Shut down Wall Street

The lack of hope and opportunity for the youth, the elderly, and people of colour make this movement long overdue.

Abira Ashfaq October 28, 2011
In the mid 90s I found myself in a wall street job because of a lack of really knowing what to do. It had its perks; it allowed me to live in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Par0k slope area for two years of my life, dine on sushi, and later take only the bare minimum loans for law school.  So much in the world has changed since then.  

I remember a chilly October lunch date with a girl who worked at Lehman.  She was in a black suit and we both had a lunch of steamed rolls.  She wanted to know how she could get a job at my bank.  I, being as useless an analyst there could ever be, was simply plotting my exit, and developing a deep seated hatred for all the bankers, and how they sneered at the rest of the world.

She died later.  She was on the 94th floor of the World Trade Centre when the planes crashed on September 11.  She was a sweet girl, and I was very sad when I heard the news.

I was sad also when a banker who looked like Al Pacino died.  He was good looking, and good to his secretary. Often that was enough to like someone in this despicable place where people played games within a deranged hierarchy.  And specially this secretary, an aspiring, ageing actor - who I once found crying in a stall.

There was this one ape of a pink man, who liked burgers and french fries and turkey cheese sandwiches for lunch every day.  He walked around the floor insulting and picking on a few of his underling colleagues.  He was assisted by his cronies.  There was the man who liked being mothered by his Jamaican secretary and when he once yelled at her in crunch time, all hell broke loose.  And things weren't calm until he apologized to her and bought her a gift.

There was the man who had a soft-spot for women, and specially with Asian women because, as he admitted once, "they were eager to please."  There was the intelligent Princeton graduate who really should have been a civil servant, but found himself crunching numbers for stupid mortgage backed deals - and was slowly getting enticed by the money.  There was the Jewish man with short arms and reptilian eyes.  He made himself a mentor to women and spoke non-stop; he once said:
"the pay checks keep coming and after a while you stop to even notice."

There was the Indian woman who wanted to be a freshly minted American citizen.  And the day she did become one, she came in her knee length dress, and said, "I am a freshly minted American citizen."  That was before her water broke - in the office- after which she became a mother and was the only banker who left at 6 pm.  There was the "short man" trader with a personality and temper that more than compensated for his lack of height.  He tried to take me under his wing - picked up a phone and said:
"this is how we get things done."

There was the Puerto Rican receptionist who was 26 and beautiful, and sat there all day smiling in her thick make up.  She told me the sex addict had propositioned to her.  When I told her that was absolutely disgusting she said these bankers are very rich, and its an easy way to make money.  There was the Harvard graduate who was trying so hard to be a VP.  She wore conservative clothes and constantly worried about securing her advancement - and was probably an embarrassment to her sorority. And then there was my nemesis.  I hated him with such a passion.  He tormented me, forced me to come in on a day when I had called in sick in the morning, constantly grumbled that I did no work, and complained about me to superiors.

I did no work.

After the first two months, I had withdrawn to my cubicle and wrote on my computer - petitions, essays, stories, emails.  They all knew it but couldn't fire me because I was there for a two year internship anyway, and I did what was asked of me.  What I did not do was pant like a dog, wag my tail, and suck up to my bosses, and beg them to keep me working all weekend so that I may succeed.  What irked this jerk, was that that despite my lack of ambition, I was liked enough by enough people who mattered.  Also by the the sex addict who wielded power on account of his evil genius - and who, luckily for me, was a total sexist, and his internalization of gender roles was so deep that he never expected me to do anything more financially meaningful than look pretty.  He would smile furiously when he ran into me in the hallway. He would thank me graciously for getting him a document, and mumble something incomprehensible and look irrepressibly shy.   And I would think to myself, despite all, I don't mind him so much.  A middle-aged Portnoy, just less socialist.

My nemesis tried to get me into closed room with three bosses so they could assert to me the seriousness of my situation.  He was one of the cronies of the burly pink guy.  I need to buck up.  I needed to show more enthusiasm.  It was really my politics he could not stand.  They had read my letter to a magazine that did a photo shoot of  college girls naked, and I called the whole idea misogynist.  He was on to me and he could not believe I was getting away with it.  He must have had a harsh Italian childhood, beaten for not working hard enough, fed bootstrap stories, pulled away from video games by the ear; and here he saw me, a spoiled college grad, getting away with grounds for dismissal. He brought his two-year-old child to work one day on "Take Your Daughters" to work day (which he hated because it was liberal) and she ran up to me and clasped my leg.  He was saying to everyone how the first words he taught her were, "Big government is the problem."  Much to his horror and my surprise - I looked down at this blue eyed kid and picked her up.

My nemesis did have his moments.  He came to my cubicle and told me my ID picture was nice with a look of big brotherly lust.  He wanted to debate with me, and disabuse me, but did not know where to start.  He once saw me with my sister and was most inquisitive about what it was I had handed to her out side the building we worked in.  One fine day, I was able to leave, and it must have been the most joyous day of my life.  Suddenly, I felt insecure financially - crashed on the floor of a friends house in Jersey City, alarmed at how Newport's, menthol cigarettes, were being bluntly targeted to the city's lower income Latinos.

When I returned two years later for a job on the same street, but this time with the ACLU doing 1st amendment work, I was paranoid I would run into one of the bankers - especially when I bought one dollar coffee at the small grocery stores owned by old Italians.  I was addicted to the cheap, burnt sweet flavour.  I thought I would see them.  They would mock me and jeer at me subtly for being a student - and in debt. My class of analysts probably made a $60,000 bonus, and rented swanky apartments, and here I was surviving on french fries and rice, bought at bulk rates from Indian stores, and commuting from Jackson Heights on the seven train, and then switching for the South Ferry.

No one can afford to live in New York without a high paying job.  Not then.  Not now.  When I visited recently, my friend told me that there is no future for the youth.
"Harlem is deep into the informal economy, and people have no jobs."

On our way to the Bronx zoo, we saw people selling bottles of water, drugs, services, and decrepit neighbourhoods with businesses shutting down.  Poor neighbourhoods were being gentrified - and a million dollar building stood in the midst of Harlem driving poor and middle class people further into fiscal fringes.  People had no jobs or worked part time, on contingency basis, as contract staff. She told me when Trader Joe's, a grocery announced, they were hiring,  there were lines that were several blocks long because supposedly they provide good benefits.

Sooner than later the 99% were going to emerge with force against the wall streeters who control power and resources, and who hold the peoples' future mortgage by their unfair and immoral trade practices.  They sell and resell debt; they exploit people by making money off home loans, credit card, student and car loans.  They make money by creating nothing that is tangible or of utility.  They do not manufacture; they do not provide essential services; they do not even entertain.  But they make so much money, and charge exorbitant travel and food expenses just to appear legitimate. They are parasites.  And now that they have run out of ways to make profits that would subsidize their hedonistic ultra consumerist lifestyles, they want to privatize social security.

This movement is long overdue.  It hits at one of the core problems in the economy. The utter lack of hope and opportunity for the youth, the students, the elderly, the women, the under and unemployed, the people of colour, the majority. The Occupy Wall Street protest was inevitable.

I can imagine what my ageing wall streeters must be saying.  They must still be absorbed in their exorbitant lunches and their limo rides home, now with security; they must be dismissive, making derogatory comments about the protesters, doubting their plans and vision, calling them hypocrites, losers, lazy, salvation army dressers - and being so damn unintelligent and greedy - they never wonder whether they are on the wrong side.

Will there be a fight, a siege, an ambush?  Will the protesters march out of Bowling Green station and force the buildings shut, put a sledge hammer to the stock exchange building?  Will the gates get boarded up?  Will Wall Street be shut down? Will the bankers be sent home in shame on the new jersey transit so they can watch beer and not bet on football as they wait for summons and subpoenas on fraud and economic crimes against humanity?  Will the yuppie bankers with the million dollar flats in Soho go into refugee camps in Pennsylvania?

It won't take long because the fissures are so apparent, but it will take time and sustained work.  Its an amazing time to be alive.

PS: I have changed peoples' details.

This post originally appeared here. 
Abira Ashfaq A law teacher in Karachi who works with human rights organisations. She tweets @oil_is_opium. (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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