Opportunity Cost The Clerk, the Thief, and the Broker
by STEPHANIE NG
Early April, a month of temperate and temperamental days. Rays of sun dodged pine needles, casting shadows in the shape of polygraph lines on my carpeted floor. The thin rays and clear sky were deceptive. I headed out, sundress twirling around me. Halfway to the pharmacy, I noticed the breeziness of the day – both the lightheartedness brought on by the promise of spring and the sixteen-Fahrenheit wind chill.
I had needed a North Face fleece for a while, the standard “Denali” cut that, like Sperry’s and Patagonia’s, has become an essential in every Dartmouth student’s closet. So I detoured into Zimmerman’s on Hanover’s South Main Street, a store with more windows than walls.
The first time I stopped into Zimmerman’s was a mid-November day last year. The store manager saw the blood rush to my cheeks and fingertips as I glided between the racks.
“So, um, where you from?” he asked.
“Hong Kong, but I boarded just outside of Boston, so I’m really not that exotic. It was a school called Milton Academy.”
He drew in a breath, nodding.
“I’m friends with the Outdoor Program coordinator there, you know, Kendall Chung?”
A halfhearted yes.
“Nice to meet you,” he extended his hand, leathery and unsure. “I’m Bill.”
“Stephanie.” I clasped it right as he was retracting the handshake. Flesh, warmth from the blood pulsing beneath. The image of a store manager leaning across the counter had become a tangible person, one who showered and sorted laundry by color and stared at the ceiling until sleep set in.
Since that November day, I’ve dropped in every time I ventured to the pharmacy or Bank of America’s ATM. Today, I walked in to find clusters of students from various New England universities, shivering in pin stripes and ties. They came prepared for this weekend’s intercollegiate Model UN program, but not for Hanover’s climate. I saw Bill and smiled. He’d grown on me over the last few months, stammer and lisp and all. He waved from the accessories section, excused himself, and shuffled over.
“Hi, Stephanie. What can I do for you today?”
“Oh, I just wanted a fleece. Nippy out.”
“Why don’t you, um, come back around closing time, six-ish o’clock. That way, I can help you better.”
Sure. The suggestion – the request, even – didn’t strike me as odd until seven hours later when it was just him and me on the same side of the counter.
The sky’s blue had mellowed by the time I reentered the store. Bill sat at a computer, spinning mouse’s scroll wheel back and forth, browsing TheBoston Globe. As he saw me open the door, Bill pulled away from the monitor. He wanted to talk about Mr. Chung, from Milton. They’d met through the Boston Appalachian Mountain Club, god, how long ago? Bill looked up, calculating the years in his head, counting them on his fingers. He ran out of fingers.
“It’s a outdoor group that goes on trips: backpacking, rock climbing, sailing, capsizing, you know.” He winked, amused by his own self-deprecating humor. He glanced at me through thick glasses, my cue to laugh. Then, his eyes darted back to his hands still outspread from counting. I’d noticed he interacts with the product in hand more than he does customers themselves.
“Why don’t you, um, come on back here? It’s been pretty quiet for the last hour or so.” He reached over for a stool. I watched him plant it next to him, then shove it several feet away from his own swivel chair. My shoulders loosened, my jaw relaxed. “You’d be more comfortable sitting than standing. So, uh, Tea?”
“Nah, unfortunately not.”
A shelf under the counter was dotted with cans of Pepsi, Dixie cups of medium roast, and Nalgene bottles half full of this tea.
Once I’d climbed onto the stool, Bill began speaking in sentences marked with semicolons and ellipses and stutters, often animated with hands that tried to shape and feel the weight of his story.
He’d always known he wanted to climb, since his years at Boston College. One fuzzy night after he’d stumbled back from the bars on Harvard Street with a friend, he’d fallen asleep to the late-night rerun of Everest the Hard Way, a documentary film featuring Chris Bonnington. That was who he’d wanted to be. Bill had flown the explorer across the Atlantic to speak to the club.
“Drove up here, just us two B’s, to do Cannon Cliff and North Conway,” he said. “And I listened to his adventures on Everest.”
This was the first string of words that didn’t included a stutter.
Bill’s laugh lines flattened as he shared his dream of taking on Everest. It had begun to die almost the moment it was conceived. Weeks after he graduated, his brother’s software development startup expanded and his father decided an MBA would benefit the new family business. Caring little for fiscal policy and stock trading, knowing even less of motherboards and algorithms, Bill posed as a student and as an overseer, seeing nothing he wanted.
I watched his thumb and middle finger grip his temples, circle in one direction, then in the opposite. Bill sighed. I couldn’t tell if it was tired or nostalgic.
“I took off to Switzerland for a sort of business study abroad for a while in a little town called Zug. The program was still new, so I didn’t know what was going on. But, hey, didn’t matter.” He shrugged. “That was, what, 1979? Good year. If I could edit my life, like with Photoshop or something, I would expand 1979.”
He was the same age as his host parents who lived next to a mountain lake tainted amber or emerald or indigo depending on the sky. After six months of hiking and skinny-dipping with his hosts, Bill sent a final paper to Babson, received his MBA, and won back his freedom. Freedom to hop trains to Lausanne and Geneva and other places without names.
“Come to think of it, if I hadn’t dragged business school out for so long, I would’ve graduated before this program got started. Goes to show, Stephanie, that waiting pays off. What’s that word? Right, right. Serendipity.”
I surveyed the shelves below the counter again. A bin of receipts. Next to it, a safe. And on top of that, a document titled “1040” in bolded font, which I later found out was a tax return form. Piled up, locked shut, blank.
Bill cleared his throat, about to start again, but a man strode in, two hundred and fifty pounds bundled in Nike sweatpants and a Michigan Wolverines jersey layered over a turtleneck. Two boys trailed behind him with matching buzz cuts and yo-yo’s. He was the kind of man whose definition of team spirit meant not shaving until the Wolverines won and whose idea of father-son bonding centered on packing the children full of protein.
He leaned heavily on the counter, demanding the ski pants on hold for his wife. Bill unclipped a white pair from its hanger quietly, obediently.
“No. You pulled the wrong ones. We don’t want the short; we want the regular length. And let’s see the grey ones, too. My wife saw ’em online, fell in love, so let’s put ’em on the table.”
Bill mumbled an apology and scuffled towards the women’s section. The burly man turned to his sons, leaned forward – he couldn’t very well squat – to meet their eyes, and recounted news of New Hampshire’s major league ski team. They shied away from his wiry scruff, his tobacco-rich breath.
“Right, here’s, um, the items you requested. I, uh, well, double-checked them for sizes, so they should be correct.” Bill trembled.
“Oh, yeah,” Michigan said, “she’ll be needing mittens to finish it off. Let’s see the white ones. Remember, not gloves, mittens.”
Again Bill scuffled away.
The man took photos of the merchandise with his cracked iPhone 4, sent them to his wife, and called to make sure she’d received the files. She hadn’t. And so arose an argument about each other’s incompetence with technology.
“Fuck it.” He hung up. “Let’s pack up the grey pants, white mitts. She can return ’em, right?”
“Um, right. Yes. Sure.”
Bill scanned the tags, detached the sensors, and slid the pants folded around the mittens into a paper bag.
“So, uh, hmm, where was I?” Then, he nodded, remembering.
He returned to Boston, stocking and restocking clothes at Bob Smith Wilderness House, leaving behind his love for a French girl and for the Alps. In 2004, when the owner of the Wilderness House decided to surrender his family business to outsiders instead of his grandnephews, Bill and Kevin Callanan, friends who stumbled from bar to bar on Harvard Street, pool their money together. Bill would be his own boss, a free man.
They were outbid; then the store was foreclosed, and Bill and his friend drifted away from one another.
“I actually sent Kevin a vinyl of Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck few months back,” Bill sighed. “A vintage one I hadn’t seen ever.”
He began to describe the music, the Scotch-smooth blend of jazz and electronica, British and Indian. Then, he paused mid-thought, stared straight at me. Dull eyes, blue like nightfall.
That vinyl hadn’t gotten a reply.
“You sure he didn’t move?”
We both lowered our heads, waiting out this lull.
I declined, glanced a third time at the cans and bottles. As my eyes wandered back up, they rested momentarily on his clean, unlaced mountain boots and his d-ring belt. It reminded me of a carabiner.
It should be a carabiner, and his boots should be muddy.
He didn’t own furniture until his late twenties, and even then, it was his fiancé’s. He had a ten-day rotation of outfits: folded boxers, undershirts, and khakis stacked on the floor, shirts a couple inches too wide at the shoulders clinging onto wire hangers above. They were comfortable and anonymous; he had no one to impress. Suitcase, driver’s license, passport, glasses, comb, deodorant, toothbrush, sneakers. What about work shoes? Yeah, sneakers. Evan could pack up and go in twenty minutes.
He moved to a new apartment every time the landlord found out Evan was on Wall Street and assumed, incorrectly, that this businessman could afford another couple hundred each month. It was true that all Evan knew was the financial world. His dad had worked for Merrill Lynch as an analyst, eight to six Monday through Friday. Then there was the forty-five minute train ride to and from work, the sleepy sway of seats against the landscape that blurred grey. By the time his father’s loafers ambled across the front porch, Evan would be standing, shoulders back, by the dining table, ready for meatloaf and a half-hug. An awkward embrace where each person extends only one arm and cranes his chin over the other’s shoulder. Two bodies contorted into a triangle, empty space in between.
His father had escaped from a line of Boston tax attorneys and judges (commandeered a friend’s Buick out of Massachusetts), graduated early from Wharton, and had stepped into his first suit at twenty. He’d worked for one investment bank through blind dates, a Catholic marriage, the purchase of a house in New Jersey, and two children. Fenced into a cubicle, Evan’s father had juggled ten hours worth of numbers every day. Frown lines had sliced deeper and deeper, collecting at a divot between his eyebrows.
Evan didn’t have the grades like his father’s. At Penn State, he people-watched. Athletes the size of Neanderthals, cute girls looking for husbands, students lining the front majoring in money-making, immigrants in the back struggling to keep up with the English curriculum, a few black kids he thought were either very intense or very indifferent. He stereotyped. It made things faster. Four years later, with a two-point-something grade point average, a major in economics, and a sweaty athletic duffle, he hitchhiked to Manhattan. The ride was bumpy. Not from the highway, but from “butterflies.”
For the first few days, he mattress-hopped from the north end of the city to SoHo to Brooklyn. He rented his first room in Queens. Four hundred or so square feet for a few twenties and fifties each month. Everyday, his sneakers scuffled across the marble World Trade Center lobby, into the mirrored elevators, and onto the eighth commodities exchange floor. Evan had never been to Vegas or Atlantic City, but this, he imagined, was what a casino would feel like. Guys clamping telephone receivers like violins smiled as Evan ricocheted from pit to pit. For the last three summers, he’d brought coffee to a bunch of them, jittery and wide-eyed at numbers blinking greens and yellows and scarlets. Every few minutes, one would leap up, punch the air. He’d won.
Less than three weeks after he’d arrived in New York to stay, Evan officially belonged to the eighth floor. He circled the cotton pit, barking deals at twenty-four other guys. A rookie too afraid to toy with strangers’ money, he put up his own. “I was my own man.”
Cotton is an exclusive trade, limited to a few hours every day. Mondays through Fridays ten in the morning to two in the afternoon, Evan put everything he didn’t learn from wrinkly professors and squeaky chalk to good use. People-watching. Stereotyping. Instinct. Animalism. For four hours, the twenty-five traders scratched and bit and growled. Then at five past two, they shook hands and made happy hour plans. Between work and drinks, Evan roamed around Manhattan, falling in love with coleslaw hot dogs and cream cheese bagels. With sticky alleyway steam and bursts of storefront air-conditioning. With the agility of jaywalkers and the profanities from cabbies. With the smell of Chinatown, of the sea, of carbon monoxide, of sweat, of Central park’s manicured hedges, and of fashionistas’ perfumes. With architecture that kissed the clouds and with people hungrier than he for cubicles in such buildings.
Evan fell in love with the free market. He learned the stages in cotton processing: “farmers harvest, merchants represent, and mills in Memphis grade the fiber on a scale of one to twenty.” It was standardized. Over seven years, he worked and drank with the same twenty-four guys in khakis and button-ups. He found a wife, he took out a mortgage. A daughter and twin sons filled their suburban New Jersey house with applesauce and sleepless nights. Standardized. And Evan thought, where did the free in free market go?
One morning, a plane crashed into the glossy World Trade Center. Evan was swaying back and forth on Amtrak, struggling to hold TheNew York Times still enough to reread a sentence. The slideshow of passing scenery usually included factories and strip malls as they neared Manhattan. That morning the smokestacks looked like they spewed flames. Commuters caffeinated enough to notice thought it was a mirage or an odd reflection, not a freak accident at the factory, certainly not a freak accident at their workplace. What terrible depth perception. The train pulled closer. Skyscrapers, tracks, and the trains snaking besides Evan’s bled together. Then, he saw it: the cloud of brilliant oranges and golds and reds. Smoke lingered, diffused, and later displaced the Exchange to a temporary facility in Queens. It had only one pit, which meant sharing with gold and crude oil and electronics traders. Each commodity was allotted an hour a day, and every day, fewer guys showed up, especially locals. No more leaping up, punching the air. Seven years later, the smoke, combined with the “dried up” market, pushed the Pierce family out of their house.
This was for the best, his wife said. Grafton County in New Hampshire has great public schools and beautiful summers. Evan nodded. Sighed. He strapped bikes and strollers to the minivan, arranged boxes of clothes, kitchenware, and toys in the trunk like a Tetris game. And the furniture? Left it to professional movers. The family went house hunting and settled for a Colonial in Norwich, Vermont. Evan’s cousins in legal practice and their children, still tan from three months of Wellfleet, Cape Cod came to a house-warming party.. Men small talked about how great the city must’ve been for a Wall Street broker when the rest of them had hermited away at Harvard Law. Wives insisted that Thanksgiving wouldn’t be enough; the kids would love apple picking and skiing in Stowe. The leaves by then had wilted from amber to crimson to brown. Welcome home, Evan thought, to the New England my father ran from.
He slouches back on a swivel chair inside a real estate storefront on South Main Street in Hanover. Now he sells houses.
He forgets to sit up and greet me until I’m right in front of his desk.
“Sorry, I couldn’t see you thought the reflection,” he says, smoothing out his green paisley tie and unfolding his shirtsleeves. “What can I do for you?”
Ronald used to steal. He’d stumble into pedestrians, fishing for wallets. He’d visit construction sites claiming to be searching for an uncle; he’d collect sheets of metal as he roamed. He moseyed through life, classes with D’s and E’s. His father ran errands for a Mr. Y. Y. Wong, head of Fidelity Mercantile (Holdings) Limited, but Ronald didn’t want to do dirty, mindless work. He aimed, instead, for a managerial position, the lowest position possible that still required a shirt and tie. But his marks on the May 1977 Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination couldn’t get him into twelfth grade, much less college and then an office. Blue collar it was. He shrugged. He’d be a construction worker.
Two months later, Ronald graduated eleven out of the twelve grades in high school. Or maybe his teachers simply gave up and dismissed him. He spent the following summer on the beach, just yards outside the family lean-to, staring past Victoria Harbor to the Pacific horizon. The pink skies and jade water didn’t make him feel free. Instead he’d stand on the beach with his feet buried in wet dirt, wondering why the sun moved so slowly – lazily – when its path was so well-charted. How I would sprint if I weren’t stuck, he thought. The sun has it easy.
One day, his brother, Pak Kuen, called from Windsor, Canada, disturbing the summer stupor.
Come to St. Ann High School, he proposed, it’s school or work.
Actually, it’s magic tricks or work, Ronald corrected. That’s what he called his missing uncle routine.
Fine, his brother sighed, but what’s going to happen when that uncle in these tricks grows old and dies?
Don’t know, man, Ronald mumbled, he rots a little more than we do everyday, I guess.
Pak Kuen didn’t laugh. Think it over.
Pause. Sure, Ronald said. Whatever, I’ll come.
Ronald figured he should see what the big fuss about the West was, why Hong Kong’s aristocracy zoomed around in Aston Martins and smoked Winstons. Western brands – Western anything, really – made you a somebody. He wondered whether white people’s farts really smelled more fragrant.
Ronald tweaked his high school transcript, photocopying it, smudging the toner, and penciling in bigger numbers, over and over again. It was dirty but successful. The admissions officers probably got tired of squinting and accepted him. (Academic) past obscured, he awaited longer and brighter days from daylight savings time. Mah jehs, female relatives who swore lifelong celibacy and loyalty to Hong Kong aristocracy, sent money to family all around the Guandong region. They usually shared their monthly salaries with nephews for thrift clothes and herbal medicines. That November, though, they proudly surrendered every yuan to a second nephew’s Western education. With the wrinkled notes, Ronald bought a suitcase, a fancy pleather one. In it he laid a new winter coat and a pair of new, white sneakers. They were brandless. Nameless shoes for a nobody.
The Canadian consulate didn’t like nobodies. They’d called the Immigration Act a year earlier especially for people like Ronald, would-be immigrants who could claim neither special skills nor humanitarian need. To Ronald, the Act felt personal. It questioned whether he deserved entry. The only way in was debt; Ronald found himself signing a three thousand Canadian dollar IOU to Mr. Y. Y. Wong. “I will absorb all your expenses, so try to make the right mistakes,” the boss joked. As father and son left, bowing in gratitude, Mr. Wong hissed in Ronald’s ear. “Don’t fuck up, boy, or your daddy will never work for me again.” Three thousand Canadian dollars: eighteen months’ of salary. Ronald felt the weight of kin and money on his shoulders, felt it expand within his chest. Another thousand Hong Kong dollars for one-way airfare, another month’s worth of pay. He had vertigo.
From the moment his plane glided onto Toronto Pearson Airport’s runway, Ronald saw everything in numbers. 99 cents for a slice of pizza. 15 dollars for a Greyhound ticket to Windsor. 1.40 for the bus from Windsor University to St. Ann High School in the adjacent town of Tecumseh. At least sleeping on Pak Kuen’s dormitory floor was free. 10 to 15 percent of his school’s student body was Asian, but only about half spoke his dialect. On December 19th, Ronald turned 19. Simon Yeung, another student from Hong Kong – a rich one – drove Ronald to Devonshire Mall’s Kmart as a treat. Ronald walked out of the store in boy-sized, Forester snow boots. $29.99. They weren’t Timberlands, and they pinched, but they were a steal. He thumbed through the Oxford dictionary’s list for a new English name. David. Too common. Louis. Snobby. Richard. Wait, Dick? Absolutely not. Ronald. Sure, I’ll take it.
He more than took it; he seized it, enrolling in two more courses than the recommended five so he could graduate in six months. But he struggled with basic algebra, barely spoke simple sentences, and who was John Cabot? This time, Ronald had to do better than just get by. So he copied homework, memorized calculus, and sat in the second row, watching which multiple choice bubble students in front marked. By June 1978, he boasted of B’s and C’s, above-average TOEFL scores, and admission to both the University of Toronto and Windsor University. He chose Windsor; it asked for a smaller deposit. This had better pay off.
The night after high school graduation, he took the Greyhound to Toronto with a duffle bag of clothes yellowing from sweat, a duct taped wallet holding fewer notes than his pockets did coins, and a social insurance number card. A SIN card. One that didn’t belong to him but his brother’s connections in the black market. International students were issued numbers that began with the digit 9. Branded by it. Employees glanced at the 9 and smiled sweetly, condescendingly. How cute, they thought, foreigners trying to integrate. The card in Ronald’s nervous hands read 436 733 939 in bold, black font. 4’s were reserved for citizens, most of them white. The plastic gleamed. The thing about SIN cards was they didn’t include photos. With a number 4 SIN card, Ronald could be anybody, which was better than a nobody. An anybody who could work his way up to buying a pack of Winstons.
Toronto’s Chinatown showed the same promise. Dragons and phoenixes, reds and golds, incense and kitchen fumes peppered the street. Wet market vendors hollered bargains. Mahjong tiles clattered against folding tables. Cantonese – all nine tones – pierced the air. Ronald could hold full conversations. He wandered for a while before stopping to admire a display of barbequed pork and birds. Oil glazes gave the meat an aura. “Kam Kuk Yuen,” glowed the neon above. The restaurant’s name translates to “Fresh Prosperity Garden,” but to Ronald, it meant “New Money Eden.” He was hungry.
On his way in, the door rattled a wind chime. The jingle welcomed him. He settled in one of the ten booths and enjoyed lai fun soup noodles topped with roasted duck. $1.25. Ronald made the cashier and owner laugh, charming his way out of a fifteen-cent tip. Didn’t have a nickel or a dime. Fifteen minutes later, he found himself buttoning a stained busboy uniform. They had made sure he was a 4. Ronald worked from 10 to 3 in the morning, earning the $2.85 minimum per hour plus tip. He spent the other 7 hours scavenging for tin cans and scrap metal to sell at recycling centers. He didn’t even bother to pretend to look for a long-lost uncle. The townspeople had a reckless raccoon to catch.
Ronald worked at the restaurant the winter and summer for the next four years, each year rising a level in the tip-pecking line. Hard earned money. He charmed and cheated his way into and through school. He stole knowledge. A deputy general manager of and local bank’s treasury unit, he now gambles for a living. The risk was worth it.