A Puerile Little Magazine
(Named RALPH)Dear RALPH:
I have been reading RALPH since its inception. Or should I say, "Since the literary D&C that some people would call a birth."
Wouldn't it be worthwhile for you and your writers to do something constructive now and again besides beat on America, Americans, and American publishing?
My definition of your magazine is "peculiar." Or would you prefer "puerile?"
I hope you are smart enough to figure out what it means. It rhymes with "phew."
Meanwhile think about getting a life. Or, even better, a job.--- A. A. Leventhal
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Daily Life in the
World Trade CenterIn a recent issue, "The London Review of Books" invited their writers to comment on the events and consequences of 11 September 2001. Responses to those letters --- some quite vituperative --- have taken up a good portion of the 1 November issue. However, the one below describes what it was like to work in the World Trade Center before the terrorist attacks.I eagerly read your many contributors' responses to the recent terrorist attacks, but was struck by the lack of comment from anyone who had worked in the financial industry. Sukhdev Sandhu wrote that the Towers, lit up at night, were a glamorous beacon to visitors and residents alike. He had clearly never worked in them till midnight.
Wall Street always felt like a war zone to me. The huge, monolithic buildings. The dearth of sunlight, the vast barren stretches of concrete and, above all, the giantscale money culture. It was a far cry from my liberal arts degree, the left-wing weeklies and glossy literary magazines I wanted to work for, the ones that were so progressive they couldn't pay junior people anything at all, with the result that only the sons and daughters of the wealthy could afford to hone their skills there. I needed cash, and so I went where the money was.
Like the Army, Wall Street will take anyone. They don't care what school you went to, or who your father was. They will find you a job. I quickly discovered a sense of camaraderie, of opportunity --- if not quite equal opportunity --- lacking in more prestigious academic and creative fields. But civil rights are abridged in the war zone. There is no racial profiling. Everyone gets fingerprinted, drug-tested, hooked up to wires and interrogated when they are hired, and at random intervals thereafter. Criminal intention is assumed. There are questionnaires pages long about personal habits, violations of drug and securities laws. Only indicted, but never convicted? Indicted more than three times?
The first Wall Street company I worked for, in the mid-1980s, was a huge, mysterious international conglomerate, its ranks filled with ex-Army men, 'spooks' from the CIA and the FBI. We did business with 'bad' countries --- Chile, Yugoslavia and Arab nations I'd never heard of before. When I told people this --- people who worked for left-wing weeklies, in academia, on literary magazines --- they said it was impossible: you can't do business with countries the US Government doesn't recognize. You can. We heard strange stories we didn't know whether to believe: involvement in Third World coups, sex tours in Thailand. A secret company chart showed over four hundred subsidiaries. It was said that the company's structure was kept deliberately complicated so no one could tell how much money it actually made.
The company was a fortress, its buildings a self-contained world, with a lower concourse full of shops and services, its own bars and restaurants, and high up in the tower, a private dining-room in which the company chief, in whose presence you swiftly understood the seductive charisma of history's great dictators, showcased photographs of himself with then President Reagan and the Chinese Premier. The other executives --- many of whom had landed at Okinawa and Normandy --- were so afraid of him that when he entered a room they would melt away as if a smoke bomb had landed in their midst. At meetings, they couldn't even laugh at his jokes.
No one I knew who worked in journalism, or in publishing, or at left-wing weeklies, had heard of this company. In fact, if you told most people in my circle that you worked on Wall Street, they'd look at you as if you were suddenly speaking a foreign language, or had told them you were a Nazi sympathizer. Wall Street gave me my first inkling that there was another point of view. A Chilean executive explained, quite convincingly, why his country's dictatorship was preferable to Castro's Cuba, which he had been driven out of as a child. An intern in my department, the daughter of a Middle Eastern executive, told me what it was like to grow up sleeping in the hallway every night, a pillow over her head, to avoid the sound of mortar shells showering her native Beirut, and to see her beautiful city destroyed, building by building, before her 20th birthday.
I liked working for the international company, but left for mercenary reasons. The second Wall Street company I worked for put itself up for sale the day I was hired. Five thousand people, it announced, would be laid off after Christmas. The acquiring company would look each of us over, and decide who would stay and who would go. Though we knew we would probably be fired, we worked till midnight at a downtown printing press to get our company newsletter out on time. One of my co-workers was a 23-year-old, seven months pregnant with twins. "Maria's a real trooper," our boss said, because she could have got her doctor to send her on maternity leave at six months.
I remember eating with her in the cavernous Orwellian cafeteria in Two World Trade Center, at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve. She was so ill I had to fetch her food, and looked so dreadful that I couldn't swallow my own. It was my last night with the company. I remember looking at Maria and thinking: this is no place for women. We got our newsletter out, and before dawn my co-worker gave birth to her twins, both dangerously underweight. She was so ill she doesn't remember any of this, or anything that happened over the next two days.
My next Wall Street job made me sick. I left when Anita Hill was hitting the scene, and in lieu of filing a lawsuit, took a little hush money. Before they'd give it to me they made me sign a piece of paper swearing never to tell what happened. The job wasn't all bad, though. During the Gulf War, my co-workers, Vietnam Vets all, would cluster in my office to listen to Desert Storm on my transistor, whose use was otherwise restricted to hourly stock market updates. They recalled their own battles, glory days or otherwise, and discussed artillery specifications and the pros and cons of various jet bombers. At our company, the enemy was internal --- surprise attacks from above, a side-effect of the prolonged bear market. When I was forced out my male colleagues considered me lucky: they were equally abused, cardiac disease was sweeping the building. But no one was accountable for their harassment, there was no legal classification, or protection. It was just business as usual.
When I left the third company, I swore I would never go downtown again. I felt like a wounded veteran, exempt from future service. This is how I always explain myself to people: when I was young, I ruined my health working on Wall Street. It was my own fault. I should have evaded the draft, I should never have gone down there.
There's a reason people avoid places like that. People who've worked there understand. They know about the 11-hour days, the 70-hour weeks, the two weeks' holiday a year. It takes a certain kind of person to stick out those conditions: people unafraid of risk or sacrifice in the name of company, capitalism, the American dream. I wasn't one of them. What I do know is that everyone in the World Trade Center, hard at work at 8.30 a.m., was already a warrior, long before any planes hit.--- Christina Gombar