(I was introduced to this image by Ray Troll later by my friend Mommy Theorist, it’s perfect, thank you. If you have a second browse his work online and buy a poster, they are awesome. I am thinking about the Pink Dolphin one for our house).
When I was 22, I graduated college, went on a spiritual journey to Israel for the summer, came back and got a job at Salomon Smith Barney. An investment bank on Wall Street. I didn’t even know at that time that Wall Street is an abstract term and doesn’t actually mean its on Wall St. My headquarters were in Tribecca, 380 Greenwich St. I was hired as an analyst to work in Government Bonds Quantitative Strategy Group. To this day, I am not sure why and how I got the job. I didn’t know anything about Government Bonds or Quantitative Strategy.
I had two rounds of interviews. The first round, I was interviewed by 8 people in 15-30 minute segments. I could feel that some key players liked me so I wasn’t that surprised when I got called for the second round, even though I bombed some of the questions. The second round was shorter three interviews that seemed more like introduction to the company by the people I would be working the closest with. George Cherpelis., Bulent Baygun. and Janet Showers.
The whole thing was so scary. I didn’t think I was so scared of people until I started working there. Working there I learned about companies that operate on fear.
My first day, I dressed in my finest of button down collared shirts with a black pant suit. I looked hideous and I was uncomfortable. I just came back from Israel where I acted like a Jewish hippie with long skirts and braids in my hair. In my new getup I was pretending to be an awkward man, all I needed was a tie and a set of balls. This was proper attire. I resented blending in. Inside I was shouting, I am not one of you. I don’t belong here, can’t you see I am an impostor.
But I was 22 and convinced that this was the way to “make it.” I was going to make it at all costs and my cost was 55K year starting salary with a bonus which I found out was 10K at the end of the year for a mediocre job. Maybe it would be more if I was one of those “big swinging dicks” from Liars Poker, but I don’t think anyone would call me a “big swinging dick”. I felt so lucky that I got this job even up until this first day.
On this day I found out from my “welcoming” committee of cubicle pop ins that I was the only one in my group without a masters or a PhD or a diploma from an Ivy League school. The first question everyone asked me was what school I am coming from. I proudly answered, CS major with a business minor from Boston University. This I could tell was surprising to the “welcoming committee.” I became a little less proud with my answers. Maybe being mysterious could be my approach, I thought.
George C. was short, chubby, proudly Greek orthodox and really cute. He was in his mid thirties and not married at the time. He was probably the one most responsible for getting me hired. He took me in during the first interview. I would work for him, doing the jobs he didn’t want to do anymore. Jobs he had been doing for the last five plus years. He was open and honest. He told me who is who and what’s where. All the gossip and stories that I needed to know to feel acclimated. He talked and talked at me, with me nodding and exclaiming “wow” or “really” at the appropriate breaks in conversation. I could tell he made a lot of wrong assumptions about me. He assumed that because I was a Russian immigrant I would be an amazing programmer, a hard worker who spent my nights and weekends at the office and I would be obedient and quiet while doing it. Unfortunately for him and me, he was wrong on all three accounts.
My first day, the group took me to the most uncomfortable lunch of my life. I am not exaggerating, I can’t think of a single more uncomfortable lunch. It was a nice place with starched cloth napkins. Something about the starch in my napkin made me even more uncomfortable then I already was. It was so stiff, it was hard to wipe myself with it and I felt even more out of place. I was stiffer. This was worse then the eight interviews. Now they were all around me stronger by their mass, they were not my people as a group, maybe as individuals, but not as a group.
They talked, mostly amongst themselves and I tried to fit in. I tried jokes but they didn’t get a laugh. My jokes were stiff and forced. They were not genuine. They were about stuff I didn’t care about, but thought that they might care about. “They” felt like adults. I felt small and childlike in their presence that day. After working there for two years, the tables turned. George mentioned with a grin that Janet Showers couldn’t come to lunch. They all made sounds and rolled their eyes as if she was too good to go to lunch to “welcome” a lowly analysts. I tried to roll my eyes too even though I had no idea what they were talking about. I did know a little bit. George told me some stories in our interview. She was the main boss. The boss of the bosses. She was the boss of our group in which everyone was my boss. She was also the boss of the all of Fixed Income Research, which was all of 10th floor and had some real-estate on the trading floor (the only real-estate that really counts).
I met her before. She was the last person to interview me in the second round. George warned me that she is super tough before I went into the room. She was a scary lady he told me in not so many words. I was frightened in that office. Her lips were clenched. I felt like I could barely breath in her presence. There was no room to even make a nervous joke. This was a place for short answers without eye contact. She stared through me. I was an object and an annoying one at best. She had no feelings for me. I was small, miserable, young, inexperienced and probably poor. I was even too inexperienced to realize who she was and that was probably the most annoying part for her. I don’t remember that interview, I think she was too busy to listen to the answers to her questions. So I got the job.
After lunch, George knocked on Janet’s big window office door, “Hey Janet, today is Olga Toporovsky’s first day. She is the new analyst in our group. We just took her out for lunch.” Janet looked up at me as I was trying to peek my face in through the cracked door. She said,” There is no such thing as free lunch,” and went back to work. George closed the door and made a smirk at me, sympathizing.
I knew that moment would stay with me for an eternity. I knew, from the first second I heard her name that Janet Showers would become a teacher in my mind’s eye. I think of her. The few encounters I had with her in those two years, she managed to say something that was powerful. She was powerful. When she walked into the elevator, everyone stopped breathing. They exhaled and continued to talk only when she left. One time we were joking in the bathroom by the mirrors and then Janet Showers walked out of the stall. It was scary. I didn’t even know she was human enough to use the bathroom and not just bathroom but the same bathroom I use.
But that first phrase really hit home. I knew that would be the story of my life at Salomon Smith Barney. I thought I was getting a deal. A big starting salary, all the benefits one can want, a ticket to a future of wealth and power. Luckily Janet warned me on my first day, “There is no such thing as free lunch.”
I think of this now because I am in Miami. We stayed here last year for five months and we are here now for a week. Yura’s dad has a condo here that we are free to use when we want to. I wish I could enjoy it more. I wish I would not be assaulted by the waste all around me. I wish I could be like my mom and think this is beautiful. All the fancy cars. I wish I can look past the 18 year old boy walking out of his dad’s Bentley with his Gucci shoes inverted so that all the G’s are showing properly. I wish I could smile at the old over-tanned ladies with too much lipstick, angry that the valet is taking too long to get their car so that they can go to the Aventura mall. I wish I could enjoy myself on the beach while the oversize, first to be built, six star luxury superplex condos and hotel all in one is going up right behind me, blocking all the view to the “public” beach. I wish that I can not feel sorry for the towel guys, whose only job all day is to bring the towels to the people who live her. It is not a hotel. These people own towels. I wish that this was my idea of luxury. I wish I could ignore the mall across the street, known for being the most expensive mall in the country. I wish I could feel sorry for the the unhappy anorexic faces of the teenage girls and their anorexic moms, clutching their super sized designer bags. I wish I can look at the thousand dollar lobby flower arrangement that gets tossed before it can even begin to wilt and say “Wow, that’s beautiful.”
When Josh and Jenn came here last year to visit with Wavy, Josh could not help but voice some of these things in my head. Yura turned to him and said, “Are you happy anywhere?”, Josh thought about it and then said, “No.” Yura said it to him but he was talking to our own voices that were loudly screaming in our heads. We can keep them inside but Josh had to go and say it. Yura wished for us to enjoy the luxury we were getting here. I would have answered, “Yes.”
My idea of luxury is an unspoiled beach with running water, it doesn’t even have to be hot. This beach is spoiled and I feel spoiled being on it.
My friends Marina and Elyse came here last year at different times. They both said to me, “I can’t see you living here, Olia, this place is so not you.” They were right, they will not see me living here, not even for free. Thanks to you Janet Showers, I always remember that there is no such thing as free lunch.
For the next six days I will carve out a piece of sand to do my dance routine and some time in the over heated pool for us to enjoy, knowing that its not free.