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Robert Teitelman

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The Man From Goldman: A Commuter Tale

Posted: 06/29/11 03:58 PM ET

In the crowded quarters of Wall Street, getting back and forth has grown increasingly tedious with summer. The snow has disappeared, and the killer umbrellas have mostly been put away. The tourists, however, appear in ever-larger flocks, with their cameras and their baffling maps. This morning, a collection of Asian men and women were posing in front of the cornerstone of the New York Federal Reserve -- clearly economists of some sort convening at one of the temples of the faith. And then, in front of another temple of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange, "Riders on the Storm" was scratchily playing to a row of old Harley Davidson motorcycles. This was a different kind of spiritual exercise -- and one that stirs the fleeting thought: What will happen to Harley Davidson when the baby boomers hit the home?

It has been difficult lately for those souls who travel back and forth to New Jersey. Over the last week, the various commuter rail lines, as if succumbing to the heat or the end of the school year, went on spasmodic breakdowns in a kind of grim attempt to make your life miserable or just unpleasant for a few hours. Blame was near universal: New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, Port Authority. But there is, as always, a lesson to be gleaned from life's woes. And that is that the world is divided into two groups: employees of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and everyone else.

Commuter tales are to suburbanites what hunting stories are to Hemingwayesque rifle-toters: You had to be there. But bear with me; there's a point here somewhere. Suffice to say, at the height of the Friday evening rush last week, the PATH station at the World Trade Center suddenly shut down. The crowds filling the vast interior space emptied -- into the onrushing mob racing to catch their trains. It was the usual mess, exacerbated by the usual anarchy created by the usual indecipherable transit communications. Rather than join the crowd heading to uptown subways, I hoofed it west to the Hudson, to catch a ferry to Hoboken. By the time I got there the line to the ticket counter snaked through the terminal and out along the esplanade. With rain starting to fall, the line grew down the block and out of sight. And so we waited, shuffling forward a few steps at a time, only to stop, stare at the sky and offer estimates of waiting time. Two hours seemed to be the consensus. Regular ticketed commuters blew by like members of a superior class. The boats pulled in and backed out, regular as clockwork, never full.

Slowly the line edged forward. Inside, it became clear why we were moving so slowly. The terminal had some six positions to sell tickets, but only two salespeople. This seemed to be a mistake for a ferry company that could have made a windfall before the train lines came back on line. The crowd grew ugly; wild attempts at scalping and line cutting began. And then, a man appeared, taking a position roughly between the ticket line and the folks waiting for the boats. "Anyone here from Goldman Sachs?" he shouted. A lone female voice responded. "Goldman Sachs employees can get on the boat without a ticket." He then took his position to vet these special people. There were remarkably few of them. But they were the lucky ones, the chosen. We stared at them.

The rest of us were not of Goldman Sachs and we knew it. A lively discussion ensued. First, why was Goldman the only company to show any interest in helping out its employees? No one seemed surprised. Probably, went the consensus, because there were so few of them going home at that hour. Gallows laughter. One thought had it that Goldman was checking out the folks leaving so early -- it was approaching 6:30 pm now -- so it would know who they were. "That's the last thing they'll get from Goldman," said someone. "On Monday they'll be fired." That was undoubtedly cynical, if enough to draw another laugh. To be sure, Goldman headquarters loomed not far from the terminal; but there are lots of other big companies in the burgeoning World Trade Center and World Financial Center complexes. And none of them had come to the rescue of their workers.

But think, said someone, what good PR Goldman would generate if the firm paid for all of us to get onto the boats and go home? Or Port Authority, for that matter. (That drew a laugh too -- but it wasn't funny.) A murmur of assent as we shuffled forward and stopped. For truth be told, we all had a moment when we wanted to belong to the Goldman Sachs club, no matter what they shorted in the financial crisis and what Lloyd Blankfein said to Congress. But Goldman did not come through -- and the line moved forward. By now the PATH was running again, but most of us had waited long enough for a ticket and a boat ride to get the damn ticket and the boat ride and, besides, who trusted the trains? The window approached, the ticket bought and a Hoboken ferry came bobbing toward the terminal. Outside, the line still ran down the block. The Goldman guy stood there, looking a little bored as we filed onto the boat.

Is there a lesson here? Nah, probably not. Except that it often takes very little to leave the impression that a company cares about its employees -- that they, or it, is special. Sometimes it's a giant bonus; sometimes it's a free ticket home. Goldman may be the vampire squid. But it had sense enough to try to get its employees home on a rainy Friday night and remind the rest of us we're just poor slobs in a long line.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal. For more from Robert Teitelman, check out The Deal Economy.