In the canyons of Wall St., a techie experiences the strangest interview of his career.
Pressing the Flesh 4200 words
Pressing the Flesh
by Presley E. Acuna
The place was sensationally quiet, as only corporate foyers can be. It had the uncomfortable side effect of amplifying the slightest sounds we made while waiting. The receptionist, wearing a telephone headset, went about her work, popping her wad of chewing gum, like gunshot, at beautifully random intervals, causing all of us to twitch. We were helpless.
I looked around the room for the fourth time, in search of diversion. I was sitting in the austerely appointed and highly veneered corporate offices of Hanover Keen Incorporated, a Wall Street heavy hitter. It was also the shark tank among the shark tanks. Me, a gentle guppy of a guy, was vying for a piece of the reef with the meanest, most competitive and demanding Securities Trading operation out there. This was the big time and -- most distressingly -- this was my third visit. I wondered if the other guys in the room were my competition. They wondered back.
There was an older man sitting across from me, in a rumpled suit and the most chaotic shock of gray hair I have ever seen. He stretched his legs and clasped his hands together, scanning the ceiling tiles with intent. Looked nervous to me. I wonder how I looked.
By the door sat this fat guy in a buzzcut, wearing a suit two sizes too small. He spent the entire interlude rubbing various parts of his face with his beefy hands and staring at each of us in turn. He wore a supercilious little smile that seemed to advertise bad intent for each of us when this was over. The receptionist seemed to like him. Every now and then they would lock eyes and she would give him a knowing flash of teeth. Jeez.
The clock’s minute hand dryly clicked forward another notch. My appointment was late. Probably intentional.
“Let him stew,” he was probably telling his fellow sharks.
“What the heck am I doing here?” I thought to myself, feeling a fresh wash of nervousness course through me.
I listened to the central air conditioning’s thrumming change pitch. The foyer suddenly seemed to be part of a ship with great, distant engines, changing velocities as we sailed through the interstellar industrial void.
“There goes my inner geek again. Gotta think shark here,” I chided myself.
I snapped back to the present, silently thanking Miss Gunshot for her alertness to my plight.
The silence of the room took on dimension, as our ears searched for any stimulation. The incessant ring of telephones and chorus of ardent shouting from the Trading floor could be heard ever so faintly several walls away. It was wartime in that somewhere-out-there pit. No doubt. And soon I might be joining the battle. Computer systems engineers were the water boys of this particular kind of contest, and the networks of computers the traders relied on were their supply lines and ammunition. They needed us as much as the market data, and the telephones and the big boards on the wall. Someone had to keep all that technology operating smoothly. And we, the guild of the water-boys, were in short supply.
Sigh. Just as I was reaching for another thrilling fiduciary periodical, my interviewer appeared from out of a carpeted hallway connecting the foyer to the rest of the HKI offices. He was all flashing teeth, jawlines and creases.
“Peter Clement?” he scanned the three of us.
“Right here,” I acknowledged.
“I’m Vince Mako,” he said, offering his hand.
“Hello. Nice to meet you,” I said with as much cheer as I could muster.
He smiled a glassy smile, saying nothing in return, and assessed me while he held my hand captive.
Finally, “Follow me, Peter. Let’s have a chat.”
I marched briskly behind him. Etchings of old bank buildings hung on the walls. Pretty young secretaries in smart business clothes and athletic young men in starched white button downs passed us to and fro and at a high clip, always nodding a greeting to Mako or offering a smile. The guy exuded power. The place hummed with purpose. I felt like an impersonator of the person that should be at this interview. Once exposed, Mako was going to eat me right there in the room and then call his young squadron in to feast on the remains. The adrenaline juiced into my veins, in a purely animal defensive reaction, and I got that good old heart-in-my-throat feeling I knew and loved so well.
We arrived at our destination. It appeared to be a lounge for informal meetings.
“Come on in, Peter. Have a seat - anywhere you like. Coffee?”
“No thanks, Vince” -- always take the bold first step and use that first name. Claim your territory. “I’m fine, thanks”. I realized that was one ‘thanks’ too many. Now he knows I’m shaking over here.
We sat at right angles to each other in plush leather chairs. It was a comfortable room of fine woods, soft carpeting and muted wallpaper. Tasteful prints on the walls. A big plant in the corner. A whiteboard stood in the opposite corner, festooned with mathematical equations and graphs.
“Okay, let’s get right to business. I’m the Head of Trading Systems here at Hanover. My techs tell me you know your stuff. That’s good. Now I’d like to find out a little more about you.”
Mako perused my Curriculum Vitae, then without looking up he said ”Tell me about your career so far.”
So I began the standard discourse about my professional career. Night School to learn computer languages and get the degree, a couple of Computer operator jobs, finally the jump into Computer Programming, then a long stint as a free lancer during the high flying Eighties. Yah, I made a lot of money back then - and spent it too. I was a bad boy doing lots of bad things and no one could say anything about it. But, I’m getting off the subject.
After the consulting years, a short stint running my own business. Then the move into UNIX and Systems Administration - sort of a combination of Computer Operator and Programmer - and Wall Street. It was the Financial Trading Companies and Money Management outfits that used this stuff. The rest of the world was perfectly happy using simple PCs. But the stakes were much higher on the Street (with a capital “S”). They needed spaceships on every desk and that meant powerful UNIX workstations that were interconnected in an often globe spanning network which had to operate seamlessly, around the clock.
Computer operators, per se, were simply not up to the task anymore. The paradigm was different. People with a true understanding of the systems they were operating were needed. This meant people with real Computer Science backgrounds, like ex-programmers - such as me - plus a decent dose of hardware know-how. It was a niche and I had found it and so far Wall Street had been good to me.
The problem was finding a Systems Admin position in a tolerable place of employ; a place that didn’t require your presence every waking hour of your life, a place that didn’t fill you with dread everyday. The Street was such a cutthroat and ruthless place, and the jobs were so undeniably lucrative, that the sins of fear, loathing, evil and greed pervaded the minds of even the most laid back and noble characters. It was a matter of survival. And in most places on the Street, no one dared admit they didn’t know how to do something. If you faltered, you were fired, plain and simple. You were back on the street (with a little “s”).
But I also knew there were a few firms out there with kinder, gentler attitude about the whole shebang. These were primarily the smaller, “boutique” operations of under 200 people. They still needed spaceships on every desk and they still operated globally, but they were human scale companies. You could know everyone’s name.
So I was looking. In fact, I almost had to look. Perversely, in the Financial Industries if you stayed in one place too long it actually looked bad. It was a negative. You had to keep hopping from lillipad to lillipad to preserve the image that you were a hot item, in demand. So much for the old fashioned American lifetime gig. No gold watches on Wall Street. If you did have one, it was a Rolex and you had bought it yourself on your power trip to Hong Kong.
I had been making the rounds on the interview circuit looking for one of those boutique outfits, when the Hanover Keen job had crossed my sights.
“This is the top of the heap, Peter. This is what you dream about,” had claimed the smooth talking recruiter.
“But I told you, Hal, I don’t want to work in one of these giant aircraft carrier type trading companies. Those places are freakin’ lion cages and I’m the Christian. Shark tanks.“
“But Peter, Peter, Peter, listen to yourself,” he had gamely replied, “What harm does it do to just try? Don’t you want to know if you rate with the big boys? Wouldn’t it give you some satisfaction to know you did? Furthermore, I know these guys, if they want you - if they decide you are the right stuff, you can really write your ticket, Peter. Money will be no object to them. And after a year in the place you can jump again and now you’ll have Hanover Keen on your resume. See what I mean? Are you with me?”
The son of a gun was persuasive, I had to admit. After too many conversations just like that one, I succumbed and found myself being interviewed at HKI. I had passed the first interview, the “technical,” in which they quizzed me on my computer knowledge, with flying colors. The second interview had been the Human Resources chat - kind of like sitting with an interrogator turned bad therapist.
And now here I was, my mind racing, my mouth moving, my hands sweating, reciting my personal history to the Mako man. He jotted down notes with his expensive pen every now and then. Occasionally he would grunt in acknowledgment or nod his head. Mostly he didn’t look at me but instead examined my resume, as if my every word was washing the pages with fresh, new meaning. Now and then he would bite at one of his thumbs, worrying at a loose piece of callous. Probably his golf callous.
“So why do you want to leave your current position, Peter? It sounds like a perfectly fine job.”
What could I say? Because I need more money, Mr. Mako. Because it’s lillipad jumping time in the broken calliope game of musical jobs. Because I just want to be able to say, “No, thanks.” when you finally do offer it to me, you capitalist porker. Because my headhunter made me do it. I don’t actually know why, come to think of it. May I leave now?
“I want to diversify my experiences, Vince. I need bigger challenges. I think Hanover Keen can offer that to me,” said my mouth.
He nodded. He bit at his thumb. It came away slightly damp with saliva. He wiped it on his trousers.
“If your colleagues at Smithson Taylor were sitting here instead, what do you think they would say about you?”
Again I answered. Again he raised his thumb to his lips and began to chew at the callous. I must have been boring him. His interest in his callous was definitely growing and I wondered if he was hearing a word I said.
“...and they would probably say that I was nefarious.”
“What was that?”
“I said they would probably say I was gregarious. You know, outgoing, friendly.”
He glared. Then, after a pause, “Yes, yes, go on”.
Okay, okay, so I underestimated him. I kept talking. He went back to the thumb. A little saliva had escaped his mouth and moistened his chin. He stared at my resume and chewed.
After some minutes of sheer fabrication on my part, I stopped. Mako was now deeply involved with his thumb. Some saliva had dripped onto his shirt and his head was bent slightly, trying to get a better angle on that callous. It took him a few seconds to notice I had finished my response. He looked up. His thumb dropped to his lap. I sat there with an idling smile, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, waiting for his next question. He sat upright and rustled the resume.
“I see,” he lied. He cleared his throat. He stared at me, challenging me to say anything at all about his little bad habit. I said nothing. We sat in silence. The air conditioning changed gears again. Wind rattled against the glass window.
“Now, I have a little exercise for you,” he continued, full of himself again. As he got up to draw on the whiteboard, I risked a peek at his thumb. It was torn and stained red. The son of a gun had drawn blood! It had run in a thin rivulet down his hand to his wrist and had apparently coagulated at that point, going no further. He wiped it against his gray flannel trousers as he rose from his chair. It left a dark streak on the fabric. I now noticed several similar streaks all along the side of his pants. Jeez, what had I gotten myself into?
“We like to think of teams as consisting of several types of personalities. We like to design them that way. You with me?”
“Sure, Vince. Variety’s the spice of life.” I smiled.
He examined me closely. I think he suspected sarcasm.
“Great. Well, we have a way of classifying the types of people in a team. We like to think of them in terms of shapes.”
Vince began to draw a series of shapes in a vertical line on the whiteboard. The thumb had started exuding a little blood again. It left a small mark on the whiteboard. Vince came back to his chair and sat.
“Now let me walk you through the shapes.” He pointed at the first shape, a star, with his good hand.
I stared at the bloodstain, just to the right of the first shape, instead.
“The star represents the fighter pilots of the world. The aces. The take-charge types,” he drawled.
“The squares are the meat and potatoes types on your team. Not too flashy but always get the job done. Okay so far?”
“Sure, Vince. I think I get it.”
The bloodstain slowly dried on the whiteboard. Vince continued through his dissertation of the shapes; a well rehearsed interview machine. When he got to the end, he paused, letting me absorb the definitions for the inevitable next question.
“So, Peter. Which type do you suppose you are?”
And on and on it went for another 30 minutes. At each interval during which I would reply, he would return to that thumb. Soon it was beyond ignoring. The thing was a ripped and torn, openly bleeding affront to the facade that was our interview. But ignore it I did. And Mako just kept on asking questions as if there was nothing extraordinary about his carnivorous tendencies.
It was getting near the end of the interview, and a good thing too. There was blood dotted on both Mako’s lips and chin and his oh-so-starchy shirt cuff was also stained red. The thumb was unrecognizable. He said nothing about it. His initial embarrassment had long since faded. He knew I would pretend with him to the bitter end. I would ignore that thumb even if he were to suddenly swoon before me from loss of blood.
“One final question, Clement.”
That clinched it. He knew I was his thrall. I was Peter no more.
“Here’s a real world scenario. Suppose it’s Monday morning. You’re sitting at your desk drinking your coffee, reading your e-mail, when suddenly an important trader comes racing around the corner heading straight towards you, plainly pissed off, and bellows at you, ‘Goddammit, Clement, my workstation is slower than a dead pig in drying cement and the Market is moving! I’m losing ticks! You get that thing fixed right now or I’m gonna want BLOOD!’”
My jaw dropped. He had even yelled the final words at me, revealing his own blood stained teeth. Was it a test? Was I supposed to laugh? Just answering the question seemed so stupid. Could I keep this up much longer?
He waited patiently, with an unblinking stare.
Okay, it must be all in my head. Too many drugs in college, and all that. Just answer the BLOODY question. Now he’s got ME doing it.
I answered the question.
“Let’s see. I would first log into his machine and check the process queue for any runaway jobs...,” I began.
He listened intently, gradually relaxing into the correctness of my answer. I did, indeed, know my stuff. Answering on auto-pilot was no problem.
I wrapped up my long answer. “...and once I was sure that I had arrived at the solution, I would give the trader the THUMBS up.”
I tried to keep my face impassive. Tit for Tat.
He stopped eating his finger and looked up, his eyeballs like glass orbs reflecting the office flourescents. We regarded each other. He surrendered a small smile, in response to the faint smirk I now wore.
What the hell, man.
“Very good, Peter. Of course, there’s no single right answer but you seem to have a good methodical approach to problems. I like that.”
So now it was back to Peter. I guess I earned some points on that last one. Somehow I didn’t think it was due to the technical depth of my answer.
“Thanks, Vince. I appreciate the compliment. What’s the next step?”
“You’ll have to come back a couple of more times, I’m afraid. We believe in a large consensus for all our hires. The team philosophy.”
“Right, the shapes.”
He stood up then, and came towards me hand extended. The bloody hand, not the good hand. I stood up as well. We were standing not two feet apart, facing each other eyeball to eyeball, his hand hanging in the air between us, inviting mine into a sticky embrace. Slowly, Mako’s face cleaved into an ear spanning, lecherous smile. This was the real Vince Mako I was suddenly staring at.
“Put it there,” he insisted. Quite the un-Mako expression. He was telling me something now, I was sure of it. We had had an unspoken interview all throughout the verbal exchange and it had been about that viscerous hand of his.
I finally broke the stare and gazed down at the darkness between us, at the extended limb. It trembled slightly. It wanted me. Vince wanted me. Now I knew. Now I was sure of it. But there was a rite of passage, a test of manhood, an acknowledgment that sharks have a taste for blood and that’s it okey to love the stuff, that was required of me. And worse than that, this handshake was a supplication to the tremendous facade of normality that was life on Wall Street. This was literally, the clincher.
It would be sweet to say, “No.”
I grabbed his hand with gusto and pressed back in response to his tightening of his grip. There was a squelching sound between us and our hands slipped and slid against each other as we massaged them together. It was almost erotic. I gave him my most carnal smile. His nostrils flared.
“I hope to see you again, Mr. Clement. It’s been a pleasure.”
“And for me as well, Mr. Mako. Thanks for the time. Interesting theory about teams.”
He opened the door, leaving a palm print on the doorknob, and escorted me out to the foyer.
With a wave I collected my coat and headed straight for the elevators, not bothering to wipe off my baptized hand. I wanted everyone to see my trophy. My markings. I had just done battle with a corporate predator and I had lived to tell.
“This business is really getting to me,” I thought to myself, as the elevator doors opened and I let the current of people push me into the maelstrom.