How A Garbage Man Became Your Broker

(this was not in the truck)

(Cosmo was not in the truck that day)

Raunchy porn magazines littered the dashboard. It smelled like rotting fruit, stale beer and dirty diapers.

“The other driver loves to keep the dirty stuff. He picks it out of people’s trash” he said. “I wouldn’t touch those without gloves on.”

We were 19 sitting in the sweltering cab of a recycling truck in suburban Chicago, in August. The grass was tall in the ditches next to the roads and the humidity held our sweat to our skin beneath our shirts. Something for the stench to cling.

He invited me “On The Route” so I went, now regretful, nose burning.

recycling_truck.jpg

(what goes around comes around)

My friend confessed “it’s a good job but I don’t want to be doing this my whole life. I just can’t go to school. It’s a waste of time. Who are these teachers? They just throw stuff at you. This is real education.”

(all the gold, guns and girls. is it ever gonna be enough?)

(all the gold, guns and girls. is it ever gonna be enough?)

My friend was the epitome of the James Dean type. Every girl ogled him but he was faithful to his girlfriend, contrarian, reckless but smart (once crashing his Dad’s new Mustang while driving underage, ditching it to avoid the police), questioning authority philosophically, appearing always like he stepped off the pages of a JCrew catalog (the most influential mail order of the time). I was not much like him, but we became best friends. I wanted to start a jazz club in Chicago called “Birdland.” We were obsessed with jazz. We had big plans. Always circling around how we’d leave our mark on the world, not sure how to start. Uncertain when our break would come, chasing.

We’d both dropped out of high school the same year. I tested into college and he went to work driving a recycling truck.

(we wanted to go back in time)

(we wanted to go back in time)

He drove the route every day while I tore through classes, tripling credit hours to graduate early.

But I didn’t have a job plan. I felt like I should. Anxiety was growing.

Sitting in the parlor of the house I shared with 4 girls and another guy, watching ticker symbols stream on CNBC two weeks before graduation, I had a flash: “can someone trade for a living?”

I graduated in December with two interviews at brokerage firms.

“Hey man I’m going downtown Monday to interview. You should come.”

“What are you talking about. I’m not going with you to your job interview.”

“Dude, it’s just an interview. You can introduce yourself and see if they have anything else. Seriously, no big deal. Come with.”

He agreed.

We took an early train from Barrington and met a guy in the office of Eurospread Associates, where some of my cousins un-coincidentally worked. “I didn’t expect two?” he said. We acted dumb and shrugged. He ushered us onto the trading floor. “People are gonna say shit. Just ignore them. Don’t take it personally.”

It was nothing we’d seen before: mass chaos, colored jackets, hands in the air, faces screaming, spitting and sweating. The floor was littered with paper.

Traders & clerks laughed and pointed at us chanting “fresh meat,” flipping trading cards our way like flat paper bullets.

We were overwhelmed by stimulus, captivated. You could feel the money.

“I didn’t know we were hiring two” one broker said.

My friend and I looked at each other “I guess you are” I said.

“Okay, fill out these forms. You can start January 3rd. I’ll put one of you in Yen and the other in the LIBOR pit. You’ll start as runners.” He got Yen, I got LIBOR.

We rolled out of the building laughing, high-fiving. “What just happened?!”

Two weeks later we walked onto the CME floor and started our future.

A year later I was hired at Michael Stoltzner’s Futrex Trading, training with Jeff Goldman (one of the largest EuroOptions traders) on weekends and went on to develop trading systems at Specialists DPM and Edge LLC until I left to pursue my dream on the West Coast.

People will tell you the better path is the path in pursuit of something they can see. The path that looks good on paper and reflects well when you tell your new girlfriend’s parents. They don’t like recycling trucks they like money and power and sophistication and houses in suburbs.

But when you climb the unfamiliar trail in front of you to the top of the first mountain, only then can you find the next mountain beyond.

16 years and witness to suicides, rehabs, parties, stories, more money than God, investigations, lawsuits, lies and fistfights, he’s a successful options broker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. He didn’t need a college degree to get educated but he had to have the guts to hang on.

(this place smells like the cab of a recycling truck on a hot day)

(this place smells like the cab of a recycling truck on a hot day)

And I’ll tell you the secret they don’t want you to know: it’s not the cab of a recycling truck but it’s still filled with raunchy porn, smells like stale beer, rotting fruit and dirty diapers. There’s just more money and more pixels, and looks better on TV.

Me? I just like to watch.

Advertisements

The Phone Was Dead – 5 Things I Learned From September 11, 2001

20130911-180110.jpg
(we saw this outside our office window)

We pulled up the blinds of our office window on the 23rd floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange building as an FA18 fighter jet burned past.

All air traffic was halted. The Chicago skyline was silent except for the jets loaded with live missiles and the haze wallowing over the South Side.

We could see the pilot’s head through the cockpit canopy.

An hour earlier we arrived for work. I had moved from trading on the floor of the exchange to our office. We had the news on all day, starting at 5am.

CNN showed smoke pouring out of a hole in the tower.

The second plane hit.

We’ve all seen this 1,000, perhaps 10,000 times.

But it was different for me.

On the floor of the CBOE our pit was responsible for making markets – offering retailers and street traders prices so they could buy and sell options with us.*

Several times each day we were on the phone with traders and brokers working from the towers in New York.

20130911-175910.jpg
(they where there on Monday, then they were gone)

We talked to Cantor Fitz every day.

They were mostly professional conversations, but during slow times there was small talk. How’s your wife? Where’s your daughter going to college? Dirty jokes were shared. Pranks were played. “We have to get drinks when you come to New York” they said.

The drinks were never gotten.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone I saw jumping from the towers on TV were the guys on the phone.

But when we saw the fighter jet blast by, a switch flipped and I knew it wasn’t an accident.

I left.

The El** in Chicago was packed with people and the one guy with a portable jogging radio (pre-twitter and smartphone) relayed the reports to our train car while everyone else was silent.

“Oh my god the second tower fell”

“The Pentagon is still burning”

“There may be other explosions”

People were crying. Cell phones weren’t working.

We were trapped in the train car alone with each other. Strangers were hugging. It’s the only time in life that I’ve been with a group of complete strangers and we looked each other in the eyes with pure empathy. Everyone cared.

It was 15 minutes on the Brown Line to Armitage in Lincoln Park, it may as well have been 15 hours.

My best friend Rich, his friend Brad and I went to Mongolian Barbecue and drank beer.

We talked about the people we knew in NY, and what was important to us.

Some of the guys in NY were lucky – missed a train, got a late breakfast, had the flu – and lived.

But we were alive, too.

I was 23 and had been trading almost 4 years. I felt old. I was stressed out all the time. I was driving up to 10 hours on weekends to get away from concrete and corn field.

I was afraid. I wasn’t happy, but uncertainty seemed scarier.

I also realized I wasn’t in control. A bomb could go off, a plane could crash, a train could derail, a zillion other things could kill me that day. I’m surprised more people don’t die by all the things that could kill us.

I told the firm partners I was moving to Oregon where there were mountains, rivers and oceans. Changing my life took me 10,000 strides closer to happiness.

I realized 5 things on September 11, 2001 but took 10 years to understand:

1. We all care – Everyone cares but we don’t extend empathy to strangers very often because we’re all fighting our daily battles. Extending empathy to a stranger once every day makes me realize there are bigger things at play than me.

2. My world is made up and I’m in control – Everything in my world is a result of my own mind and my own decisions; fear can be fought with ideas and ingenuity. Ask “how can I do this” and write down ideas. This will empower you and build your own reality the way you want it to be. Everything is an experiment.

3. I’m not in control – We can’t control others, so any day could be your last. I try to make sure the people I love know I love them, and I try not to kill anyone.

4. Happiness is a choice – Losing things can make you realize what you had and what you have left over. When I feel poor or constricted I count the bounty: there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road, food in every market and every little diner across the country. Thousands of new businesses started every day. Count the bounty.

5. Have faith – Believe in something. Believing is the first step to finding purpose in life.

At the end of the day we tend to think we’re here alone, but then something horrific happens and we realize we’re here together.

But we’re alive and we can pass the torch of those in the past by being better than we were yesterday.

To my friends and acquaintances and the families of Cantor Fitz, my thoughts are with you.

20130911-180258.jpg
(thanks to Mr. Lutnick, Cantor Fitz has thrived since 2001)

* We made the market for UAL – United Airlines – and 10 other underlying stocks.
** The El is Chicago’s subway system. It’s short for Elevated Rail.

Who Matters When You Want to Get Rich

(these people are all rich and famous, but do they matter?)

(these people are all rich and famous, but do they matter?)

They were rich.

I went to his house on weekends so he could teach me options trading. He and his partner were two of the biggest independent options traders in Chicago at the time. They made between $12 and $40 million per year. I wanted to learn from the best and maybe trade for them.

But he wasn’t free. He was drinking a couple years earlier and hit a baby trailer in his Porsche on his way home. The baby died but was revived and survived with a fractured leg and head injury.

His legal probation is over, but his mental probation never will be.

(my first career was in this trading pit at the chicago mercantile exchange)

(my first career was in this trading pit at the chicago mercantile exchange)

I went to a party.

It was 1998. I was a $30,000 per year trading clerk with gold dreams in my eyes. A big trader owned a 4,000 square foot loft on the near west side of Chicago. It had a basketball court and in the middle was a room made of black plywood. It had a door, and a bouncer, but I was with a well-known girl from the trading floor so we got in.

On the coffee table was a Scarface-sized mound of cocaine. Scantily-dressed models splayed out on two couches. My friend dug in, I declined. Not because I wasn’t curious but because I’d never done it and was afraid I’d embarrass myself. I didn’t want to be the uncool kid that embarrassed himself at a rich guy party. I was 20 and it was my first career; I didn’t want to mess it up.

(tony montana may have been at this party)

(tony montana may have been at this party)

His kids and I were friends in grade school.

He sold his trading company for $200M. He was renowned as being one of the brains in the business. He was once a minimum wage security guard, then a truck driver, before becoming a rich trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. His wife had MS.

I was searching for advice, and he gave counsel. I wanted advice on trading, I wanted advice on life. He was religious and found messages from God in everything around him. I wanted him to bankroll me so I could trade. I wanted him to teach me his secrets. I wanted him to adopt me so I could be rich. But all we talked about were the religious messages from his two books and his wife’s MS. He’d give all his money to take her pain away.

I taught his son to climb and I knew right away he was a trader.

He didn’t understand how I knew he was a trader when I asked him if he was. He was owner of one of the oldest clearing firms at the Chicago Board of Trade. A family man that kept his nose clean and his work ethic strong. We found some common friends like my rich friend who’s wife had MS. He gave me advice. He gave me a book about Jesus. There is a lot of Jesus in the Midwest.

He asked me if I’d found God.

He was once probably the biggest trader at The Merc.

He spent all his money on hookers and cocaine, then crack and maybe heroine. Seven girls lived in his condo at Presidential Towers. Now he was my coworker trading S&P futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He spent all his money and was “getting by” on Jesus and an $80,000 salaried job working for some people whom he’d made a lot of money for in years past. He fell off the wagon a lot and it tended to happen around 17 year old girls.

I’ve met a lot of people. A lot of rich people. A lot of poor people. Addicted people, ego people, humble people, confused people, smart people. A few happy people.

I was climbing one weekend and my older friend Nick, a pilot and a trader at The Merc told me I needed to meet his friend. Chuck seems happy. He became a great friend and taught me an important lesson:

“When faced with the choice of choosing your path, choose the path with heart.”

(ask yourself: does this path have heart?)

(always choose the path with heart)

The path with heart is not the easiest path. Sometimes the path leads to riches and sometimes not. Often times your path is the most difficult. Definitely, your path is unique and no one else can live your path.

Our paths are often defined by the people we come across. It’s the people that truly matter.

Most people do not follow their path, they follow the expected path. This is not necessarily bad. It’s hard to figure out your own path. People will not always understand your path. They’ll say “I’ve never heard of that before” or “that doesn’t sound like it will work”. Sometimes the path is more traditional and clearly understood by many people. This is fine. Some paths will be understood. Other paths will not be understood. You will not understand your own path sometimes. I certainly don’t understand my path sometimes, but if there is a fork, and one direction does not have heart, I know that will not be my path.

Bob Marley says “every man think that his burden is the heaviest” mine definitely feels heaviest some days, but rarely. Especially in the dark when the future isn’t clear. But when I’m feeling heaviest, I ask not “does this path have riches” but “does this path have heart”.


(Bob Marley lived his path with heart)

Ask this of people. Ask this of jobs. Ask this of school and the things we do every day. Ask this of relationships. Having heart doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, it means that we have faith in and trust ourselves the most.

I’ve always followed paths with heart. When I was eighteen I had dreadlocks and a VW bus. I lived in it on weekends, climbing across the country. That path had heart.

When I was sixteen and dropped out of high school to go to college, it was scary, but it had heart.

When I was working as a clerk and learning how to trade, it had heart.

Now, years later, as I’m navigating the waters of new directions, there is more heart than ever.

I hadn’t recognized it until Chuck said it, but I’d always lived a path with heart, and to me it’s the only way.

So I quit my job with the trading firm with the converted ex-addict and went to Spain to win back a girlfriend. I rented a motorcycle and toured Tenerife with her. I borrowed a small J21 racing sailboat and sailed her along the coast. We backpacked across the country. I didn’t win, but I did. Today she is one of my favorite people and a close friend. That path took time to figure out its purpose and there were painful speedbumps along the way.

When I came back from Spain I started trading on my own, in the top-floor apartment my best friend Rich and I rented from his Polish grandmother, the building owner. I strapped a satellite dish to the side of the building, just above the beet, cabbage and tomato garden Baba tended, and fired up the five-screen trading system.

But when you start doing things on your own, people want you more. So two big traders recruited me to help them build trading systems at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. We built an arbitrage system cross-trading foreign equities vs the ADR comparable and offset those with foreign currency hedge transactions. We built another arb system to trade between pit-contracts and the Chicago Board of Trade digital contracts.

We went to the partner’s house.

We grilled tenderloin at his $5 million dollar summer estate designed by a famous architect on the Lake Michigan shore in Indiana before it burned a few years later. We drank a 1980 BV and played golf. They complained about never having worked so hard for so little money and talked about dinners with Chicago film critics. One of the partners was tall, and described as Robert Redford-esque. A rockstar-type Chicago socialite who’s wife was even more prominent on the scene. The other was short, fatter, balding and always angry. We really had nothing in common and my heart wondered what the hell I was doing.

I was 24 and after a long five years trading I decided the heart was gone. My heart was in the mountains and on the coast where I’d always wanted to live, running the pines and surfing the sea. So I left.

(my idea of the perfect place)

(my idea of the perfect place)

I’ve been lucky that my paths have had heart.

Every time. Every single time I have chosen the path without heart, it has not worked. Replacing heart with money or fun or peer pressure, or replacing my heart with someone else’s takes me down the wrong path. It’s much harder to get back on the path with heart than it is to stay on the path with heart, even though it’s difficult.

(this is how it feels when I don't follow the path with heart)

(if you don’t follow the path with heart, this might happen)

However, we are not on our paths alone. The thing that defines our paths are the people. Only relative to what other people are doing, does our path become relevant. We are helping them, hearing them, learning from them, ignoring them, competing against them and falling in love with them.

Riches can be in many forms. When we go against our path with heart, we will never find riches. We may find money, but we’ll never be rich. When we go with our path, Ww may be poor, but we’ll never be broke. When you want to really get rich, who is what matters. Who are you with? Do they have heart? Who are you learning from? Who are you avoiding? Who should you step away from? The riches we find when we travel our paths with heart are the riches that everyone wishes they find: happiness.

The people who matter are all of them: the addicts, the rich people, the poor people, the confused people, the models splayed out on couches, the fat mean people, the religious people, the mentors, the critics (by no means does their criticism matter, necessarily) and the happy people. They all matter in some way, as references along our paths, guiding us.

It’s hard when you meet someone to know how or if they will change your direction, but looking back it often becomes obvious what influence they had and what value they bring.

My friend would trade anything to have his wife as she once was. My former coworker would trade his hookers and dealers for a life of normal if he could get over his addiction. My friend would give all his money to get back the day he sideswiped the baby trailer. The riches in life are where our path sits waiting, and travels through the people we meet. It’s the Who that matters.

I try to hold onto those that matter. The ones that bring happiness, courage and authentic commitment to their path. Sometimes holding on is painful, but in the long run it’s really the only thing we have.

So who matters? We all do. And that is why our path is as important as anyone else’s and we must follow our paths when we know they have heart, to the best of our abilities, using each others as references and guides to our path with heart.

As Steve Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than our best is to sacrifice the gift”, and what we have to give is only worth anything if there are those people out there who matter to us. With them, we will be richer than our wildest dreams.

(my family are those who matter most to me)

(my family are the ones who matter the most to me)