Other people came and went from our banking group, but the three of us stayed. All of us probably could have left and gotten jobs on the buy-side if we had wanted to, but that would have felt a little like forfeiting. Most years, only one or two people per group land direct promotions to associate, but it happened for all three of us.
That’s when the rankings began.
It was November 2008. Banks were collapsing, merging, and people were being laid off all over the place. Shitty time to be a freshly-promoted associate because we were too green to do the work of a VP, but we cost a lot more than the analysts. There was nothing to do, really, except turn cynical.
“So, Justin, who do you think is next?” Harrison kept his eyes on the computer, where he was dominating a game of Minesweeper. “Do you think they just lay off the people who didn’t get top tier bonuses?”
“You know Sarah in TMT?” I pulled up the analyst directory on my computer. “She definitely wasn’t top-ranked, but she’s still here.”
“Only because she gave blow jobs to half the group.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Steve swiveled around in his chair. “Sarah from TMT, huh-huh?” He licked his lips. “Sh-she and I were p-p-pretty close in college, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure,” Harrison said. He looked back to me. “Which first-year do you think will be the next to go?”
I paused. “How about the fat kid in Industrials?”
“Good call, Jay.” Harrison clicked the last non-mine in the game and started a new screen. “No one likes fat kids.”
“H-hey,” Steve said. “Wh-what about PJ in ou-our group?”
Harrison slowly swiveled to face him. “PJ will last longer than fatso. Wanna bet on it?”
“Yeah.” Steve fumbled in his wallet and took out a twenty. “Y-you in?”
I wasn’t sure at the time whether it was funny or sad that Steve Kurz needed to prove himself against Harrison Lam. You could always tell when Steve was nervous because his stuttering picked up. I put in a twenty of my own. “Let’s do it.”
“Wait,” Harrison said. “That’s not fair. Steve knows PJ better than we know fatty. He has an advantage over us, like, we haven’t done as much research.”
Without even flinching, Steve laid out another ten bucks. “As a h-h-h-handicap.”
As it turned out, both PJ and the fat kid were fired in that next round of layoffs.
Harrison and I were prepared to have a quiet chuckle over the whole thing, but Steve took it all pretty seriously. “G-g-guys, this could be, y’know,” he sniffed, “h-huge.”
“Hey, don’t tell anyone about this, okay?” Harrison said.
And so, for about two weeks, our betting was a well-kept secret of the J.P. Morgan Financial Institutions Group. Harrison saw the blabber mouth coming even less than I did, probably because he lacked a certain empathy and understanding of our sinus-infected friend. In a wild bout of stuttering machismo that would change things forever, Harrison bragged about one very successful bet to a girl in the Medical Technology group.
Word spread. Other people approached us about joining the pool. At first we were angry that he told on us, but in the end it really was because of him that we got as rich as we did. Harrison and I decided to back the bids ourselves and open up to outsiders. We gave Steve partial ownership in the venture—not a whole third, of course. Our favorite sniffling over-sharer picked up the slack from our actual jobs, which let us dedicate more time to the rankings without getting fired ourselves.
Since we were fronting the bets, we had to make clear guidelines in order to price the bids. As associates, we ranked the entire first-year analyst class. We set up comparative odds to guess at their chances of receiving the best bonuses and getting promoted, or sacked. The guidelines of the rankings aren’t very kind, but they were pretty fucking accurate. The truth is, getting ahead isn’t only about your work, it’s about whether people want to promote you. Parameters included:
- Prestige of banking group: Lower rungs like capital markets objected, but, for example, M&A is clearly better than Consumer/Retail.
- Ranking of college attended: Bonus points if it was an Ivy.
- Number of deals.
- Size of deals.
- Attractiveness: Ugly people have it tougher.
- The Airport Test: If you were stranded together on a layover, would you want to shoot the other person’s fucking brains out?
- The Bro Code: Is he the kind of guy who’d hit on your girl?
- The Bra Code: Would you do her? Would she do you?
An example: Two analysts were dating, and the girl cheated on her boyfriend with another analyst. Boyfriend’s ranking increased (sympathy vote), cheater man’s decreased (Bro Code), and the girl’s skyrocketed (new hope for the horny masses).
We found a bored real estate guy to make a computer model that would recalculate the rankings every morning, based on new data. The real estate guys had nothing to do after the real estate bubble crashed, so they all felt better betting on other people’s jobs than worrying about their own. Our guy used some of the same programming that he’d have otherwise used for banking models and it served us well. Too bad he was fired shortly after he finished it. But hey, he should’ve seen it coming; his own ranking had been in the gutter ever since he’d started helping us.
Anyway, once the analysts started to figure out that we were judging them, things got fun. They didn’t know their exact rankings, but we’d pretty much created a marketplace of esteem: They’d try smoke and mirrors to make us think they were more competent than they were, like “accidentally” copying us on “private” emails about deals they’d landed, even though they were obviously as in need of stuff to do as we were. Sometimes we gave them points for trying to fool us, though, because we weren’t judging how good they were—just how promotable. As you’ll see when you start in a few weeks, smoke and mirrors have a time and a place.
A few of the kids tried to bribe us into raising their ranking. I always said no, though I can’t make any guarantees about Harrison. I’m about to make a point that I want you to remember, and I’m sure your sister will thank me for it: Being top dog is dangerous. You want to be good, but not great. No one likes a meteoric rise.
Harrison and I knew that our bonuses were going to be shit that year, so we decided that, as long as we didn’t get ourselves fired, it was more worth our while to focus on the rankings. By February, we were taking bets from over 25 people and we’d made about $60,000. It killed Harrison that we had to kick back $10,000 to Steve.
A few weeks in, a managing director named Bakerly strolled on by the cubicle I shared with Harrison. Although I knew the guy’s name, I’d never had more than a two-second conversation with him before. “I hear that you guys have been busy lately,” he said.
I looked at Harrison and he looked at me until I finally turned back to the MD and replied, “Yes, sir. Anything we can do for you?”
“No, no, just coming by to check in. Must be great, being as busy as you are with all these work assignments, when the economy is as tough as it is.”
Bakerly narrowed his eyes. “Let’s cut the crap. I know what’s going on here.”
“Oh,” I said. “I mean, since it’s not officially against any—”
“I don’t give a shit what it’s against. You’re supposed to be doing real work at work, and I’m sure that most MDs wouldn’t be cool with you running some sort of a gambling ring on their time.”
“Sorry, sir,” I said slowly. Avoiding Harrison’s eyes, I started, “We can shut down—”
“Did I say that?”
“So let me talk before you tell me what I’m gonna say. What I was gonna say was that most MDs wouldn’t be down with a thing like this, but I’m not sure that it’s such a bad thing, since it kind of gives people a release, lets them think about other people’s jobs instead of freaking out about their own.”
I nodded. “Great.”
“So we’re settled?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
For the first time, Harrison chimed in. “Don’t worry, we’re settled.”
“You understand, I just need some assurances that this really is the best thing for everyone. And, I’ll have to convince the other MDs, too.”
“Of course,” Harrison said. “Say, 10% assurances?”
“I was thinking more like 15.”
“Whatever makes you feel…assured.”
“Thanks. Glad that we understand each other.”
“Perfectly,” Harrison said smoothly.
After Bakerly left, I whispered, “How did you know what he was after?”
“Dude, don’t you watch movies?”
Now that we had to tithe upper management, the kick-backs to Steve rankled even more. We wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the work from our actual jobs without him, but he wasn’t actively helping with the rankings. “I bet I can get Steve out of it,” Harrison said about a month after the MD first approached us. “I bet I can do that and make a bunch of money at the same time.”
Harrison swiveled his chair toward Steve and said, “Hey man, I have a good new bet for you. You know that first-year Todd, who everyone thinks is a rock star? Put your money on him and I’ll bet against you.”
“Wh-why would you offer that to me? What’s the t-trick?”
“Nothing, I just know you like him and I think you’re wrong.”
“Shu-shu-sure, I’d show you up.”
“That’s the spirit, Porky Pig. How good is the kid?”
“And you’ll put money on it?”
“I know you’ve worked closely together, so you’ve got the edge on this one. I’ve never even spoken to him before. Ready to make this a big bet?”
“Well, you’re the best modeler in our group, huh? You know another good modeler when you see him. I guess we should man up and make this a big one.”
“N-n-name the wager.”
“Your whole bonus this year. Top in our group, so that’s what, like $100k?”
“C-c-come on, Stevie,” Harrison goaded. “You know you’re the best in this group. P-p-put your money where your lisp is. I’ll be sure to tell Sarah in TMT.”
Desperate to prove himself as he was, Steve fell into it. Looking back, I probably should’ve defended the poor guy. The truth was that I was becoming more of a lackey every day.
Meanwhile, Mindy was becoming more and more upset at me. She had moved in at the end of August, before things went bad. By February, I was convinced that she’d never understand me because she worked at an art gallery and sold pretty pictures all day, because she didn’t know what it was like to work a real job. She put on all these airs about the importance of art and culture (still does), and I’d sit there thinking that Mindy, who wanted to become a curator, was really just a glorified salesgirl. You know what I mean: Salesmen just don’t become portfolio managers.
At any rate, I didn’t stand up for Steve. When Harrison convinced him to wager his future bonus, it was the beginning of the end. There are three possibilities: (1) Steve was an idiot; (2) he was so preoccupied with his own plummeting social stance that he was blind to Harrison’s machinations; or (3) he knew exactly what was happening but didn’t have the balls to do anything about it.
Harrison took the first-year analyst, object of the bet, under his wing. The unwitting analyst was only too grateful for an experienced mentor. At any rate, if Todd the analyst had wanted Harrison to back off, he wouldn’t have been able to do very much about it.
Todd, more open-eyed than you’d expect of a kid who was rumored to be the rock star of his banker class, inhaled all things Harrison. He listened to Harrison’s tips on the best Excel sheets, keyboard shortcuts, how to make this-and-that model, what to say to his staffer to get the best assignments, and, generally, how to be awesome. Harrison’s advice was genuine, too. Steve looked like he was going to win a mighty fine return on his investment.
But then, about a month in, Todd’s apartment flooded. Playing the perfect mentor, Harrison pressed the Come on, bro, you’ve got to stay with me in the meantime button. The kid said that his best friend lived down the hall, no worries, but Harrison insisted. That sealed my suspicions. I guess I could have tried to tip off the analyst, but I wasn’t totally sure. At any rate, maybe Harrison wasn’t responsible for the flood—maybe—but he sure as hell sprang to action.
The flood happened the same week that Todd had a presentation due for a hugely important client. Because he was rumored to be the most kickass first-year, his staffer put him on the project directly with a managing director. The MD was too busy to do the paperwork himself, so Todd had a lot riding on one lousy packet of papers.
Harrison broke into Todd’s briefcase and stole his revenue models two nights before they were due. Then he downloaded a computer virus to corrupt all of Todd’s documents and spreadsheets. How do I know all of this? Harrison told me himself. He loved every minute of mind-fucking that little boy.
Todd only realized that he was short a major presentation the night before. Borderline panic attack, he almost called his MD and freaked out on the phone, but Harrison calmed him down and convinced him that admitting everything would only make the situation worse. Then the dramatic crescendo: “I feel you, bro. Lemme help.”
Todd worked to recreate his masterpiece presentation at three in the morning, alongside his mentor. At some point between four and five in the morning, Harrison looked up. “Hey, you’ve gotta change this. Was this really the conclusion you made in the first draft?”
The first-year analyst, overcome with exhaustion and gratitude and trust of his superior, nodded numbly.
“You’re lucky I caught this. Your MD hasn’t looked it over yet?”
Todd shook his head, too tired for words.
“Good. Here, let me show you.”
Thus ends the tale of how Todd, the superstar analyst, turned in a half-assed, last-minute, and wrong series of models to one of the firm’s biggest clients. The managing director’s head was on the chopping block, too, because it was his fault for not checking over Todd’s work. He was put on probation and Todd was fired.
That’s how Steve came to owe Harrison a hundred grand. He sniffled more than ever, told bigger and bigger lies about his love life, and was so distracted that he slipped from being the number one modeler in our group. His long-awaited bonus wasn’t tops. He gave up all his equity in the rankings and pretty much peaced out from our lives. The guy continued to work next to us, but he was too broken to even curse us out, or refuse to pay, or complain that the game was rigged. We knew that he was seeing a shrink about it because Harrison found the explanation of benefits from the insurance company in Steve’s desk drawer.
It was too late for me to make good. I finally realized what an ass-wipe I’d been, but I couldn’t, or didn’t, do anything. If Harrison flooded the apartment of an innocent analyst, what would he do to me if I exposed him?
I couldn’t sleep, and I alternately ate too much and too little. I knew that I was Harrison’s crony, but I was too chicken shit to do anything about it. I figured that Harrison would take me out, sooner or later. I couldn’t handle even basic tasks anymore, not even the commute on the train. I would stand there on the subway, trying to balance so I didn’t have to touch the dirty handrail, and someone would touch me and I’d freak out. I was commuting to and from Midtown every day, and I couldn’t take it. I’d fucking road rage at people, like, they’d bump into me and say sorry, and instead of being like, “It’s cool, man,” my blood would boil and I would turn around and curse at them like a real fucking New Yorker.
I couldn’t talk to Mindy. I tried, but she didn’t get it. She must have thought that I was less of a man because I wasn’t fighting back, or doing anything at all. Toward the beginning, I tried to explode my paralysis with sex, every day, even when I was exhausted, even when Mindy told me that she wasn’t in the mood. I pushed and I pushed, but instead of feeling more alive, I felt like I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even make my girl want me when I wanted her. After a week or two, I stopped completely.
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I bought the diamond ring because I love Mindy. But, if we’re being honest, the timing came when I was anxious to feel something. I didn’t have any control over anything. And, as it turned out, I didn’t have any control over your sister. Mindy didn’t care that the earnings from the rankings let me buy it. We sat on the fake leather couch, the one that your parents bought for our housewarming, and she tied her hair up in one of her messy, artsy ponytails. “Jay, I’m going to leave you.”
I could see the soft area of her triceps as she set her hands back down, and I thought about how her arms would grow flabbier after we got married. “What?”
“Yeah.” She stood, picked up her purse, and then put it down, like she didn’t know what to do.
“What if I quit?”
I looked, I found, and I planned my departure. They say that it’s hard to find a job in the recession, but there’s nothing like an ultimatum.
On my last day, Harrison leaned over from his desk and said, “I’m sorry to see you go, chupy. Let’s go after work for some bebidos one last time, okay?”
As we buried our heads in all-you-can-eat barbecue ribs and listened to drunk people sing karaoke, Harrison blathered on about how different it’d be without me, how much he was going to miss me, about how the rankings would never be the same.
I would’ve said something, but I was thinking of you. I could’ve destroyed the rankings by reporting the whole thing to the media or something, but then you’d never be able to work at J.P. in peace. I think Harrison’s a VP himself, now. When he finds out that you’re my brother-in-law, you’d damn well better say that I spoke the world of him, that he’s my best friend, and that you’re full of respect. And then back away very slowly.
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