It's the summer of 2006, and I'm wearing a dark suit and pantyhose, all nervous and fidgety and feigning nonchalance. It's the first time I've worn something from the Misses section at TJ Maxx, and it feels like a personal milestone. Goodbye, Juniors, with your bedazzled T-shirts and embroidered-pocket jeans: I'm a (last-season/irregular) suit n' pantyhose woman now! And why wouldn't I be, here, in midtown Manhattan, in the marbled lobby of a $40 billion company on the first day of my summer internship, at the first place to pay me more than minimum wage, for the first job where I don't have to stand behind a counter and deal with sticky-fingered teens. I've made it, Ma, I've made it!
A bubbly HR rep herds all of us interns into a room for orientation, passing sleek elevator banks and translucent glass panels. As I sink into a leather chair, I fight the urge to kick up my legs and do a celebratory swivel. I know I've only been here for a day, but I already feel like this company could be the one. If I do well this summer, I could get a full-time offer, and maybe, just maybe, I could work here for the rest of my life.
"Good morning," the HR rep says. "Welcome to Lehman Brothers."
HOW WE MET
I never intended to work on Wall Street. I'd always thought finance was for money-grubbing douchebags, not for self-respecting, hippy intellectuals like me (this is how I saw myself as a college junior). But even with my liberal leanings and highfalutin sense of self, there was still a small part of me that wanted to see what Wall Street was like. Because secretly, deep down, in that shameful corner of my soul that laughed when old people fell down or admitted there was such a thing as an ugly baby, Wall Street -- that merciless bastion of corporate greed and excess and vulgarity -- sounded fucking awesome.
Plus, all the smart people I knew -- they all wanted to work on Wall Street. And if they wanted these jobs, I should want it too! It's like how people said, hey! Daniel Craig is really hot. And even though you don't see it, even though you think his face looks like a clay-pot-left-too-long-in-the-kiln, if he asked you out, you should say yes! So when Lehman Brothers came calling, when Daniel Craig said he wanted me, I jumped into his tree-trunk arms and said yes, yes, yes! I'm ready to drink the hoity corporate Kool-Aid: drink it, guzzle it, pour it into an IV bag and take it intravenously, whatever. And even though I'll complain about every blasted minute inside this blasted capitalist wastehole, I'll secretly enjoy it, because anyone with unchecked ambition is inherently masochistic.
I'm sure gonna love hating it.
In the beginning, it's like we can't keep our hands off each other. Lehman Brothers is the sexiest, coolest investment bank out there. Everyone knows that Morgan Stanley is boring, Merrill Lynch is a factory, Bear Stearns is for dumb athletes, and Goldman Sachs is the apotheosis of evil, the patent house of Gekko and the shadowy banker from Deal or No Deal. Lehman is different, as we're told on orientation day, inundated with buzzwords about the firm's unique culture: started by sons of cattle farmers, an unyielding meritocracy, a place where vision gets built, the company colors green and white, the color of money!
Thankfully, the love is mutual. Lehman wants to recruit me to stay -- thus the company-sponsored boozing, the free meals, and most alluring, the potential of making six-figures right out of college -- and I want to impress Lehman enough to get a full-time offer -- thus the agreeable smiles, the laughing too hard at my boss' jokes, and the pretending to enjoy this open-bar night at Dave & Buster's. If I do get a full-time offer, I've already mapped out my post-college plan: spend two years at Lehman, go to business school, start a tech company, become a billionaire, buy a house in the Hamptons, have an explosive divorce, die old and alone but surrounded by a mountain of gold bars.
Yet despite the fact that I desperately want my plan to work out, as the weeks go by, I begin to see that maybe Wall Street just isn't for me. I'm interning in the equity research department, where we rate stocks based on a variety of factors, including market conditions, past performance, comparable growth, and other things that I've since forgotten. If we are very high on a stock, we give it a "buy" or "overweight" rating. My superiors -- who seem to be sage, old veterans of the world but are, in reality, like, 23 -- can get their jollies from calculating discounted cash flows and extrapolating price targets. One woman brags to me about how she highlights the Wall Street Journal every morning, marking up every interesting tidbit and committing it to memory. Another guy proudly boasts of working twenty hours a day and pulling an all-weeker every now and then. As for me, well, my favorite part of the job is taking a break during lunch to try and draw a pterodactyl in Windows Paint.
If I learn anything about Wall Street during my internship, it's that: 1) "Fuck" can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, directive, and occasionally, term of endearment. 2) In order to fit in, you have to be strongly opinionated about HR, women leaders, and taxes. (The opinion must also be negative, although you can "support them in concept.") And 3) In spite of the Wall Street stranglehold on words like "optimization" and "efficiency," the mantra of "face time" rules over them all. I discover that if I stay until 8 p.m., I can order dinner. If I stay until 9, I get car service home. Everything soon becomes about elongating the day: sometimes napping in the handicapped stall (it has a bench) until 8:59 p.m., when I can casually stroll by my boss' office, having "just finished" that report I'd been working on.
On my first day, I overheard a fellow intern say that he was looking forward to a summer in New York City. It'll be crazy, he insisted, a whole summer of clubbing, drinking, and just "doin' models and bottles."
Yup. Excel models and Xanax bottles.
Despite my office narcolepsy and rapidly-improving Windows Paint skills, in the last week of my internship I'm given a full-time offer to return to Lehman (I should've known then that they were bad at making wise decisions). At the beginning of the summer, I would've been ecstatic. But now I know that I'd been merely caught in the enigma of Wall Street (Money! Power! Men in suits!). It was never really what I wanted; it was just what other people -- loud, assured, confident people -- wanted. (Or did they?) As much as I strived to be my own person, I fell into the same trap that would eventually take down Lehman: blindly, stupidly following the crowd when I probably should've known better. That's how I ended up shoveling shrimp cocktails into a TJ Maxx power suit (If everyone's working on Wall Street, I should work on Wall Street too!), and that's how Lehman bankrupted itself (If everyone's trading subprime mortgages, I should trade subprime mortgages too!), and that's why our country is still mired in this recession (Fuck, we messed up! Just cut loose and run!).
So, I decline my offer. And I wrap up my dalliance with Wall Street rather fittingly, with one last project. Our group is putting out a "buy" rating on a stock. Based on our sophisticated financial models, we predict the stock will reach $32 by next year. As is custom across the Street, we check the price targets of all the other big firms who cover the same company (Goldman, Merrill, Morgan Stanley, etc.): They're all within spitting distance of $32. So we go with it, confident that we're in the ballpark. Make ripples, not waves, they say. The market is predictable, they say. All these smart people can't be wrong, they say.
A year later, the purported $32 stock is at $3. Oops.