A Happy Brokerage
I'm the only woman I know who sees things as they are. Even when I'm in love or in tears, my view remains unclouded and steady, unaffected by any temptation to alter the facts for better or worse.
Now, at age thirty three, I still have in my possession a photograph from my college days, the sort young women take in their dormitories. Five of us are standing naked in a single row, partly in profile to the camera. I'm in the middle, a fairly thin girl of medium height with straight brown hair and glasses. By no accounting would I be the prettiest. On the other hand, a close inspection reveals nothing especially wrong with my face or figure.
My feet are attractively dainty in expensive little shoes. My legs may not be long enough to be glamorous in pants, but there are no bulges in the thighs to disturb the lines of even a tight skirt.
My hips were and are unobtrusive, and my waist remains small. The result is that clothes fit properly, and are able to achieve their intended effect. My breasts are shown to be of modest size, but a well-chosen bra gives them a shape which draws favorable attention. My hair doesn't have much natural allure, but it's good raw material for the best hairdressers. I now wear contact lenses most of the time, and, in any case, would know better than to wear glasses while being photographed.
A detail, not noticeable in the picture, is that my left leg is a bit shorter than my right. It's enough to give me the slightest limp when walking barefoot, or in ordinary shoes. But there are ways of compensating. High heeled shoes can be modified so that one heel is a little higher than the other. It's expensive, but no one notices. While casual shoes require a lift which is slightly more conspicuous, running shoes already have so much cushioning that a little can be removed from the right one without any real loss.
As another kind of compensation, I have long since taken up running, more seriously than most women. My stride has the slightest hitch, but it doesn't keep me from competing annually in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington.
In my line, that of a stockbroker in a remote Connecticut satellite of New York City, sales ability is of supreme importance. I'm not the sort of natural who can read the thoughts and feelings of clients and prod them gently into the desired shape, as if with invisible psychic fingers. But I do a lot with my more ordinary ablities. I'm much more observant than most people, and I don't waste the clues that are given me.
There is only one set of events in my life that remains altogether mysterious to me. It began a few years ago, in the early April of 1972, with a call from a new client. Since a client must come in to open an account, but may never again be seen in person, I quickly identify a telephone voice with a personality.
This particular voice, low and distant, hardly projected any personality at all. But, then, when I asked a question and got a reply, I realized that I was speaking to a man, probably an older one. His tone quickly improved, taking on a marked gentlemanly aura. He might have originally thought that I was an automatic answering service, but was then reassured by my conversational versatility.
Even then, communication was less than ideal. While he did say something about a well-known producer of wines and spirits, and might have wanted to buy its stock, he was extremely vague and uncertain. I might have been pardoned for supposing that, meaning to place an order with his wine merchant, he had reached me by mistake.
We eventually got things straightened out. The man's name, which he seemed a little reluctant to give, as if wishing to avoid embarrassing me, was James Heston. While he agreed to come in to open an account, it sounded unlikely that he would actually do so. Looking into the little mirror on my desk, I made myself look as encouraging and welcoming as possible as I spoke to him.
Business was a little slow, as it often is in early spring. The men in the office all told each other how much they wished they could be out on the golf links. Some may have believed it, but, in reality, all of them preferred to stay indoors and make money. If the fine weather had any effect on them, it was probably to stir up their sexual feelings. Three of them stopped talking in embarrassment when I stepped suddenly into Bret Halvorson's office. It was hard to know whether they had been talking about me in particular, or just about women in general. I, trying to seem naive on such subjects, spoke brightly of the prospects for lowered interest rates.
The conversation soon turned to customers. I asked if anyone had heard of James Heston. Halvorson replied,
"He's a fairly wealthy old boy. I did a little work for him a while back, but his account's either inactive or closed. He'd apparently rather come to you."
This last was said with a smile, and it drew a laugh. While I feigned a little embarrassment, I drew some conclusions. Halvorson wouldn't have treated the matter so lightly if he had thought that any real money was to be made from Heston. He and the others wished me well on the whole, the older ones regarding me as a pet or ornament, but that attitude faded quickly on the rare occasions when they thought I might cost them money.
When first meeting a client, I hold my head high and look him right in the eye, just as the men do. I smile in a way that's friendly, but also a tiny bit overbearing, again like the men. Any element of femininity must, at this point, be kept very much under control. The broker is one who is both honest and reliable, but is, above all, a charismatic coach who can help the client attack the market.
Heston, a large solid-looking man of sixty or so, stood uncomfortably as I crossed the room to him. He looked, as he had sounded, rather confused. He certainly didn't look the man to vanquish the market. Still, aggression can lurk in the most unsuspected places. I squared my shoulders under the boxy jacket of my blue suit, and went directly to him. I said, in a rather loud but still ladylike voice,
"I'm delighted to see you, Mr. Heston. I'm Adrienne Brooks."
Heston winced slightly, and my firm handshake contrasted with his hesitant one. However, anyone of any perception would have realized that there was something behind his apparent confusion. He was still a handsome man with erect posture, and he bumbled only in the manner of a Texas football player in a china shop, afraid that he might knock over a whole case with a twitch of a powerful shoulder.
As I led Heston back to my office, I guessed that he would respond better to traditional femininity than to any direct business approach. It was too bad that I wasn't dressed in frills and bows, but I tossed my head and smiled back over my shoulder at him.
I got out the papers to open an account for Mr. Heston and filled them out for him. When I handed them to him for signature, it was good to see that he was a man who signed without first reading the text. However, that done, he turned out to be almost completely silent, not even saying anything about the winery he had mentioned over the phone. When addressed, he responded in the most courteous way, as far as his manner and facial expressions were concerned. But he uttered as few words as possible. In order to discover what stocks he wished to buy, it was almost necessary to engage him in a game of animal, vegetable or mineral.
After some time, we decided to buy a hundred shares of IBM, and that seemed to about do it. Having dragged that much out of him, I expected Mr. Heston to wander off with a series of his solicitous nods and incipient bows. To my surprise, he began to talk. It wasn't a terribly connected discourse, often with little gestures substituted for parts of sentences, but it made sense. He was telling me what property he owned. At the end, he said,
"I did wonder what you might, er, think."
He evidently wanted me to comment on the wisdom of his investments. That was fine and dandy with me. I suppose my eyes must have lit up even further when I found that nothing was in trust.
It was a most peculiar set of investments, but seemed to run to some six million dollars. Heston was far from Stockport's richest resident, or our richest client, but he had been badly underestimated by Bret Halvorson.
In addition to his stocks and bonds, Heston owned two stores and a small apartment building on Stockport's main street. I asked him how much income each brought in and what he thought each would sell for.
Surprisingly, Heston named figures. It was hard to guess whether he had any emotional attachment to the properties he was describing, or, for that matter, whether he had any emotions at all. On impulse, I asked suddenly,
"Mr. Heston, won't you have some coffee?"
"Well, I couldn't, ah, trouble you..."
Already on my feet, I removed my jacket and poured water into my little coffee-maker. It may take more than instant coffee to transform an executive woman into a housewife in her kitchen, but Heston did visibly relax. With only a white silk blouse to balance a voluminous heavy skirt, I knew that I looked like a child dressed up in her mother's clothing. Such an appearance would cause some customers to quickly lose confidence and flee, but not this one. I asked,
"Do you have any family, Mr. Heston?"
"There were a couple of marriages, long ago. No children, a couple of cousins, I guess. Haven't seen them for a long time. Don't really know if they're still alive."
For some people, the admission of being alone in the world might have been a sad one. Instead, Heston spoke as someone might when trying to remember which automobiles he had owned many years previously. He then added, seemingly irrelevantly,
"There's the boat."
Was it possible that, lacking any human family, he had given a yacht status as an honorary family member? Some men might get sentimental about their boats, but Heston's tone was no more so than it had been in speaking of the lost cousins. It seemed only that, in trying to be complete, he hardly bothered to distinguish between persons, objects, and financial entities. I asked if it were a sailboat. He replied,
"Well, I suppose you might say so. Carries stone."
"Carries stone, Mr. Heston?"
"Yes. Along the coast. People too."
He appeared to own a sailboat that carried stones and people along the coast. Were the people tied to the stones and thrown overboard when they became tiresome? Even Heston seemed to think that more explanation was needed. Unprompted, he added,
"No profit in it, though. Hiram keeps trying, gets people. It's an old-fashioned boat, costs a lot to keep afloat."
It was evidently some sort of commercial enterprise, one that never showed a profit. I might have dismissed it, but, for the first time, Heston began to show a little animation. He wanted to keep talking about his boat. I asked,
"Is the boat near here?"
He nodded again and added,
"Hiram should be bringing her in next week. Maybe sooner."
"Right here to Stockport? I'd like to see it."
Heston replied in a mumbling way that I couldn't understand, but with obvious approval. We then talked in a desultory way on random subjects as Heston finished his coffee. There was a quiet sunniness about him that was rather pleasant. I told him a good deal about myself, apparently without boring him. By the time that he left, it seemed that we were off to a good start.
The most difficult part of the job for me took place after quitting time. The whole office, exclusive of secretaries, emptied into a nearby cocktail lounge. I've never liked bars and lounges, but there was no question of simply going straight home. It would have been regarded as an unfriendly act.
The men told mildly dirty jokes, said irreverent things about clients, and complained about their families. I knew that I wasn't allowed to do any of those things. I also had to carefully gauge my laughter at the jokes. It had to be enough to indicate enthusiasm, and to show that I wasn't a prude, but it had to be restrained as the jokes approached the areas of obscenity. In a few extreme cases, I had to pretend not to have heard.
Even more important, and more subtle, was the matter of posture and bearing, something that was most vividly illustrated in the case of Sandy Meadowes. When I joined the staff, she was the only other woman broker. She had quite a few accounts, most of which I now have, and was doing pretty well. Except for the cocktail hour, she'd still have the job.
Sandy, a little older than myself, was a pretty woman with a narrow-waisted rather full figure. Divorced with a child to support, she was under a good deal more pressure than most of her colleagues realized. She didn't really drink a great deal, certainly nothing like the two certified alcoholics in our office, but she didn't look at all like a teetotaller. I was later a little surprised when I found out that she hardly drank at all when she wasn't with the office crowd.
Sandy's trouble was that she really did relax along with the boys. It wasn't that she ever did or said anything lewd. Only once or twice did she laugh too much at the wrong jokes. It was instead, as they say, a matter of image.
In the lounge, we all took off our jackets. It was as obligatory to do so as it was to come to work with one's jacket. Some of the men also loosened their ties, but Sandy never even touched her floppy bow. Unfortunately, though, her blouse always seemed to come untucked a few inches, draping slightly over her skirt. This was often particularly evident as she walked to the bar for another drink. There might also be wrinkles in her stockings, and her hair might be slightly out of control. Once, she caught her heel and fell headlong, but that was before she had had her second drink.
The only time I ever saw Sandy at all high, I whispered to her that her slip was showing. I did it, not out of Victorian nicey niceness, but because she was getting disapproving looks from Sam Hanks, one of our most conservative brokers. I meant that, once in the ladies' room, she should splash some cold water on her face and pull herself together.
The message mis-fired. Sandy stood up suddenly, reached down, and yanked her half-slip to the floor. She then picked it up, and, taking a peanut from a nearby bowl, she used the elastic at the top of her slip to fire the peanut at the laughing Mark McCarthy.
I was amazed at the speed and accuracy of Sandy's shot. The peanut hit McCarthy in the forehead and broke in two, one half landing on the table right in front of Hanks. McCarthy and most of the others were delighted at this show of spirit, but Hanks, I could see, was very much affronted. He said nothing, but his personal space had been wantonly violated by a projectile fired irresponsibly by a drunken woman using an undergarment in an entirely un-ladylike way. Soon afterwards, he left without a word to anyone.
That was, however, an isolated instance. Except for that one time, Sandy was more pulled together, and more restrained in her behavior, than half the men. She looked uncontrolled only when compared with straight little me, sitting bolt upright at her side with my blouse and hair perfectly arranged. Outside my hearing, the men may well have said slighting things about me. I'm sure that most of them enjoyed Sandy's company more than they did mine. However, the decision whether to keep Sandy wasn't made at the cocktail lounge. When it was made, by the same men in another setting, an image of her in the lounge must have been uppermost in their minds.
When Sandy got the news, she came to my office and grabbed my wrist, leading me to the ladies' room. Without saying anything, she kicked off her shoes, hung up her suit, and removed her floppy bow. She then bent over the washbasin. For a minute nothing happened. Then, when she started crying, she did so almost convulsively. She went on that way for some ten minutes while I held her and massaged her back. When, finally, she did speak, she blurted out only,
"They hired you to replace me."
It was just then that one of the secretaries, Janey MacLachlan, came in. We gave aid and comfort as Sandy knelt in front of the toilet and threw up into it. Janey and I then got her cleaned up and dressed, and escorted her to her office. Sandy quickly cleared out her desk and left with surprising dignity.
As it happened, Sandy did get another job, running a small hotel, before she ran out of money. We often call each other, but I know that she has never once communicated with any of the men.
I often think of Sandy when we go to the lounge, and it effectively keeps me from relaxing. On this day, Bret Halvorson took the seat beside me at the bar and said,
"I saw old Heston in there with you for a long time this afternoon."
"Yes. He was a little tongue-tied at first, but we ended up by going over all his holdings."
Halvorson was smiling, but he realized that I was succeeding where he had failed. Before he could say anything, I jumped in,
"He owns some shops down the street. How do you go about evaluating things like that?"
Halvorson, the most competent of our people, could always be engaged on a professional level. He was soon telling me exactly what to do. As he did so, I could hear, out of my other ear, a furtive conversation as to who would replace Harold Piggott, our office manager, when he retired in the next month.
It wasn't long before the hard-core drinkers moved to a table, which was my cue to leave. As we broke up, there were waves and a general expression of good feeling.