Memoir

Windows on Lehman

EMERGING FROM THE subway I joined the crowds of Lower Manhattan, anxious about my first day on the job. The older buildings of the financial district were squat, tarnished sandstones puckered with sooty recessed windows. I walked towards a sense of openness and, turning a corner, saw the World Trade Center towers rising before me.

Like pewter-skinned jewels, the twin towers sipped sunlight from the source, illuminating all of Wall Street, both a beacon and a boast. The North Tower held aloft antennae which slipped under the sheath of firmament, like a hypodermic needle, poking bubbles of Babel into the stratosphere. The steel columns channelled gusts of wind and I imagined cloud particles swirling in the dust around me.

I passed through the plaza on my way to Lehman Brothers, next door, where I took up a temp job that lasted for four years. It was 1999; I was twenty-five years old and wearing a cheap polyester suit from my small home town. The echoes of hard-heeled shoes clattered off the marble walls and cancelled out my own footsteps. The lobby's revolving doors were a banal fortification against Trojan Horses.

For my first two weeks I answered line two when line one was busy, assigned to a pool of assistants supporting a vice chairman who spent most of his time in Israel brokering mergers between pharmaceutical companies. Line two only rang once or twice a day. I sharpened a box of pencils and arranged them neatly in a cup on the vice chairman's desk. I read the New York Times, and then filled in all the O's with one of the pencils.

In between these tasks, I stared past the glass wall, out to my patch of eighteenth-storey view: a swatch of sky, a stitch of Staten Island and a swathe of Tower One. I pictured myself as a co-ordinate on a three-dimensional grid. I imagined a transparent New York, all structures clear and colourless. I would walk along streets squinting up at clusters of bodies standing self-consciously rigid in imperceptible elevators, rising and falling along thermal shafts. My vision – a city disrobed and vulnerable – was a perversion of New York's collective consciousness and its tough, cool persona.

After that first assignment I was promoted to an ongoing temporary position in the recruiting department. The market was strong and Lehman Brothers spared no expense to attract the best talent from the Ivy League universities and business schools. We offered signing bonuses, stock options and moving allowances, plus all-expenses-paid outings to Yankee games, No Doubt concerts and catered evenings at the trendiest bars and clubs. The four of us in the recruiting department – all young, single women – co-ordinated these events and tagged along to help the recruits break the ice. We were also there to step in when a ‘situation' arose, like the time one of our candidates pissed on his seat at the No Doubt concert and had to be escorted away from the open bar by the security guards.

During this time I also spent two months in Windows on the World, where Lehman had hired space to train the new recruits. The express elevator ride to the 110th floor took ten minutes. The elevator operator chewed gum to pop his ears. There was no running out for a breath of fresh air: once you arrived at Windows you were there for the day.

The restaurant and conference centre were panelled in dark wood and burgundy fabric, with a low ceiling that hid a network of ducts, wires and pipes. Closer to the windows, sunlight streamed in unobstructed by anything save the clouds and the curve of the earth. New York and New Jersey lay flattened out below, extending into a smoggy haze, the Empire State Building twinkling like a toy.

The view, elevating us above the community of eight million below, was designed to stun and brought to mind the archaic sense of real estate: that the king possessed all within view from his royal seat. Within a week I was fatigued of the ride and the rise, the sensation of feeling the earth fall away beneath me. The proximity to the clouds, sky and sun unravelled no myths or poetry in this tomb of trade. I remained a temp in my corporate masquerade, earning a regular pay cheque and biding my time until something better came along.

Secluded high in the recesses of this cloud-cave, I felt mummified. Everything had to be piped in or wired up to us: air, water, food, electricity, information. The panorama distorted eye-level details, and my mind grasped for something fundamental, something which would rein the world back to direct sensation. My mind wandered: What would it be like to fall? How many people collected the trash and brought it back to ground level? Where did these buildings cast their shadows?

By the summer of 2001 the market was softening as the dotcom bubble burst. There was no budget for temp workers but I hadn't lined up anything else, so I agreed to take on a permanent position as an executive assistant to a managing director. He had a reputation for tyranny, but I was up to the challenge and was able to name my salary in addition to negotiating a three-month leave of absence shortly after I began working for him.

I spent those three months at a yoga ashram in California, happily exchanging my hard-earned money for the privilege of washing dishes and yanking weeds, with clover and dirt poking up between my toes. The first day I climbed 108 steep wooden steps to visit the Shiva temple. It was a satisfying walk in the hot dry air, the effort quickening my breath and provoking a sweat. At the peak I was startled to see a shrouded figure at the centre of the open-air temple, sitting erect and motionless with a mound of dreadlocks piled high on its head. Afraid I was trespassing, I turned and retreated downhill.

Soon I returned to the temple with the group for an evening meditation. The dreadlocked head turned out to be a Shiva lingam, the oldest idol of Hinduism, a primordial phallic tower. We chanted mantras and bathed the stone lingam in cow milk and rosewater and oiled it with ghee. Strict tradition dictates that a Shiva lingam must be tended to and worshipped every day, to quell the cosmic force of destruction.

I found my meditations at the Shiva temple the most profound. It was refreshing to acknowledge the inevitability of death and destruction, and to consider the role of this season in the cycle of creation. In contrast, New York's ceaseless worship of youth and vigour was tiring.

The summer interlude of yoga and meditation, abstaining from stimulants as mild as garlic, refined me. When I returned to New York my body responded like a voltmeter to the sheer energy of the place. Even the overlooked nature strips moved me with their beauty, and I admired the weeds and wildflowers that seeded themselves at the first moment of decay in the bitumen and concrete.

On the warm and rainy evening of 10 September I sat in the window of my favourite café. Architecture and history were reflected in dark pools on the surface of wet streets and sidewalks. A strobe of lightening mixed with the yellow flashes of an ambulance. I invested the rain with my own infatuation of the city. The water soaked up culture, mirrored the artificial lights of the night, and stained expensive and delicate shoes. The run-off followed the contours of the natural gullies and streams submerged beneath the pavement. I longed to lie down in the rain, limbs outstretched, touching the whole city at once.

 

MY MEMORIES OF returning to work on 11 September have ossified from repetition. Records show the first plane hit the North Tower at 8.46 am. Those of us next door noticed the sudden jerk and swaying of our building, and then a distant boom that echoed around the walls. Only junior bankers and support staff were at work that early in the morning and we ran from our cubicles to the empty senior offices, where we could look out the windows and see the lazy descent of thousands of sheets of white office paper. I was one of the last people to shake off the shock and leave the floor, after the second plane hit the South Tower.

Outside I sat by the Hudson River next to well-dressed strangers for an unaccountably long time. We could see both buildings incinerating, and paper scraps and ash rising with the heat. Finally I joined the migration north. A few blocks away I felt and heard the low rumble and turned to watch the South Tower dissolve into salt. Minutes later the North Tower imploded. I kept walking uptown and by mid-morning I stood alone on the roof of a West Side warehouse, looking downtown. The whole city seemed to be turned out of its buildings, three dimensions reduced to two. The impact inverted everything and I felt like I had witnessed the sky-scraping deity's mortality, the destruction of the grid's origin. The sound of leaves rustling in the breeze was audible for the first time on those streets.

Already, by that afternoon, enterprising individuals had tripled the price of Twin Tower postcards and collectibles. The paths I'd walked in Lower Manhattan were buried. The only footprints left were those of the towers.

At home that night I saw the neighbourhood children draw the scene in chalk on the sidewalks. The North Tower burned and a plane flew into the South Tower, with stick-people hanging out the windows, screaming for help. I was obsessed with footage of the attacks and drew my own sketches over the next few days, unable to report to work and awaiting further instruction from the firm. Still home the next week, I threw away the newspaper clippings and photos. I wanted my memories to stay fluid, registering my experience in my own limbs, not these frozen images.

 

THE FOLLOWING WINTER felt particularly dark and cold. For six months Lehman Brothers took over a mid-rise hotel near Times Square. The elevators weren't designed for our needs and moved with agonising slowness. We were five to a room, sharing one phone line and emergency laptops. In place of beds and nightstands we had folding tables and low-wattage floor lamps. Outside, in the synthetic twilight of Times Square, the streets were clogged with elderly patriotic Christmas shoppers bussed in from other states, sporting red, white and blue tracksuits.

Our sector, Technology Mergers and Acquisitions, was bullish and gearing up for the full force of George W Bush's ‘shock and awe' campaign. Our clients included Raytheon, L3 Communications and other notable members of the military-industrial complex. Lehman stock had split and was soaring over eighty dollars per share, and my retirement investments were growing at a staggering rate.

Eventually we moved into a brand new building nearby (it had been built for Morgan Stanley, but after the attacks that firm decided to consolidate operations elsewhere) and the winter gloom lifted. However, I knew I needed to escape the holding pattern I'd been in for the past few years. Now that my job was permanent I couldn't simply arrange a three-month leave of absence to offset the months of corporate drudgery and boredom. I was closing in on thirty, had proved something to myself about living in the big city, and it was time to move on. When the time came, my boss gave me a Coach bag selected by his wife and a cheque for $1818.18, a nod to our thin bond of Jewish identity, since this figure is symbolic of giving life.

 

IN THE SUMMER of 2003 I moved to San Francisco for love and a more fulfilling job in the not-for-profit arts sector. In spite of my disgust with Bush's war in Iraq and my discomfort with the blood money, I was too lazy and hypocritical to reinvest my Lehman stock in something more socially responsible. Sometimes I caught myself making justifications, thinking I had worked hard for the money and convincing myself that no investment could truly wash the blood off its hands.

It wasn't until early 2008 that my partner and I, now married and living in Brisbane, made a commitment to move the money. The stock had already lost a third of its value from its peak, but we were lucky to cut our losses before it plummeted over the next few months to end up under three dollars a share by 15 September, following the Dow Jones's largest drop in a single day since 9/11.

When I read the news of Lehman's bankruptcy I wondered about my former boss, friends and colleagues, but it would have been cruel to look them up and I had nothing to offer except smug curiosity. I did look closely at the videos posted to YouTube showing various employees leaving the corporate headquarters, but I didn't recognise anyone.

There was an unusual delay before CEO Dick Fuld surfaced in the public eye, like a petulant bully complaining about not being bailed out when the Feds had already rescued JP Morgan and AIG on the grounds that they were ‘too big to fail'. Fuld's hubris and sense of entitlement endeared him to no one and I found him nauseating to watch. He implied that Lehman Brothers was so intimately linked with the global economy that it was practically a crime against humanity to let it fail. Where was this guiding sense of interconnection when he and his team approved Lehman's unprecedented leveraging of mortgage assets, or when he accepted nearly half a billon dollars in compensation over the previous decade?

I realise that Fuld is an easy scapegoat for our own guilt and denial. We're wired for life, for growth and sensual gratification, and it's pleasing to believe we'll live forever and easy to justify our greedy urges. The phallic lingam itself is life-giving – but it doesn't grant us immortality.

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