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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fun with Tombstones



I don’t tell work stories to many people for two reasons:  First, it takes too long to explain what I do and where I do it, and second, it’s dead boring to most people.  There’s that.  So at the substantial risk of posting a snoozer:

After I was miraculously and providentially delivered by The Almighty from The Worst Gig in the Known Universe, I have had the good fortune to work with exceptionally bright people.  It’s certainly not the end-all, be-all, but I’ve worked with some frighteningly educated folks.  Ivy. Oxford. Cambridge.  That crazy all-acronym business school in France.  You name it.

Which is sort of notable for a dumb country boy that went to an obscure Christian college in Arkansas’s hinterland.

I’ve bumped around with economists, mathematicians, investment bankers, high-powered lawyers, deal guys that leave slime trails when they walk, tragically flawed scions of wealthy and powerful families, buddies and hangers-on to sitting and former presidents.  Folks that sit on the boards of companies you know and of museums you visit.

I say all that to tell you that these brilliant luminaries are SO FUN to mess with.

I had a boss one time that was very into his accomplishments.  The term vanity doesn’t do it justice.  This guy’s identity was entirely derived from his work.  He was an Ivy League i-banker that had made zillions of bigtime deals, mostly 20, 25 years before.  He had pictures scattered around the office of him shaking hands with world leaders that have since been assassinated.  Yeah.

Sprinkled between the photos were the tombstones.  Now, when you participate in some securities offerings, they hand out what people call a tombstone.  They’re cool little clear glass or plastic blocks engraved with company names and the amount of the debt offering or the shares issued or whatever.  They’re ubiquitous in any investment banker’s office, and their primary purpose is to sit there for decades attracting dust and small particles of conceit.  They’re actually less useful than paperweights.  No one cares one whit about the things.

Except for this guy.

One night, the cleaning crew had moved the dusty little blocks around to scrape off the inch and a half of grime on the shelves.  The ‘stones were moved around, and it was kind of noticeable.  Well, next morning, el jefe makes inquiries.  “How do we know someone wouldn’t STEAL them?!” (Because they have no value.)  “How would we know if someone TOOK one?” (We wouldn’t.  Because absolutely no one else cares.)

He then issued one of the most preposterous orders, well, ever:  Our spunky office manager was to inventory the ‘stones in a spreadsheet.  Immediately.  The order was, uh… flatly refused, to the great amusement of everyone within earshot.

A few nights later, SOMEBODY rearranged the tombstones on a single, particularly out-of-the-way shelf so as to make it seem like one – and only one – was missing.

And I forgot all about it.  Because I actually have, you know, a life that’s worth living.  It was a bit like a comedy trot-line, something you just bait up and leave for later.

Days pass.  Then one morning, I could tell the office had this quiet hum.  You office inmates know what I’m talking about.  All the admin gals were flitting about, whispering to each other.  I asked the CFO what was up.  (My cynical guess was layoffs.  But that was later.)

Yep, you guessed it.  Heaven and earth were being searched to find that missing tombstone. 

I quietly watched as a half a billion dollar hedge fund essentially ground to a halt for an entire trading day looking for a hunk of 25 year-old clear plastic… that wasn’t missing.  You know, I felt a little guilty.

And then I got over it.

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