Read For the Love of Money Online
Authors: Sam Polk
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7.Â There's a Bomb in My Stomach
8.Â The Boy with the Dragon Tattoo
18.Â The Easy Confidence of Millionaires
21.Â The Least Cool Thing to Order at a Bar
25.Â The Land of Ambition and Success
28.Â The Navy SEALs of Bond Trading
33.Â Fear, Love, and a Billion Dollars
36.Â The Bright Light of the Afternoon
Epilogue: Good-bye to All That
To my wife and daughter
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
âF. Scott Fitzgerald,
The Great Gatsby
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
âHenry David Thoreau
The events in this book are real. I've changed most names and altered some details to honor people's Âprivacy.
he e-mail from Sean popped up in my in-box.
Come to my office.
I felt a jolt of adrenaline. It wasn't fear, exactly. It was just that so much could happen in a late-January conversation with your boss. On Wall Street, everything importantâÂbonuses, promotions, firingsâhappens in January.
I leaned back in my chair and looked down the row to Sean's glass-walled office. He sat at his desk, typing on the keyboard. I could usually sense his mood from the set of his jaw, the hunch of his shoulders. Today I couldn't tell. Sean was the head of trading at Pateras Capital, one of the largest hedge funds in the world. It was rumored that in bad years he made $20 million.
I was one of five senior traders at Pateras. Each of us was responsible for a particular market. I traded bonds of companies in or near bankruptcy. The “distressed” market. The term
captured how I was feeling about my entire life.
When Sean offered me a million dollars to leave Bank of America and come to Pateras, I'd felt like I won the lottery. Pateras was one of the most prestigious hedge funds on Wall
Street. I couldn't have dreamt up a more perfect job. But in the two years since I'd arrived, I'd started to see thingsâabout Wall Street, about myselfâthat I hadn't seen before. Now I wasn't even sure I wanted to be here anymore.
I typed out a reply to Sean.
Be there in two minutes.
I wanted him to think I was busy, and I also wanted to collect myself. I had some internal tension when it came to Sean.
In my first few months at Pateras I'd seen firsthand what an amazing trader Sean was. His market knowledge was encyclopedic; his instincts were fighter-pilot sharp. I started to fantasize about becoming his protÃ©gÃ©.
But our relationship hadn't developed as I'd hoped. While Sean treated me with respect, he never focused special attention on me. He saved that for another senior trader, Derek Mabry. Derek wore expensive suits, dated models, and spent weekends in the Hamptons. Sean preferred him. When I'd see Derek sprawled on the chair in Sean's glass-walled office, embers of jealousy smoldered inside me.
I worried my big mouth had gotten me in trouble. A few times I'd been on the phone with my identical twin brother, discussing the pros and cons of leaving Wall Street, when I suddenly realized how loudly I'd been talking, and how quiet the trading floor was. I worried Sean had overheard me, that my loose lips had jeopardized my bonus. Why pay someone millions of dollars if their heart isn't in it anymore?
Sean looked up as I pulled the door open.
“How's the market?” he asked.
“Stable,” I said. “Not much going on.”
For the past year and a half, the market had fluctuated like a pitching boat. We were still climbing out of the Great Recession. But that day the market was quiet, as if it were taking a collective, exhausted breath.
Sean nodded. The stress of the past few years had taken its toll. He'd always been thin, but he was starting to resemble a
cadaver. His head seemed enormous atop his emaciated body. You could see the shape of his skull.
“Let me get right to it,” he said.
I held my breath.
“What are you expecting this year for a bonus? Give me the number,” he asked.
I exhaled. We were having The Bonus Talk. I was safe, not fired. Under Sean's gaze, I searched for a response. But the answer seemed hazy, far away.
It wasn't that I hadn't thought about it. It's impossible to overstate how often Wall Street traders think about their bonuses. Those thoughts drive every trade, meeting, client dinner, and ball game. The carrot at the end of the stick.
One of the reasons you think so much about it is because you don't have much control over it. It's a great paradox on Wall Street, where you supposedly “eat what you kill,” that your bonus is entirely at your boss's discretion. The more trading profits you make, the bigger your bonus will likely be. But there are other variablesâhow profitable the firm is, seniority, what competitors are paying. You just don't know.
It was especially true for me that year. I'd had the best trading year of my life. I'd been positioned perfectly for a market collapse. When the crash came, I'd closed out trades for huge profits, and then bought a ton of deeply distressed bonds for cents on the dollar, just as the market bottomed out. Those bonds screamed higher, and by the end of the year, I'd earned several hundred million dollars for Pateras. The year before I'd made less than half of this year's take for Pateras, and my bonus had been $1.3 million. Sean said that the longer I was at Pateras, the higher my percentage payout would be. Given how much I was up this year, a higher-percentage payout would mean a massive amount of money. NBA all-star money.
I was thirty years old. I'd been an English major. I'd managed to keep my past a secret.
I gazed back at Sean. He was about to tell me I'd make more that year than my mom, a nurse-practitioner midwife, had earned in her entire life.
“So tell me,” said Sean. “What's the number?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Your bonus this year,” he said, “will be three point six million.”
I took a step back, staggered. Lots of people on Wall Street make a million bucks a year. Few make almost four. It was an instant entrance into the ranks of the super wealthy. I'd yearned for this moment my whole life. And now that it had happenedânow that Sean had said the actual numberâI wanted more.
As I ran the numbers in my head, a hollow feeling crept into my stomach.
“So you all are paying me less of a percentage than last year?” I asked.
“I think they should have paid you more,” Sean said. “But you know how Peter is.” Peter Conroy, coâmanaging partner of Pateras, controlled the purse strings and seemed to think everyone should just be grateful to be there.
My happiness disappeared under a flash flood of anger.
“You said my percentage payout would go up,” I said.
“I know,” Sean said. “You need to be patient. Just look at Derekâit took him a few years, but now he's making real money.” The flash flood lurched up like a wave about to break.
was making real money this year? More than me.
“This is bullshit,” I said. My hands were shaking.
That night I lay in bed next to my girlfriend, Kirsten, listening to the creaks and groans of the old brownstone in Brooklyn Heights where I rented a floor. Thoughts raced through my head like motorcycles.
The image of Derek bragging about his windfall to his popped-collar Hamptons buddies made me nauseous. But
what really hurt was that Sean hadn't stood up for me. He could have convinced Peter to increase my bonus, or even shaved a few million off his own for me.
But he didn't.
My face was tight with anger. But I could feel tears lying in wait, ready to stream down my cheeks.
I wasn't going to fall asleep. I knew my shifting would eventually wake Kirsten, so I sat gently up in bed, my left side suddenly cold without her next to me. I stuck my feet into my slippers and padded into the kitchen for a glass of water. I took it to the living room and sat down in the big gray chair where I usually did my reading. But instead of pulling out the worn copy of
The Great Gatsby
I was rereading, I just sat and thought about my life.
Yesterday I'd been planning to leave Wall Street; today I was devastated because my enormous bonus wasn't bigger.
What was wrong with me? How had I become like this?
grew up in the suburbs around Los Angeles, in a three-Âbedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac. There was a yard out front and rolling hills out back. From the outside, our house looked pretty normal. We'd moved to Los Angeles so Dad could become a screenwriter. He enrolled in film school; Mom supported the family on her nurse-practitioner salary.
They were constantly stressed about money, but Dad was always talking about how one day he'd score big. His face lit up when he talked about that future windfall, how in a single instant all our worries would disappear. I reveled in his fantasy. When a neighbor asked me that year what I wanted to be when I grew up, I smiled and answered, “Rich.” Dad beamed.
I shared a bedroom with my identical twin brother. Ben and I had been through everything togetherâbirth, potty training, first day of school. We shared clothes, a dresser, a Nintendo. Sometimes we used each other's toothbrushes. But when we were eight, I begged for a dog, and Ben seemed indifferent. So when my mom brought
home from a shelter and Dad, after arguing against it, finally allowed him to stay,
“This dog is your responsibility,” said Dad. “Not mine.”
was a fat little golden retriever, a Chicken McNugget
with legs. His tail never stopped wagging, and his bark was warm. I petted him incessantly, took him for three or four walks a day. I'd snap on
's red leash and get yanked proudly up and down our cul-de-sac.
At the end of our street sat an open lot, dusty and speckled with crabgrass. At the back of the lot a line of trees opened to a dirt path that led to the hills. The steep path wound through a thicket to a rocky clearing that looked like a moonscape, and ended in a cliff that overlooked our block.
and I spent hours up there.
I tried to train
“Sit,” I said, standing facing him. He looked up and wagged his tail.
“Sit,” I said again and pushed his bottom down. He licked my face. As soon as I let go, he was up again, rolling his head side to side and rubbing up against me. He seemed to be laughing, so I laughed. After awhile I gave up and threw the tennis ball I'd brought.
“Fetch,” I said, and he scrambled off across the craggy rocks. I was careful not to throw the ball too near the cliff.
We went up there every day. After we finished playing, I'd get as close to the edge as I could.
would sit with his head in my lap. We'd watch the cars coming home, the lights blinking on and off, and I'd thrill in bearing secret witness to people's lives.
“Good dog,” I'd say. “You are such a good dog.”
I liked being out of the house, because things had recently become tense at home. Mom and Dad had started retreating into hushed conversations.
Mom had undergone a battery of tests for what she thought was a urinary tract infection. One day the hospital called with the results. They told her she had chlamydia.
“It must be a mistake,” Mom said. She was married. The nurse suggested she might speak to her husband about that.
Mom was incensed. Dad, too, was appalled at that nurse but said Mom should take the medication just to be safe. He'd get tested as a precaution. A week later he told Mom that his results had come back clean. They wrote it off as a mix-up.
A few months later, Mom became pregnant with my younger brother, Daniel. Her pregnancy was a problem for my dad. Mom worked full-time, while Dad stayed home, smoked weed, and worked on a screenplay. She told him he would need to find an income-generating job.
But Dad had big aspirations for that screenplay, and was furious at Mom for getting in the way of his dreams. He started singing the Rolling Stones lyrics “I'll never be your beast of burden” when Mom was around, and muttering “cunt” when she'd storm away.
Dad found a job selling kitchen cabinets. After Daniel was born, Mom returned to working full-time, so they hired a Guatemalan woman to care for the baby. She cleaned up some during the day, but by the time Dad and Mom got home from work, the house was a mess. And on the weekends, when the housekeeper-nanny was away, the house looked like a bomb had gone off. Clothes, toys, old newspapers, and empty bowls of cereal were strewn about. The carpet in front of the
was threadbare and covered with stains, because Ben and I ate most of our meals there.
Dad started working most weekends, and on those days Mom would retreat to her room for an afternoon nap. When I'd shake her awake for dinner, next to her would be an empty bowl with a spoon stuck in the hardened residue of vanilla ice cream. When our cat, Mimi, birthed a litter of kittens in Ben's and my bedroom closet, we asked Mom if we could keep them, and she absently said yes. Soon the kittens contracted some sort of illness, so when you'd pick something off the floor you'd sometimes find a dead kitten underneath. Plus I'd failed to properly crate train
, because I had no idea how
to do that, and he wouldn't stop relieving himself inside the house.
“Don't let him do that again,” growled Dad, angry after stepping in a pile of shit next to his bed.
“But I don't know how to get him to stop,” I said.
“You need to shove his nose in his crap, and hold him there,” Dad said.
One day, Ben and I were lying on the couch watching
when Dad walked through the front door. He took a sweeping look around the slovenly living room. His brow furrowed and his head started to shake. It was like watching a kettle boil. My body tightened in anticipation.
“Banzai!” he suddenly screamed, the bizarre cry he used when the house had gotten too disgusting for even him to tolerate. Ben and I leapt to our feet like we'd been shocked with electricity, and began furiously cleaning. I felt the way a fish must feel, one moment swimming serenely, the next yanked into the air by a hook through its face. Dad stood there, fuming. I made sure to stay out of his reach.
I was relieved when he went into the bathroom, leaving the door to the hall open behind him. I could hear the splash of his stream. The toilet flushed and the door to his bedroom opened.
!” he screamed.
When Dad kicked him in the ribs,
yelped, that sound that seems to come from the very soul of a dog. I broke for the bedroom.
“Dad, don't hurt him!” I yelled.
I rushed toward the room and just as I got there
exploded out of it and past me. I stood there facing my father.
“Clean up the goddamned shit, Sam,” he snarled.
He towered above me, rage rippling off him like heat off sunbaked asphalt. My hands were shaking.
“You don't have to hurt him like that, Dad,” I said.
“Next time it'll be you,” he said. I knew he meant it.
I turned heel and ran for the paper towels. I mopped up the soupy puddle, averting my face. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
in the backyard.
“It's okay, boy,” I said, petting him until my heart stopped pounding.
A few days later, when I got home from school, I saw the single turd sitting innocently in the center of the living room carpet, as if
had left me a present.
“Goddamn it!” I yelled.
I rushed to the backyard in a fury and found
lying in the sun. He shrunk back from me. I grabbed his collar and yanked him toward the house, pulling him by the neck.
“Bad dog!” I shouted.
I stood over the shit.
was scrambling backwards. It felt like his collar might come off over his head, so I grabbed the folds of skin around his neck. I felt my fingernails dig into his flesh. I pushed his nose into the mess. His scrambling took on a new level of intensity. I could hear his nails scratching at the carpet.
“Bad dog!” I yelled.
He struggled, snorting and whining, but I held strong. I kept jamming his face into the mess, as if to say
look what you did
. Then I let him go. He rushed outside. I went to get paper towels and Formula 409. As I wiped up the mess, my anger cooled. I finished, then walked into the backyard and gathered
into my arms.
“Good dog,” I said, pressing my face into his fur. “That's a good dog.”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
A few weeks later, Dad herded Mom, Ben, and me into the gray Cadillac, leaving Daniel behind with a babysitter. At the
last moment he called out to
to come along, and reached to pet him in the backseat. Mom sat in the front, and I sat in the back with Ben and
. We headed to Chinatown for dim sum, a weekend tradition.
in the car. We sat around a circular table and I poured tons of sugar into my tea, stirring it with a spoon. Dad knew I was mad at him about our fight the night beforeâhe'd spanked me after
shit next to his bedâso he kept looking at me with a silly grin on his face and doing this little dance with his head and shoulders to make me laugh. I fought to maintain an angry visage, but I loved having his full attention, and I couldn't help but smile. Soon Dad started calling out the funny names he'd invented for the Chinese dishes. “We'll have an order of fried paper towels,” he said, and Ben and I wriggled and giggled as if we were being tickled. When the food came, we ate fast and hard, and soon we were piling back into the car.
My stomach was bursting and I had to pee, but otherwise I was happy. I stared out the window watching the freeway signs thump by.
was over by Ben. Dad was singing to the radio, and everyone was laughing. When we pulled up to the house, I bolted inside so I wouldn't have to wait for the bathroom.
A few hours later, Dad stood up from his chair and said he was going into the office.
“Oh come on, Tony. It's a Sunday,” said Mom.
“Do you think money just makes itself?” Dad said, his voice flinty.
I looked up from the Hardy Boys book I was reading, and watched as Dad laced his shoes. I remember thinking it was really quiet. As Dad stood up, slid his jangly keys into his pocket, and started walking toward the door, I remember thinking that something was wrong, and when Dad opened the door, I knew what it was.
didn't let the door open without standing sentinel, his tail wagging.
I sat on the couch and waited. When I heard Dad's shout, I wasn't surprised. I got to my feet and walked to the door, slowly, as if I were moving underwater.
As I walked down the path to the driveway, Dad rushed by me. Without looking at me he growled, “Your dog is dead.” I heard him yell something at Mom, and I heard her shriek.
The Cadillac was parked at the curb. The back left door stood open. I continued toward it, knowing what I would find but at the same time not able to comprehend. When I neared the car, I felt the heat coming off it. I reached the open door and looked inside.
's body was situated perfectly in the footwell. He fit exactly, as if in a carrying case. He looked peaceful, like he was asleep. Around him, the car was ripped to shreds. The backseats were eviscerated, and yellow Styrofoam stuffing spilled out everywhere. The front seat was worse; maybe it had started there. The dashboard had rips across it, jagged nail tears. The cushions on the inside of the door had been ripped off. The fury of life fighting for its own existence. Urine splattered the front passenger seat.
I took a step closer and gingerly touched
on the left hip. It was stiff. I turned and ran.
I burst through the front door and into my parents' room. The air seemed peaceful. Sunlight filtered through the shades. I sat on the edge of their bed. I looked at my lap.
had been left behind in the car. I had left
behind in the car. The door was unlocked, but that didn't help him. The Southern California sun had heated it like an oven. I started to imagine what the last five minutes of his life must have looked like, but I couldn't, and I shook my head as if to rid it of those thoughts. My stomach clenched, and I could barely breathe.
My mom came in and sat next to me. I started crying. She put her hand on my back. Then my dad came in and sat on the other side. I looked up at him. He looked angry. I knew
that I had done this, but that he had done this, too. I knew that somehow he was the source of my pain, but he was also the only one who could comfort me. He was the most powerful thing I'd ever known. I knew that though I hated him right now, I would soon forgive him and work again to please him. With the resignation of a lifer, I leaned on the man I loved and despised, and wept on his shoulder.
He never had the interior of the car repaired. “Too expensive,” he said.