(To read the full novel subscribe to my Substack at katyag.substack.com. where I will publish it in weekly installments)
“The greatest tragedy of a finance bro is that he wants to be known, but not as a finance bro.”
““I have just returned from the party of which I was the life and soul; witty banter flowed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me –– but I came away, indeed that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– wanting to shoot myself.” Soren Kierkegaard.
I: SOIREE AT THE PIERRE
To be in full character for tonight’s performance, Andy Sylvain, a Managing Director at Keating Mills Capital, ate junk food, skipped exercise, and neglected grooming for a whole month. Such regimen had added a doughy softness to his otherwise well-defined frame, and that morning, when he looked in the mirror, he was satisfied with what he saw: a working-class English lad, pale and cocky and ready for a brawl.
Later that day, on a warm October evening, Andy took a taxi from his office on Park Avenue to The Pierre Hotel for a closed-door, invitation-only industry event. A fleet of taxis and limos discharged the partygoers in front of the hotel’s white-and-gold awning, stalling the traffic on Fifth Avenue and on the adjacent streets. Some guests who emerged from the arriving cars were dressed in formal wear — tuxedoes and evening dresses, while others seemed to have prepared for a masquerade. From one black town car out came a middle-aged man clad in a leotard and a tulle tutu, followed by another, older gentleman, dressed in a cartoonish purple jacket with green lapels, a top hat, and swinging a cane.
Andy got out of the taxi on Sixty-First Street and Madison Avenue and walked one block west, maneuvering between the honking cars. He wore a baseball cap, grey Champion sweatpants, a t-shirt and a hoodie. He carried a dry-cleaned tuxedo on the hanger in one hand and a gym bag emblazoned with his firm’s logo over his shoulder. In the bag there was a change of clothes — a costume for his skit.
A velvet rope guarded the hotel’s doors. Two young women dressed for a night out stood in front of the entrance with disappointed looks, blocked from entering by the hotel’s polite but unyielding doorman.
Andy smiled at them.
“Could you get us in?” one of the girls asked him, sensing an opportunity.
“Any other party I could. But not this one,” he replied.
“What is this? Some secret society?” the girl asked, bugging her eyes in exasperation.
“A pretend secret society,” Andy remarked, raising his eyebrows and pressing his lips into an all-absolving ‘can you believe it?’ scowl — a handy expression that every New Yorker deploys to quickly and without consequences convey a range of emotions from amusement to helplessness, to apology, to skepticism.
The girls pouted. Andy dove into the hotel’s revolving doors.
The cool, marbled foyer of The Pierre, with its regal interior, with its ceremonial staff was a far cry from the chaos and expediency of the trading floor, Andy’s usual habitat. Gold-framed mirrors and meticulously polished floors reflected the dim light of the crystal chandeliers. Fresh white lilies in vases that sat on the lacquered side tables along the wall smelled of dust and the past, like a rich old widow’s boudoir. For a Street guy like Andy, the tranquility and otherworldliness of this place could be a bit intimidating, and when he walked in and inhaled the floral air, he told himself that all this grandeur was a mere façade, a blown-up magic castle for adults. This palatial stuffiness and old-fashioned sentiment simply begged to be occasionally debased with mischief and juvenile frolicking, paid for with money made in a bawdy, foul-mouthed pit.
The gilded lobby bubbled with a frat-house atmosphere. There were wigs and sequins and platform shoes. Wall Street titans in drag sought to discard their mature front, as if maturity was a handicap, greeting each other with jolly yells of endorsement. Andy patted and gladhanded his way through the motley crowd. “Andy,” he overheard someone. “You gained a few pounds.” “It’s for the role,” he responded.
A floor sign that read ‘The Seventeenth Annual Street Bohemians Jamboree’ directed the guests towards the ballroom. Inside the ballroom the planners, sparing no cost for preparation, had hired a Broadway theater crew to install a temporary stage and equip it with a concert-grade metal truss with professional lighting. A large canvas banner with the Street Bohemians’ coat of arms, a blue-and-gold wedge-shaped shield crisscrossed into four sections, two of which featured tragedy and comedy masks, the other two — a bull and a bear, and its motto ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ spanned over the stage. Multiple round tables covered with white tablecloths dotted the audience area in a checkered pattern. Offstage, behind the curtains on the left and right flanks, the performers unloaded their props and costumes.
Andy found his table and sat down. A polished waiter hurried to fill his glass with ice water and put a small porcelain bread plate with a dinner roll and butter in front of him. The pat of chilled butter was styled into an equilateral triangle with an eye — a totem of no meaning but inviting infinite projections — in its center.
Andy looked around the table. To his left he saw a salesman from a small, aggressive broker-dealer with whom he had run into many times at industry gatherings. He never remembered the salesman’s name, but acknowledged him with a curt nod.
“Hey, Andy,” the salesman said. “What are you working on these days?”
“Eh. A wait and see approach. There’s no yield out there,” Andy said languidly.
“I hear you. Can’t squeeze water from a stone,” the salesman commiserated with a grim chuckle. “Trust me, we’re scouring all kinds of arbitrage opportunities, all kinds of niche products. There’s no premium out there at all. I heard of some guys who are earning five percent leveraged three-to-one and are happy to get even that.”
“Yeah.” Andy shook his head and gave the salesman the same all-purpose pressed-lipped frown as he did earlier to the unsuccessful party crashers.
The emcee — the old man in the purple-and-green jacket who, by day, was a board member of several public companies — walked on stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the emcee announced. “Welcome to our Seventeenth Annual Street Bohemians Jamboree. Today we leave our competitive spirit outside. Today is not about deal-making and one-upmanship, but about art and fun and camaraderie. This is our annual cleansing, a truce. We gather here to take a lighthearted dig at ourselves and at our daily battles, indecipherable as they are, to which we shall return tomorrow.”
There was a limp round of applause.
“As the rules say, all the phones inside this room should be turned off and no recording or photography is allowed. Your compliance is mandatory and those who disobey will be asked to leave. But enough with the formalities.”
The emcee spanned his arms and gazed at the room with a wide, wily smile.
“Look at this crowd. If anyone from outside stumbled in here they’d think we’re a bunch of fags. Excuse me, L-G-B-T-Q.”
A mischievous laughter rolled over the room.
“And we’d rather keep it that way!” A man in a mullet wig and a mesh top shouted from the audience.
“A-ha,” the emcee pointed the finger at the wigged man. “I see what you’re trying to do here. You want to be a persecuted minority.”
There was satisfied laughter again.
“And since we’re on topic, what did the caddy say when a foursome landed their balls really close together?” The emcee paused and darted his eyes left and right as the audience held their breath for a risqué punchline. “I haven’t seen four balls that close together since Brokeback Mountain.”
‘Ba-dum-tiss,’ a drum from the deep end of the stage impressed on the resolution.
“Ahh, I kid the gays. They’re nice people. Nice neighbors.”
Andy scanned the room for his co-star, Zeke Klein. Klein wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Andy excused himself, stood up and made his way to the bar counter. He ordered a scotch on the rocks and sipped it as he watched the first sketch of the evening.
Currently, the room darkened, and an Elvis impersonator, the head of macro strategy at a large bond fund, came onstage. His thickly gelled bouffant, his sequin jacket, and his white silk embroidered cape glistened under the projector lights. He assumed a wide-legged stance and glided his palm over his left temple. An instrumental part of ‘I’m All Shook Up’ came up on the speakers. The macro strategist jerked his knees to the tune’s rhythm in a signature move, and began to sing. The things that made this Elvis all shook up were: ‘Bernanke put,’ ‘running presses,’ and ‘bond market liquidity.’
His voice was deep and rich, and his timbre bright and playful. As he concluded the song, encouraging everyone present to ‘go coach a Little League,’ he turned on his heels and his cape swirled along behind him. He pointed at the ceiling, kissed his bejeweled finger, then lunged his left leg forward in a sturdy karate stand and spun his right arm.
“Thank you. Thank you very much,” the macro-Elvis muttered in baritone.
“What a voice. What a talent,” the emcee hailed, clapping his hands. “And we are a talented bunch. I often think about what we could’ve accomplished if we didn’t have to do what we do. What we could’ve been. Imagine the kind of songs or books we could’ve written if we didn’t have to watch Fed Chairman’s every move. In my youth I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. But I became a salesman instead. I rue that day.”
He sighed theatrically.
“This is our cross to bear. We will live and die by complexity.”
A raffle vendor holding a glass jar filled with paper tags stopped by Andy.
“Would you like to participate in the raffle, sir?” the vendor asked. “Part of the proceeds go to the children’s cancer fund.”
“Sure,” Andy said after a brief hesitation.
He bought five tickets, paying two-hundred and fifty dollars. The raffle vendor tore five small tickets with numbers from the roll he wore on a string around his neck and gave them to Andy.
Andy came back to his table. A waiter put a plate of roasted chicken breast and a side of steamed broccolini in front of him. Andy took a bite then put down his fork. He wasn’t hungry. Subtly, under the tablecloth, he checked his phone for a message from Klein. Klein didn’t respond to his last three texts, and Andy was beginning to worry.
Meanwhile, Andy’s old friend Doug Caldera, clad in a white shirt, black trousers, a thin black tie, with a black fedora on his head and black Ray Ban sunglasses, cartwheeled onto the stage. “I’m a soul man, I’m a soul man,” he bawled for the first two beats, kicking his legs forward in fast succession, like a dancer from the Red Army dance ensemble, and then broke into a potpourri of well-known tunes laden with his own, impenetrable to a layman, lyrics. He sang about yield drought, and hidden value, and cash on the sidelines, and people worrying about bond market liquidity — a puzzling set of sentiments to put in a song by the standards of any other spectator, but flattering and funny for the present crowd. The majority of the people here came to their current station through the trenches, through the low-ceilinged, loud, crowded, anarchic trading floors, their worldview was shaped by heuristics and not rules, and Caldera’s bluster was a fitting homage to their combative, maverick spirit.
Andy knew Doug Caldera for more than thirty years. They met in college, at the University of Buffalo, then parted ways when Andy went to Wharton Business School and Caldera — to a second-tier law school in the Midwest, then reconnected back in New York, while forging their paths in the corporate world. Unlike Andy’s steep rise, Caldera’s professional start, in a small no-name law firm, was slow and unremarkable, but due to his blowtorch flame energy and what he called an ability to feel the terrain, he worked his way up to an opaque but prolific capacity at a large activist fund. His business card title said legal counsel, but, depending on his mood and the audience, he called himself a bankruptcy lawyer, a recovery specialist, or a lobbyist. Caldera’s firm managed a smorgasbord of conventional and esoteric assets ranging from corporate bonds to holdings in private prisons, vineyards and wine collections, a portfolio of hospitals, and a disaster recovery operation.
Normally, Caldera’s stage specialty at these annual gatherings was renditions of beloved industry tropes — random scenes from Scorsese or Coppola movies. Last year, he and a group of rowdy traders did a pun-filled interpretation of the ‘How am I funny?’ bit from Goodfellas. A year prior to that they did an iconic final scene from Apocalypse Now, where Caldera played Colonel Kurtz and an M&A lawyer played Captain Willard, with combat face paint and all, and they altered the haunting final dialogue to sound like they were talking about leveraged buy-outs and not about the horrors that lurk beneath the thin veneer of civilization, and the clever, culturally aware spectators connected the two sentiments with knowing, grieving laughter. Recently Caldera complained to Andy that he was running out of material. “I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point,” he said. Now, looking at his friend, immersed in verbal and physical acrobatics, Andy admired his bottomless versatility.
Andy’s phone rang, and, with a guilty smile, he muffled the device and quickly crouched out of the ballroom into the hallway. On the other line was Zeke Klein.
“Are you far?” Andy asked him, annoyed. “We have to be on stage in, like, twenty minutes.”
“I’m stuck in traffic on the FDR. You’ll have to improvise,” Klein said.
“Stuck on the FDR?” Andy exclaimed. “Like you didn’t know there would be traffic on FDR?”
“I’m sorry. I had to take care of something. I fucked up. I owe you one.”
“For sure,” Andy said tensely and hung up. He looked around the empty lobby. “Fuck.”
Back in the ballroom Caldera, now with a bandanna on his head, was finishing his act. He clasped the mic stand and swayed left and right and engaged with the audience in a spirited call-and-recall. “All we need is just a little patience,” he crooned. “Yeah-yeah-yeah,” the giddy crowd replied, aware that the ‘patience’ in the current context referred not to a love interest but to the bonds bought at a fire sale.
When Caldera finished and left the stage, Andy picked up his gym bag and tuxedo and went to the bathroom. The bathroom of the five-star hotel featured a furnished foyer with an upholstered sofa, fresh flowers, and a male attendant in a burgundy uniform. A large mirror in a golden frame hung on the wall. The attendant acknowledged Andy with a ‘sir’ and offered to take his bag. Andy handed him the tuxedo and asked him to hold on to it.
He put the bag on the sofa. A toilet flushed, and Caldera, red-faced and rubbing his nose, walked out of the stall. The attendant hurried to extend to Caldera a folded linen hand towel. Caldera washed and wiped his hands and returned the used towel back to the attendant who tossed it into the weaved basket in the corner.
“Feature request!” Caldera exclaimed, raising his index fingers. “A standing cock bidet. It’s high time we had an elegant way to wash the cock and the balls while standing without taking a full shower.”
“I’ll relay it to the management, sir,” the attendant said. Caldera put a five-dollar bill in a tip bowl on top of a marble side table.
“You gained a few pounds,” Caldera said to Andy. “You want a bump?”
Andy glanced at the clock then at Caldera. Caldera was already high, his pupils dilated either from the drugs or from his performance.
“I gotta ask you for a favor,” Andy said. “Klein can’t make it here on time. You can totally do his part.”
“It’s a non-speaking part. All you have to do is chase a guy around the stage for, like, two minutes. That’s all,” Andy said. “I have all of your props here. You’ll dress as a sea captain.”
Andy unzipped his gym bag and took out a fake white beard, a blue captain’s coat with golden buttons, a white yachting cap more suitable for a leisure cruise than for an epic sea adventure, and a wooden prosthetic leg fashioned out of an old chair with leather latches that wrapped around one’s knee.
Caldera looked at the props.
“Arrr. I’m game,” he said. “What’s the scene about?”
“It’s called Hunting for Alpha. Hoffman is the whale. And you’ll be the captain.”
“You mean like Moby Dick?”
“You got it!”
“Are you kidding me?” Caldera yelled. “Me as Ahab? That’s awesome. And who is the whale?”
“Hoffman from Rockbridge?” Caldera’s eyes lit up.
“You’re kidding! I wanted to get that schmuck for a long time.”
“Hold on. Is there a beef between you two?”
“Long story. I’ll tell you later.”
Andy sighed and rubbed his forehead with his palm.
“Okay. You have to be extremely gentle. Hoffman specifically wanted a fellow member of the tribe out there. Said he didn’t want to be roughed up by a goy. I had to beg Klein to do the part.”
“He’s in for a big surprise now!” Caldera said.
“No.” Andy held up his hands. “Just chase him a bit, but don’t catch him. You’re not supposed to catch him. That’s the whole point.”
“That’s a big ask. But I will do my best,” Caldera said, grinning.
He fastened the prosthetic leg to his knee and leaned on it, balancing.
“And, uh, who are you?” he asked. “Ishmael?”
In the ballroom the emcee came out on stage.
“Our next performance is called ‘The Hunt for Alpha,’” he declared with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “We can all relate to that.”
The lights dimmed. A man in a whale costume glided onto the stage. It was Hoffman, a hedge fund manager from Greenwich. Hoffman’s bespectacled face showed through the oval-shaped cutout right underneath the whale’s painted mouth. His arms were lodged into the mesh fins, and his skinny legs, clad in black leggings, stuck out from the hole at the bottom of the grey rubbery cocoon. The audience welcomed him with sporadic cackles loaded with anticipation.
Hoffman The Whale was accompanied on the stage by a guitar man who was dressed in a black silk shirt and black bell bottom pants embroidered with a colorful pattern that coiled from his hips to his ankles. For the first few seconds the guitarist played a standard blues progression, but then quickly veered into a dark and heavy riff. This new foreboding refrain — the effect of a special Dropped D tuning that graduates a listener from merely being entertained into being enthralled — now oscillated between high and low octaves in a stirring arpeggio, prompting some in the audience to cut their conversations and redirect their attention to the stage, where Hoffman bounced around in a structureless, wanton interpretative dance. As the riff progressed, it bulldozed over the remaining table chatter until all the lingering conversations stopped mid-sentence, and some men, recognizing the iconic Moby Dick intro, began to slide their fingers along their invisible guitars, their faces strained with fake agony. By this point even the few women in the room became quiet.
Hoffman shook and flapped his fins, and did a series of bizarre shimmies and twirls, and made clumsy attempts at both a Moonwalk and Riverdance — so far as the bulky costume allowed — for about a minute. The mysterious guitarist finished the rousing opening and bowed out from the stage, and the light beam shined onto a drummer who was quietly waiting his turn in the shadows.
Behind the imposing drum set sat Andy. He wore a red tank top and a black bowler hat. His bare arms looked soft and pasty, deliciously deceptive of the hidden potential, just like the arms of his idol Bonzo, the greatest drummer of all times. For greater effect, between his teeth he squeezed a lit cigarette. Now he brushed the cymbals and, with a few delicate taps, established the rhythm. The drums responded with an uneven but distinct tempo, like the first, shy drops of a summer rain on a tight tent top. The drum solo — a masterpiece impervious to imitation — was prerecorded, but Andy hoped that he could fool enough people in the audience into believing he was for real. For the last two months he had been practicing synchronizing his moves — the speed, the intensity, the triplet licks — to the original Led Zeppelin classic. He memorized it all to an impressive accuracy.
Caldera, in full captain gear and with a demented grimace, careened onto the stage on a wooden stump tied to his bent left knee. Hoffman interrupted his pas de chat and squinted at Caldera to briefly reassess the situation and recalibrate the strategy. Caldera used the pause to ram Hoffman in the stomach with his head, but Hoffman dodged the frontal assault with a deft pivot to the right. Caldera, however, was able to grab Hoffman’s fin and tear it off, which, he quickly realized, was a tactical mistake for this move liberated Hoffman’s arm. Without wasting any time Hoffman grasped at Caldera’s prosthetic leg and pulled it towards himself. The leg came undone, and Caldera lost his balance, falling backwards. Hoffman seized on it, straddling Caldera, and pounding him with the stump.
The smoldering cigarette in Andy’s mouth burned half-way and began to scald his lips. He waited for a brief slowdown, around two minutes into the instrumental, when the taps became more discrete, and spat the butt out, just as the solo was about to gather speed for the final buildup.
“Sylvain, you fuck!” Hoffman screamed and jumped off the stage into the audience. He zigzagged between the tables, pulling at tablecloths, leaving broken plates and glasses in his wake, and Caldera followed him. Caldera had maneuverability, but Hoffman’s costume made him impenetrable, and he had a weapon, the stump, in his hand, which he deployed every time Caldera came near.
Andy’s raindrops became a downpour and then a monstrous thunderstorm. He was now on the upswing, headbanging, pounding the drums with primeval gusto. The bowler hat flew off his head. The sweat shone on his face, and his jaw slacked in ecstatic abandon. His eyes were closed, and his hands moved without effort, on pure muscle memory. The signature triplets — right hand, left hand, foot, snare drum, snare drum, bass drum — gained in velocity and rolled off like rapid fire from a machinegun.
For a millisecond he felt as if he were floating, suspended in the air, like a particle in superposition, defying gravity and noise. He saw himself in slow motion, with beads of sweat flying off the tips of his hair and stopping in midair, sparkling under the projector lights. He wished at that moment that filming were allowed in the room, that there would be a record of him in this glorious, magical state.
The crescendo was nigh.
Hoffman now ran back towards the stage, hopped on a chair, then on a table, spilling wine glasses and stepping on plates. Under his weight the table careened. Hoffman let out a high-pitched yell as he leaped from the table onto the stage, landing on the drum set, crushing it. He dislodged Andy from his seat, and pinned him to the floor. Caldera, not far behind, piled on them both.
The drum solo continued on its own, now approaching its dramatic climax. Caldera and Hoffman wrestled on top of Andy, as he struggled to liberate himself from under their weight, shielding his head from their jabs and blows. He smelled smoke and saw that the curtain near him had caught fire. “Fire, you idiots! We’re on fire!” he screamed, but Caldera and Hoffman ignored his pleas.
“Move!” Andy heard a cry above him. A stocky man, a janitor with a fire extinguisher jumped on stage. The right flank’s curtain was ablaze, and the janitor released a foamy torrent from the red canister. He sprayed the foam all over the curtains, the stage, and the wriggling heap of bodies, until his canister was empty. He was thorough and doubly successful in his task, putting down the fire and breaking up the fight. Andy, Caldera, and Hoffman sat on the floor, coughing, wiping their faces, shaking off the foam.
The black-clad guitarist, unfazed by the calamity, reappeared on the trashed stage. His spidery fingers ran over the guitar’s neck in a D-major arpeggio, bending the strings with an aural flourish, and he closed the act by ripping the farewell three-chord send-off — the E, the C, and the cathartic A.
The emcee walked onto the stage and stood, silently observing the wreckage, for about a minute, in the pose of a lost, confused man, his arms apart, palms facing upwards.
“Moby Dick seeks thee not,” he finally said with a theatrical diction. “It is thou, thou that madly seekest him.”
A crew of firefighters poured in, only to witness the aftermath, and the partygoers began to stumble out from the ballroom into the lobby. The raffles man stood by the doors and shouted the winning numbers. Andy, still breathing heavily, his face flushed, stopped and checked his ticket. The numbers matched.
“Here!” Andy raised his hand.
The raffles man verified Andy’s ticket and handed him a sealed envelope.
“What did you win?” Caldera asked. “Let’s see.”
Andy unsealed the envelope. Inside there was a voucher for a three-day stay at a high-end meditation resort in New Mexico.
“Seriously?” Andy scoffed.
“I’ll take it if you don’t want it,” Caldera said, reaching out for the voucher.
“Fuck, no!” Andy held his hand high. “Lauren might want it. It’s her kind of thing.”
Outside the hotel, on the sidewalk, some partygoers demanded the continuation of the festivities and were ushered either by hotel personnel or by their more sober friends into the awaiting town cars and limos.
“Next year I’m sneaking a camera in here,” Caldera said as they stood outside hailing taxis. “The world needs to see this beauty.”
“After today we won’t be able to rent any ballroom in Manhattan,” Andy said.
“The Grand Prospect Hall will take us,” Caldera replied.
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