Abe Wasserman graduated from CCNY on a rainy early June day in 1986 with an undergraduate degree in economics. He never made the Dean’s List for superior academic achievement in a semester, a fact mentioned by his mother during the graduation lunch at the Stage Deli, but Abe was by then inured to his mother’s cruel honesty. After losing his job selling sporting goods at his uncle’s store in Rockefeller Center by reason of his unwillingness to tout the virtues of the $75 sneakers which he knew were Mexican knock-offs, Abe applied for and failed to land any employment while suffering the escalating sarcasms of his mother. Unable to afford to move out of the family apartment on the Grand Concourse, Abe finally took a position as assistant vice president of sales at the lower Manhattan stock brokerage firm of Carrington and Sons. His first day of work consisted of a brief interview with the senior Carrington, aka Hyman Ginsberg of the Bensonhurst Ginsbergs, who explained that Abe would start in the marketing department of Carrington and Sons under the tutelage of the estimable star salesman known in the firm as the Sucrose Kid.
The Sucrose Kid turned out to be an Italian guy from Staten Island. He weighed in something North of 300 pounds, smoked unfiltered Camels one after another, ate incessantly at his desk with the residue dropping off his fingers and untrimmed beard onto his plaid short-sleeved shirt, and his armpits smelled like fish heads rotting on a pier. Abe sat as close as he dared and did as he was told: listen to the phone calls on the extra phone, and do not, repeat absolutely do not, speak a single word.
The Kid was one of eight or ten senior vice presidents in what was called the sales floor of the brokerage house. Each spent the day cold-calling potential customers they did not know. Their pitch was always the same, based on a typed laminated card issued by the firm and propped up on each desk. Each call was placed to a name off a list given by the firm to each person at the start of each day. The calls began around 10 in the morning, New York being a late-starting city. The lists were prepared by “researchers” and consisted of membership lists of bar associations, large law or accounting firms, members of city clubs from directories taken off the desks of receptionists, members of the Chambers of Commerce purchased at four cents a name from the organizations and, when times were hard, pages of the phone book for identified postal zip codes which suggested affluence.
Whatever unsavory aspects possessed by the Kid, once his prospect picked up the phone the Kid was as smooth as he could be. Could that guy ever talk the talk. He was so sweet, so ingratiating on the phone, that he earned his moniker as the Sucrose Kid.
Now most of the vice presidents of varying seniority, working the bucket shop phone banks, followed the pitch on the card pretty closely. It was the tried and true way to build your book, the best way to ultimately make a cold call into a customer willing to designate you as his stock broker.
And all the people on the lists were always men; women were simply skipped over, although whether because they were presumed broke or because they were simply assumed to be someone’s secretary was not quite clear. Not that there were that many women to begin with….
The card left little to the imagination; the mantra of the firm was “trust the card, it isn’t hard.” Just do what the card says. Sure, 98% of the people you call will decline, most will just hang up, others will tell you that they were going to call the police, a surprising number yelled that they were going to report you to the FBI or the SEC or the US attorney. A few would lead you on, suggest they had only $100,00 to invest but what did you have in mind. Others would curse at you or, worse, ask you to call back later because you had called at an inopportune time seeing as how they were at that very moment engaged in sexual intercourse with your sister.
And there were slack times, many slack times. Lunches for many of the alleged upper crust prospects stretched for a couple of hours. Around 11 am or 5:30 pm were bad times as people might not have meetings but were anxious to get primed for lunch or for the subway home. Doctors were impossible in the mornings, doing rounds. CPAs were inaccessible from March 1 through mid-April. Lawyers you could never tell, but that’s life.
The card was so often used, in one or another variants, that it was amazing that people getting cold called all the time by boiler room brokers did not just hang up after the first five or ten words. And many did, but some listened and some small percentage got hooked; the theory was that the more calls you make, the better your chances of getting a sale. The card read:
“Good [morning/afternoon/evening, Mr _________. I won’t take more than a minute of your time, I know you are busy. This is NOT a sales call, I’m not selling you anything. Just wanted to chat with you, _____[try first name] – can I call you _________[first name]? Thanks.
So, [first name], we at Carrington follow a lot of stocks and every once in a while we see what we think is a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a really good situation. We keep our eye on the market, and we have our special sources, if you know what I mean. Well, I just wanted your permission, if we happened to see some special opportunity, something that we think is in your sweet spot, just right for your portfolio, in say a month or two, I just wanted to ask if it would be all right to just call you and share that opportunity with you. No obligation of course. Is that okay with you?
[If yes, follow up] That’s great, _____[first name]. Just to be sure I don’t waste your time, let me confirm your stock interests. Tell us again the kinds of investments you have made and how they are doing. [Make note of answers]
[If caller seems nervous about giving you the information] Oh look, as your broker whatever you tell me is confidential, we here at Carrington have been representing some of the wealthiest people in New York, of course I cannot reveal the names of our clients, but here at Carrington discretion is the better part of valor if you know what I mean.
Well, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Now you may not hear from us for a few weeks, maybe longer, but just wanted to introduce our firm and establish a brokerage relationship with you. Thanks for your time and best regards to your wife, uh, sorry her name is ??? [pause, record name of wife on prospect card].”
In the background, Abe could hear all the other vice presidents pretty much adhering to the script, but the Sucrose Kid didn’t really stay strictly to what it said on the card. And he varied his pitch, right from the start, not based on anything about the customer’s information, but just, as he said, to “keep it fresh.” He might start with a “look, I wanted to talk to you but my phone is ringing off the hook so I gottta make this quick,” or with a “your friend told me to call you and any friend of your friend is a friend of mine.” Or he might simply say, “look, my stock brokerage firm tells me to chat you up and try to sell you something, but we are busy men and ought to get right down to business.” Once he started with “didn’t I meet you a couple of weeks ago, you know, was it the Yankees game, your name is so familiar.” Usually he would switch to the “I’ll call you later” script but sometimes, if he felt the love, he’d just go right for it: “Look I have only 450 shares of XYZ Corporation in my allocation, and I thought of you and wasn’t sure but you seem like a nice guy so just tell me how many shares and I’ll put you on the line with someone from my staff to get your details, set you right up.”
But it wasn’t all about the pitch, it was something about the Kid’s tone, the sincerity pouring off his lips, oozing into the mouthpiece of his cradled black handset, dripping palpably through the wire and dropping ever so smoothly and sweetly into his listener’s ears that caught Abe’s imagination. “He’s making love to someone he doesn’t even know and he is going to be rewarded with riches and thankfulness,” Abe thought. He couldn’t wait to get onto his own telephone and try it himself. Sure, he’d follow the card, the tried and true card, but every so often he’d segue into the Sucrose Space, take his own love of humanity and way with words out for a walk and see what he could do with them. Carrington and Sons was going to be fun and, given his aptitude and his degree in economics, his path to a future of wealth and power.
But Abe was made to sit for another four days, an entire week, just listening to the Kid, and occasionally overhearing the pitches of neighboring vice presidents, before he was cleared the next week to pick up the phone himself. He was shown to his own small cubicle and given a forty page list of names and phone numbers with no other information. He was given his own laminated card with the pitch printed on it in 18 point type. He was given a small pile of prospect cards to record the details from his successful conversations. He was given a pad of white lined paper, two ballpoint pens emblazoned with the words CARRINGTON AND SONS – BROKERAGE AND ARBITRAGE, a small thermos full of black coffee, and an encouraging smile from the Senior Carrington, who left him with a light pat on his shoulder and the semi-cryptic admonition to “stock ‘em up.”
FIRST CALL: “Good morning, Mr. Sperling. My name is Abraham Carter. I won’t take a lot of your time, I know you’re a busy man, but I just wanted to introduce myself and my firm. That’s Carrington and Sons, we are securities brokers and right off I want to tell you that I am not calling to sell you anything.” The light was still lit, Sperling hadn’t hung up, a good sign. Emboldened: “You probably heard of us, we represent many people of means in Manhattan.” Sounding good. “You probably know that we follow the market pretty closely, are well known traders,” off into a riff of fancy, “and I just wanted to let you know that we would like to be able to call you in a few months if we happen to come across a special situation that…”
“Hold up, there, let me save you some time. First, I live in the Bronx. Second, I don’t have a pot to piss in ever since my bitch wife ran away with the Kosher butcher. Third, my uncle went to school with that crook Ginsberg, the goniff, and if he were selling real dollar bills for ten cents on the street corner I’d still not do business with that shithead on a bet. And you can tell him something else for me: eat hot death for what you did to my aunt Sylvia—may she rest in peace.” Click.
SECOND CALL: Well that didn’t go so well but who knew that he’d start by accident with someone who actually knew the Ginsberg family. What the hell is the chance of that? So, “good morning, Mr. DiCarlo, you don’t know me but I” followed by an interruption by a reedy voice with a thick Italian accent saying “Yeah and we gonna keep it that way, muthafukka.” Click.
THIRD CALL: Must have gotten up with a bad case of the crabs, that Italian asshole. But third time’s the charm: “Good morning, Mr. Liebowitz, my name is Abe Goldfarb and I represent the firm of … “ Click. Huh, imagine that, I seem to be trending downward. Let me take a hit from the coffee thermos and try again.
FOURTH THROUGH UPTEENTH CALL FIRST, SECOND, THIRD, FOURTH DAY OF CALLS: “Good morning Mr. so-and-so (49 clicks here), I represent the stock brokerage firm of Carrington and (25 clicks here) Sons (2 clicks) and first off I want to assure you that I am not here to sell you anything (3 clicks, 14 “bullshit”s followed by clicks, 6 “fuck you”s followed by clicks). You may know that our prestigious stock brokerage firm is a well-known market leader with [an ear for that hidden situation that presents the opportunity for profit –4 clicks][an eye for an inefficiency in the markets that might fit perfectly in your portfolio [12 clicks, one “or up your ass” followed by, well, a click] [ability to earn returns in rising or falling markets [33 clicks] and I just wanted permission to call you some time in the next [couple of weeks (12 clicks)][couple of months ( 3 clicks)] [few hours (75 clicks and one “make that at least five hours, I am working my way through statutory rape of all your nieces and nephews” followed by—you guessed it—click].
Abe came into the office early on his fifth day. He looked like hell but it didn’t matter, he did all his business over the phone (or at least pretended he did). The rings under his eyes, red after the third day, now were a palpable field of black tinged with blood-shot. He uncapped his CARRINGTON pen for the first time, took his blank pad of paper and started writing. He wrote and crossed out threw out page after page until he found the right tone, part frustration and part motherly anger.
FIRST CALL, DAY FIVE: “Good morning, Mr. Fisher. This is a cold call from a boiler shop in a second-rate brokerage house that, if I started off by telling you its name, you might look it up and hang up right away. I am supposed to say I ain’t trying to sell you anything but I hear you ain’t a dumb shmuck so let me say right up front that that’s a crock.” Pause. Silence on the line, but no click. “Uh, Mr. Fisher, you still there?” “Yeah, kid, I love it, ya got my attention. So where ya from anyway?” “Uh the Grand Concourse. That’s in the Bronx.” “I know where the fucking Grand Concourse is, you dick. You new at this?” “Yessir. This is my fifth day and I haven’t had a sale yet, not even writing down someone’s name to call them later.” “You go to college, kid?” “Yessir. CCNY.” “Huh! Me too, class of ‘50 .” Long pause. Then Fisher: “So, let’s hear your pitch.”
“Well, I’m supposed to wait a couple of weeks and call you up and sell you some stock from this list they gave me.”
“So, do you like these stocks, kid?”
“Well, Mr. Fisher, I’m new at this but I did earn solid Bs in all my accounting classes and frankly, between you and me, I really don’t understand why anyone would buy them. I mean most of the people here they just follow the list, but I spent all last night looking up these companies and my guess is that the firm is just going to sell out their own shares at a profit and then these companies, well I bet they just go down in value.”
“Kid, you free for lunch today?”
“What? Lunch? Are you kidding? Uh, sure. Why?”
“Come to my office at 1, make that 1:30. Bring that list of stocks with ya. 455 Madison, 16th floor. Fisher Universal Industries. Just ask for me. Give me your name so my receptionist will know you to let you in.”
“Sure. My name is John – uh, actually Abe Wasserman.”
“So, Abe Wasserman, do you know what a short sale is?”
“Well, I’ve heard of it, Mr. Fisher.”
Fisher laughed. “Just be here at 1:30 today. And don’t forget your list. That’s the 16th floor, the executive suite. Don’t get off at the lower floors, that’s where my staff works. At least those I have here in the US. Just ask for Fisher Senior. My son wants my job as President, but that isn’t happening any time soon….”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Lyndon Fong graduated first in his class at Northwestern Business School on a rainy early June day in 2014. He had read all the listings for the major brokerage houses, and had set his sights at one of them. He had applied and was fortunate enough to be hired. He was told he would start on the marketing floor, but you had to start somewhere. After four weeks of personal and on-line training, Lyndon was given a cubicle, two phone lines, two computers with one locked on Bloomberg, a Kuerig machine with an assortment of caffeinated coffees, an I-Pad and a list of graduates from Ivy League colleges resident in the greater Chicago area. Flush with excitement, Lyndon picked up his phone, ignoring the hum of the other assistant vice president around him.
FIRST CALL: “Good morning, sir. My name is Lyndon Fong. First off, let me assure you that I am not calling to try to sell you anything. I am a Vice President at the Wall Street firm of A. Wasserman and…. Yes, THAT Mr. Wasserman, and I am calling to introduce myself and our firm…..”