want to be disconnected from the world, even for a
minute. When there’s possible early morning action in the bond market, you want to be present and participating. For Vika, being stuck on the subway train meant that someone else, not her, was learning the news the moment it came out, that someone else was making money out there. The fear of missing out was too excruciating to use public transit.
So far, 2009 hadn’t been a good year for Vika. A great move down that she profitably rode all the way to the bottom the year before gave way to a choppy, volatile market. Her last few trades were abysmal. Even when she was in the money, the market’s sudden and violent mood swings prevented her from cashing in. She wistfully remembered the high she felt during the last year’s carnage, when everything moved only one way — down. Being in the money on her trades awarded her a certain superiority. She felt like she
had earned the right to mock others’ trade ideas and interrupt them at meetings and dismiss their arguments. Being down on her trades would turn her into the desk pariah. Losing made Vika feel emasculated.
But it wasn’t the prospect of losing money that gave Vika the biggest chills, it was the possibility of losing future action. Losing the access to action makes you impotent, empty of promise. For a trader — hell, for any American — being empty of promise is an abomination. There is a reason “What do you do?” has replaced all other forms of greeting on this side of the Atlantic. Lack of action meant sitting and waiting for something to happen, not being able to go out and get it for herself. Without access to action, she would be just an average wage slave at the mercy of others. She would have to pretend, to be nice to assholes, servile to superiors; she’d have to behave. She couldn’t speak her
mind and she’d have to nod in agreement while listening to others’ bullshit.
But having access to the “book,” to the “P&L,” awarded her special powers. It is all about the next trade, the next spin of the wheel; you’re always just a few spins away from hitting the jackpot. Whoever stands between you and that magic lever is denying you a chance at a better tomorrow. Coming between a trader and his book is like coming between a blue-haired old lady and her lucky slot machine: You will be denying them their pursuit of happiness.
Vika was afraid that her boss was on the verge of halting her trading, of perhaps even taking away her book. That prospect was so terrifying for Vika that the thought always gave her cold sweats and a knot in her stomach. Vika knew that a few more missteps, a few more losses, and this would all be over. If she couldn’t make money on her trades, she’d be condemned to a bleak
future. And she was prepared to fight the possibility of that separation with the determination of a junkie. It’s all just a temporary setback. The next trade will be a sure winner. She just has to listen to Street chatter, pick good entry points and be more disciplined in taking off profits.
On Wall Street, you don’t let temporary setbacks stop you. You don’t retreat into a hole — you get up, dust yourself off and, like Sisyphus, continue on your path. Even if you don’t succeed, the whole point is to be on the upward slope; the motion itself gives you purpose. What kind of purpose? Who cares, as long as it keeps you busy and well-paid! It’s the American Way.
That evening, Vika was scheduled to go to a charity event. The event, organized by the Big Dreams We Deliver Foundation — one of the biggest New York charities — attracted most of the Wall Street and hedge fund charity-circuit crowd. The
foundation’s sole focus was doling out merit scholarships to underprivileged New York children. For any self-respecting New York charity, it’s important to attach itself to kids from the ghetto. “It’s for the children” is a subtle middle finger to any skeptic who doubts the movers and shakers’ benevolent impulse. For the bet-making crowd, charity is a cheap option: For an annual donation that will hardly make a dent in your wallet, your personal brand becomes immune to criticism and is preserved for posterity. Plus you get to hang out with various celebrities and star athletes.
The annual black-tie gala took place at Cipriani 42nd Street. The venue, rivaling the size of the majestic train station across the street, used to host a bank once, back in the days when banks sought to project prudence and stability. Today, the monumental architecture of the ballroom,
the massive marble columns, the seventy-foot ceilings adorned with golden chandeliers, and the fawning white-gloved personnel provided an appropriate setting for the usual assortment of New York egos, each as big as a freight train. But, for all the opulence and the important crowd and the braised lamb shanks, Vika knew she wasn’t going to enjoy it. The only thing she welcomed about such events was the excuse to dress up. She already got herself a chic, abstractly patterned, yellow-green Marni dress that would make her stand out from the sea of all those ubiquitous, bourgeois little black dresses. But she dreaded the conversations and the mindless mingling and the standard icebreakers of “What do you do?” and “How big is your P&L?”
Vika couldn’t explain why she kept going to these events though. Despite her previous lackluster experience, she still
expected more excitement and adventure from these black-tie gatherings than they actually delivered. Instead of working on her social skills, Vika had perfected the skill of drinking alone over the years. As someone who considered herself a realist, Vika resented pretense and usually resigned herself to people-watching.
“...Democrats are going to throw so much money at the problem, we will be bankrupt in a year!” She heard a middle-aged guy in an ill-fitting suit, instead of a tuxedo, engaging a group of women in their 20s in tight dresses and those hideous platform Louboutins. “I’ll be stocking up on canned beans and moving to a shack in the woods.” Vika recognized Lenny Lucferovsky, her headhunter. Any political talk, especially from a Russian, had an unhinging effect on Vika, so she decided to break her solitude and, with a determined look, approached the group.
“First of all, it was the free-market, leave-us-alone Republicans who started throwing money at the problem a year ago. Second, it’s hard for me to picture you living in the woods.”
The flock of young women, as if waiting for an excuse to escape the boring blather of an old man, used this intrusion to disperse.
“Vika, dear, why do you have to be so aggressive? You have to hide your Kalashnikov2 when you talk to people, you scare them off.” Lenny sounded annoyed. “People are here to have a good time and you have to come in and ruin it with your politics.”
“Oh, excuse me. Did I ruin your attempts to get laid?” Vika grinned.
“Maybe you did. I have to take every chance I can before, one day, I won’t be able to get it up.”
“You mean you still can? What are you, 52, 53?”
They both giggled.
“Look at all these fucks,” Vika said, gazing over the room with derision. “Do you really think they are here for the charity?”
“Vika, they are not fucks, they are my customers. And I can’t believe that you think that this has anything to do with charity.”
“They can be your customers and still be fucks.”
“Sweetheart, have you considered that the reason you dislike them so much is because you’re one of them? And you can’t be anything else. And it bugs you.”
Before Vika could tell Lenny to go fuck himself, he was gone, distracted by yet another potential client.
Vika was one of them. But over the years, she had built a thick enough mental shield to block the unpleasant thoughts.
“Hey, Vika,” she heard someone say. She turned around. “How’s it going?” Some guy she had certainly met before was approaching her. “What are you doing these days?” Vika recognized him as an old colleague, the guy she used to sit opposite while she was a low-level employee at Baruch Wolf years ago. An acquaintance really, not even a buddy. He was well dressed, with fake cheer on his face.
“Hey, how are you… Kevin?” She took a few seconds to remember his name. “So, where are you now?” Vika asked a standard question in a standard situation.
“Well, since Baruch collapsed, I’ve been in a free fall. Looking for a job now,” he said and smiled. He never smiled when they worked together at Baruch Wolf, Vika thought.
“Isn’t it nice to have a year off?” Vika said reflectively.
“Well, yeah, sure it’s nice, but I’d like to have a job now,” he answered, not inclined to chit-chat.
Vika knew that he had a family to support and she felt sorry for him. But she couldn’t help him.
“Here’s my card,” she said. “Just shoot me a Bloomberg.3 If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks. I don’t have Bloomberg these days, so I’ll shoot you an email.”
“Sure, no prob.”
He put Vika’s business card in his pocket and slumped away to another group of people.
“He paid $750 to come here and mingle and humiliate himself like this,” Vika thought bleakly. “Is this what’s in store for all of us here?”
After the dinner and the feel-good, self-congratulatory speeches from Wall Street bigwigs, and the parade of a few lucky scholarship recipients on stage, Vika walked out of Cipriani, took a deep breath, and proceeded toward a taxi stand.
Near the Grand Central entrance, she saw a bum. He wasn’t a usual bum. He was a man in his late 50s to early 60s in a cheap but neatly maintained business suit, a former accountant perhaps, or a bank teller. He held an “I Y NY” plastic bag in one hand and a cardboard sign in the other. Vika never gave money to bums on subways or on the street, as she thought they were mostly faking it. But there was too much discomfort about this man. It was obvious he wasn’t standing there on a whim. He looked embarrassed as he hid his gaze away from an approaching Vika. “Laid off after 20 years on the job. Have a family to feed,” read his cardboard sign. This
didn’t seem like the usual case of hustling. Vika, in high heels, didn’t want to cross the street to avoid passing him, so she approached him.
“Uh, are you hungry or something?” Vika didn’t find anything better to say and felt slightly embarrassed by her opening line.
“Well, someone gave me a sandwich here,” the man replied, lifting a hand with a plastic bag.
“Uh, don’t you get unemployment or something?”
“I ran out, it’s been more than a year,” he said apologetically.
“Here, take it.” Vika pulled a $20 bill out of her purse gave it to the man without making eye contact and quickly walked away, looking sideways to make sure no one had seen her.
“If I don’t make money soon, I’ll be that guy,” she thought.