NOTE: I penned this in 2016, while thinking about 2008. Sadly, it seems relevant in 2020…
The other day a new friend asked, “Do you miss your old job?”
I’d been asked that question a number of times and my typical response was — of course. I left behind a practice I’d built from scratch and lost the opportunity to work with clients and colleagues that had in many cases become good friends. Yes, absolutely, I miss it. Sometimes.
Perhaps the fact that I’d just looked up from the latest round of doom and gloom on the financial headlines front (oh, Brexit…) led me to a different response this time around. This poor person was subsequently subjected to my tale of the longest month of my life: September 2008.
At that time our eldest (now known as Thing #1) was closing in the lofty age of three, which made him a senior citizen in comparison to his younger brother (Thing #2) who would turn one mid-September. In addition to my wife and I, our home also housed two aged dogs with a plethora of old dog medical problems and a cat with a weight issue (sorry Mr. Kitty, it’s true). Our full house and its platoon of needy residents, like much of the rest of Houston, was plunged into darkness in the wee hours of September 13th, 2008 due to the incursion of Hurricane Ike (a name now synonymous with abuse on at least two unhappy fronts).
I should also note that a heatwave then descended upon our dark, swampy city on September 14th with an official high of 86 degrees. This wrinkle put even more pressure on our sweaty baby and our leaky dogs, as well as the patience of all involved. The mosquitos, however, were all for it.
This real-life storm/heatwave arrived just as the final shoe was dropping on what we now affectionately know as the sub-prime mortgage crisis. With the stock market already falling like a stone, the declaration of Lehman’s bankruptcy on the morning of September 15th pushed the financial world to the very brink. For those of who don’t already know my former career dealt with advising and managing 401(k) and pension plans. So, while this global financial crisis did horrific things (What’s that you say? Iceland is bankrupt?) the world over I, selfishly, viewed it through the prism of the questions and in many cases highly emotional concerns of dozens of clients and tens of thousands of their employees who counted on me to know the unknowable.
I didn’t get the Lehman news at home that morning as my entire neighborhood still had no power (and wouldn’t for nine more days). Instead, I learned of it whilst sitting in the wreckage of my office, which had somehow managed to avoid the blackout but had instead given up portions of its roof in the storm. The damage wasn’t terribly surprising for this aged, whimsically-maintained building (every time it rained we ended up with a dark, stinky pool under the stairs and the air conditioning system that must have dated back to one of the Great Wars as it only worked when it sensed that the Germans were coming). My office in the 2nd story of this two-story building had, therefore, received an unhealthy amount of rain during Ike (zero is actually the preferred answer for indoor rainfall) along with the related debris that came with it.
I watched my monitor, trying to process what I was seeing on the financial news sites as I spoke to the CFO of one of my clients regarding the apparent evaporation of a large portion of his company’s retirement plan. The bad news was coming in real-time, really fast. The CFO and I were trying to help each other navigate all of the near-term and long-term problems when my wildly eccentric landlord opened the door — without knocking — and strode in with a bottle of what appeared to be mildew remover in his hand. His white, uncombed hair stood straight up in some spots yet plastered to his head in others as he surveyed the scene with a grim look on his face.
He ignored me as he walked through the office, the 1/4 inch of water trapped in the carpet squelching under his feet, dodging the remains of a number of ceiling tiles which had absorbed as much dirty rainwater as the could before the bloat compelled them to fall to the floor and explode. The CFO still talking in my ear, my landlord raised the bottle of mildew cleaner and gave a couple of perfunctory squirts before he turned, still ignoring me, and headed back towards the door. I cupped the phone and cried out to him. He, at last, acknowledged my presence by turning and stating, “That outta do it.”
Though I tried my best for more information over the coming days this response was essentially all I got out of him. It appeared that the building, which was 100% owned by my erstwhile landlord, was either under (or simply “un”) insured. The roof might get fixed in a few months — maybe — and in the meantime, the airflow from the holes should help dry out the mold (an interesting theory to be sure).
I don’t know how many phone calls and e-mails I was involved with over this span. I do know that when I left my soupy, moldy office each day I returned to my hot, blacked-out home to try and aid my clan as best I could. What I really wanted was for my bride to take our boys somewhere safe, somewhere preferably with power and a ready supply of diapers, while I stayed back to deal with the work mayhem and the leaky dogs. This did, very briefly, occur but, against my pleading, my wife and boys returned after a couple of days in what my bride viewed as a show of support — but what to me felt like an attempt to claim the proceeds from my life insurance.
So, with my phone ringing non-stop with calls from my clients and their employees I had to:
- Find new office space — when many of the available buildings were also without power.
- Transfer my phone and utilities — a challenge when all power/telecommunication entities were a wee bit busy due to the thousands of homes and businesses without power. “Due to abnormally high call volumes your wait time may exceed … ∞.”
- Research the particular impact on the financial crisis on all of the various investments I was charged to watch over (my conservative nature helped in terms of the impact, but there was no doubt that things were bad and all of the talk was that it was only going to get worse).
- Schedule calls and meetings with client committees to discuss these ramifications — dealing with the fact that many of these individuals were also without power at their home and, in some cases, their offices.
- Find a generator so I could get a working refrigerator and, hopefully, a couple of working fans going at my house (a friend eventually drove one down from Oklahoma as all generators, and gas cans, in the greater Houston area were sold out and only available via gougers who hawked them on the back of trailers parked on the side of the street).
- Find an electrician to hook the generator up to my breaker box, and then spend 1 – 2 hours every 12 hours waiting in line at the gas station to fill up my few precious cans and make it through another half-day (gas was scarce and everyone was running a generator).
- Physically move my office and the furnishings that could be saved, dealing with the notification to all clients as well as the required regulatory filings.
- Deal with the 25 hormone-rich teenage boys the teenage girl two-doors-down had decided to invite over to her house one night towards the end of the blackout when her mother was away (in a scene worthy of a movie the boys rode the hoods of several of the cars involved as they peeled out down the street hurling obscenities at me and several of the other dads on the block who’d messed up their plan).
- And, of course, I had to fly to an out-of-state client’s office where, despite my entreaties to the contrary, the president of the company had elected to liquidate all of the assets in their pension plan — even the bond funds — so he could use 100% of the vastly diminished proceeds to buy gold. I had to make this flight as I was resigning in person to put a clear line of demarcation between my advice and his new financial plan, which he’d garnered from a late-night television show.
Eventually, the power came back and my employees and I settled into our new office. My home was once again habitable and I used all of the time I’d been spending in line at the gas station to continue researching and explaining the financial crisis — a crisis that has seemingly continued unabated.
“Do I miss it?”
At this point, my friend gracefully found a reason to go elsewhere, likely resolving to avoid chit-chat with me in the future, and I unclenched all of the muscles I had tensed while recounting this tale.