My late twenties were surreal. I mostly have sensations and feelings about those years rather than very precise memories. Cocooned in a microcosm that loathed the ordinary, every aspect of my life was swathed in a miasma of frenetic excess. The drinking and partying was off the charts. At the time, I thought I had arrived. Once, chasing a deadline, I worked in the office for fifty straight hours, nourished by little other than Red bull. Similar acts of misguided machismo were obligatory to burnish one’s street cred, as the Navy Seals of Investment Banking.
I belonged to a team of disturbingly clever mathematicians and shockingly decadent salesmen. It felt good to belong to something. We were a band of brothers, trading complex mortgage backed securities, with messianic zeal. Whatever misgivings I had, I quickly learnt to deal with them. Working on Wall Street and living in Manhattan was a dream come true for me. Growing up on a farm and attending state schools for the most part, this was how I had always imagined success. Between the Gallery openings, Theatre, Private Clubs and Fashion Week parties we lived the shenanigans of Friends and Sex & the City. The money was outrageous and the sex was as varied as it was plentiful.
The only proper break I can remember was Thanksgiving in 2007. We had had a stellar year having blown through all previously admired benchmarks of profit in the firm. One morning, mid-November, my boss Omar, beckoned me to his corner office, looking all serious.
“Prav, my man, I just got off the phone with the Pope.”
“Cooool. So we roll with the Florida trade?”
“What the ff.…..”
“Whoa whoa .... hold your horses. The risk boys shot it down.”
“WHAT? Since when do those wankers know anything about business.”
“Listen Prav, our team…..you guys have stacked insane numbers this year. We’re done. You’ve hit your max on bonus. Take a break.”
And just like that, he told me to take the rest of the year off. Since I had just been dumped by my girlfriend of the month and Thanksgiving was round the corner, I decided to go home to Ma, on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I just wanted to sleep and not be a grown-up. Ma spoilt me rotten like always. No matter what time I woke up in the afternoon, a hot delicious meal would appear within minutes. She never once asked what time I returned in the morning. My clothes would mysteriously get washed and ironed. It was better than living at the Four Seasons.
Ma’s brother, Uncle Jerry lived not too far away and for the Thanksgiving weekend we drove up to him. He lived on the ancestral estate that had a magnificent fig farm and an apiary. I had spent many a childhood summer frolicking at this estate as had Ma during her childhood. Uncle Jerry did not have children of his own and had always been very fond of me. After Pa died, he took it upon himself to keep me on the straight and narrow, guiding me through college and business school.
When we arrived, I was saddened to see the farm decaying and cheerless. Even Uncle Jerry was a faded shade of his former self. In my mind he remained frozen as the handsome marine whose picture in uniform still adorned our mantelpiece. I was sheepish for not having visited him since my graduation but when he lifted me off the ground with his trademark bear hug, my spirits lifted too.
We gorged on a splendid dinner Ma made for us.
“It’s the sauce, I tell you. Don’t know what magic your Ma does with those cranberries. Right there, there’s a business idea for you” said Uncle Jerry with a belch.
“Now don’t you start Jerry” Ma blushed.
“Hey…….All I’m saying is when he gets tired of fancy shmancy New York, he can make a fortune with your sauce. If I had the strength, I would.”
We laughed heartily and reminisced about old times to the accompaniment of Jim Beam and Miles Davis. Drinking with them was every bit as enjoyable as with my buddies back in New York but in a different way. Here, I felt no pressure to prove anything or be someone else. As the evening wore on, Uncle Jerry revealed that business had been dreadful.
“The market is flooded with cheap Chinese figs.” He sighed.
“Maybe we should come up with fig and honey sauce recipe, eh Ma.” I tried to make light of it.
“Yeah right, as soon as you bring a girl back for Thanksgiving.” She was forever teasing me to find a good girl, as if I just had to pick one from Aisle 7 of Walmart.
“Well, this farm is going to be his one day, so he better have some ideas.”
“Hello…….I’m right here.” I said in mock annoyance. “And you’ll be selling your figs long after the Chinese.”
“Ha…if only the bank will let me.” He heaved a heavy sigh.
I was guilt-ridden for ignoring my family for so long and it was sad to see Uncle Jerry wilt. He should be enjoying his silver years. I spent the next few days with him on the pretext of advising him on business activities. He taught me beekeeping and I taught him bookkeeping. During all the teasing banter and bourbon, I nudged him to sell the farm to me.
“If you are going to leave it to me, I might as well start learning the ropes now.”
“Son, it is not as easy as Trigonometry.” He ragged.
“Well you taught me that too.” I beamed.
I had to rope in Ma as the emotional artillery and he eventually capitulated. The deal was that I would settle the outstanding bank loan of 65,000 dollars and spend another 15,000 on repairs. Uncle Jerry would look after the farm for as long as he wished and keep all the earnings, while I would become the proud owner of 60 acres of childhood memories. We completed the transaction as soon as my bonus hit and I went back to New York right after Christmas, feeling warm and fuzzy.
While I had been away, the mother of all storms had been brewing. The housing market of America was teetering with foreclosures at an all-time high. The trickle of mortgage defaults had swelled into a flood by late January 2008. Our products despite all their sophisticated complexity and inbuilt safeguards or perhaps because of it, started crumbling. The mood in the office was grim as we fielded calls all day, from angry clients. The losses mounted by the week and clients grew increasingly enraged. I had never witnessed such widespread destruction of wealth. The media had labelled us and our products as toxic. We had gone from being the wonder-boys to the villains in a heartbeat.
Many of us in February’08 still believed that this was a passing storm, our faith in America unshakeable. But in March, when Bear Stearns, the fabled investment bank collapsed, we knew the entire system was at risk. We held on for as long as we could but in May, our team was disbanded and within a week of turning 30, I lost my job. I floated my CV to head-hunters but literally no one was hiring. Then one early morning, Ma called, still incoherent, to say that Uncle Jerry had died in his sleep. To me, that was a sign. I packed up my life in New York and headed back to Louisiana.
Uncle Jerry had done a marvellous job with the homestead. Ma said that he had been a busy bee the past few months, excitedly going about the renovation. He felt his life had a purpose all over again. He had repaired the roof, buttressed the back wall and replaced the air-conditioning. He had refurbished the cellar and stocked it with bourbon and given the homestead a new coat of paint. The farm looked tickety boo.
“Ma, since I’m going to be here for a while, why don’t we move to the farm.”
“I am not leaving my house. It is nice and compact. And Millie.... Georgina…. everyone I know is there.”
“Are you saying we should sell the farm?” I knew what buttons to push.
Eventually she acceded. We spent some happy months together, growing figs and tending to the bees. She would tell me stories about the homestead’s history and her own childhood there while I regaled her with censored versions of my time in New York. We spent countless evenings on the leather rocking chairs in the basement, chatting and laughing, to the accompaniment of Jim Beam and Miles Davis.