When Wall Street Hit Home

I found little pleasure reading the headline news announcing the bank I had worked for had failed. Before I resigned due to my husband’s job transfer, I was extremely depressed going to work each day. I still recall the evening news reporting the country’s outrage over Wall Street bankers raking in billions in bonuses. As Goldman Sach’s executives received nine million dollars and AIG bonuses hit the million dollar mark, I sat in dead silence as employees in our mortgage department read their email saying there would be no raise or bonuses this year. Salaries were being cut. I couldn’t wait to leave.

On my last day of work, leaving the building was surreal. I felt like I was walking down death row passing other inmates on my way to an execution. Sadly, most of the cubes were empty. Amid the hum of computers, occasional flutter of files, rattling of papers, it was the sound of quiet that overwhelmed me the most as I strolled through aisles that used to be packed with employees.  Hit hard by the economic downturn, the remaining shell of a company barely resembled the vibrant business that existed a few short years before. Prior to the recession, you couldn’t navigate the cubicle maze without bumping into someone sprinting to answer an important call or snatch a fax from the machine to make sure it didn’t get buried. Phones rang off their hooks as brokers, bankers, lawyers, appraisers, demanded immediate attention. Keeping the process going, we helped turn the dream of home ownership into a reality. We financed the deal. We were heroes!

No longer offering subprime loans, zero down mortgages, no income verification options; business was down, way down. The fax machines, with their empty trays, sat silent. Broken chairs filled the barren cubes. On my last day I was happy my new manager, who I hadn’t even met yet, was out to lunch as I placed my key card on his desk and slipped out the back door without being noticed. I couldn’t face anyone. At the time I didn’t know which group was worse off, the employees that were let go, with severance and unemployment insurance, or those few remaining souls left to do quadruple the work on less pay.

Although no advance notice is given to the public when a financial institution is being closed, employees saw the writing on the wall. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before it became a reality. Before I resigned it was depressing for the few remaining employees to walk through the corridors. Once humming with the symphony of voices, phones and faxes, entire blocks of cubicles had become dark, serving as mere repositories for boxes. Those select workers devoted more time to shredding files than servicing loans. Despair reigned as desks were cleared and computers where carted away. Often the only evidence of human existence was the occasional crumbled post it note or dusty coin stuck under a worn out fabric divider.

Reading the newspaper article about the bank’s foreclosure, I tried to imagine how the takeover played out. Picturing Michael Douglas as “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko, (I just like to picture Michael Douglas), a bank failing due to greed and corruption was probably not that far off.  Headlines always point out how banks pray on our basic desire to buy more than we can afford. I was remembering how I felt some people should take responsibility for their situation. I saw customers wanting a bigger house, a newer car, even when they were maxed out with bills. Customers used their credit cards to shop, not paying attention to their total balance. Those making only minimum payments didn’t realize that the spontaneous dinner they charged at Red Lobster would never be paid off. But why worry? The envelope next to that credit card bill is for another credit card charging no interest at all for six months! Such a deal! We can charge that 50” flat screen TV. We can buy that new car. Why wait? That house we thought we couldn’t afford? The nice salesman says we can! And not with 20% down. Not with 10% down. Still, today, amid the financial crisis, we can still buy a house for 3% down! What happens when the value of that house drops? What happens when that homeowner loses his job and can’t pay his mortgage?

Today, more people are out of work. Those no longer collecting unemployment insurance are not even counted in the national figures. Banks are charging more fees. Housing is down. People need jobs. Nevertheless I’m still getting inundated with credit card offers in the mail. I can charge more, buy more. I can refinance my mortgage. And, if I’m really lucky, I might have inherited some money from a Nigerian Prince.

My question is: why does Wall Street have so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it? Every time I see the stock market decline I picture the movie Trading Places. I’m sure the real life Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy character stock manipulators are deliberately letting the stock prices drop so they can buy cheap when it hits rock bottom. While the retired are losing their homes, the wealthy “professionals” are profiting from an artificially volatile market.

And what about those job creators? Why haven’t they created jobs with all their money? If I had an extra $20,000 to throw around I’d add a deck on my house. That would create a few jobs.

I’d like suggestions for what can we do to make a difference. What can I do? What about if all those protestors each bought a sandwich from a small vendor?

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