June 13, 1979
Copyright 1998 by Richard Loller
Photo of the author by Sid Doris. Used by permission.
Everywhere I looked I saw rich dark woods and brass that glowed like gold. Large wooden desks stretched back to the tall windows overlooking the Cumberland River and the East Nashville industrial jumble beyond. There was a low hum of voices. Men in white shirts talked into black telephone receivers, their eyes on green screens. Typewriters clacked among the voices. Women typed or walked among the desks, papers in their hands. A wall of glass rose to the ceiling on the left. A chest high counter ran its length. There was a brightly lit room behind the glass. Two women were inside. One wore a headset. The other was writing. A man in a vest walked to the counter. He pushed a green and yellow piece of paper to the girl with the headset. “Here, Bozo, take your copy,” she said, tearing off the yellow sheet. She began to type, her jaw working strongly over gum. She finished typing and whisked the green paper up. Her fingernails were bright red. She impaled the green paper on a spike. She looked up at me and winked. I looked away.
I was sitting on a green leather couch at the Dean Witter Reynolds office in the First American Bank building. The phone rang constantly. I had tried to read a Forbes magazine but I couldn’t concentrate. A tall silver-haired man stopped by the receptionist’s desk. “Out to lunch. About an hour. I’m working on Dr. Frist’s bonds if he calls.” He nodded to me. “How are you, sir?” he said, and left.
The switchboard buzzed . “Yes sir.” The receptionist nodded to me. She was a plump redhead with a kind smile. "Go on back. You’ll see Becky."
I walked past her desk. A tanned woman was coming toward me. She smiled and her big crooked teeth made me feel better. You know how it is.
“Mr. Outland is tied up just now, so we’ll get some of the paperwork out of the way.”
The room seemed huge. I knew that the men talking on the phones were watching me without moving their heads or stopping their conversations. I tried to walk naturally. I looked at the back of Becky’s neck. The men had taken one look and dismissed me. The Brooks Brothers suit I had bought at the Ladies of Charity was wool. The men’s eyes had seen at once that it was too hot and too big. I felt sweat running down my side. Becky walked with a swish of her hips I wasn’t able to appreciate. We came to a tall door of rich dark wood. There was a glass covered conference table with twenty or thirty chairs. On the far wall were curtains of a thin white material that filtered the north light from the glass wall. We were twenty stories up, high enough to see over the Metro courthouse and the jail and the clutter of state office buildings that gave way to warehouses, bail bondsmen’s offices, wholesale produce companies, and lot after lot of parked cars. Further, beyond the Farmer’s Market, and then beyond Jefferson Street, was the run-down old neighborhood called Germantown, now mostly rental, mostly poor, mostly black, the houses in need of sweat and money.
“Just get comfortable. Would you like some coffee or a coke? No? Well, I’ll be around if you need anything.” She smiled again and left. This was the land of smiling women.
I loosened my tie, took off that damned coat, and sat down to the application papers. I was thirty-nine years old and I needed a job.
I had almost finished when I felt Becky’s hand on my shoulder. “Good , she said. “I brought you a coke. The next part is a 50 minute timed test.” I nodded. She gave my shoulder a little squeeze. “Don’t worry.”
I watched her skirt swish as she left. She was very nice. I read the directions. A standard multiple choice test. Becky returned with pencils and a Dean Witter Reynolds note pad. “Use the scratch pad and don’t mark on the test, except to fill in answers. All set?”
“I’d better visit the restroom.”
“Take a little tinkle first? Good idea.” She led me back past the red haired receptionist. “Just past the elevators. See you in the conference room.
I was staring at the tiles above the urinal when a short red-cheeked man settled in beside me. “You’re the new guy, huh? Don McBain. Like the shop? It stinks. Wait ‘til you meet Outland. I didn’t get your name.”
“Loller,” I said, “ Richard Loller. Sorry if I don’t shake hands.” He was on his way out. “I’m applying, not…”
“You’ll get hired. But watch your ass. That’s all I’ve got to say. Watch your ass.” The door ssssshhhut.
After Becky left me I worked slowly through the test and then began to rework the hard ones. I was still worrying a simultaneous equation involving Train A and Train B when Becky came in. “Time’s up. You’ll do great. Mr. Outland would like to see you.” She gathered up the papers and pencils and patted my shoulder. “You might want to leave your jacket off. No one wears them much in the office.” I grabbed the jacket and followed her. The test had been hard, especially the math. At least now it was over. If I passed I would probably get the job. The man in the restroom had said so.
We entered a large corner office. A chubby man in a gray vest stood up to shake hands. His little blue eyes flicked here and there, never stopping, taking me in and passing on. His hair was crew cut, a gray-blond color. He sat down and clasped his fingers across his chest. “Have a pew. Take the load off your feet.” I sat. “I understand you were a writer. You might be thinking that writing is a poor background for our business. But you might be wrong. Most people don’t know what a stockbroker does. Do you have any idea?”
“Actually, I was a book editor. Not really a writer. But no, I don’t know anything about this business. I think maybe you decide what people should buy? You analyze a stock and then recommend it?”
“Ha! That’s right. That’s what everybody thinks. We sit around studying the market and then we pick out a stock that will go up to the moon. Buy XYZ and wear diamonds. Ha! Well, that is not what we do. We sell. We are nothing but plain, ordinary, salesmen. Too many of the brokers in this office think they are analysts. There are others--I’m naming no names- who think they are financial consultants. Believe me, and you can put this in your pipe and smoke it, we are not paid to pick stocks or give advice. We are paid to sell. S. E. L. L. And if you can remember that simple fact you can make a lot of money. Did anyone tell you what this job pays?”
“No, sir. The ad only said the opportunity to earn was unlimited.”
“The trainee salary is $1200 a month plus bonuses for opening accounts, but after that you can make much more. In fact, if you aren’t making a great deal more than that after a year or so then you probably won’t be with us. The average broker in this office pulls down between $40,000 and $50,000. Some are making three or four times as much. What do they pay book editors?”
“I was making $17,300 when I got fired. I put that on the application.”
“You worked for the Methodists for how long? 13 years? Yes. So. Why’d they fire you?”
“My new boss said I wasn’t evangelical enough. I’m suing them. That’s on the application too.”
“Well, as for suing them, that’s your business. And as for not being evangelical enough, well, we don’t have much use for that particular talent. And as for the money, I can safely promise that you’ll make more than $17,000 your first year if you stick. I say “if” because you have to pick up the phone and call someone you don’t know and try to sell him something he doesn’t know he wants. For every 100 people you call you may find five prospects. For every five prospects you find you may open one or two accounts. Most accounts aren’t opened until the fifth call. Most brokers stop trying after the third call. It’s a numbers game. It’s tough. Is that what you thought?”
“No sir. But I can do it. I want to try.”
“Good. But we have to see if you passed the test. That takes a week. They grade it in Chicago. Regional headquarters. Then, if you pass that, you’ll come back in with your wife so we can answer her questions. She has to know what the job requires. Why you don’t get in until after ten at night. Why you’re down here every weekend. Then you go to Chicago and interview with the regional manager. Don't worry. If I want you he'll approve the hire. Finally, you’ll start with a training class, probably not until August. You study here in the office for three months to pass the Series 7. You go to Atlanta to take it. That’s the big four hour SEC test you have to pass to get your license. If you do you’ll go to New York for sales training and product orientation. That takes about four weeks. Finally, you get back to the branch and begin smiling and “Dialing for Dollars.” He chuckled.
“Right. But Mr. Outland...”
“Call me Bill. Do you go by Richard or Dick?”
“Richard. But tell me, do you think I can do it? Become a stockbroker? I’ve never sold anything except magazines when I was a Boy Scout. And to be honest, I wasn’t any good at that.”
“Hell! Nobody can tell who can do it or who can’t. If you pass the Series 7 we’ll give you a phone and the yellow pages. Then we’ll both find out.” His telephone rang.
“Yes? All right, ask him to hold.” He stood up and held out his plump hand. His eyes darted to my jacket on the chair. I had casually draped it so the Brooks Brothers label showed.
He picked up the phone. “Hello? Mr. Wallace, sir? Good of you to return my call...”
He put his palm over the mouthpiece of the phone. “We’ll be calling next week. See Becky.”
“Well, sir . . . Mr. Outland . . . I . . . Thank you.”
He wasn’t listening. The phone was to his ear and he was frowning, his tiny eyes focused on a spot two feet above my head.
I left. I knew he had seen the Brooks Brothers label. I knew I would pass the written test. If these guys in their expensive clothes had passed the Series 7 then so could I. Hell, anybody could be a salesman. I could stop worrying. Money would be coming in. I’d have a job.
“See,” said Becky. “I told you it would be all right. Can you bring your wife in, say, same time next week?”
“Sure. That’s fine. Thanks.” I gave
her the biggest smile I’d smiled in months. I laughed out loud
as I waited for the elevator. A banker waiting beside me frowned and
looked away. I laughed again. I had just remembered. It was June 13,
my son’s birthday. He was going to become a teenager and I was
going to become a stockbroker.
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