Today marks the official end of an era that really ended in 2007. The Commodity Exchange in lower Manhattan is closing its trading floor, as electronic trading has made it obsolete. The "Open Outcry" system, wherein traders, yelled, screamed and pleaded, has been on life support for nearly a decade. The floor, once crowded and teeming with life, became eerily quiet, its population reduced by 90%. Here's an example of how it was at its most intense, seen through the eyes of the supervisor of the Silver market, as chronicled in my novel Exchanges, the place 8th floor Four World Trade Center, the year 1988. Warning - anyone offended by vulgarity and political incorrectness should proceed no further. This is the way I saw it. Nothing is exaggerated. I pulled no punches. It's a ten-fifteen minute read:
He was late from lunch, dreading his return to the ring. As he stepped onto the podium, he leaned forward to listen in on the conversation of a group of young brokers.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” said the one who’d summoned the huddle. “My wife’s best friend’s getting married soon. They threw her a surprise bridal shower. They were hiding in the basement. The family keeps the dog down there in the daytime. She loves that dog. The first thing she does when she gets home is take him for a walk. Anyway, she comes downstairs calling out to the thing, and when they throw the lights on and yell ‘surprise’ – there she is stark naked with the dog lickin’ whip cream from her crotch.”
The others fell about themselves, howling. Charley and Michelle leaned back simultaneously.
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” said Michelle quietly, addressing Charley.
“Maybe they saw it on cable TV.”
“Sep?” said Grandpa suddenly.
“What?” said several brokers simultaneously, pretending not to have understood.
“Dixty bid,” a young broker aped.
“Look at the size of that head,” said Grandpa to a neighbor, retaliating against his tormentor. “It’s huge. What would you rather have – a million dollars or Frankie’s head full of quarters?”
Frankie, a broad man with reddened cheeks, laughed. “Dixty bid.”
As the secondhand wound toward two o’clock, the floor staff began banging on the wooden fixtures, stamping feet, applauding, whistling and howling. The ruckus heralded the approach of the end of a long, dull day. Stinky wore a look of frustration and covered his eyes with a hand. The Floor Committee had recently issued a memorandum about decorum, and threatened to fine anyone who participated in unprofessional behavior. What could Stinky do - fine everyone? Make an example of one or a few?
The din was deafening as the hour approached. The cheer that erupted at the sound of the bell drowned out its ring.
"Change your cards, new period; last licks,” said Charley into the microphone, then, under his breath, "Change your pads, twats."
Suddenly there was commotion in the Gold pit. The Silver ring filled to capacity in an instant, as if a huge wave had pounded a beach. Brokers who’d been seated sprang up like Jacks-in-boxes. The metals were rallying. Orders flooded the ring. Hands stuffed with paper reached over shoulders and squeezed through cracks in the humanity. Brokers leaned heavily against one another, clinging to a patch of turf, swaying under the momentum of the strongest and heaviest. Many turned sideways to fit in. Others refused to do so. It seemed so silly, as there was room at the bottom of the pit. Some were unaffected by the shoving. Others were obviously pained. At times, during slow periods, a game was made of the pushing, of the domino effect, as the instigators enjoyed riling those annoyed by the roughhousing. This was no game.
CONY was so demonstrative in his offer his eyeglasses flew from his head and pens from the pocket of his shirt. APB, an overweight young man, was knocked down and lay on his back like a turtle, gazing at those above him, bewildered. He had to rise under his own power, as everyone else was too preoccupied to help him. A week ago, during a day that saw trading intense from start to finish, MOJO passed out and was unnoticed by everyone but his clerks and Nutty, who raced to get him a cup of water.
Charley was jostled repeatedly by clerks climbing onto the podium and shouting past his shoulder. Orders and trading cards were forced past his hip and fed into the time-clock for stamping. Despite the confusion, the suddenness of the move, he quickly found his rhythm. There were days he never found it, despite his experience. Today the market seemed second nature to him. He felt a sense of detachment, of lucidness, as if he were an impartial observer. He was not at all nervous, which was rare for him.
He cupped the speaking end of the receiver with his hand to shield out as much noise as possible. He paused briefly between each trade he relayed, depending on the number of moves required of the DEC to complete each. He followed the activity in three ways: listening to the bids and offers, scanning the field for hand signals, and watching Brian out of the corner of his eye, wary of duplicating prints, of wasting valuable seconds. The clapping of hands was frantic, as several of the crew demanded attention simultaneously.
"Cross three Sep at seven, 'Douche Bag,’" he said into the phone. He often made up names or phrases, as the initials of certain broker codes sounded similar over the line, especially with such ado in the background. The names or phrases had nothing to do with whether he liked the particular broker. They were merely meant as clarification and comic relief designed to keep the DEC loose and to perpetuate an "us against them" camaraderie.
"Sep seven-and-a-half. Deece five. Cross a Sep at seven, ‘Dry Fuck.’ Ten Sep-Deece eight-sixty. Ya with me, 'head? Okay? Sep eight, eight-and-a-half, nine, Sep oh now. Here we go. Hang with me, you child molester, you. What's that shit up there? Take it down, hurry up - FXLA Sep. Did you do that? Tell the moron to use three numbers, for Chricesake." He placed the phone against his chest. "Of course it's comin’ down," he shouted to a broker nearby. "You know it's a bad print. It's a dime off the market. Asshole," he whispered.
"Awright, Headly? Fix the high in Sep to oh." He turned to the reporter at his hip, who was writing up cross-trades. For some reason a written record had to be kept of each, despite the fact that each was entered into the computer and available on a print-out. "Oh, it's you, Nutty. D’you cancel that shit? C'mon, bite those fingers. Wake 'em up."
"I'm doin’ it," he snarled, shoulders rigid, fingers chopping along tensely. One would think someone who had survived combat would not be made nervous by anything else, especially something as preposterous as the action of commodity trading.
"While we're young. Sep nine, nine-and-a-half. Cross a Sep at nine, 'Whore House.’ Thirty-two Sep EFP crossed, 'RAW.' Red Deece ten-hundred. Sep oh, Sep oh-and-a-half, one. Ah, shit." He seized the microphone. "Listen up, who traded Sep above oh? Stinky 's offerin' twenty at oh. Should I take it down, Bobby?”
He looked to the Floor Committee member, who moved a hand before his neck like a movie director.
“Sep oh, nine-and-a-half, and oh again," said Charley into the phone, driving the prints in question off the board, which displayed only the three most recent in each month. "Kill the oh-and-a-halfs, Nutty. Put Grandpa on 'em. And tell Dewayne to pitch in when he gets a chance."
Dewayne, who was standing to Nutty's left and busy writing up the cross-trades Brian was entering, laughed and offered his standard comment: "Let me tell you somethin'."
"Fix the high in Sep to oh, 'head, some time in the next hour if you can. Good. That's it. You're finally gettin' the hang of this shit after fourteen years. Deece eight, Deece eight-and-a-half." He turned to Nutty. "The oh's not killed yet?"
"There," said Nutty, striking the key emphatically.
"You're out. Go where Gary is; tell ‘im to come up here."
"You're too slow. Get atta here."
"It trades oh-and-a-half!" the broker directly to his right shouted, lashing out with his trading pad, striking Charley's arm.
"Keep your hands to yourself, Teddy. I ain't deaf."
This was the broker's catchphrase, aimed at Exchange employees and colleagues alike.
The roar intensified.
"Set up the 'Fast Market,’ Gary, hurry up. Don't send it ’til I tell you. Fuck it, send it."
A “Fast Market” was entered into the system to protect traders. Should the market move more than a penny at a time, any point not reported between the gaps would be assumed to have traded.
Activity was frantic. Brokers were atop one another. Suddenly there was room on the top step, as everyone was pressing forward.
"Ten Sep-Deece eight-fifty. Cross a Deece at eight, 'Lick My Balls.’ Cross a Sep at oh-and-a-half, 'All Fucked Up.’ Sep oh, 'Sleeze Bag.' Oh-and-a-half, one, oh-and-a-half. Your hot today, Headmeister. That twelve-year-old girl must be takin’ good care of you. Whattaya doin' now that school's out? You can't cruise the schoolyards no more."
Warhead laughed the same way he spoke, mumbling. His girlfriend, a Puerto Rican, was 19. He was 38, divorced, and so indifferent to conventions he’d yet to file a tax form for 1987.
"Sep two now, two-and-a-half, three." He took the microphone. "Listen up, who traded Deece at two? It's offered at one-and-a-half by Sonny.” He looked to Jerry Newman. “Take it down? FXLA Deece, 'head."
As the print was about to be removed from the board it was forced up by another entered by Brian, consequently, the more recent was stricken.
"No!" Charley cried. "Deece one now, then FXL3 Deece. C'mon, 'head, let your partner know what you're doin'. Work together."
A broker shouted at the podium.
"I know," Charley snapped back. "It's up there," then, sotto voce, "crawl back into your hole, jerk-off. So much for rhythm."
Brian slapped at Charley's shoulder and motioned toward the bottom of the pit, where Jerry Newman was in the midst of a tirade, demanding attention, waving his arms wildly, banging on a monitor so hard its screen went blank. His rasp was unintelligible through the din, but Charley knew what he was saying.
"Listen up," he said into the microphone. "Sep at three’s comin' down, Floor Committee ruling. The high in Sep is two-and-a-half."
"Why?” came the cry from several areas. “I went on stops."
"Frankie's got fifty at two-and-a-half." He raised the phone. "Sep two-and-a-half, two, and two-and-a-half again. Fix the high in Sep to…. Hold it. He's filled? Forget it, 'head. It trades three now. Cross twenty-one Sep at two-and-a-half, 'Pull Tom's Dick.’ Cross a hundred Sep-Deece eight-fifty, 'Just A Lunatic,’ then gimme a Sep at three and a three-and-a-half as fast as you can, dickface. Kill that first three print, Gary."
The prints relayed to Warhead did not go up. Charley surmised there had been a foul up entering the cross-switch, the most complicated of the data. He slapped Brian's arm and flashed the hand signals for the prints.
"There up there," Brian snapped. "You're gettin' as bad as these guys."
He was referring, of course, to the brokers. Charley chuckled and hung his head.
"You okay now, 'head? The spasms over? You know, the Cerebral Palsy Olympics are comin' up soon. You can be National's rep."
"What's this fuckin' kid givin’ me?" said Brian, irked.
Charley knew exactly where to look - to the rear right-hand side of the ring, Chet's area. "Got it?"
"I think so," Brian returned. "Who knows?"
"It trades three!" one of the three stooges shouted.
"It's up there!" Charley snarled. "Try lookin' at the board once in a while, Tommy. Sep two-and-a-half, Sep two. Deece oh. Cross a Deece at oh, 'Purple Haze.’ Sep two. Ah, shit, that's no good. Two-and-a-half, hurry up, 'head. Now three and two-and-a-half again. Sep two. Shit! Two-and-a-half, three.” He turned to Brian. “Don't put up any more twos; it's a half-bid.”
"You're the one who's puttin’ 'em up, asshole."
Seconds later Nelson signaled another Sep at two. Charley flashed the hand signal for a two-and-a-half, then brought his palm toward him, indicating that it was two-and-a-half-bid. He pointed at the terminal at his elbow, trying to communicate that the prints had already been entered into the system. Nelson persisted, pointing to Bobby Flynn, who’d demanded the trades be entered.
"Don't listen to that fuckin' idiot!" Charley shouted, the statement flying from him before he realized what he was saying. Even Brian was startled at the uncharacteristic outburst. Fortunately it’d been lost in the confusion. Charley thanked God he hadn't shouted it inadvertently into the microphone, as he did occasionally with information intended for the DEC. It might have cost him considerable grief, perhaps his job, as Exchange personnel were prohibited from addressing a broker derogatorily. A recent memorandum had reminded National employees to always address a broker politely. This brought howls from many, brokers included. Matty said: "Does this mean we have to say: ‘Fuck you, Sir’ or call them ‘Mr.’ Scumbag?"
Fortunately Bobby Flynn was laughing, having a sense of humor about the petty larceny he perpetrated. He called to Charley, placed his fingers behind his ears and flared them. "When you takin' off, Dumbo?" he said.
Charley had long ceased growing his hair long enough to cover his ears, which had always managed to protrude. He also took pains in setting an example of good grooming for his son.
"I'm wise to your bogus prints, Grandpa," he said. "The FBI's keepin' tabs on guys like you."
He found it odd that his most heated outburst had been directed at a broker he liked.
Dickie raced to the podium, frantic, shaking, complaining that his prints had not hit the board.
"Relax," said Charley calmly, "they're goin' up now."
Brian wasn't as kind, cursing him, chasing him away by threatening to strike him with the phone. Poor Dickie, an employee of National for 18 years, seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown, face red, brow dotted with perspiration, breath short. The market completely altered his easy-going, congenial disposition.
Stevie, stationed at the bottom of the pit, clapped to draw attention to himself, then began his imitation of Dickie fishing, slowly reeling away, smiling distractedly, swaying with the motion of the boat. Brian and Charley burst into laughter, so precise was Stevie's rendition of Dickie's mannerisms in the ring. He stood with his back arched, left hand clinging to his right hip, right arm dangling, fingers stretching, as if he were loosening them in order to give prints. He gazed lazily at his watch, then ran the inner edge of his left hand along his forehead from right to left. Everyone loved Dickie, despite his propensity for tall tales. He swore he’d been at Woodstock and had played football at USC. There were caricatures of the events on the Wall of Shame.
"Get the valium," Charley cried, which was Michelle's prescription for Dickie. "Fifty Sep EFP straight, 'Sleeping Beauty.' No, cross 'em. 0kay, 'head? You stud, you. Cross seven at three, 'Joe Jitsu.' Ten red-Deece red-March twelve-fifty. Don't send it yet."
He gazed at the board, calculating the difference between the settlement prices of the months, making sure it was in line with the market. The forward months, those a year ahead, were dubbed, for some reason, “back months." The designation "red" was a carry-over from the days at the old site when the back months had been entered on the blackboards with red chalk.
"Send it, it's good. Sep three-and-a-half, Sep four. Ah, shit, these fuckin’ vultures," he moaned, seizing the microphone. "Listen up, Sep at four's comin' down; it's offered at three-and-a-half. He's filled? Put it back-up, 'head, Sep four. It's no good now? C'mon, make up your mind, Jerry. Don't do anything yet, 'head? They're still arguin'. Floor Committee, can I have a ruling on the Seps at four, please? Deece two, 'head. Awright, listen up -- the high in Sep is four. No? Three-and-a-half? Fix the high in Sep to three-and-a-half, 'head. Let's see how long that stands. Don't kill anything yet, Gary."
A broker shouted at the podium. "I went on stops. You can't take it down."
"Whattaya yellin’ at me for? I didn't make the ruling."
"Take it down!"
"I can't. I'm not Floor Committee. Talk to them. You can't take it down, either. Fuckin' asshole," he concluded in a whisper. "See, what'd I tell you? Fix the high in Sep to four."
"Good," said Gary. "Saves me the trouble."
"Yeah, we wouldn't want you to work for a living."
Gary laughed, despite the venom with which the statement had been delivered. There was no sense in taking things personally here, although it was frequently unavoidable.
"Sep three. Cross a Sep at three - never mind," said Charley, pointing at Brian, who’d caught the trade simultaneously and was entering it.
"Jerry wants the fine pad," said Brian.
"What for? The four print? That makes a lotta sense. The trade’s good but it draws a fine? It's either gotta be good or bad; it can't be both. Why wouldn't Anthony take the fine? The customer probably made a few grand. What's five bills compared to the adjustment he woulda had to make?"
"What d'you care?" said Brian. "You should know by now that things don't hafta make sense here."
He swung the microphone toward Charley and nodded at the clock. The close, 2:24, was approaching. Time had flown.
"Awright, 'head, less than a minute. Don't forget the clock – the ‘clock,’ not the 'cock,' okay? Keep your hands off Paulie."
The start of the close was to be entered into the system each day. Volume was to accompany each print. Charley usually made up his own, basing it on the activity of the market, as the reporters neglected it unless a broker made a particularly large transaction.
"Hang with me now, Mister Head. Looks like it's gonna be a bitch. Lotta guys got caught with their pants down and are gonna try to get even."
"New highs guaranteed," said Brian.
New highs or lows on the close were dreaded by the Exchange staff, as they invariably led to argument and delay of the finalization
"Comin’ up," said Charley into the phone, taking the microphone in his other hand, bouncing on his right leg nervously.
The bell sounded. "We're on the close! Ten Sep at four. Ten Sep three-and-a-half. Fifty Sep four. Five Sep four-and-a-half. Deece two-and-a-half, two lots. Cross five Sep at four, 'Kiss Prick.’ Cross six Sep at four-and-a-half, 'Cave Man.' Deece three, five times. Ten Sep four, ten at four-and-a-half. Ten Sep five now. Five March three. Cross ten Deece at two-and-a-half, 'Don't Mess Around.' Cross forty Sep at five-and-a-half, 'Re-Tard.' Ah, shit, that can't be good. The market's closed!" he shouted at the top of his lungs into the microphone. "Stop trading! The market's closed!"
Trading continued, as the bell had barely been audible above the din, as was the buzzer Charley depressed repeatedly.
"Stop trading! The market's closed! Stop trading!"
His cries, repeated taps at the buzzer, were ignored. He gave up.
"Ring the bell!" Stinky demanded. He rushed to the podium, barreling his thin frame through a tangle of bodies and seizing the microphone. "Hey! he screeched. "Hey!"
Finally the activity slowed. The last of the transactions were done quietly, as was customary after the close, as brokers tried to match up with others in order to fill or improve a position, maximize gain or minimize loss.
"Cross ten Sep at four, 'Just A Lunatic.’ Six Sep four-and-a-half, 'Wise Guy.’ Ten Sep-Deece eight-fifty. A hundred Sep EFP cross, 'Take A Shit.' With me, 'head? You're unbelievable today, you know that? Cross eighteen Sep four-and-a-half, 'Feel Me Up.' That's it, hang up. We'll add in the resta the shit out here. Great job, scumbag. No more, Bri."
My thanks to the kind ladies who bought books today.
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