Brokedown Palace

By Todd Harrison  SEP 11, 2006 8:13 AM

Five years after the fact, America is engaged in a complicated war, edging into isolationism and dancing through a delicate global standing.

 


It's a far gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, mama many worlds I've come
Since I first left home


(Grateful Dead)



It was a beautiful, crisp September morning and I remember looking up from my Wall Street Journal to watch the sunrise over the East River. It was a mindful moment, a pause to reflect on the beauty of the landscape and my place in life. That was the first thing I remember about 9/11, how sharp the horizon was as dawn illuminated lower Manhattan. I had hundreds of positions and millions of dollars in risk waiting at my downtown digs. None of that mattered as my driver navigated the FDR and I soaked in the scene.

I was the president of a $400 million hedge fund and, as bearish as we were on the macro landscape, we were positioned very long heading into that fateful day. As we settled into our turrets and downed our second cup of coffee, Nokia pre-announced a negative quarter and the stock shot 5% higher. That was a tell-tale sign that the market was washed out, proof positive that traders were caught short and scrambling to cover. We pressed our bet, buying SPY and QQQ hand over fist, twisting the knife into the sides of the bears who had overstayed their welcome.

The first boom shook our office walls, causing me to look over the desk and ask “What the hell was that?” Brad Berkowitz, Jeff’s brother, yelled “The World Trade Center’s on fire!” as we turned to see flames raging and black smoke billowing into the clear blue sky. At 40 Fulton Street, we were a few short blocks away from the towers and, on the 24th floor, we had a bird’s eye view. The mainstream media had yet to pick up the story, which only added to the confusion we felt as we watched it unfold in real-time.

I turned to scribe some vibes on TheStreet.com, posting commentary at 8:47 AM. “A bomb has exploded in the WTC,” I wrote, “may God have mercy on those innocent souls.” As the initial shock began to fade, we noticed that the S&P and NASDAQ futures were swinging wildly in 10, 20 handle clips. We made some sales and, as reports made the rounds that a small commuter plane was to blame, scooped back our inventory at lower levels. All of this occurred in a matter of minutes, if that.

I’ve since learned that the reason we couldn’t look away from the towers was that our mind had no way to process the information. That, no matter how hard we tried to mentally digest what our eyes were seeing, there was no place to “file” the images of human beings swan diving off the top of the World Trade Center. It’s an image that I can’t shake to this day, bodies falling through a maze of confetti like ants falling from a tree. It’s a sight that I wish to God I never saw.

We huddled by our window with our mouths agape as somebody repeated “Oh my God!” behind us. The second plane hit, circling behind the tower and entering it from behind. In slow motion, the ka-boom again shook our foundation as the fire ball exploded directly towards us. I thought to myself “this is how I’m going to die” as we gathered our staff and ushered them towards the stairwell. I raced to my turret and quickly wrote “I’m evacuating our building…” and sent it to my editor, unsure if it would ever get there or if I would ever see it.

The Duck and Cover

Our staff left the building and instinctively ran towards the seaport. I remember thinking that, worst case, we could dive in the East River and take our chances there. It was total chaos and mass confusion as we overheard someone say that the Pentagon was attacked. The Pentagon? Didn’t little missiles rise from the ground and shoot anything that threatened the air space surrounding our defense hub? With no cell phones or PDA’s, as a function of the Verizon telephony being taken out, we had no voice of reason to assuage our fears. We were, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the world.

I tried to put on a brave face and calm our staff, who were clearly and understandably shaken. My mind was racing as I thought of friends who worked in the towers and resisted an internal urge to run up the block to find them. I remember feeling a sense of obligation to the employees of Cramer Berkowitz and decided to stay with our crew. As it would turn out, it was a wise decision although I was riddled with guilt and thoughts of selfishness.

The crumbling began with a whisper and grew to a growl as the first tower imploded. We were on an island unto ourselves, both in terms of location and communication, and naturally assumed that another wave of attacks had begun. Everyone scrambled as hysteria broke out, scattering our personnel among thousands of confused people as the wave of white smoke approached. I’m not sure how my partner Jeff and I found each other but we somehow connected and ran north along the river. I eyed the water to our right as a precaution, it was an option that I wanted to keep open as we broke into a sprint.

We somehow flagged a taxi that was occupied by a young woman, hysterical and confused. Jeff quickly offered the cab driver $500 to take us out of the city while I tried to calm this stranger who was now on the verge of hyperventilating. Between sobs, she told me that her boyfriend worked in an office that was high up in the towers. As I looked out the rear-view window and saw that one of the towers was already gone, I was at a loss for words. How could I ease her pain? What was happening to our country? Is this really happening at all?

I eventually found my way to my home on 57th Street as lines formed at convenience stores. People were already hoarding bottled water, canned food, flashlights and other necessities. I had none of that and I didn’t care. I just wanted to find my family, my friends, myself. I needed to understand what happened and establish a framework of relativity, a place where I could begin to assess and digest my experience.

A half hour after I arrived home, my mother crashed through the door and held me tighter than I’ve ever been held. The images on TV portrayed downtown Manhattan as a cloud of smoke, a disaster area with body parts strewn like yesterday’s laundry spread across the bedroom floor. Close friends began to gather at my apartment. Five at first, then ten, then twenty. It was the other side of disaster, a dose of humanity in a sea of horror, a refuge of love in a maze of confusion.

I somehow found myself at my desk, looking for a semblance of normalcy and a familiar setting. Instinctively, I began to write this column, which was published that evening on TheStreet.com.

The Day the World Changed
By Todd Harrison
09/11/2001 08:33 PM EDT


Numbness. Shock. Anger. Sadness.

As I sit here with family and friends, awaiting calls that may never come, I am drawn to my keyboard -- and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it's an attempt to somehow release the tremendous sadness that's locked inside me. Maybe I have hopes that sharing my grief will stop these images ... stop the shaking. It's ten hours after the fact, and I still feel the "boom" that shook my trading room. I can still see the bodies falling from the first struck tower, one after another, as we gathered by the window in shock and confusion. I can still hear the screams in my office "Oh my God! Oh my God!, Oh my God!" as the second plane hit ... and the image of that fireball rolling toward us will forever be etched in my mind.

I often write that "this too shall pass," but I will never be the same. Maybe that's a selfish thought, as tens of thousands of people won't have the opportunity to put this behind them. Each time my phone rings and I hear the voice of a friend who I feared was lost, I break into tears. Every time I get a call from someone who "just wanted to make sure" I'm still here, I'm reminded of how lucky I am to share relationships, memories and a past.

I know many of you read my column to make money, but do yourself a favor and surround yourself with loved ones this evening. Some of the wealthiest people I know don't have two dimes to rub together, and a few of them will never see their children, parents or friends again.

More than anything else, I wish I'd kept my date to share a drink with my good friend at Cantor Fitz. I was tired, opting to grab a good night's sleep rather than down a couple of apple martinis with my sage friend. I'm sitting by my phone, brother, waiting for your call.

Drinks are on me.

Picking up the Pieces

It's hard to believe that it's been five years since that fateful day. Many of my friends who shared similar experiences dealt with their grief differently. Some left the business entirely, opting to enjoy a life where bells wouldn't bookend their days. Some got married and others divorced as the specter of death made them rethink their path in life. I know folks who fell into drug or alcohol addictions with hopes that self-medication would dull their pain. We each did what we could. We all did what we had to.

My personal path was reflexive and subconscious, guided by motivations I didn't fully understand at the time. I spent one more year with our fund, which lost our offices in the attack, before stepping down and shifting course. Most of my peers thought I was crazy to relinquish such a high profile and lucrative position and perhaps I was. I wanted to do more with my life and create an existence where my self-worth wasn't dictated by a daily P&L. Trading, for all its value and virtues, offers little in the way of social redemption.

When people ask me when I started Minyanville, I tell them that it was September 11th, 2001. While we didn't incorporate until the following year, the events of that day clearly served as the subconscious genesis. It wasn't easy--in fact, the following few years were the most difficult of my life as I simultaneously launched a smaller fund, was the only writer on Minyanville and created The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children's Education in honor of my grandfather and best friend, who had died a few months prior.

I was hiding in work and building my vision but lost sight of why I made the decision in the first place. I didn't realize it at the time but, for a period following the attacks, I suffered from depression. I worked eighteen to twenty hours a day and, when I wasn't hiding in the familiarity of business, I locked my doors, turned off the phone, closed my blinds and climbed into the dark confines of my bed. I didn't see my friends or seek the comfort of family. I just wanted to pass time until I was again too busy to digest the overwhelming pain and sadness that had saturated my soul.

I have never told this story before and wavered on whether to do so now. I've always believed I was humble, particularly in a business where humility is viewed as a weakness, but this is different---this is pulling back the curtain to expose my darkest and most vulnerable hour. I put on a brave face each day largely because I knew that others looked to me for guidance and strength. Ironically, it was that purpose--that self-imposed obligation--that allowed me to summon the strength to pull myself out of that seemingly endless abyss.

I no longer define my time in calendar years. For me, and for many others, annual cycles are now marked by each passing September. I often tell people that New York City, America and the world forever changed on that fateful day although, each time I say that, I can't help but wonder if it's me who's changed. I'm not the same person I was before our innocence was shattered but, in many ways, I know that I'm a better man because of it.

Life Goes On

They say that something good comes from all things bad and I truly believed that the attacks of September 11 would galvanize our collective perspective and demonstrate the tenacity of our resolve. Rival Wall Street firms supported each other to allow the capital markets to effectively operate and show the world that the fabric of our society would not waver in the face of terrorism. Petty differences were put on hold as competition was replaced with humanity that shared a common bond. Unfortunately, that dynamic only lasted a few short months before personal agendas, corporate mandates and government policy emerged to bifurcate societal lines.

Yes, the world is indeed a different place these days. Five years after the fact, America is engaged in a complicated war, edging into isolationism and dancing through a delicate global standing. The fiscal and monetary policies that were implemented to stimulate the economy have instead created lopsided structural imbalances that will shoulder future generations with immense financial obligations. Perhaps the script was written on the back of the bubble but the debt-induced demand has yet to morph into the legitimate economic expansion that policy makers had hoped for.

We can talk about this now, which is an evolution from discourse that was once considered heresy. For years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the lines of distinction between patriotism and bullishness were blurred. Yet here we are, with our brave soldiers overseas still searching for weapons of mass destruction and Osama Bin Laden, left to wonder if we're indeed safer than we once were. I don't know the answer to that question and that's not really the point. I simply know that, five years ago today, I would have hoped that we would be in a more stable and unified place.

Today is a day of reflection for many, a day of remembrance, a day of personal introspection. I emerged from my personal, self-imposed isolationism long ago and have embraced the things I once took for granted. I often say that it should never take something bad to make us realize we've got it good and that, for me, is the blessing of 9/11. I cannot say that this anniversary is welcome and would be remiss if I didn't share that a certain sadness will always accompany this day. But if the greatest wisdom is bred as a function of pain, I can only hope that, as a nation and as a human race, we will remain mindful that we are blessed with the opportunity to evolve and the experience to remember.

May peace be with you.


R.P.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at todd@minyanville.com.

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