My short memoir on life at AIG named runner-up in the Manhattan Media Contest. Read it here:
Elegy for an Organization
“In the federal trial, AIG alleges that ousted CEO Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg left AIG in 2005 with 290 million shares of illegally seized stock, since sold for an estimated $4.3 billion …”
I could tell you about AIG.
That I was one of the no-name people, not the elites who screwed up.
That I made $20,000 a year.
That my office was on the narrow crooked end of Wall Street.
Where on the most glorious sunny day, it was dusk out my manager’s window.
That my own office was three mustard-colored walls and one grey, free-standing partition.
I could tell you that I was terrified.
Of the big buildings, the air of mystery, the sub-CIA cowboy culture.
Of the numbers I didn’t understand.
I could tell you that our P.R. policy was Don’t Talk to the Press.
That the building foundations shook when USA Today named our chief, Hank, the seventh highest-paid CEO in the nation, or was it world?
I could tell you that not only in the company, but all over Wall Street, everyone knew that A.I.G. meant All Is Greenberg.
I could tell you that if Spitzer hadn’t forced Hank out, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
That AIG’s been brain-dead ever since.
I could tell you I have a soft-spot for Hank.
I could tell you that this company was a family when I had none.
The year people died, went mad, out of business, into rehab, into nursing homes.
I could tell you that for years I ignored the half page ads in the Help Wanteds
With the tall letters that said WALL STREET.
That I only answered AIG’s because it didn’t.
That when I learned it was Wall Street and didn’t answer their calls.
That they kept calling.
That my boss at AIG was the first man I worked for who didn’t harass me.
That he was a blue collar New Jersey newsman.
That his staff called him Bambi behind his back.
I could tell you that this was the year the stock market dropped.
That a rising tide lifts all boats, but hurricanes stir up gold.
I could tell you I made the best friends of my life there.
That we drank vodka in the morning but worked through the night.
That AIG’s unofficial motto was “We shall pay no claim before its time.”
That it didn’t need a diversity program, its workers came from over the world.
Its interns from housing projects.
I could tell you we were proud of the sub-CIA cowboy culture.
That I came to have more respect for financial people than writers.
That the Ivy arts grads I roomed with after college couldn’t hack the real world.
That they left their jobs and lived off their parents.
I could tell you that people on Wall Street don’t take money from their families.
They support them.
That AIG didn’t care about pedigrees.
I could tell you that on my floor Jews and Arabs were friends.
That there was a transsexual, a platinum punk rocker, and a girl with purple hair, (me.)
I could tell you all about the married closet queen and his 400-pound secretary.
I could tell you how I learned to use a personal computer there.
That on the computer cube wall hung the Leviathan company chart.
For internal use only.
A complex web of holding companies, limited partnerships, and wholly-owned subsidiaries.
Chilean pension funds, Indonesian customs bonds anyone?
Four hundred boxes, cross-linked, to outsmart the auditors.
I could tell you that when Hank made a joke people were afraid to laugh.
That his oldest son Jeffrey was overworked.
That his second son Evan looked like a movie star.
That he fired both sons, or they left of their own volition.
And became CEOs elsewhere.
I could tell you that when Hank entered a party, he scattered crowds like a smoke bomb.
That he was five foot six, or looked it.
That he was 60 and looked 40.
That the one time my work brought me within feet of him, he winked.
I could tell you that I remember what I wore that day and what it cost.
That I walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge.
I could tell you that my whole life flowed from that building.
That it split me in two and broke up my home.
That when I worked there, I moved to a seedy hotel.
That AIG was more home than hotel.
That it was both prison and refuge.
I could tell you that I couldn’t afford to leave the hotel till I got a better job.
That I left AIG after 18 months for a $10,000 raise.
That I’d have stayed for $5,000.
I could tell you that I understood why AIG was cheap.
That by the time I left I understood numbers.
About shareholder value.
About managing risk.
I could tell you that AIG wasn’t like other Wall Street Casinos.
I could tell you that once a week Hank went through his rolodex to call someone in.
And rip his face off.
That I wasn’t important enough for this to ever happen to me.
That the old Chinese waiters were equity millionaires.
That the upper echelons lived in a culture of fear.
That they worked with Golden Handcuffs.
AKA Deferred Compensation.
AKA Holding on for the Retirement Bonus.
Now the disintegrating company’s news Googles into my inbox, like jagged rocks down an avalanche.
I could tell you that when Spitzer kicked Greenberg out, he parted the golden pot from the people who’d earned it.
Or were promised it.
That none of this was on paper.
All on trust.
I could tell you that most likely the company chart, with its 400 cross-linked boxes, made this perfectly legal.
Is life ever fair?
I could tell you more.
I could tell you all policemen are pigs, all soldiers murderers, all men are rapists and all Wall Street workers evil.
Or I could tell you that Hank Greenberg gave me a job when no one else would.
That the company saved my life.
Or I could tell you I left my soul back there, locked up in a grey metal desk drawer.
One in a hundred people suffer from the chronic illness schizophrenia. That’s five million people in America alone. So why is this genetic illness so stigamatized?
Staking Irish Madness has been named one of 2008′s Best Books by Slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/id/2206635/pagenum/all/
Searching for the Roots of His Family’s Schizophrenia
A warm spring day, April 1979, broadcast journalism class at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Snodgrass, our instructor mutters, “Pat Tracey, not here again. That’s no surprise,” in his bizzarrely deep, newscasterly voice. The professor was normally not sarcastic, but on the day our projects were due, he may have felt a small amount of disdain his right.
But it is characteristic of life that the one time Dr. Snodgrass took a liberty, it was unwarranted.
“His mother died,” piped a hippy girl. “A stroke.” Everyone in class, but especially the girls, emitted sounds of distressed sympathy. It seems everyone knew Pat but me.
It wasn’t until reading Pat’s book, Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, nearly 30 years later, that I learned his mother’s stroke was no random event.
His memoir, published by Bantam August 26, proves that, in the author’s words, “Real tragedy may be the best training ground for a memoirist. Madness is a universal concern. It may be the deepest fear for all of us, because more than anything else we are our minds. We are a family that has experienced in a first hand way what few feel free to speak of.”
Stalking Irish Madness has been picked by the association of independent book shop owners for their Indie Next List of Great Reads From Booksellers You Trust.
Pat’s story is one that’s almost defied telling: within the space of two years, two of his beautiful and highly promising sisters rapidly developed schizophrenia. Then his mother died from the stress and sorrow of realizing she’d passed on a family illness thought left behind with her Irish immigrant ancestors’ poverty and oppression.
My in-depth interview is posted on the literary journal, Bookslut this month:
More than thirty years ago, a group of us high school friends had one of our girls’ nights out at the movies: The Deep. The friend driving – I’ll call her Frieda – yanked on the steering wheel going around a corner — this was an old car without power steering bought with her own minimum wage earnings, in the days before parents leased their teenagers new, safe cars. Freida sighed, and said: “O.K., the man I marry has to look like Nick Nolte, be Protestant, be good at sports, go to an Ivy League school, become a lawyer or a businessman …” As she continued to enumerate a long, long list of husbandly prerequisites, the chorus of girls in the car squealed, “Frieda, come on!”
Only one of us had a real boyfriend then, but we all knew Frieda was setting the bar too high, not only out of her league, but out of reality. Was there a boy in our high school with an I.Q. above 77 who could compare to Nick Nolte? And if I remember rightly, no one from our class even got into an Ivy.
Needless to say, Freida didn’t marry. Or hasn’t yet. I did, though in high school I swore I never would. I’d grown up with Mary and Rhoda, saw my future self on that small screen. It was newly O.K. to stay single, and I’d always known I didn’t need a man to be complete. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. Because marrying wasn’t on my To Do List, I didn’t have a List of Requirements for my prospective husband. For many years – until the age of 20 – I was a Failure to Commit Female, and had little doubt I’d stay that way for the rest of my life.
My older sister had a steady boyfriend since she was three, so perhaps initially, my solitariness was a form of rebellion. Or perhaps I didn’t think I’d find someone who could live up to Dear Old Dad. Nah. My Dad was way too much to live up to. A self-made professional, he was tall, dark and handsome (a neighborhood matron gushed, “The best looking live man I’ve ever seen!”) Outstanding student, athletic, the strong silent type (too silent, according to my Mom) a tireless worker and good provider, he could fix, build, and make things grow, draw and project his interior design visions artfully onto our living space. He went to an Italian tailor and always carried a thick roll of bills. Musical and always up on the trends, he took us kids to see The Eagles in the late sixties, when they were just Linda Ronstadt’s backup band. So much for my Dad, may he rest in peace.
I met Peter my last semester of college, which I graduated a year late, having spent some extra time ticking things off my To Do List (living in Europe for a bit). He was on the extended plan as well. Peter is of average height, pink-skinned with red hair, of a different religion than me, “ruggedly” handsome, well-built, not the least bit silent — in fact, I had trouble getting a word in edgewise. He made excessive references to his own father, whose American Express card he carried, whose old yellow Volvo he drove. He wore hippie clothes then and is now prone to dressing in a style usually only found on gay dandies, and is possessed of similarly fine interior decorating skills.
In the interest of avoiding extra repair bills and trips to the emergency room, I try not to let him fix anything around the house at all. He is an excellent cook (I’d probably still be nice and thin if I didn’t live with him). He didn’t learn to mow a lawn till he was 45. I rely on him to keep me up on musical trends. (I’d still be listening to the Clash) I never expected – can it really be 27 years ago we met? – to stay with him, or indeed anyone so long.
Here is a link to the excerpt of his memoir in progress, My Family Business, which appears in Smith Magazine. Did I tell you he was funny? He is, very. Sometimes intentionally.