The world of a Wall Street trader looks intimidating from afar. All those numbers, all those abbreviations, all that money, all that risk.
To the uninitiated, it’s a mysterious place. So when a book called “Street Freak: A Memoir of Money and Madness at Lehman Brothers” landed on my desk, I was somewhat intrigued.
I expected an analysis of what went wrong with the investment firm before it folded in 2008. Boring, but informative.
Rather the book is almost a black comedy, an often humorous look at the humanity and hubris on Wall Street, told by a young man confronting his own mental-health problems.
It gives a very personal, often profane portrait of what it was like to work in New York’s financial district in the hay day of the financial boom of the 2000s, while dealing with the post traumatic stress of 9-11. You feel the traders’ tensions, and their devil-may-care attitudes.
Dillian, a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy of all places, is a whiz at math. He’s a new associate in training on the morning the World Trade Center is attacked.
He tries to help by heading to the Trade Center after the first attack. A cop tells the people to move back.
“There was one image I couldn’t get out of my mind: the image of the second plane crashing into the second World Trade tower right over my head, exploding into a big, red fireball. God it was red….I’d sprinted away from the building at full speed, in dress shoes and my feet, my shins, and my calves were still on fire. It was the fastest I had ever run.”
Lehman Brothers’ building is destroyed. One employee is killed. He has survived.
Dillian describes working in New Jersey until a new Lehman headquarters in New York is set up. As his competence grows, he’s winning at the market but losing his mental health. In a YouTube interview, he explains that the volatility of the stock market hid his bipolar disorder, even from himself.
“Street Freak” is so well written that I could read over the parts I didn’t get — and there are trading strategies and financial transactions he describes that were over my head — and still get the picture of what a zany, complicated place Wall Street really is.
“You have no idea what you’re going to make. You’re constantly under pressure,” Dillian said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think that exists in a lot of other jobs.”
While dealing with all that stress, he was also aware that he wasn’t well-suited to the business — literally. Ivy League guys would flip each other’s ties to check the labels — the “Lehman handshake.”
“I’d just invested a couple thousand bucks on a week’s worth of suits, and I was experiencing regret. I didn’t look like everyone else. I didn’t realize that most people spent on one suit what I’d spent on five…Everyone on the trading floor had these funny little brightly colored ties with cutesy print… Ingram, the Kansas farm boy, looked perfectly ridiculous in any tie, let alone the tropical variety. But it was the uniform, and I might as well have been wearing a barrel with suspenders.”
The book is, as described, a memoir. Dillian uses the real names of the top people at the firm, but “all the names are changed” he said, of his co-workers, whom he describes in great, graphic detail — their jobs, their skills or lack thereof, their foibles:
“Then there was Happy, a shambling mess of a human being who we had hired to trade higher-order derivatives. Happy was a mad genius, having graduated from MIT, but he weighed north of three hundred pounds and slouched around the floor with his shirt untucked. He was, perhaps, the single most unpresentable banker that existed anywhere in the universe. He sat in a pile, drinking Diet Coke directly out of two-liter bottles which he consumed at a rate of about three a day….He was…one of the few decent human beings on Wall Street.”
And later: “We were a lacrosse god, a writer, a mute, two fat geniuses, a Harvard snob, and a couple of mascots. I joked that we were the island of misfit toys. But these misfit toys were making a lot of money for the firm.”
Dillian rises to become Lehman’s head Exchange Traded Fund trader, handling more than $1 trillion. At one point, he made $22 million in a year for the firm.
Dillian shows a stream of consciousness about his battle with mental illness — specifically bi-polar and obsessive compulsive disorders, which eventually land him in a mental hospital. There, a doctor’s praise for his writing renews an interest he had developed in school and had dabbled in while blogging about the financial markets.
He describes how hard it was for him to come back to trading while feeling the effects of medications.
His health returned, just as Lehman’s failed.
“For the first time in memory, I felt comfortable in my own skin,” he explained.
The book doesn’t dwell on the causes of Lehman’s collapse but does explain that Lehman had put too many of its own eggs in the real estate basket, leading to its implosion when the housing market took a nosedive. Dillian did not work in the real estate department.
At 38, Dillian now runs a successful financial blog called “The Daily Dirtnap” — named for a term that Pacific Coast traders used when the market was going down — that he writes from his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “It’s a nice business,” he said. He’s also working on his second book, a novel about Wall Street.
He’s proud that his disclosures about his mental problems have helped other people.
“The book has opened up a dialogue,” he said. “ A lot of people have outed themselves to me.”
“Street Freak” is a winner on two accounts: It’s a picture of Wall Street from the inside by an outsider who was highly successful at his job. And it’s a portrait of a survivor.
It’s been well received, particularly among those who work the markets, Dillian said. “The reviews have been almost uniformly positive.”
Despite the country’s criticism of Wall Street, it’s still a great place to work, he said, even though the pay has come down from a few years ago when successful traders could expect to earn several hundred thousand dollars to “a stick ($1 million)” or more a year.
“The level of pay on Wall Street has come down quite a lot in the past four years. I talk to guys seeing their pay go down to the low to medium six figures.” Some have kids in private school and jumbo mortgages, so the cuts are hitting those traders hard.
“They don’t expect sympathy…they deal with profits and losses on a daily basis,” he said.
Trading is a job he would still recommend.
“It still is a great, great intellectual challenge,” he said. “It can still be a great career.”
“Street Freak,” by Jared Dillian. Touchstone Book, published by Simon & Schuster. $26; $15.99 in paperback.
Peg Quann is a staff writer for Calkins Media. Phone: 609-871-8057;