New Millennium Essay, Honorable Mention
I got fired from my Wall Street job for wearing a pink dress. Several years after the event, I retrieve the item from my closet’s back rung. Unworn since my downtown days, it remains swathed in clear plastic dry cleaning wrap, a seemingly innocuous garment. Fifty dollars, from a cheap New York chain store. White, flowery cutouts against a pale pink background, a vaguely fitted bodice and flaring skirt. Size six. A rayon blend that feels light and smooth as silk. A dress for springtime and sunny days, a dress like a flower, a dress that against your skin, reminds you that you are, after all, still a woman.
Maybe I better start over. Wall Street, the 80s. I was a journalist, an arts major, finance was the dot com of the 80s. You go where the jobs are, the money is. And these were go-go years. Economy booming, stock prices never higher. How did they do it? Stream lining, belt tightening, mergers and acquisitions, budget cutting, more for less. Frozen paychecks in exchange for twelve-hour days.
Why did I do it? To get out of my crack-infested Brooklyn slum, which was rapidly changing me from a liberal to something I didn’t want to be. I did it to pay off student loans, to get a future, or so I thought. Friends with inherited wealth, meaning parent-paid tuition, parent-bought or inherited apartments on the upper West Side, told me this was crap. Finance was a dirty business. Not a place where you could “make a difference” to anything but the thickness of your wallet. Well, I tell them, who do you think makes your wallet grow? Where do you think your trust fund came from, the one that paid for your prep school and college tuition? Your father’s fat pension? Your someday kids’ college fund? It doesn’t happen by magic. People need to invest like they need food, clothing, shelter and heat. Yes, it’s a dirty business, but so is coal mining. Do you blame the miners for working there? Wall Street is the coal mine, the local industry for Brooklyn, Bayonne, Jersey City, Staten Island.
In the glamour fields, it’s about who you know. On Wall Street it’s about how much you can take. So I quit being a journalist, and go down there for a three thousand dollar a year raise, four years out of college, four years before Anita Hill blew the whistle on her toilet-mouth boss, the future Supreme Court judge. Even at my old journalism job, I felt like I was committing a minor crime, just being a woman. My boss used to plant his porn mags where I’d have to go through them in the course of my work, told people we had a thing going on. If he weren’t so fat, he would have chased me around the desk.
But at my first Wall Street job no one sexually harassed us. Us meaning me and my girlfriend, the only two women on Wall Street. Secretaries don’t count. They cut their deal, they don’t advance. They make time and a half, double what they’d make doing the same thing anywhere else. They leave when the kids come, sometimes before. A familiar sight at any Wall Street firm: secretary at her station, photo of her fiancée pinned to the wall, eyes glued to the photo, thought bubble over her head: He’s gonna get me outta here.
My best friend and I were professionals. We weren’t harassed, because we didn’t exist. La femme, elle n’existe pas. Thus wrote Jacques Lacan in college, and it was true! Woman does not exist. My first management meeting, sixty executives from o’er the world, every language and skin tone – Arab, Indonesian, black African, white African, South American, Asian — Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Japan. Not a skirt in the bunch. No, wait — there’s one — a gray-faced, steel-haired woman, swinging a dowdy leg in a clunky pump. I didn’t want to be her.
It was just as well not to exist, because the CEO of that company, the one who had President Reagan and the Chinese premiere to lunch, the one who rode around in Air Force One with President Bush right after 9/11, the one who was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal last week (like the Café de la Paix – the Journal is where I see everyone I ever worked for indicted sooner or later) — well, this CEO used to give the Rolodex treatment every week. That is, go through his Rolodex, pick a name at random, call the employee into his office and tear him out another one, as the saying goes. So it was just as well to be invisible.
Invisible I traveled this alternate universe, coursed through a vast complex of downtown skyscrapers. The company had four hundred fifty billion in assets, its own printing press, generator, manicurist, doctors – even a free shrink! Four restaurants, six bars. The best sushi and shrimp at the almost daily cocktail parties. I have never seen so much drinking, anytime, anywhere, including freshman year in college.
Mysterious happenings and rumors. Did the company really run sex tours to Thailand? Was so and so a CIA spook? Did we really engineer that third-world coup? And what about that South American in the thousand dollar suit barking Arabic into the phone? At the back of our floor, a Japanese man dressed like a gangster sits talking on the phone all day, smoking a cigar, feet on desk. He doesn’t speak English, no one knows what he does. His secretary, also Japanese, is more like a gun moll. All the other secretaries are named Marie and Denise, have inch thick makeup and hair that would survive a nuclear blast. You can’t tell how old they are. When they have an issue with something in the outside world, that is, outside the world of our manager and his manager and the Wizard of Oz up on 66, they consult me, “Christina, you read the paper …” In withering tones, because this isn’t a compliment in their crowd.
I interview executives from fascist countries. I learn about surety bonds and Indonesian oil, kidnap and ransom insurance, catastrophic risk pools. The deals are in the billions. Money, money everywhere, but I was getting none of it. I make twenty thou a year, take home half that after taxes, live in a sleazy residential hotel. The crash of ’87 happened, it didn’t matter; I didn’t have a dime invested. I was getting married, I needed to buy a couch, I ask for a raise, they offer me five hundred dollars – a year — I move on.
At my next Wall Street job, I got out of writing and into P.R. My boss said. “Just go through this card index, call people up and, you know, chat.”
Chat? Chat? To journalists? Bother them in the middle of their work? I had been a journalist. I would rather commit hara-kiri in a public square. I did it. I was getting paid almost twice as much as before.
The job is a disaster from the get go on a number of levels, even though there are a few other women around. My boss has been interviewing people for a year; we were equally desperate. She could tell I would put up with a lot. She could tell I’d fit in better than the blonde, straight-haired Vermont Yankee who was my other female colleague, better than she herself, an upper class Jew resented by the sales staff, comprised exclusively of working class Italians. (Gone the international elite, the cocktail sushi, the political intrigue and visits from the reigning U.S. President.) I had the right name and hair to fit in; like the young Staten Island secretaries, I knew how to humor these guys.
Here, I was far from invisible. I was the the P.R. girl! The company’s official whitewasher and cheerleader.
“How’d you like a kiss on the lips or a smack in the mouth?” was my daily greeting from a senior executive. Neither, I would say, smiling, always smiling. This worked, for a while.
“You’d better wear thicker bras, your nipples are showing,” was another casual comment, made not to me, but to another female colleague who’d had the temerity to go off and have a baby, then come back to work. When the secretaries got pregnant, they quit in their fifth month, didn’t even bother to stick it out for the freebee maternity leave.
I was older than them, I made more money, but I couldn’t afford to take off and have a baby. Hell, I couldn’t afford to stay and have a baby, I couldn’t afford day care. The secretaries had husbands in the Teamsters, family real estate in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Bayonne, as well as a retro, chauvinistic, chivalrous working class culture that was easier on the needs of young women than mine: You wanna be equal? Be equal!
The Yankee got pregnant, went out on maternity leave, and didn’t return. Her slot was upgraded and eventually assigned to a man. There were several such cases around the company. Women married, worked a few years, got pregnant, and disappeared. It was like they’d fallen down a trap door into another dimension.
Senior salesman to a female junior saleswoman, after she asked a routine question at a meeting: “That’s something you would have understood before you were a mother.”
Now the simplest and safest way of conducting one’s self in this hostile environment was to be a straight arrow. I took on as my role model a young man a year older me, at one level higher, who had been in the marines, or so he said. His posture was straight, his manners impeccable, his thousand yard stare unflinching. He wore gray suits and white starched shirts.
If you were a woman, there were two ways to dress. Like a man — buy suits at St. Laurie or Talbot’s, wear longish skirts that covered your legs and bulky jackets with padded shoulders that hid your chest and symbolically protected you from the slings and arrows of office life.
Or — you could dress like a whore, in dark stockings, high heels and black leather skirts. Play the dominatrix. Project an image of feline strength and guile. This is how my boss dressed. Neither uniform suited me. I liked colors. Purple sweaters. Pink dresses.
Looking around me, I saw that the women in the office who were straight arrows in St. Laurie suits worked their required six or eight years after college, then handed the reins over to their husbands, retreating to home and children, understanding that they had got as far as they would be allowed to go, that staying on and trying to advance was more trouble than it was worth.
I tried to get out, go back home to the world of trade magazines and second-tier book publishing. But those jobs were gone. A new order had replaced the one in which I’d grown up, the It’s a Small World childhood, the Martin Luther King youth, the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony” adolescence, my down-with-capitalism college years, my left-wing-weekly-reading young adulthood. Because I came from the largest youth generation ever, I assumed our nonmaterialistic, peace-loving values would rule the world one day. But Wall Street had taken over New York, the country, the world, like a violent tornado, sweeping up and carrying everything in its path. My husband had managed to hide in the basement storm shelter, but I was sucked into the vortex, just as Dorothy’s tornado swept her into the land of Oz. Like Dorothy, I’d not expected to find myself in a strange land, finding myself there, I was desperate to leave. And while Dorothy’s destination was dangerous and full of frightening curiosities, it was also compellingly beautiful. Mine, by contrast, was a place where the greatest danger lay in dying of boredom. The place I was imprisoned five days a week was a fluorescent-lit hell, drained of all color, personality, hope and light.
Quite literally, Wall Street was drained of light; the closely packed skyscrapers robbed the place of God’s first and most basic gift. Unlike Dorothy, I had no home to wish myself back to. And I’d woken up in a world not of talking trees and friendly scarecrows, but of Madonna and materialism, of dirty remarks and leering glances, a world of bids and asks, puts and calls, P.E. ratios and junk bonds. I’d landed smack in the middle of a trash heap, and there was no yellow brick road in sight.
My very work was physically dirty. The newsprint from the several daily business papers I had to read each morning got all over everything – my fingers, my clothing, my desk, my purse, my computer keys, my face. When our clipping service was cut for budget reasons, I had to read dozens more financial magazines each day, whose lack of pleasing graphics was downright offensive to my aesthetically-trained eyes. I honestly grew to believe that my work was giving me brain damage, that in reading so many numbers and trying to absorb so much uninteresting information in such dull formats, I was forcing a toxic substance into too small a hole. My mind shut down in self-defense.
The ups and downs of the market meant little to me. My family always told me: the stock market! It’s gambling! I’d always worked, held a minimum of one job, sometimes two or three jobs, through my student years since I was fourteen. I lived from paycheck to paycheck as I paid off my student debts. I turned the pages of the business papers, and the dense rows of numbers and figures were just bugs on the page, like the cockroaches in my apartment that were far too numerous, far too entrenched, and multiplied far too rapidly for me to ever hope to eradicate.
David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a movie about a real estate sales office, came out. “That’s mild compared to mine,” I told my husband . When I saw Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, about the mafia, I said, “That’s it.” And it was – the tribalism and the brutality, the wives and kids and the blond mistresses in mink I saw them gallivant with at lunch time. The massage parlors on the expense accounts and once, a brave old soldier, an ancient whore, asking directions to the CEO’s office. Drug deals in the alley by Trinity Church, suits walk swiftly into shadows at all hours of the day, slipping cash to hooded men for fuel to keep juiced.
In this P.C. world, it’s supposed to be the whites against the blacks, the Christians against the Muslims. On my own floor, sales and marketing, it was the Italians against the Jews and one Jew in particular against everyone. The one who gave girls miscarriages. “I’ll tear apart your ____ing c__t, you ___ing slut!”
“Let’s take him out,” one of the Italians said.
“Chip in on a contract, get it done.”
“I’ll dig the ____in’ hole.”
I used to watch Goodfellas over and over because it was the best approximation of the culture I was living in – not just the manners but the movement, the energy, the flows of money, the way things got done. It was all fueled by male violence, by testosterone. Nothing could have happened if people were polite, were considerate, were anything but ruthless. But the violence – the worst of which came from above, where no one was Italian — got careless. While I could understand their wanting a female malcontent, totally disposable, like me to disappear through severance, disability or death, why in the world would they let that violence get so out of hand it nearly drove our star analyst to a fatal heart attack? He made our name on the street, in the Wall Street Journal, over the UPI wire, his stock picks were the best in the business. He was irreplaceable. Why kill him?
My Wall Street career came to an end because I asked for more money, but really, because I wore a pink dress. Not a Saint Laurie suit, not a black leather S&M outfit like my boss, who wasn’t there to protect me anymore. I spoke up about something. I broke the tribal code.
I blew the whistle the week Anita Hill made the cover of the Wall Street Journal. I got whacked, got out of there and made a new life.
It’s a different world now. They blew it up but put it back together again, cleaned up the mess in a couple of months. It still keeps going on, all of it, all of it.
Even before the catastrophe, the naqba, downtown had changed. Women, women everywhere, in pantsuits, in offices, with children, with titles. But it still keeps going on. Just last year one of the biggest houses shut a few hundred women up about something like what happened to me. With money. If you say anything, you’ll never work again. Or so they tell you. Hey I don’t know, I’m still here, and I’m still talking.