Photo Art by Michael Dooley
You want to know if you can trust the person trying to sell you life insurance or mutual funds to protect your financial future, don't you? Just dying to find out what happens after you sign that stack of disclosures and write the check, aren't you?
Well, I'm here to tell you, it's exactly what you thought.
I'm a financial planner.
Okay, today was actually my first day as a financial planner.
My cubicle at my new job had two desks, each pushed against the gray and black flecked end walls. I had a prime view, if I was sitting at my desk and swiveled to the right, of the latest in high speed copiers. The only difference between my cubicle and the tiny college dorm room I'd lived in during freshman year was its level of cleanliness, and air conditioning so cold I thought frostbite was going to set in.
After positioning my engraved name plate on my desk, I laid my monogrammed pewter letter-opener atop the brand-new Italian calfskin desk pad my mother had given me. Stuck my lapis lazuli-clad fountain pens in their sleek modern holders. Placed my signed copy of The Way To Success to the right of the phone on my desk.
I was now officially a member of corporate America.
"Hi. My name is Humphrey." The inhabitant of the adjoining cubicle, Humphrey was all spit and polish, his back straight, his arms at his side, his hair cut in the familiar high and tight style favored by military men. "Just getting settled in, eh?"
By the time I swiveled my chair back around, my cubemate had arrived. He was leaning over his desk, filling in the bubbles on a Lotto slip. He had honey brown skin and eyes like Hattie McDaniel. His fraying shirt cuffs were unbuttoned. His tie hung loosely around the open neck of his shirt. During the few moments he'd been here, our space was already starting to smell—had he eaten ham hocks for breakfast? His name was Octavius Odum. I nicknamed him Double-O Soul.
I heard the voice of Will Churnam as he headed down the row of cubicles towards the one Double-O Soul and I shared, his exuberant exhortations reminiscent of a Marine drill sergeant rallying his troops for battle as the nervous patter of his feet edged closer and closer to us. Our Regional Manager, Churnam might have measured five and half feet tall if he stood on a phonebook. We could hear him get closer and closer, then his bald head appeared, followed by the rest of his compact torso. The heavy starch in his white shirt billowed its stiff placket out over his narrow chest as if it were the leading edge of a mainsail. Double-O Soul and I both swiveled our chairs towards Churnam.
"Mr. Odum," he said, "how nice of you to join us. Our scheduled work hours are 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Please plan accordingly."
Double-O Soul's head reared back a little as his chin dropped, and the luminous brown pupils of his eyes seemed to harden, the same way Hattie McDaniel's eyes did in Gone With The Wind whenever Miss Scarlet gave Mammy an order.
Churnam retreated. "Glad to see you here this morning, guys," he said, winking at me as he edged towards the end of the corridor. "Orientation's at 9:30."
From what I could see, I was better dressed than the boss, in a charcoal Hickey Freeman suit I'd paired with an Alan Flusser tie. I only wore old money colors, crafted from double thick wool or sea island cotton, and planned to break out the custom-made French cuff shirts I'd received from my father as a graduation gift on Fridays.
"Work together," Churnam had intoned later during orientation, amid the darkness of the training room. "Learn to count on each other." He clicked the remote control for the slide projector, and a vivid green line corkscrewed over the cobalt blue pentagram of our corporate insignia towards the white dot at the emblem's center. "The Company's green spiral vortex is one of the most trusted symbols in financial services..." He instructed us to brandish it like a badge, insisting we start learning to rely on its strength and power. "You are to use it," he said, "as if it belongs to you."
Churnam assigned all of us trainees to senior planners. Double-O Soul and I were matched to the only two black planners in the office. Coincidence? But I didn't mind. I was paired with Benedict "Bennie" Gilmore. He looked like the kind of guy who could show me how to deal with the sophisticated people I had in my Prospect Pipeline. Double-O Soul had drawn Majestic Jennings, a squat pecan brown woman with gold framed granny glasses that were always dusty. She wore support hose with walking sandals and frumpy skirt suits. A faint scent, reminiscent of collard greens steeped in vinegar, colored the air whenever she passed through the office. Ham hocks? Collard greens? She and Double-O Soul belonged together.
Churnam marched down the aisles every morning, peeking into our cubicles, his egg-shaped pate still pink from its early morning shave. After the third day of looking down on Churnam's naked, scarred scalp, Double-O Soul gave him a suggestion. "Man, you need to rub your head down with cocoa butter before you go to bed. It'll take them nicks right out."
Why do I revere the image I project in these drab blue suits, you ask? Why does Double-O Soul participate in this charade? Why are the two of us willingly trading in our individuality for the image of our staid and sober Company? Would you choose working in the field over working in the house, if you had a choice?
Like a lot of graduates just out of college, I'd moved back in with my parents. They lived in their dream house on the south side of Atlanta. Our neighborhood had the usual doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and even a real Indian chief. My father called him "Chief Double Dip" because he'd made a small fortune with minority set aside contracts. He often marveled at the dual nature of the chief's identity. "He can either be black, or he can be Indian."
"But he's always going to be ugly." My mother, on the other hand, was prone to focus on appearances. "It's really who you know and how you look" was her mantra.
I was proud of them. My mother had turned a part-time job with a local foundation into a senior donor development position. She spent her evenings hobnobbing with Atlanta's rich and powerful, trying to get them to make larger contributions to the foundation. My father was famous for frowning murderously at the camera on CNBC whenever he wasn't pontificating about the currency trading opportunities to be found in Brazilian real futures. Twitter users had nicknamed him the "Angry Economist" after his first visit. Now he's a regular guest contributor on MSNBC's MarketWatch, complete with his own fan club of hostile statistics geeks.
My father also did consulting work for corporations and governments between research projects at the think tank where he hung his shingle between his stints on TV. These two made Cliff and Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show look like slackers.
One night at dinner I asked my parents if they would volunteer to be my first planning clients. "I'm allowed to offer two free financial plans to family members. I'm sure you guys have all this stuff covered, but it'll be a way for you to see what I do."
The Angry Economist glared over his glasses as if he were trying to stab me with his eyeballs. "There are 8,000 mutual funds chartered in the United States. Your Company only allows you to recommend the 43 mutual funds they sponsor. No thank you."
"How do you know this?"
"Son, true financial planning is a discipline. A process. The Company you work for does neither. It's really just a marketing company." My father got up from the kitchen table, walked into the den, and plopped down in his favorite chair. "By the way—what exactly do you do at this place?"
"I'm a financial planner."
"I know that. What I want to know is what you do all day."
"Well," I said, trying to buy a little time. What did I do all day, other than sit in meetings and cold call people? "I ah... right now, we're ah... we're studying planning concepts."
"You've already got clients?"
"No... not exactly. Right now I'm prospecting."
The leather that had puffed itself out behind my father's back went whoosh as he settled back into his chair. His eyes pointed towards the ceiling. "I take it you're probably calling people while they're eating dinner?"
"So you're a telemarketer."
"This part doesn't last for long, Dad. Once I get some clients, I'll start getting referrals. And I can hold seminars where I invite people to see what financial planning can do for them."
"Four years of college, and all you are is a god damned telemarketer!"
"I told you I don't have any clients yet."
"I still don't see why you can't buckle down and apply to graduate school like your brother. First you're selling shoes. Now this. Didn't I tell you that one college degree simply isn't enough for a young black man in America who wants to get ahead these days?"
The gilt-edged frames of my parent's college degrees had hung on the walls of the den so long, it felt like they came with the house. It wasn't until high school chemistry, when I learned a degree was a unit of measurement, that I began to get an understanding of what those pieces of paper really meant. My own college diploma was up there now, the parchment still white and virginal, the glass atop it so new it had never been cleaned.
Double-O Soul and I sat in the back of the training room for our first Shell Cracking seminar, a sales technique the Company had become famous for perfecting. "Everybody has a public boundary," said Churnam, "a distance at which they feel at ease when dealing with strangers. It hovers right in front of that shell that we all put up to protect ourselves from the unknown and the unwanted."
He took a break, sipping carefully from a cup of water, as if the paper cup might collapse if he held it too tight. "Friends," he continued, "are allowed to get much closer. Our research has shown if you can penetrate beyond this shell and position yourself at the inner edge of your prospect's comfort zone, which is found approximately 24 inches from a prospect's face, 78 percent of the time you'll leave a favorable impression."
Sharpening his eyes, Churnam rolled up his sleeves and looked at us the way a karate instructor looked at his students—all seeing, all knowing, a master amongst a sea of ineptitude. "I'm going to give all of you your first lesson today in how to crack a prospect's shell. It's a little bit different from breaking the ice between you and a stranger. You don't want to make a friend. You want to sign a new client. I suggest you take notes here, gentlemen."
In these Shell Cracking seminars, prospects were reduced to piles of money, anonymous cash flows we would somehow redirect to the gigantic Funnel located at the heart of our Company's operations. As financial planners, we were expected to hunt and gather cold hard assets, returning to our own tributary of the Funnel at the end of the day to present our spoils, our faces peering over its edge as we poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the abyss below.
Our in-home appointment spiel, better known as The Script, was 29 minutes of verbiage timed and syncopated down to our last utterance before we extended the application for the client's signature. The Script interjected the pauses after you introduced yourself, instructed you on whom to compliment first, and guided you, in minute detail, on how to summarize the shell cracking technique you were going to use on Mr. and Mrs. Prospect before you started gathering their personal information.
Roscoe Witherspoon and his wife were my first appointment. He and his wife Renatta lived in my neighborhood. Exterior footlights bathed their white brick two story home in lights. I parked in the wide, stately drive beside their his and hers Mercedes. Benedict, who pulled up behind me, seemed to be suitably impressed. The sound of a waterfall in the courtyard soothed my nerves, frazzled from a marathon cold calling session earlier in the day.
Mr. Witherspoon opened the front door and led Bennie and I through a two-story foyer into a sumptuously appointed living room. It had deep pile carpeting, a large flat screen TV, and a complicated looking stereo system with an unpronounceable name. Benedict and I were about to sit on the couch when Roscoe's wife Renatta traipsed in from the kitchen to ask if we wanted something to eat.
"But I've got all this leftover shrimp from dinner," she said.
"I don't eat seafood, Mrs. Witherspoon," I said.
Benedict took a different tack. "I'll try one." He shook his head as he swallowed, his eyes flashing at Mrs. Witherspoon. "Somebody knows what they're doing in the kitchen."
Mr. Witherspoon went through the mandatory diatribe about how long he had known my family. I started to segue into The Script, before I felt Bennie's foot tapping against mine. I stopped talking and sipped some Perrier while Mrs. Witherspoon made herself comfortable in the oversized club chair across from us.
"We've got all our information right here," said Mr. Witherspoon, pointing towards their hand carved coffee table. Two stacks of statements were piled in the middle of the table, one at least an inch thick, one containing only a few items. I reached for the large stack. "Let's start with your assets."
"Oh, no. That's the other pile," said Roscoe.
By the time Benedict and I were finished adding and subtracting everything, our calculations showed the Witherspoon's net worth was negative $143,000. Their cash flow was also in the red, to the tune of $800 a month.
They were just happy we said we could help them. But there was no disposable income, no IRA rollovers, no nothing. Fifty-five years of living, thirty plus years of working, and... broke. Broke as hell.
After we packed up the Witherspoon's documents and their check, Benedict and I stood out in their driveway for a minute. "Always find a way to get to the wife. How hard would it have been to eat one shrimp?"
"I really don't eat seafood, Bennie."
"Anyway, you did good. To be honest with you, I never use that damn presentation. Too many questions. I just talk. If I'm still there an hour later, they're going to sign up."
"So you just wing it? What about the strategy you're going to propose?"
Benedict's eyes narrowed as he looked at me. "The thing about the Company's system—you don't have to know which products you're going to recommend until later in the game."
My oomph was gone when I got home. I fell across my bed to rest for a few minutes. It was after 10:00 PM when I woke up hungry and proceeded to trudge upstairs to get something to eat. I heard my father's voice carrying from the den just when I hit the landing outside the kitchen.
"...had his ass in every Talented and Gifted program. Summer enrichment camps. Graduate of an Ivy League college. And what does this boy do? He sells shoes!"
"Honey, he works in an office now."
"For how long? This isn't the first office job he's had. What about that job at the City? He lasted a month and a half. Then I get a buddy of mine to get him a job over at the College, and he leaves for lunch one day and doesn't go back. How long do you think he's going to last at this one? Two more weeks? Another month?"
I tiptoed back down the stairs, trying to recall how many peanuts were left in the bag I'd snacked on the night before.
In the office the next morning, I was mulling over the Witherspoon's predicament as I entered their information into the company's financial planning software when an email flashed across the screen. It said "Phone Report" at the top. It listed every call I'd made from my office phone the day before—time of call, length of call, phone number called. At the bottom of the list was my total number of calls—48—and my total talk time—33 minutes, 16 seconds. It had "Calls In" at the bottom. The two lonely souls who had dared to call me back were listed here.
I looked over at Double-O Soul's report. Twenty-two Calls Out. No Calls In.
"Good morning," said Churnam.
I could feel his hungry, beady eyes trained on the back of my head. I swiveled in my chair to face him. "Morning."
"Your partner's calls were a little light last night. He didn't run out of leads, did he?"
Just then Double-O swooped in, only five minutes late this morning, biscuit crumbs falling from his shirt, hair grease shining on his collar, a dab of toothpaste clinging to the corner of his mouth. "I didn't get through all of them last night."
Churnam's face crumpled. "What were you doing?"
"I visualized each caller," Double-O said as he shook the crumbs off his shirt. "First I went to my profile cheat sheet I created," he said, pointing out the four sheets pinned to the wall above his phone, "and then I matched what they said they were looking for, what their income level was, and their ages to the right profile—Honda, Volvo, Mercedes, or Bentley."
Churnam's eyes opened wide. "What..." he sputtered, "...what the hell are you talking about?"
"Guy with a Honda, he just starting out—well, unless it's one of them high end ones. Volvo drivers, we talkin' car seats in the back, soccer cleats, they need a bigger house. Mr. Mercedes? Either he already got money, and just needs to maintain, or he got strong cash flow and needs to invest so he can get up to that Bentley level."
Humphrey's voice rang out. "Churnam, can you look at something for me when you get a minute?" floated over the edge of our cubicle just in the nick of time to freeze the words poised on the tip of Churnam's tongue.
I'd gotten to like Humphrey. He helped me whenever I had a question. If Churnam wasn't available, Humphrey would stand in for him, helping me with forgotten passwords, showing me how to compute future values on my multi-function calculator. Most of all, he looked like he could feel my pain whenever I rolled my eyes behind Double-O Soul's back.
And then just like that, two weeks after I started, Humphrey was gone. No goodbye, no nothing, just an empty desk and a blank computer screen staring back at me.
"They've got a closet full of empty cardboard boxes in the back," said a coworker as he strolled down the aisle. "Churnam says he can smell it."
"The stench of failure."
"Disposable income," said Churnam, during one of our mid-morning Shell Cracking seminars, "is where we make our money." There was always a soulful hitch in his voice just before he said the words "disposable income," as if he were revealing to us the mystery ingredients in Coca Cola's secret recipe. As agents for the Company, we were in the center of the asset management game, standing at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place, collecting the rent for the real owners after taking our cut off the top.
Time had disappeared. It no longer existed in any other form than GOING TO WORK, BEING AT WORK, and LEAVING WORK LATE. I started drinking coffee all day, partly to stay awake, but mostly to have a reason to leave my desk.
The coffee pots were in the break room near the tentacle of the Funnel that inhabited our Branch, just to the left of the interoffice mailboxes. The Branch Administration Manager's office was across the corridor. In her office behind her desk there were two banks of file cabinets five feet high against the wall, flanking the centerpiece of her compound—a 12-foot wide leaderboard just like the ones at a golf tournament listing all the financial planners in the office, in order of our sales accomplishments year-to-date. Majestic's name, I noticed, was third from the top.
One morning, while I was at the coffee maker after a seminar, Double-O Soul hit me with some ill flavor, some straight up militant shit. When he got to his punch line, "How close you think your ass can git to bein' an oreo without turning into one?" I almost spilled my coffee.
"You're assuming," I replied, in a calm, even voice, "that the definition of an oreo is always an absolute. But what if it's really relative?" Oreo or no, my name was above his on the leaderboard, etched by Dry Erase marker in the next to last spot on the board.
Double-O Soul grimaced as if I had just dropped a heinous silent-but-deadly. "All yo' relatives is Oreos, too? Shit, I ain't tryin' to git in yo' family bidness. All I'm sayin' is we bruthas need to work together."
We bruthas? When I was growing up, other kids went to the beach during summer break. Or played ball all day in their hood. My family? We went to Paris or Zurich or Cairo or wherever the latest world economic summit was being held, so my father could present the papers he worked on all year. Trust me—there was nothing that would make me hanker for some homemade meatloaf quicker than a bowl of bouillabaisse. Nothing that would make me long for a hot dog with chili and onions faster than a serving of hamam mahshi.
Double-O Soul drove a beat-up Pontiac Grand Am. Duct tape kept the plastic sheeting covering the rear left window from blowing away. Brake fluid allowed the transmission to grunt ceremoniously before jerking into gear. The car lasted all of three months before it died for good in the parking lot one afternoon. Double-O Soul needed a ride to the office the next day, so he gave me a call at home.
"This high definition TV is going to be the death of me," my father said, stretching his jaws out as he turned his head from side to side, searching for blemishes and eruptions in the mirror over the mantle. "Who was that?"
"This guy I work with—the one from over on Hollowell—he's ah, well, he—"
My father peered at the skin below his cheekbones intently before twisting his head to look at me as I turned my cell phone off. "He's a nigger."
I leaned forward, unsure of whether or not I was talking to my father or the Angry Economist. "Dad, he's one of us."
"No, he's not. He's a nigger. Straight out the street. Niggers like him worried 'bout civil rights when black people need to be worried about silver rights."
Niggers? My father never talked like this. Did the klieg lights on the set finally fry the Angry Economist's brain?
"You're going to pick this negro up from where?" my father bellowed.
"From Hollowell Parkway."
"Hollowell my ass! You know damn well that's nothing but Bankhead Highway. Changing the name didn't change the place."
My eyes took in the hardscrabble ruins of abandoned industrial buildings as I looked for Double-O Soul's street off of Hollowell Parkway the next morning. Frye Street was lined on both sides with shotgun houses. Number 1683 was on the right about halfway down the street. I pulled my baby BMW into the driveway. Be-beep!
Double-O Soul popped out of a ragged screen door in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, his skin already moist and oily. "Come on in, man. I'll be ready in a minute."
"I'm cool," I said from the comfort of my car.
"Come on in, nee-gro. Say hello to my grandma."
Damn. Did I want to meet his grandmother at 8:00 in the morning? I went inside, expecting to see an old woman. Somebody with a cane. Or an oxygen tank—didn't all the old folks in the 'hood sit in the middle of the living room surrounded by oxygen tanks and IV's?
A spry, oak colored woman in her late 50s, her hair dyed a bright red almost matching her sweatsuit, stood in the living room. "I told that boy to be ready when you got here."
Pictures of young men in service uniforms, young women in graduation gowns and newborn babies covered the wall behind the TV.
"Those my chilrens, and my grands." This woman speaking—this was Double-O Soul's grandmother? "Come sit at the table," she said, "and get yo'self something to eat while that boy gets his clothes on."
I sat down in a greasy looking chair after gauging how much of its surface area my pinstriped crepe wool slacks would have to touch.
Double-O Soul's grandmother was relentless. "You want something to eat?"
"I know you young fellas don't like to eat no breakfast, but I gots some bacon and grits. I can scramble you an egg if you want it."
"No, I'll get something at the office."
Her chest deflated a little, but she kept right on talking. "You from Atlanta?"
"Down on the south side, over in the Camp Creek area."
"Oh." She looked over her glasses. "You live by yourself?"
"No ma'am, I live in my parent's basement right now. But I'm moving out in a few months."
She stopped asking questions and turned on the TV. "You probably wanna watch that CNBC, doncha?"
I made a big production of looking at my watch.
She yelled out, "What's taking you so long, Octavious? This man is ready to go to work. Where you need to be."
Double-O Soul parted the curtains that partitioned the front of the house from a short hallway connecting what I imagined could only be, at most, two bedrooms and a bathroom. Two little heads peeped out after him, rubbing sleep from their eyes.
"Come on, you two. Let's eat," their grandma said. The boys raced to the table. I stood up and turned sideways so their hands wouldn't touch my clothes as they passed me.
"Who you?" asked one of the boys.
"That's not nice, Latrell. Ask the young man what his name is."
He looked up at me with a scowl on his face. "What yo' name is?"
The other one was at the screen door, looking at my car. He said, "I know who he is. He that—" His grandma clamped her hand over his mouth. Double-O Soul grabbed his folio, busting through the screen door ahead of me.
"You two have a good day at work, ya here?"
My appointments got easier. The trick was to get the prospect to give you some of the information you needed to fill out the application before you pulled the actual paperwork out. The less time I took filling in the blanks, the easier it was to get them to stroke that first check for $500.
But that really didn't matter, because I had more prospects cancel more appointments than any other planner in our four-state region. On average, three out of four of them called in to say they had changed their mind. Or told me, when I followed up to confirm our appointment, they needed to reschedule. But these were busy people—politicians, entrepreneurs, high-level bureaucrats. I was just glad they took my phone calls.
Double-O Soul, on the other hand, was even starting to get Sunday appointments. He said his grandmother made the people standing outside after church take his cards. His prospects were almost always poor or struggling, though, and Churnam encouraged him to seek a richer market.
One morning Double-O Soul strutted into the office singing the chorus to the ditty "money, money, money, money...MO—NAY" as he waved a sheaf of applications in my face. Eighteen life insurance policies, five annuities, three mutual funds and one financial plan.
Eight financial plans, two life policies, and one small mutual fund rollover were all I had for the month. On paper, though, my efforts stood to bear the most fruit—the Company had calculated that their Financial Plans generated an average of 4.7 product sales per client through implementation. But right now it only stood for $7,400 in commissions, and by the time the Company had sliced and diced the fees and premiums I'd collected, I would be under my draw, again.
I wondered, once I better understood how the Funnel worked... what if I were to fall into it? Would it transform me into a brighter, more concentrated electronic version of myself the way it transformed checks and wire transfers into the brightly colored green line of electrons that powered the Company?
"Take a seat for a minute," my father said one night when I was coming out of the kitchen. "I need to talk to you."
"Dad, I'm kinda tired right now."
"This won't take long."
Something wasn't quite right. I sat down, looking at him as he searched for the right words to say.
"I just don't understand what's going on. It's not just you—it seems like an epidemic around here. An epidemic of apathy among the children of today's black middle class who refuse to see the value of graduate school."
One of the things I'd recently learned in my Shell Cracking training class was how to look a person in the eye when I had to tell them something unpleasant. "Dad," I said, my gaze direct, my jaw aligned square with his, "it's not that we—I—don't see the value, it's just that I don't want to get locked into that life."
"Locked into that life? You haven't lived yet."
"That's exactly what I mean. I've been on a track or in a plan or on a schedule since I was three. I just want to see what else is out there."
"What's out there is work. This telemarketing stuff you're doing now—do you really want to be doing this when you're forty? Fifty?"
I flexed my fingers. How many millions of phone dials would that be? "I, ah, I really didn't think I'd be doing this 20 years from now."
"Twenty years will pass sooner than you think."
"Dad," I said, my voice lower now, the picture of an old, calloused index finger, my finger, getting larger and larger in my mind, "do you like what you do?"
"Let me ask you something," my father said. "Have you ever had a client you know you couldn't help? Somebody who you know, the minute you step into their house, that no matter how simple the financial plan is you ultimately recommend to them, they're not going to follow it?"
I thought about the Witherspoons and their earnest declarations to do better when Bennie and I had presented them with their personalized financial plan. "Yeah."
"I make recommendations to people who have lots of other people's money to waste. Government money. Corporate money. They pay me to come up with economic policies that will help guide their organizations to operate more efficiently. Then they make a few press releases about the study they've commissioned, and my report gets filed away in a bureaucrat's desk drawer somewhere. Sound familiar?"
It was as if Bennie was speaking to me—Bennie, who couldn't hold a candle to the Angry Economist in terms of intellectual prowess.
"So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying we do the same thing, son, but I make a lot more money than you do. Because at the end of the day, I'm an expert. And you're still a telemarketer."
"Some of you guys are going through the motions." Churnam's head was scarlet and getting redder by the minute. "And I know why, because I've been there. You can feel the fear of rejection, but you don't know how to make it work for you. I'm going to say this again: you are afraid." His angry blue eyes looked like they were boring straight in on me.
"You know what, though? Generation X is scared, too. They all know they haven't saved enough for retirement. But when some of you guys are out on an appointment, instead of having a self-confident professional from the Company counseling potential clients, I've got you and your two prospects sitting in a living room somewhere in East Bumblefuck, all three of you terrified you're about to make a mistake."
Churnam was getting wound up now, the harsh tone in his voice slashing right through the positive attitude he'd talked us into half an hour ago.
"I'll tell you what your prospects end up thinking. They end up believing they need safety when the situation they're in calls for more risk. So you tie up 60 percent of their money in tax free bonds. A year later, they're out walking the dog, and their neighbor tells them they're making 16 percent a year on their portfolio. The next thing you know, there's an account transfer form on my desk and your client—excuse me, your ex-client—won't take your calls!" He was so mad now, I hoped he would choke to death. Churnam must have been reading my mind—he unfastened the top button on his shirt and loosened his tie before he continued. "And those are your friends. Imagine how total strangers will act when they sense fear in their prospective financial advisor."
Churnam kept a close eye on me. My suits were too new, my shirts too crisp for all the experience I'd claimed. To him, I was merely a sepia mannequin who had invaded the inner sanctum of the money game. My monthly Performance Reviews were more like cross—examinations. Where were you on the afternoon of May 14th? Didn't you tell me that your goal was to make a lot of money? Aren't you supposed to be cold calling until 8:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Why doesn't your phone report match your call sheet? It didn't seem to matter much to Churnam that I'd moved up the leaderboard a few spots.
I complained to Bennie about Churnam as we stood in line, waiting to order our lunch at KFC. The sister with the purple weave who took our order counted our change into our hands one coin at a time. Another one brought our trays to our table, her wide hips rolling underneath her tight polyester pants like a rowboat in a hurricane. "Enjoy your meal, gentlemens," she said, swinging her braids as she retreated to the kitchen.
Two middle-aged black men sat nearby in the restaurant's dining room, an empty table between us, their AT&T pullovers wrinkled but clean. They laughed heartily between bites as their eyes stretched wide to zero in on the backside of a full-figured woman leaving the building.
Bennie spoke up. "Fellas, ya'll know ya'll can't handle all that."
"Don't know 'bout you, brotherman, but this dog always chases the cat," said the one with mutton chop sideburns and an Africa shaped bald spot. "'Specially them big ones."
Bennie leaned in. "Why don't you give these two guys your card?" he whispered to me.
"Those two?" I whispered back. "Didn't you hear Churnam? I need people with disposable income."
"If you're lucky, and they're linemen, they probably gross $160,000, $180,000 a year."
"$180,000? A year?"
"Linemen get lots of overtime. You know, anytime there's a storm or a power outage. But you know what the best thing is about these guys? They usually live like they only make $75,000 a year. So what you waitin' on?"
"I got the picture."
"Fuck the picture. You need to get the damn appointment."
I strutted over to their table the way Bennie would have. A few minutes later, the three of us were all laughing together as the two men pulled out their wallets to stow away my business cards. Mr. Mutton Chops said, "I been looking at takin' a early retirement package. But my wife say I need to talk to a investments professional 'bout this IRA rollover stuff 'fore I sign anythang. I'm glad I ran into you today, son. I told my wife I wanna deal with somebody black for a change."
Mr. Mutton Chops introduced me to quite a few of his colleagues who were taking early retirement. Eight million dollars in AT&T 401(k) balances were due to start hitting the Funnel any day. The song from the TV show The Jefferson's came to mind. I'm movin' on up, to Buckhead, I've finally got a piece, of the piii-iie! But Churnam believed a financial planner's activity determined their success. Referrals, he reasoned, couldn't be counted on to keep a planner's sales pipeline full.
I hated the chittlin' smell emanating from my cubicle whenever Double-O Soul was there. I could barely stand to cold call with all the howls of protest from irate homeowners whose dinners I often interrupted.
Recess, your Honor. I move we take a short recess.
One night when I got home, a packet was sitting on top of my dresser. The packet contained online application instructions for the Graduate Record Exam. There was also a sheaf of paper gem clipped together, the quarter inch thick stack lying in the middle of my bed. This was emblazoned across the front:
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA
JOHN HARITOS, DAVID AND EMILY AUSTIN, MICHAEL TOOLEY, AND OMAR SHAHINE, On Behalf of Themselves and All Others Similarly Situated,
THE COMPANY, INC.,
Case No.: No. 01-2157-PRX-TGR
SECOND AMENDED CLASS ACTION COMPLAINT FOR BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY AND FRAUD UNDER THE FEDERAL INVESTMENT ADVISERS ACT OF 1940
(15 U.S.C. § 80b-1 et seq.)
The firm stroke my father used whenever he wielded a highlighter brought the Company's name to my attention. I flipped through the pages as I sat on the edge of the bed. There were more highlighted sections throughout, like "violation of the federal Investment Advisers Act" and "The Company is a high-pressure sales operation" and "As a fiduciary, The Company perpetrates this manipulative and deceptive scheme nationwide through a system of uniform training and 'canned' sales scripts."
The description of our sales process was laid out better here than it was in our training manuals. The complainants could have been people like the Witherspoons.
Rumbling up the stairs to the main level of the house, I strode across the living room and through the double doors leading into my father's study. It looked like a librarian's worst nightmare—books everywhere, stacked up in piles ten high around his desk, stacks on top of his desk, a stack beside his chair.
The Angry Economist peered over his reading glasses as if he were expecting me. "Looks like they're nothing but a telemarketing outfit after all."
My father may have been right about the Company, but he was wrong about me.
As soon as my first big commission check hit next month, I planned to schedule the movers to take my stuff from my parent's basement to my new Buckhead apartment on a day when my father was sure to be home.
Sitting at my desk the next morning, I surfed the Internet, trying to figure out how to say "fuck you" to Churnam in French. How could Churnam justify the nasty Performance Review he'd given me? I was about to drop eight million dollars in the Funnel! I felt Double-O Soul's hand on my shoulder.
"You awight, man?" he said. I noticed his fingernails were manicured—MANICURED? I sat up, my woes forgotten.
Double-O Soul stood before me in a new blue suit, one that fit him. His shoes were a vague imitation of my own cap toed English bluchers. And his tie was actually a muted hue, and not some garish combination of purple, yellow and black. Had he fallen into the Funnel?
"The brother is kickin' some new threads," I said.
"Naw, man, just a little sumpin' sumpin' I picked up. Gotta look the part, you know."
I felt a small swelling of pride well up from deep within my chest. I was about to pat myself on the back for loaning him my copy of The Way to Success.
"You know," Double-O Soul continued, "I figure if a short, bald, ugly motherfucker like Churnam can get to be Regional Manager, it must be the clothes."
By the time I'd rekindled my anger toward Churnam enough to head to his office, there they stood in the hallway, Churnam and Double-O Soul, looking like Heckle and Jeckle. Churnam was laughing. Double-O Soul had his arm around the shorter man's shoulder, and he was rubbing Churnam's shiny pink dome with the palm of his hand.
Chittlin' juice was leaking into the Chardonnay. Chunks of Velveeta were being mixed into the brie.
I conjured a replica of my father's famous scowl and folded my arms across my chest. Churnam stopped laughing. Double-O Soul tried to rein in his smile.
"We need to talk." I said to Churnam.
"About how eight million dollars in new business ought to be enough to get me the keys to my own office."
Double-O Soul stared at me over Churnam's shoulder, his lips silently mouthing the words "white boy" as Churnam ushered me into his office.
These days, I'm more than just another financial nerd who informs you that you spend more on toothpaste per month than 90 percent of the country, or waxes rhapsodic about the tax implications of 529 plans. Thanks to Bennie and Double-O Soul and even that backstabbing bastard Churnam, I understand now what my real job is.
I get strangers to pay me $500, then sit down with me in their own home to help me create a detailed list of their assets. When we're done, I close my briefcase and walk out with a map to every dollar they have. And when I return with my nice, pretty, computer-generated financial plan, I wave it in front of their faces for a minute or two before tucking the plan back into the presentation folder. Then I say whatever the hell I have to say to get them to hand over their life savings so I can dump them into the Funnel.
Meanwhile, the Company's ubiquitous logo continues its inexorable spiral. Except now it's me standing in the middle of the vortex, twirling the end of the bright green line around my body like I'm a cowboy whirling his lariat around himself at a rodeo.
I've made it.
I'm a certified Shell Cracker.