It was September 23 — and Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and A.I.G. had already tanked. Morgan Stanley, still holding on by bloodless knuckles, had just been sold in bulk to Japan’s Mitsubishi UFJ Group.
That day, as the world of capitalism was spinning off its axel, I received two pieces of mail here in northern New Mexico. The first was a hand-penned letter assembled with attention to the planet’s dwindling forests, on the backside of a used printout. It was from Richard Heinberg. After publication of his The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, he had become an internationally known expert on Peak Oil. “The collapse we’ve all known was coming is upon us,” he wrote. With goose bumps quivering across my gut, I slowly tore the second envelope open. Inside was a formal invitation. From Morgan Stanley. I was invited to attend a “special complimentary evening” for “the first 100 guests” to hear presentations by five of the nation’s top investment funds, chow down vegetarian fare at Santa Fe’s most exclusive gated community in honor of a certain account executive whose time at Morgan Stanley had topped 25 years, and take in a keynote lecture from a …. did I read this right? …. a, uh … Life Success Coach.
Appreciation for irony is my strong suit. I inherited it from my mother who had an eye for clashing realities, and although alone in the kitchen, a guffaw erupted like a fart. The world as it had been constructed since the days of the British Empire was banging into its own contradictions, and granted the aforementioned event had been anticipated before the sub-prime crisis began roaring domino-like through the collective lifeblood, the recommendation of the experts in the field was to bring on today’s rendition of Norman Vincent Peale.
By the time the dinner party rolled around the Dow had plunged hundreds of points, Goldman Sachs had croaked and been saved, the House of Representatives had temporarily refused a corporate bailout package, with one Congress member calling for “iron bracelets” instead of “golden parachutes,” Iceland had declared bankruptcy, the Bank of Scotland had gone under, Belgium had bailed out the banking-insurance giant Fortis NV, and the F.B.I. was investigating Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman, and A.I.G. for mortgage fraud.
It was evident that to pass into the world of shaky finance, I was going to have to attire myself in an unusual manner. Ever since the likes of Bertelsmann had taken over the publishing business, book sales for non-cookbook/non-horror novels had plummeted and with them advances to mid-list authors like myself, the lecture circuit had dried up for progressive speakers with the exception of Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky, and I had taken to selling off my dear mother’s Hudson Bay coats to costume myself in more modern garb at Santa Fe’s cast-off clothing boutique, Act 2.
To boot, I had just been informed that the smallest account Morgan Stanley had ever accepted – mine – was now $100 in arrears.
Upon throwing the doors to my closet open, I saw immediately that my options were slim. The brightly-colored coats long gone, I pegged together an outfit that appeared to me, by New Mexico cowboy standards, to suffice. Stuffing it into a plastic bag, I headed to the capital.
I got dressed in a public bathroom at the rail yard. But as I exited the stall and caught a glimpse in the mirror, I could see that my favorite jeans were sporting a detail I had never before noticed: pre-planned holes. My Bolivian peasant shawl did not glam things up one bit, and my Wal-Mart shoes constituted an upside-down version of a bad-hair day. Twenty minutes to go before the fund managers were slated to tell us where it was at, investment-wise, I skipped to the final stage of death and dying – in this case, acceptance of fashion failure – and dashed to meet my date.
Chris Wells has given his life to creating ecologically-informed All Species Day celebrations in Latin America, the Southwest, and Sweden, and he has made no money doing it. He pulled up in a muffler-less ’72 Saab stuffed with boxes of rumpled clothes. When he jumped out, I gasped. Chris was donned in a striped polyester shirt, untucked; those athletic shoes that look like sandals, ratty from miles of bicycle riding; and ….. white shorts.
“Chris!” I howled, knowing full well that I myself had but the fragile last of a Wal-Mart slipper to stand on. “I told you to dress up, man! You look like a homeless person!” Out of the corner of my eye I could see onlookers chuckling at the spectacle, and then the coup de grace of long-buried but suddenly relevant fashion-eze spilled forth: “You can’t wear shorts! It’s f**cking past Labor Day!!” A mere 100 feet across the parking lot from Act 2, I grabbed his hand and headed over.
Ten minutes later, we emerged: Chris in black jeans now and his polyester shirt festooned with cuff links and a Kokopelli bolo tie; my Wal-Mart shoes replaced by way-too-big, way-too-pointy black pumps – on loan.
You have to prove your worthiness to get in at Quail Run. If I had been thinking which I wasn’t because I was twisted in knots about the frayed threads on my knees, I would have removed the Venezuelan, Cuban, and Bolivian flags from the dash of my aging army Jeep — but really, why bother? the Che Guevara decal on the back window would still have been there. I waved my Morgan Stanley invitation — and we slipped past the gate.
I think Quail Run must have been the set for My Best Friend’s Wedding. It is marked by as-far-as-the-eye-can-see grass the color of the green stripes on my mother’s Hudson Bay coats. The club house, fitness facilities, condominiums, and swimming pool are samples of an architectural style that will be written up in history books to come: the melding of the faux-Pueblo Santa Fe Style invented by Anglo newcomers in the 1930s with the construction-company Fanta Se Style concocted by this post-Dances with Wolves wave of Ralph-Lauren-clad golfers.
We slithered in to the plump chairs against the back wall of the meeting room. Its ceilings were a good 20 feet high, insipid pastels of desert scenes adorned the walls, and Morgan Stanley, Eaton Vance, Van Kampen, Calvert, and IVY were aligned on the stage. I scoped out the anthro-scene: dark suits, ties, hard shoes for the men; velvet jackets, taffeta skirts, 4” patent leather heels for the ladies. And the scene scoped us out. I mean, could the eyes of the fund mangers have possibly landed on Chris’ impeccable turquoise neck wear? No. They dropped to his shoes and stayed there for an inordinate moment bulging at the fleshy toes sticking through. I hoped to God we were passing for that class of rich eccentrics who like to go around a la Chauncey Gardner.
The suit behind the podium was painting a picture of the economy the color of a New Mexico sunset. 80-90% of the time that the market takes a bit of a tumble, he was saying, it bounces up within months to even more remunerative vibrancy. I had the feeling that the investors in the room had come, yes, to honor she who had been chipping away at the glass ceiling these last 25 years. But they had also accepted the invitation because they were freaked out. Nary a registered letter nor even a postcard had followed the sale of Morgan Stanley to Mitsubishi. Would Morgan Stanley become just a regular bank like Valley National where they would write checks and deposit cash? Or would it continue to dish out investment advice and move monies? And most pressing: was anybody’s stash worth anything anymore?
But the fund managers’ firms had shelled out the bucks for this gala affair for 100, and damn if they weren’t going to make their pitch.
The second manager regaled us with stories of China, and it was at this point that I began to smell the sulfur. I mean, wasn’t the planet going to hell in a hand basket from rampant development? And hadn’t this news, long known in the grassroots communities I was used to hanging around, finally reached at least … NPR? But no. The man waved a cashmere sleeve into the air and pronounced that in the land of our last, greatest, and most inscrutable investment coup, one coal-fired plant was being thrown online every month! Roads were being built willy-nilly! Every six weeks a new city the size of Santa Fe’s downtown was popping up where Mao’s minions had once marched! For the savvy investor, China was where it was at. And besides, the Chinese character for something-or-other, nobody could quite recall what, meant both Risk and Opportunity.
This is where Warren Buffett met Quail Run. I had apparently been misinformed. I had thought that Warren Buffett was a dude at the top of the heap with a little too much cash on his hands. But here in the sunset room at Quail Run, the man was God’s gift to the aforementioned Chinese character. To buy when the market is at its lowest was the smartest and bravest thing an investor could do. That is, of course, if said investor were not $100 in arrears.
Chris and I had a pre-arranged agreement that our eyeballs would never meet. I probably would have broken the pact at this point were it not for the timely announcement of dinner, and suddenly the pack of uncertain investors was whisked into the hors d’oeuvres room for braised red peppers and eggplant. Chris was glancing about for the open bar I had promised and I am certain that things would have gone in a different direction if it had indeed been open, but I had overlooked the cogent detail that the evening’s honoree was a teetotaler of the health-food-freak variety. True gonzo journalism down the drain, I made a sober beeline for the Calvert Fund manager. He was Honduran, bleary from taking the Red Eye from D.C., and, as we say in northern New Mexico, un nuevo. Now here’s someone I can talk politics with, I thought.
By the time the pack had been reformed around plates of organic walnut salad, mashed turnips, and ravioli, Chris and I found ourselves among a group of sedately-dressed Los Alamos lawyers, doctors, and housewives. I turned to the Calvert guy. Several nations in Latin America had bucked the World Bank to start their own financial institutions, I said, and how did his socially-minded investment company view this interesting move? I think I caught him just as his forehead was about to drop into the turnip mash – it was after all way past bedtime in the nation’s capitol — but he twitched long enough to offer that Brazil was the only country in Latin America worth investing in. It had gone full-tilt boogey into bio-fuels and unlike Venezuela where suitcases of money from only-Hugo-knows-where were appearing, Brazil could be counted on. Let’s forget for a moment that the sugar and soy plantations plowed for the world’s Mitsubishis (see: everything is connected) are not producing food for Brazilians and that the world’s Mitsubishis are heaping on the climate change (more of same), I could see that we were not talking politics; we were talking bottom line.
Things move fast in the world of finance and, as reported the next day by the analyst group Ladenburg Thalmann, while we were speaking the very viability of Morgan Stanley was being reviewed. Also as we spoke, ear-piercing canned rock music began to blare across the dining room, and after several moments of high expectation, our Life Success Coach made her entrance. It was an entrance more suited to the Hollywood Bowl than a dining room encased in adobe, but there she was – all 5’3” of her, blonde in a shimmering white suit, and looking like a cheerleader for Columbine High School.
I mean, she was bouncy. Perky. Pert. Full of fanfare. We don’t have people like that where I live in the northern mountains. We have Korean-War vets and chile farmers in raggy old flannel shirts, gangsta’ low-riders with bling, Taco Bell workers, heroin addicts looking for a fix. And even in this room of Morgan Stanley investors, the median hair color was ashen white; the median psychic tonality, financial anxiety masked by dinner-table etiquette. I caught a glimpse of a glass of Chardonnay at the next table, its stem clutched by an elderly heiress who, with her ruddy cheeks, appeared to be such a friend of wine that she had ferreted out her own bar.
Yes, the life coach was of a different ilk. To her everything was beyond-exciting, every waking moment an opportunity for full-out celebration, every nod on the street a chance to help a stranger avert suicide. Her own brush with self-inflicted death had laid the basis for her life’s work, and given the memories of the Depression of which there were a few in the room, suicide was indeed a timely reference.
The L.A. housewives thought the coach was the cat’s pajamas, and so the pact for no eye contact went into full operation. But, after an hour and a half of “You’re About To Kill Yourself!” followed by “Get Up! Get Up! You Can Do It!” Chris scrawled a sentence on the flyer offering Personal Coaching for $333/month and pushed it toward me. It read: “Got to get out of here.”
I was desperately trying to apply a blend of the cheerleader’s message with that of the Chinese character: every problem, a beyond-fabulous opportunity. But to arise in a room full of seated investors — now deadened by an overwhelm of enthusiasm, whose bottom-line dedication was respect for the evening’s honoree — was fraught with veritable risk. If there was a lesson embedded in financial collapse, it was that things do indeed change – and sure enough the pack was suddenly herded to either the booth where the coach was, in good capitalist fashion, signing copies of her book. Or to the dessert table.
Chris and I made a dash for the apple cobbler. Then in a wink we were outside the rarified vacuum of investment banking, trundling up Old Santa Fe Trail in an army Jeep, on gas possibly manufactured as an excellent investment in Brazil, toward a winter as uncertain as it had been 80 years before. I kind of wished I still had a Hudson Bay coat.
CHELLIS GLENDINNING is the author of six books, including My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization and Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy. She lives in Chimayó, New Mexico.