Lambs on the Bubble by Bronze Johnson

House inside bubbleSome went back to bartending. Some went to the pawnshop to hawk whatever knee-jerk purchases were intended to signify status. I went back to the hotel to work as a doorman and regain my benefits. It turned out to be the smart play.

I never found out what happened to the founders of Bronson, Earl, & Kendrick. But, last I heard, they had sold off the company yacht, which one of my former co-workers had dubbed the “Straw,” as in the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m sure they declared bankruptcy. Serves them right. Selling sub-prime mortgages was the devil’s work, but if the devil came in the form of bloated bank accounts, Rolexes, company-funded coke, weeknights of binge drinking, and workdays filled with gambling and porn, I wanted in.

I try to justify this as a dip into the sociological corner of my psyche—that spot that opens me up to life experience and, at best, inspires writing. The truth is, I did it for easy money and didn’t give a fuck about suspending my moral platitudes until I had saved enough to get by. I’ve never been materialistic. I don’t wear jewelry, and coke makes me shit. But with entering that world came the promise of paying off my student loans, maybe even getting my own apartment.

Six months later, I had maxed out two credit cards, gotten borderline jaundice from eating too much ramen, and begged my former employer to take me back. By modest estimation, I figure I lost about two years of my life. After I wrote the first draft of this piece, my wife asked me if I left Bronson, Earl, & Kendrick because I realized I was turning into scum or because I just wasn’t making enough money. I’d like to tell her that it was the former, but that would be… unethical.

 

A college buddy of mine had been hired by BEK two years earlier as a translator. He had spent several years after college in the peace Corps, honing his Mandarin in some Chinese shithole of a city and, of course, making the world a better place. Initially, he would act as a third party on sales calls to Chinese-speaking clients and over time, through this vicarious scumbaggery, learned the business of convincing people in no position to do so to refinance their homes so that he, or whichever broker, could make a commission, the firm could get funds to reinvest, and the bank could inevitably repossess the client’s home. It was a soulless cycle.

But you can never underestimate the power of desperation, and these cats knew exactly how to capitalize on it. Seeing as the game was fucked from the jump, it was hard to hate the individual players. Qualifying people for home loans when they should not have been qualified, due to terrible credit histories or previous foreclosures was like walking a sex addict into a strip club and handing him a knot of hundred dollar bills. The product was just too attractive, so attractive, in fact, that people like me could enter the wild world of finance under the covenant of success. The rub was that the subprime interest rates were higher, hence the alarming rate of foreclosures.

 

Eventually my friend became a manager and was able to build his own team. We were roommates at the time. I was disheartened by my string of service industry jobs and, one day, on a walk home from the gym, we stopped by his bank so he could deposit his most recent paycheck. He showed me his checking account balance, approximately $50,000—not bad for a 28-year-old philosophy major living in one of the most expensive cities in America. I was an English major and had spent the majority of my twenties working the hotel circuit, from Aspen on west, and traveling everywhere from Romania to Laos. I wrote and performed poetry and had the occasional music review published.

What he saw in me as far as potential I will never understand, however; he was and is one of the most stand-up dudes I have ever met and did everything in his power to help me succeed. He even gave me one of his sales once just so I could hit my monthly quota—literally did all of the work and and put my name on it right before handing it in for final underwriting. The simple truth is; I sucked.

You know that scene from Boiler Room, where Nicky Katz approaches Giovanni Ribisi, hangs up his cold call, and tells him that at the moment he happens to suck huge rhinoceros cock (or something to that effect)? Well, I was Ribisi. I’ve always been a bad liar and I simply wasn’t motivated enough by borderline starvation to push myself to become better at slinging a product I: A) knew very little about, and B) knew enough about not to honestly endorse. It may sound hypocritical but I’ve always admired salespeople for their ability to set marks in their sights and snipe them down. It’s like Marlo’s single-mindedness toward violence on The Wire. The game is the game.

As a new hire, I had to earn a spot on the “call list,” the document that listed which man or woman was up next to receive an incoming call. The more seasoned brokers, who had enough clientele not to sweat the chronological pecking order, would take whatever call came their way and often flip it into a potential sale. I, on the other hand, had to leave our apartment at 5:00 a.m., walk three miles to the office (early on I was unable to afford a bus pass and my guy who made the fakes had closed shop), and sit by the elevators until the day-shift custodian opened the office at six so I could write my name somewhere near the top of the list. I was usually in the top three. Everyone else rolled in around 8:30.

I’m not above paying dues but the truth is that at least fifty-percent of the calls that came through were total bullshit: just bored people who had seen our ad on TV and felt compelled to hear the calculated warmth of a stranger’s voice vibrating through their phone. I would have been better off sleeping in and going for a morning jog. At least, I would have been less overweight, despite being malnourished. poor ironic me.

 

Over the months I spent working at Bronson, Earl, & Kendrick, I saw some shit. As much as I hate alluding to Boiler Room again, despite its kick-ass soundtrack and killer supporting role by a mustachioed Jamie Kennedy, there were glaring similarities. Dudes did key bumps of coke at their desks. There were occasional craps games in the corner. The company was almost entirely comprised of twenty-somethings with a propensity for hair gel and wearing sunglasses indoors. And, perhaps most glaringly, these young barons (my friend aside) had absolutely no idea how to manage their money.

One day, toward the end of working hours, this dude, Chase, decided to cold call the whale of all whales, some Chinese businessman with a name beginning with Z. Many had tossed the harpoon but Mr. Z was illusive with his. Chance got lucky though. Mr. Z answered.

Stunned, the young broker asked if there was anything he could do for him. “Yes,” replied Mr. Z sharply, “You can do my fucking loan!”

As it turned out, another bank had bailed due to some discrepancy, and this guy was desperate to refinance his home despite his presumed wealth. So, within the next hour or so, with one of the bosses on the horn to make sure everything was doable (the term “above board” seems a stretch), Chase completed a two million dollar loan and netted a $40,000 commission. By the end of the week he was rocking a $30,000 Rolex and ordering bottle service at the city’s nicest clubs. Within three months, however, he was broke and unemployed. I’ve always wondered how much he got for that timepiece on eBay. Fucking moron.

 

There was another guy, Ronnie, who watched hardcore porn compulsively at his desk. He was a manager and had a team of six guys working beneath him. I leaned over to my friend one day and asked him how Ronnie had never gotten in trouble for his blatant waste of company time. My friend just deadpanned, “That dude brings home at least a quarter mil a year.” ‘Nuff said.

The more I got to know Ronnie, the more I liked him. He didn’t take anything too seriously and always offered me coke. One day he asked me if I knew anything about Photoshop. Nope. I’m a technophobe, always have been. I don’t even have a smart phone and it’s 2014. My disdain for computers aside, I came to notice some sketchy dealings between the managers and the underwriting department. For a loan to clear, a borrower obviously had to meet certain criteria. If they didn’t—you guessed it—Photoshop. I saw numerous documents doctored, if not entirely fabricated, so that a loan could be squeezed through the ostensibly tight sphincter of mortgage banking. If someone didn’t make enough annual income, fuck it: tack on another zero. If someone didn’t have a tax return for the previous year, fuck it: scan one in, white out the name and address of the original recipient and enter that of your happy client. If “comp properties” came up short in value, whatever: make up an address and submit that shit. Scared money don’t make none.

 

You’d think that by that time, several months in, I would have cut bait and bounced before I ended up in cuffs. But my debt had swollen, and I needed money badly. That’s one excuse for staying at BEK. The more honest and twisted rationale is that I simply wanted to fit in there. I didn’t start liking jewelry or coke but I envied my co-workers’ ability to “man-up” (female associates included) and just get shit done without the slightest fear of repercussions. If they swung and missed, it was on to the next one. I was the kid who cried when he struck out in little league. These were the cats who plunked batters on purpose just to establish dominance. I guess I was sick of being a pussy and somehow figured this brotherhood of unethical swine could provide the backbone that my fatherless upbringing never had.

I started wearing sunglasses at night. I went along on Friday steakhouse lunches and drank Bloody Maries. I spent work hours honing my alter ego’s Myspace page and compiling a slide show of former swimsuit models. I got invited to places I’d never been. And when I told girls I was a mortgage broker, the response was usually positive, though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being called a douchebag on more than one occasion. Once, a girl even accused me of being a racist. I don’t remember why.

 

I remember feeling shame. And now, when I reflect on those six months, it’s not the bros of Bronson, Earl, & Kendrick whom I blame for my downward spiral into idiocy and irresponsibility; it’s me. It’s never good to aspire to be something you consider shameful. That should seem obvious, right? But shit, mix in some debt and deep-seeded daddy issues and who knows? In a few short months the poet can become the predator or, at the very least, learn to pose as one.

 

 

Bronze johnsonBronze Johnson is a Scorpio. He loves hip-hop, Indian food, and his family. He teaches English, coaches soccer, and is editor in chief of the rap/culture blog www.dome-land.com. He has traveled to, and lived in, many places, including Tibet and San Francisco, yet met his wife in the beer tent at the county fair. He’s rubbed elbows with the Dalai Lama and Dr. Dre (separate occasions). He formerly wrote for Okayplayer under his real name and, yes, realizes that his pseudonym is ridiculous.

 

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