Memoirs of a Minyan: Brokedown Palace
The purpose of the journey is the journey itself.
Editor's Note: "Memoirs of a Minyan" is a first-person account that follows Minyanville founder Todd Harrison as he weaves his way through Wall Street and beyond. This e-Book will publish each Wednesday over 18 weeks. Click here to read previous Memoirs chapters.
Chapter 12: Brokedown Palace
It was a beautiful, crisp September morning as I looked up from my Wall Street Journal to watch the sunrise over the East River. It was a peaceful 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 day broke on lower Manhattan.
Our hedge fund was bearish on the macro landscape but positioned for a counter-trend upside trade heading into that fateful day. As we settled into our turrets and downed our second cup of coffee, Nokia (NOK) pre-announced a negative quarter and the stock shot 5% higher.
It was a classic sign that the market was washed out, proof positive that traders were caught short and scrambling to cover. We pressed our bet, furiously buying SPY and QQQ, twisting the knife into the sides of the bears that were short and overstayed their welcome.
The first boom shook our office walls. I scanned my trading desk and asked, "What the heck was that?"
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 and, on the 24th floor, had a bird's eye view. The mainstream media had yet to pick up the story, adding to the confusion we felt as we watched it unfold in real-time.
I turned to write on TheStreet.com (TSCM), posting commentary at 8:47 am. "A bomb has exploded in the WTC. May God have mercy on those innocent souls."
The S&P and NASDAQ futures traded wildly in ten, twenty handle clips; we made some sales but when it was reported that a small commuter plane had crashed, we scooped our inventory back and then some.
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 minds had no way to process the information.
That, no matter how hard we tried to mentally digest what we saw, there was no place to "file" images of human beings holding hands and jumping from atop the World Trade Center.
It's an image I can't shake to this day, bodies falling through a maze of confetti; it's a sight that I wish to God I never saw.
We huddled by our window with our mouths gaped open as somebody repeated "Oh my God!" over and over again. The second plane circled behind the tower and entered it from behind. In slow motion, the KA-BOOM again shook our foundation as the fireball exploded directly towards us.
I thought to myself "this is how I'm going to die" as we gathered our staff and ushered the office towards the stairwell.
I stopped by my turret, quickly wrote, "I'm evacuating our building..." and sent it to my editors, unsure if they would ever receive it.
The Duck and Cover
Our staff left the building and ran towards the South Street Seaport. I remember thinking that worst case, we could dive in the East River and take our chances there.
We overheard someone say that the Pentagon was attacked. The Pentagon? Weren't missiles supposed to shoot down anything that threatened that air space?
The Verizon switching center was damaged and we had no cell phones or Blackberries, no voice of reason to assuage our fears. We were, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the world.
I thought of friends who worked in the towers and resisted an urge to run to ground zero to find them; I was riddled with anxiety but tried to put on a brave face to calm my shaken staff.
The crumbling began with a whisper and grew to a growl as the first tower imploded.
We were on an island unto ourselves in terms of location and communication and naturally assumed 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 Jeff and I found each other but we somehow connected and ran along the river towards the FDR. 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.
Jeff offered the cab driver $500 to take him out of the city while I tried to calm a woman in the back seat who was on the verge of hyperventilating. Between weeps, she told me her boyfriend worked in an office that was high up in the towers. As I looked out the rear-view window and saw one of the towers already gone, I was at a loss for words.
How could I ease her pain? What was happening to our country? Was it really happening at all?
I found my way to my home on 57th Street as lines formed at convenience stores. People were 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.
Thirty minutes later, my mother crashed through my front 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 on the bedroom floor.
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 in a maze of confusion.
I found myself at my living room desk, looking for a semblance of normalcy and a familiar setting.
Instinctively, I wrote this column, which was published 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 nights 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
People who shared a similar experience dealt with their grief differently. Some left the business entirely, opting to enjoy a life where bells didn't bookend their days. Some married and others divorced as the specter of death shifted their path in life. Folks fell into drug and alcohol addictions with hopes that self-medication would dull their pain.
We each did what we could; we all did what we had to.
I was wrought with numb fortitude and relied on instincts to make it from hour to hour and day to day. CNN asked me to appear on television that weekend. I didn't want to be in the public eye but as I digested the significance of what happened, I decided my message needed to be heard.
Stay calm, don't make emotional financial decisions and remain patient. The downdraft in equities when the market reopened would ultimately provide a better entry level than exit point.
I arrived at the studio mentally prepared to communicate a coherent stream of thoughts. I'd been on television a few times before but I was noticeably nervous, not because of the national audience but because of what my mind and spirit tried to digest. I kept telling myself that September 11th was just another day. Deep within, I knew it wasn't true.
I sat in the green room talking to Senator Chuck Schumer before my segment, impressed by his poise and humility. He was a kind man with gentle eyes, a ray of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It was something. Anything.
A producer ushered me to the roof where they were filming so downtown Manhattan could provide the backdrop. Smoke billowed from ground zero and the putrid smell of burnt flesh and melted steel continued to haunt me.
They put a microphone on my lapel and began the countdown. At the last second, they told me they had to cut away to an emergency message from Donald Rumsfeld.
"Hey, if I'm getting bumped, at least it was for the Secretary of Defense," I said forcing a smile at the producer, hoping that some levity would ease our obvious stress. There were no words in return, no acknowledgment, no eye contact. Everyone was in a state of shock, going through the motions but void of tangible presence.
I walked home across town as volunteers raced towards the still smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. Many of my friends gave blood or assisted the fire department with moral support and words of encouragement. I never found my way downtown, perhaps a subconscious admission that I wasn't ready to face the new paradigm.
Instead, I focused on familiar escapes: the markets, our hedge fund and my writing.
Someone once said that something good comes from all things bad. While there was no way I could tell at the time, that one thing for me was perspective. It would be a long, painful, and expensive lesson; one that almost left me littered on the side of the road.
The markets were closed for a week following September 11th and that gave Jeff, Matt and I an opportunity to map our strategy. We knew there would be a process of price discovery as there was no historical context to lean against and existing paradigms no longer applied.
"The market was very oversold heading into this event," I told my partners as I pointed to numerous technical indicators. "The selling panic will provide an opportunity to make some savvy purchases."
I took comfort in the familiarity of my trading acumen, a lucidity and instinct I learned to trust. We were looking at large losses when the markets reopened and I knew the first snapshot of our P&L would be ugly.
To make matters worse, our office telephone was severed during the attack and we had no command center to execute our protocol. Jeff found a space in Rye Brook, an hour north of the city-up to three hours, during traffic-and we set up shop.
Instead of eight screens and a telephone turret with direct lines to our brokers, we planned to take on the world with makeshift equipment. It wasn't optimal but it could have been worse -- it could have been a lot worse.
We discussed swallowing a bitter pill once the markets opened and flattening our portfolio, which would have still been up close to 10% for the year. "Ten percent isn't shabby," one of us opined, "Our investors will understand that given what we've been through, we need to retrench before assuming new and different risk."
The decision was finally made. "We'll be ready." I grabbed my rifle, dove into the foxhole and readied to shoot on sight.
The market opened the following week and quickly chopped 4% from our hard earned gains. Four percent, just like that, before our first trade was executed.
We were battered and bruised but took every punch the market threw. Each jab was painful. Each hook cost seven figures. We fought with everything we had and left it all in the ring before returning to our respective corners at night.
I didn't want to sleep -- every time I closed my eyes, the nightmares jolted me back to a reality I didn't want to accept. The feelings of guilt began to build.
How could I be so upset when others lost so much more?
Why did I cry each night after putting on a brave face, internally for my staff and externally on TheStreet.com?
How long would I be able to shoulder this load when I was melting from the inside out?
I wrote columns expressing my opinion that equities would rebound sharply after the initial plunge. We operated with the same plan at Cramer Berkowitz, carefully picking our spots and adding layers of exposure as a function of price.
History validated my view but it took much longer -- and the market fell much farther -- than I thought they would. Our performance slid into the mid-single digits and I twisted the knife into myself, wanting to suffer, somehow feeling I deserved to. As consuming as our losses were, they paled in comparison to the gaping wound that opened in my soul.
Someone once told me that energy isn't created or destroyed, it simply transfers from one form to another.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that process was already in motion.
Keep an eye out for next week's chapter of Memoirs of a Minyan.
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