By: Thor Benson
This is a true story.
It’s 6:12 A.M. and Jay, as we’ll call him, is late as usual. He’s wearing a white oxford shirt and slacks. His short, curly hair is frayed. He sits in the parking lot of the mortgage agency where he works in the Southwest United States, dreading the next step he has to take — the step outside the car. He applies cologne to cover the smell of whiskey. Jay is late because he wanted to get at least two hours of rest before work, and he was up drinking heavily with buddies until a little before 4:00 A.M. Not only is he late, he’s still somewhat drunk, which means he has also risked a DUI.
All I need is some coffee, he thinks, some coffee will make it all better. His body feels so dry as he walks toward the office that his veins feel like they’re cracking. Jay feels electricity caught in the broken synapses in his brain. He enters an office made of hard wood and marble to trade away the lives of families in need.
“I was living off of coffee and whiskey,” Jay told me. “I was in a perpetual hangover.”
Jay’s job was selling mortgage securities as an analyst. He started the job fresh out of high school at the age of 19 in the beginning of 2007, before the housing market crash, with no experience. He got the job through a friend. The office was a swarm of young, inexperienced kids, and they spent their days packaging multimillion dollar bundles of toxic mortgages and selling them to the biggest banks in the world.
When Jay wasn’t in a cubicle methodically squeezing a stress ball, watching the market fluctuate unpredictably on a hissing computer screen, he was out playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band, drinking whiskey and doing hallucinogenic drugs. He’d arrive late to work, make the company rich, and they’d forget about it.
It’s a mellow night and Jay is smoking weed with a friend. “We’re out. We gotta get more.” The music is blasting in the truck, the road is weaving viciously before their clouded eyes, and then the lights. A police checkpoint ahead. He’s calmly speaking to the stoic officer, “Not buying weed, officer, of course.” They are waved to freedom while the adrenaline makes their bodies shake. Freedom, until the cops notice an empty beer box in the bed of the truck as they drive off. “We’re fucked.”
“I thought they were going to find my weed, and I had been arrested three or four times before, so instead of pulling over I flipped off the cops and drove away as fast as I could,” Jay said. He felt he was gaining on them until he turned into a neighborhood and had his friend throw the weed and pipe out the window — the pipe glistening with red, white and blue flashing lights as it flew. A cul-de-sac. Trapped. The police chase was over. He spent the night in jail, high and defeated, and went home the next morning.
The shareholders in Jay’s office often arrived in immaculate Bentleys and Mercedes. He was making decent money, but it was nothing compared to their mountains of cash. “I had a boss who had a fishing vacation off the eastern coast of Africa cancelled because Somali pirates hijacked the boat he had chartered,” Jay said. His boss was a strange man — tall, thin, grey-haired, insect-like appendages. He once called Jay into his office when he was still a new employee to teach him a lesson.
“You can’t work in the office unless I hear you say the word ‘fuck,’” the boss said. The boss spoke like a sailor and wanted to make sure he could handle it. He wore plain clothing but worked in eccentric ways. Jay said “fuck” a couple times and left.
There was an unsettling sense of hierarchy in the office — humans imitating gods — but rampant drinking and endless chain smoking brought everyone together. “There is definitely a culture around drinking in places like this … Everyone in our department was a drinker, and they definitely facilitated underage drinking,” Jay said. Being 19, he wasn’t supposed to be drinking, but he wasn’t going to be the only sober asshole there.
The “say fuck” boss once brought Jay beers during the work day and encouraged him to drink while he handled people’s mortgages. One of the days of fear before the market went sailing to the ground like a flaming zeppelin. The boss knew something bad was looming. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the housing bubble, and we didn’t really have a sense the bubble was going to burst,” Jay said. When American Mortgage went under, and news reporters started talking about “toxic assets,” Jay started to wonder.
He looked at the credit ratings of the people who were receiving loans, and he looked at how few assets they had. “This person can’t afford this loan,” he said he realized. “This may be a very terrible investment.”
“I learned that I didn’t have a job on my way to work because I was fucking listening to NPR, and the local broadcasting station mentioned we were closing down,” Jay said. The company lost almost $1 billion in one day. He and his coworkers threw a massive pool party — a baptizing they hoped would cleanse their sins — and went to a desolate Mexican beach the next day to relax.
Jay returned to the industry in 2009, at the age of 22, after a stint doing landscaping. Better job, different company, same building. He spent two more years slaving for economic swindlers who reigned blows upon him with diamond-studded whips. It was a lot of the same with slightly stricter methods.
Jay continued his bouts of drinking and bending reality. He and his friends took a Fear and Loathing kind of trip to Las Vegas toward the end of Jay’s tenure in the financial industry. Hundreds of miles of driving through deadly desert valleys — a trunk full of MDMA and LSD — to get to the city with the only financial deviants worse than his bosses. There was a Queens of the Stone Age concert to attend on Saturday night, and the free hotel room they scored wasn’t available until Sunday afternoon. “We were high on the streets of Las Vegas for most of 24 hours,” Jay said.
Flashing neon lights become solar flares, the hot asphalt strip turns the soles of shoes into muck and the cackles of young, bejewled women echoes in their skulls. They get in the car and drive into a parking lot to smoke a joint. It would be a reprieve from the chaotic desert city streets. The parking lot is no parking lot, but a police station, and a cop car blocks them in. Gun drawn, a police officer yells unintelligibly. “Fucking —— out —— violation —— weapons!” He thinks they are trying to bomb the station. He searches the car. The drugs are well hidden and remain undiscovered. Bomb-less, they are let go. “I thought I was going to go to jail for that night and maybe prison for a while,” Jay said.
After days of confusion and hopelessness, the boys returned home. Jay’s mother was being foreclosed on by Bank of America, one of his clients, and as he looked over her documents he realized she was another one of the toxic loans his profession had facilitated. His mother looked at him, shattered and scared.
He spent several days mulling over the effects of his job. The building he worked in became a box of suffering and malice. He wasn’t sure what he would do, but he realized he couldn’t work in his industry any longer. “I realized these were people’s houses I was trading away, and their livelihoods and their families,” Jay said.
He put in his two weeks notice but was asked to stay a month to train new employees. The fuckers paid him double for that month. “You’ll always have a job here!” they exclaimed. He flipped his old office building the bird like a cop who thinks you’re drunk, and he left. His days in finance were done, but his days of drinking and tripping were far from over. Jay moved to the Pacific Northwest with a bandmate and learned how to live on a smaller, but more ethical, budget.