Wednesday, May 26, 2010

hollyweird > lost vegas

By Pauly
Las Vegas

The last week before I migrate to Las Vegas is always peaceful, yet stressful, and I waiver back and forth between moments of tranquility and utter depression. I've been through the Las Vegas meat grinder five summers in a row. I nearly died a couple of times. I've lost weeks of my life trying to recover in the ensuing months from the intense workload. In short, the last five summers have been hell -- which is the price I pay in order to have a pleasurable ten months.

Lost Vegas is about four of those summers.

My summers in Vegas are so crucial because I generate the majority of my income in those two months. That's also the prime time to make deals and set my freelance schedule for the rest of the year. The hallways offer up tremendous opportunity -- job offers, project collaborations, out-right exploitation, and the occasional bids to sell Tao of Poker. Yeah, the summers are the time of the year when I can't afford to make any fuckups creatively or on the business end. No wonder I'm so stressed. When I first started out in 2005, I had nothing to lose and I just focused on writing and getting to the end. Each year, I find more and more responsibility and expectations padding my summers when I've come to a point when I want less and less of that sort of stuff and want to return to the fun side of the equation -- writing.

So tough to walk that fine line, especially in a city like Las Vegas that tempts all of weaknesses. It's tragic to say goodbye to the people who love in your real life and then they get blocked out of the Vegas black hole. That's why I equate the summers to a stint in jail or shipping off to war. You hope for the best but you always come out of it changed and usually not for the better.

I feel helpless every summer when I see my girlfriend and my friends slowly turn into zombies and suffer multiple breakdowns. It happens to the strongest of minds -- a mental freakout -- because it's impossible to be inside a casino for seven straight weeks without losing your mud. And when you fall, you fall hard. Since I'm always trying my best to keep my shit together, I overlook everyone's anguish. I never realized how ugly it got until last summer. After 20 days away, I returned to Las Vegas (in a manner that Mean Gene aptly described in a recent post) and saw my friends souls sucked out and their life forces utterly demoralized. I was wrought with guilt because I was helpless and couldn't help them -- they had to help themselves and gut out the last three weeks.

I did what I can to prepare for the summer, and read books to give my mind a thorough work out. Nicky and I went to Zuma beach and soaked up the sun, enjoying the last bit of nature before we're huddled inside a casino. I also attempted to sleep as much as possible -- to rest up before the firefight.

I also didn't write much and attempted to unplug, which I did for the most part. I slipped here and there, but I was pleased with my overall effort to reduce all that time handcuffed to the machine.

I was packed and ready to go 16 hours before launch time. I don't have much stuff, but definitely a lot more than the first time I moved to Vegas. The morning of the journey, I woke up early, packed the car and was pleased to see that Nicky had packed lighter than ever. We actually had more room than I anticipated.

The drive is the same drive we've done too many times to count. We made good time and did the run through bat country in less than four hours. We met the leasing company rep and we finally had our summer home. The entire process was more stressful than I desired due to a couple of major snafus, which had me on edge for a week or so. Once we got the keys to the condo -- a huge burden was taken off my shoulders. We had our home base. And it felt like it was going to a positive place to write the next two months.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fence (Fiction... Maybe?)

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

This might have happened ten years ago.

I walked into a sullen pawn shop across the street from the bus station in Albuquerque. You'll only find a more depressing pawn shop in the Southwest in only Las Vegas or Reno. Hank's Hock Shop reeked of desperation and urine; the urine had wafted over from the bus station because I've yet to actually visit a bus station that didn't smell like week-old feces and urine, and the desperation was vacuum-sealed inside the shop. Pawn shops are hospices for tattered dreams. It's where they go to die.

A plump man in his 60s greeted me with a suspicious head nod. He wore his greyish hair short, like a drill sergeant. He wore suspenders and a dreary brown plaid shirt. After a few steps inside, I realized that he was wheezing heavily. He struggled for air like a 3-pack a day for forty years vet. He stood behind a counter polishing a batch of jewelry -- previously owned by a 87-year old woman who had croaked in the middle of a Mahjong game. The paramedic who tried to revive her had also stolen her bracelet, watch, and two rings. He wanted $200 for $800 worth of goods. The miserly pawn shop owner offered him $75. The paramedic was about to leave when the owner mumbled a counter offer of $80 in between heavy gasps of breath. The paramedic took it. He needed to pay his bookie $1,200 and needed anything he could get.

The gun section was located in plain view in the back of the narrow shop that was no wider than two bowling alley lanes, but probably the length of two lanes put together. A dozen shotguns were locked in a cabinet while an assortment of handguns and revolvers were in a glass display case, next to a batch of hunting knives and ninja stars.

Electronics were on the left hand side - VCRs, DVD players, stereos - some previously owned by meth heads who pawned their material items for a fresh batch of crank. The majority of them were outright stolen by meth heads. The mumbling owner knows when an item is hot or not, which allows him to always lowballs the tweakers. They don't have a choice. They'll do anything for $10. Hank's Hock Shop was one of the only joints in town that accepted fenced goods -- no questions asked.

The plump mumbling pawn shop owner looked like a nebbish character out of a pulp novel. He had a shiny red nose, but was too old to be a cokehead, but just the right age to be a type of guy who brushes his teeth with whiskey with a Marlboro dangling from his lip. I could tell that he had half a bag on. Not that I cared. If I owned a pawn shop at the gateway to hell, I'd be shitfaced at all hours too.

I just wanted a guitar, nothing special, just something acoustic that I could use temporarily until my lost one turned up. I pointed to a couple, but was hard to understand what he was saying. The mumbling and the wheezing drowned out his voice. He wrote down the prices on a small pad with a chewed up pencil. The McIlroy was overpriced and he kept trying to push something that he insisted was Brazilian Rosewood, but he was full of shit and obviously not a music-guy. Some tweaker must have actually snuck a rare fastball past the owner.

I couldn't find anything, but then again, what was more pathetic? That the mumbling owner with emphysema was selling jewelery stolen from the corpse of a Jewish grandmas? Or that I was looking for a guitar at a pawn shop next to a bus station?

Drooping pride. Dissolving self-esteem.

I walked outside and a homeless guy who looked like Chris Rock's portrayal of Pookie in New Jack City begged me for $3 to buy a sandwich. I gave him a $1 and told him to spend it on beer instead. That's when he asked me money to buy a six-pack. I told him to fuck off.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pitch

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... I interviewed at a couple of different firms while seeking a job on Wall Street. I ended up wanting to trade bonds mainly because I really liked one particular firm that was located within steps on the NYSE. The energy was overflowing at that spot. So much history in that small one block radius. Heck, on the steps right next door to the old Federal Hall, George Washington was sworn in as President. Sadly, during one of the darkest moments of our nation, slaves were brought off ships near present day South Street Seaport, dragged a few blocks in chains to the steps of Federal Hall, where they were auctioned off on the same steps where our first President took his Oath of Office.

Events, both good and bad, occurred in that tiny area which is why that street is an epicenter of tremendous energy. I can never do justice explaining the explosive feeling that I used to get when I waltzed down Nassau Street and hooked a left onto Wall Street... like your first hit of cocaine, while doing a shot of tequila and letting chocolate covered bacon melt in your mouth while you're getting a blowjob.

It was a rush. Just walking down the street gave me a fucking stiff woodie.

I felt the energy. It aroused and intoxicated me. The ghosts. The demons. The angels. The titans of capitalism. The commies wanted to shut it down. The terrorists wanted to blow it up. Wall Street was the crossroads of the world and I wanted to be a part of it. And I was, for a brief time. There's not a day that goes by where I don't have a flashback of sitting in the trenches deep in the shit with a stomach full of bile because I failed to close a sales call.

During the initial interview process, I went to a six or seven different firms ranging from the big boys to the boutique brokerage house. I already had seven months experience as a runner on the floor of the commodities exchange during an internship for the last half of my senior year in college, and when that was over, I got hired on that summer. I was doing such a good job that the owner of the firm offered to give me a full time job instead of going to college. He felt that I could be a great floor broker one day and wanted to show me the ropes. I graduated from high school when I was 17, so I was floored because how many snot-faced 17-year-olds get offered a full time job? I declined it, of course. I wanted to leave NYC and go to college. I wanted to party and get laid, and not put in 60+ hours a week when I was still a teenager.

Although I had my foot inside the door, back in the 1990s, anyone could get a job as a broker trainee. Anyone. The job was so tough and brutal that only a few people could stomach it. 50% quit after the first week. 75% don't last a month. Who wants to start off making $100 a week and that's it for 80+ hours of hell? That's the starting pay, so the firms opened their doors to anyone who wants to take a shot. In the end, 99.5% of the applicants quickly bail after the first ninety days. The few survivors end up having a shot at becoming on the Masters of the Universe.

But what about going to college? Or Harvard Business School?

That's important for making upwards moves and using your connections to get into rooms and conversations you would never normally otherwise have the opportunity to sit in on. Here's the thing... Wall Street is just like the military. The grunts are the guys who apply for jobs through the NY Times or Wall Street Journal, like kids walking into US Army recruiting offices in Times Square. Now, only a small number of officers come from the pool of enlisted men and the majority of officers them came from the military academies. That's what those Wharton and Harvard MBAs are like -- officer training. Those "suits" are going to be the ones with actual offices and vacations in Provence, and not schlepping it out in the trenches with the grunts for six days a week, 18 hours a day.

I was a visionary in my early 20s. I had a plan. I was going to learn the business, pay off my school loans, then get my firm to pay for B-school. If they balked, I was going to find a new firm that would do that in exchange for trade secrets and my roster of clients. Once I secured my MBA, then I could move up in the financial sector and no longer come in every morning and pitch stocks and bonds to dentists and widows. I was going to let them use me, so long as I used them back to pay for my education.

Of course, I got sidetracked on the original plan about one year in. As much as I enjoyed many aspects of the job, it wasn't my true calling. I left to pursue writing and embarked on a troublesome, yet exciting road. Yes, I would quit again every single time.

Flash forward to today where I'm sitting in the slums of Beverly Hills 15 years later thinking back at those initial interviews. The recruiters at these firms were slick motherfuckers. They knew how to press the right buttons. They too were working class kids from Queens and Brooklyn. Some of them were grandchildren of Ellis Island immigrants and a few were first-generation Americans. They tried to make me feel comfortable too... that they understood what it was like to come from humble beginnings but with a desire to get a shot at the big time.

They often vacillate between their former poor self and the current baller. I'll never forget this one guy at a brokerage house in Midtown. He looked like the actor/director Peter Berg. He told me that when he started, he had only one white collared shirt that he used to wash in his sink every night. He went to Chinatown and bought five ties for $10 so he could at least have a different tie on everyday. All of his co-workers made fun of him and nicknamed each tie a different day of the week.

"This one I'm wearing?" he said, stroking a magnificent Italian silk tie like it was his erect cock, "This cost $200-something."

He shared commuting bad beat stories about living on the outskirts of the Queens/Long Island border because he couldn't afford a cheaper place. He had to get up so early in order to get to the office that he was mugged a couple of times because it was still dark out when he went to work.

"Now, I have a penthouse around the corner. It takes me longer to wait for the elevator up to the 32nd floor than it does to walk home."

And then he told me about his Porsche. His dream car. He bought that with his first six-figure bonus check that he got withing two years of working at the firm. He used his first seven-figure bonus check to buy his apartment. His next one? He showed me a brochure for a retirement community on a gold course in Florida. He said he was buying three houses... one each for his divorced parents and their spouses, and a third so he had a place to stay when he went down to Florida to golf with clients.

He was planting the seed. Greed is good. We all want a better life. Cool things. Respectability. Validation. His firm was the path to that salvation. All I had to do was rape, murder, and pillage for his crew and they will share the spoils, so I took could wear $200 ties, drive a Nazi-sled for a car, and obtain low-interest mortgage on a kick-ass apartment in Manhattan. After all, once you had all those things, they'd be a line of women out the door waiting to fuck me. Right? The city is crawling with gold diggers looking to sink their claws into a sugar daddy.

All I had to do was swallow the pill and jump down the rabbit hole. Millions were within my grasp. Sounds so fucking easy. Then again, at 22, I was young, dumb, and full of cum. If I saw the potential to make money in the military, I would have joined the Marines, just like my old man. But one of the few words of advice were to avoid the armed services. He told me that he wasn't smart enough to be anything other than a grunt, but that I was different. I would only make a shit ton of money if I owned my own business. I always kept that in the back of my head.

I knew that I needed help to get to that point (working for yourself) due to limited resources. Sure I had a piece of paper that said I graduated from a Top 25 university, but that meant nothing. I lacked the necessary skills to survive in the real world, because college doesn't teach you those things. I'm glad that I put my time in at the trenches and learned the ins and outs of high finance, international banking, money laundering, Ponzi schemes, manipulating people with fear, and most importantly -- how to have fucking balls. You have to stand up every once in a while for something you believe in and have the testicular fortitude to take what's yours.

Shit, in many ways, training on Wall Street was just like boot camp, where they break you down and strip you of everything you learned in society up until that point. And once the tabula rasa is wiped clean, those evil suits brainwash you and transform you into a trained assassin in a Brooks Brothers suit. Killing machines. Perfect soldiers.

For a while I was one of those, but just like in The Bourne Identity, I snapped one day and didn't see the entire point to it all -- well, I should say, I didn't see the point of me being involved. The notion of Wall Street had become romanticized by movies and the mass media. The reality of it all was actually quite depressing and utterly frightening when you learn how some things really work. I currently work in a the gambling industry, but poker players are small potatoes compared to the degenerate gamblers on Wall Street. Some of my former peers pressed the action at the slightest hint of an edge while gambling with millions of dollars of other people's money. And if they didn't have an edge, they'd create one.

I guess I got scared learning how the financial sector operated, kind of like going to a slaughter house for the first time and finding out what's really in your sausage. It's easier to just bite into your breakfast and not think about how that food was processed from a living being to a savory piece of fuel.

Similar things happened to me in poker. I used to view poker as this sector of coolness in the world that I only saw on TV. It still trips me out sometimes that I went from watching poker at home on TV while ripping bong hits... to actually roaming the sidelines and covering the action for the poker media. When I was a kid, I never said that, "When I grow up, I want to be a poekr writer."

That was never my intention, which sums up life because you never always arrive at your intended destination.

But once I saw how much money was involved, my old Wall Street training kicked in. Billions of dollars. People were giving it away in 2005-06. All I had to do was stick out my hand and grab it. The money tree has since stopped shedding its leaves and these days, I spend exhausting and countless hours shaking the money trees like a fiend as hard as I can hoping that a couple of $100 leaves will flutter to the ground.

I wonder if that Wall Street recruiter ever made it down to Florida himself and finally decided to bail out of the business, take his money and retire. There's so much sun to be enjoyed in Florida, not to mention the year round golf. Who knows. Maybe he's still doing what he's been doing, and that is, trying to persuade poor twenty-something kids to work their asses off for $100 a week in the chance that one in a hundred turns out to be a perfect weapon.

I have a Wall Street novel in me. Someday I'll sit down and write that. Not now. Not in five, or even ten years. Maybe when I'm 50, if I make that long. Too bad I never got a crack at the screenplay to the Wall Street sequel. Everyone has a story to tell and I have hundreds of tales about annoying clients, insane co-workers, eclectic partners, and of course... my mentor who is a dead ringer for the Ben Affleck character in Boiler Room.

Now you know where I get that cut throat instinct.