I won’t lie, the first time I laid eyes on Freddie, squirming his way into the D-mark pit at the Merc, I hated him, even more than most new locals. Around that time, ’86 or ’87, the heyday of open outcry, I was always spouting off about how I hated 95% of the people I knew and all of the people I didn’t, bluff testimony to a general misanthropy I wore for effect, but never truly felt. That said, Freddie seemed to furnish plenty of ammo for enmity, not only the four-barreled name, Ferdinand de la Roche, with its ridiculous “de la” copula and whiff of Swiss pharmaceuticals, but also the pretentious badge symbol, FDR, appropriating the blue-blood grandeur of one of America’s greatest statesmen.
Not that there was anything un-American about Freddie, who came across as your basic clean cut, pennant waving, Big Ten frat boy. Approaching thirty, he looked sixteen, still carrying a layer of baby fat, his plump, perpetually rosy cheeks blanketed in ivory down. He had thick, wavy, auburn hair, the stuff of conditioner commercials, cut incongruously short, almost military style, while thin gold-rimmed glasses, better suited to the lecture hall than the trading pit, lent additional delicacy to his features. A meticulous prepster, his uniform never varied: crisp oxford button-down, rep tie, cuffed slacks, cordovan loafers.
And there he was, day one, five minutes before the open, working his way into the pit, heading my way, with an “excuse me” for every glare and sneer (sure sign of the newbie), until he’s right there glommed up against me, a brute fact, a demand for recognition, a volatile mix of fuck-you moxie and knock-kneed fear, sucking on a Cert, stroking his hair, fingering his pens, fingering his penis, polishing his lenses, then eyeing the order fillers and the arb clerks and the clock, anyone or anything but me, his annoying badge adorned with a small red dot, meant to preemptively excuse his inevitable transgressions for the next thirty days.
“Who told you to stand next to me?” I asked, forcing eye contact.
“Wh-wh-what do you mean?” he asked back, sounding very much like the scared chipmunk he resembled.
“Who’re you trading for?”
“Nobody. I mean, just myself.”
“Who’re you clearing, then?”
“And Harald told you to find me.”
“Harald? Who’s Harald? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Harald Lang. Forget it. Have it your way, Ferdie.”
“Freddie. It’s Freddie,” he said, extending his hand, but just then the bell rang.
You have to forgive my suspicions. At the time I was a partner in a highly successful boutique firm. We used technical analysis and our own money to trade financial futures, always talking this total bullshit, Fibonacci-this and Elliot-wave-that, but only in public. Privately, it all came down to momentum oscillators and—our dirty little secret—balls the size of grapefruits. Anyway, the hotter we got, the more we got piggybacked; guys I’d never seen before, guys like Freddie, all of a sudden showing up next to me, matching my bids and offers. It became a real drag, at least until we’d made enough to trade direct with the banks. But by that time Freddie was long gone.
When we first met I was still making money the old-fashioned way, bagging trades for brokers. No, seriously, that was a joke, I mean buying low and selling high, my trusty charts at the ready. Size mattered, too, or as my idol Jesse Livermore would have put it, I swung a big line, whereas Freddie, notwithstanding his rumored Swiss legacy (which, by the way, I never heard him deny), was just your basic small local, trading mostly ones and twos, the occasional five lot. Anything bigger had to be a lock: a contrived opening range, say, or some fast market paper fuck.
I wound up right about one thing, the guy piggybacked me non-stop, but wrong about everything else, for Freddie turned out to be so indefatigably good-natured he proved impossible to hate. Isn’t that always the case? Guys you’re sure you’re going to hate wind up being the guys you like the most, well, except the ones wearing hipster hats or lapel pins, you know, the irredeemable assholes. Anyway, here’s all I want to say: despite his off-putting name and badge, Freddie turned out to belong to that rarest of breeds on the exchange, sightings of which birders would term “accidental,” the genuinely nice guy. We’re talking a real licky dog here, a full-on waggy-tailed Bowser: effusively affectionate, anxious to please, faithful to a fault. For the next three months he never left my side.
Mostly we talked about snakes and women. You’d never peg Freddie for a snake expert, until, that is, you learned he was ABD in biology at Harvard, from which he’d been granted indefinite leave. His dissertation topic was tropical climbing salamanders, or rather certain properties of their toxic secretions, and he claimed to have completed his field research, all of it in the Amazon basin, most of it in Colombia. “Just got to write it up,” he must have told me fifty times. Anyway, he knew a ton about snakes, especially the cool ones, the venomous ones, your hognose and eyelash vipers, your fer-de-lances and bushmasters, and about constrictors, too. He’s the one who taught me it’s always better to break trail in the rainforest, because it’s the second guy through who gets bit. He’s the one who taught me it’s always better to keep your sleeping bag rolled up during the day, because there’s no place a snake would rather hide. Not that I’ve actually benefited from such lessons. No way I’m ever visiting a rainforest. They got snakes in there!
About women, Freddie’s expertise was naturally less surprising. He was, after all, quite the catch himself—smart, handsome, rich, and single—with a pronounced taste towards the young and innocent, as endangered a species as the genuinely nice guy, at least at the Merc, where women often skinned their knees on the road to success. I’ll never forget the day BONZ asked Rita McGovern, the most successful female trader on the floor, who she’d had to blow to get her seat. “It’s not who, Bonzie,” she drawled, not missing a beat, “it’s how many.” Anyway, the point is Freddie had a sharp eye for women. In fact, he’s the one who introduced me to my first wife, at least in a manner of speaking.
We were bs-ing our way through the doldrums one morning when I noticed a young woman I’d never seen before near the Yen pit. She was wearing an applicant’s badge on an O’Malley jacket, the colors of which—British racing green with crimson piping—emboldened her otherwise demure outfit: blue button-down shirt, khaki slacks, and brown penny loafers. Come to think of it, she dressed just like Freddie! Her attention was devoted to some junior exec standing next to her in a clerk’s smock, apparently conducting a tour of the floor, and you could tell she was nervous by the way she kept sweeping her long brown hair back behind her ears, first on one side, then the other.
“Whoa! Who the fuck is that?” I asked rhetorically, or so I thought, indicating the object of my inquiry with a twitch of my chin.
“That would be Shannon Rhodes,” Freddie said.
“She’s been interning for O’Malley at the NYMEX while completing her MBA at NYU. She’s coming to the Merc.”
Of course, it’s easy to see now what I should have said then. I should have said: “Hey pal, look, just how is it you happen to possess such detailed information, wait, scratch that, just how is it you happen to possess any information about someone visiting the floor for the very first time?” And, in fact, it wasn’t just Shannon about whom Freddie seemed surprisingly well informed. It was pretty much everyone: traders, runners, out trade clerks, exchange employees, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, the guy was no gossip, it’s not that. It’s just that in the usual course of business, which in the pits inevitably included scads of aimless chatter, he regularly betrayed more knowledge about this or that person than might reasonably be expected from someone so new, a perspicacity about which, I have to admit, I remained largely incurious. Indeed, far from pressing Freddie that day, here’s what I actually said. I said, “I’m going to marry that girl,” a reckless prediction whose regrettable consequences lie mercifully beyond the scope of this story.
During the three months Freddie stood next to me he was invariably affable. Even when I could tell he was buried, that those one and two lots were all on one side of his card, the wrong side, and adding up fast, he just kept smiling, like it wasn’t even his money. Soon enough we developed an excellent rapport, although I would never have called us friends. For one thing, we never saw each other after the close—except, that is, on one memorable occasion, on a day that started out with me complaining to Freddie about how I’d been unfairly eighty-sixed by my dealer. I had just conceded that, OK, maybe I did badmouth the guy’s coke in public, but only in a casual, self-deprecating sort of way, plus how could I know it would get back to him, when FAB butts in: “Hey fellas, if it’s cocaine you want, I got a brick of it sitting in my freezer right now.” Say what? There were so many intriguing facets to this gem of an announcement I didn’t know where to begin, but Freddie beat me to the most obvious.
“How big a brick are we talking?” he asked, with an intensity of interest that made me nervous, like maybe he wanted it all for himself.
“I don’t know, not so big,” came the reply.
“A not so big brick,” Freddie clarified.
“Right, maybe the size of, I don’t know, it’s hard to say, it’s all wrapped-up like.”
“But how much actual stuff are we talking?” Freddie asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t do drugs.”
This I could believe. FAB—Vinny Fabrizio by name—was Mr. GQ, always immaculately dressed and groomed, and a real drill sergeanty stickler for exchange bylaws. Once upon a time he’d been a truly big wheel, even owned his own clearing house, but one day some pal from the old neighborhood, tripling up on losers, took the whole thing down in a single bracket, sending FAB back down to the floor to scrounge up a deck, a cruel twist of fate about which he remained laudably philosophical. “What can I say? I fucked up. I trusted the guy” was how he summed up the whole affair. Anyway, I’m just saying, the only person in the pit who looked squarer than FAB was Freddie himself.
“Um, listen, FAB,” I said, taking over the interrogation, “sorry if I seem a little slow on the uptake, but since you don’t do drugs, I’m wondering why there’s a brick of indeterminate size sitting in your refrigerator.”
“Fine, freezer, icebox, igloo, whatever,” I said, my voice rising in frustration. “What’s a guy who doesn’t do drugs doing with a brick of cocaine in his fucking freezer?”
“A guy used it to settle a debt is all,” FAB said.
“How big a debt?” I asked.
“How long ago?” Freddie asked.
“I don’t remember exactly, maybe two years.”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” I said, slack-jawed. “Two years in a freezer? That’s unconscionable!”
“Who was this guy, anyway?” Freddie asked. “How much money did he owe you?” But those questions never got answered, because right then FAB’s clerk shakes him by the shoulders and whispers excitedly into his ear and the next thing you know he’s trying to sell a thousand at the market, which leads to pandemonium, because he’s basically offering into a void, collapsing prices and triggering all kinds of stops, and the arbs are apparently all out to breakfast, so I start front-running the poor bastard and scaring off the locals, until I can see Aron’s phone clerk pissing her panties trying to get a bid in, which is when I turn and take everything FAB’s got left, all eight-hundred-some, plus I mop up the stops, locking in a quick ten ticks on the five-hundred I give Aron before spending the next twenty minutes selling the rest back too cheap, foiling all the whining pussies who didn’t have the balls to step in on the way down, but are now intent on humiliating FAB by bidding the market right back up, and FAB so appreciates this gesture that he grabs me and tells me to come over to his place right after the close and I can have the whole brick gratis.
At the time FAB lived on the thirty-fourth floor of a big condo building at Lakeview and Wrightwood. The building itself appeared somewhat worse for wear, its concrete veneer pockmarked and rust-splotched, but the location was dynamite. “Check out the view,” he said, as soon as he’d taken my coat, pointing to the telescope in the corner of the living room, its tripod sunk into deep, white wall-to-wall carpet, as silky soft as a Samoyed puppy. Of course whenever you look through someone else’s telescope you just have to pretend to see whatever’s supposed to be there, because the focus is always off and the necessary adjustments too much of a hassle. “Must be amazing with the boats in,” I offered, pointing the thing towards Diversey Harbor.
“Aim towards the Gold Coast,” suggested a new voice, as unexpected as it was familiar, spinning me around. What the fuck? Sure enough, there was Freddie, standing on the far side of the breakfast counter in the open kitchen.
“Monsieur Freddie! What a surprise! I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“What, and miss the show? Not a chance. Check this out,” he said, pointing to the appliance next to him the same way Vanna points to a vowel, “Vincent Fabrizio’s freezer! It’s just like Al Capone’s vault!”
“Funny guy,” said FAB. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
Talk about anticlimactic. The bundle itself was impressive, a mishmash of aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and strapping tape, about the size of a paperback Moby Dick, but the product inside much less so. I didn’t know whether FAB had been snookered up front, or whether it was simply a colossal case of freezer burn, or what, but there was no way I was snorting a single line from the mound of moldy, sooty sediment spilling out onto the butcher block island. You know how when you’re a kid and you drag a magnet through the sandbox, how you wind up with all that weird black crap sticking to it? That’s what FAB’s cocaine looked like, the stuff on the magnet, iron filings, I think they are. And while I’d heard of black tar heroin before, all the coke I’d ever seen was as white as the mannitol it was cut with. Thanks, but no thanks. I felt bad for FAB, who seemed genuinely perplexed and embarrassed, while Freddie acted just as disappointed as me.
Then FAB said, “Fuck this bullshit. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared down a hallway, reemerging seconds later with your basic barf brown, hard shell Samsonite briefcase in one hand and a triple beam balance scale in the other. He bid us join him in the living room.
“This should have been Plan A,” said FAB, setting the scale and the briefcase down on a white onyx coffee table before plopping himself down on a white plush sofa that, trust me, cost more than your car. I came over and sat down next to him, while Freddie remained standing. A cut glass vase with three or four birds of paradise sat in the center of the table and I marveled once again at the way fifty dollars worth of flowers buys a million dollars worth of atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, you know that great scene in The French Connection? Where the crooks’ chemist uses a Thiele tube to test the purity of the heroin? “Best I’ve ever seen” is what he finally says. Well, that’s pretty much what I was thinking as I checked out the contents of the briefcase. At first all I saw was a box of Baggies and a large Crown Royal sack, but then FAB unknotted the gold chord and removed the day’s second brick of cocaine. If that freezer brick had been Moby Dick sized, it was the Signet edition, whereas this briefcase brick was more like the Norton Critical Edition, about a third larger, encased in a sturdy Ziploc bag, its floury whiteness in beautiful contrast to the bag’s purple velvet.
“How much is that there then?” I asked, nervously proliferating adverbs.
“Gentlemen,” he replied, “you are looking at exactly one kilo of the finest Peruvian flake.”
I couldn’t help myself: “A thousand fucking grams.”
“Just waiting to be stepped on,” said Freddie, now standing directly behind us. Both FAB and I whipped around and stared at him, as if to say, “where the fuck did that come from?”
Before that afternoon, the most coke I’d ever seen in one place was the ounce Dan Morales dumped out in the VIP at Scores to kick-start his brother Frank’s bachelor party. But an ounce was one thing, a kilo something else entirely. An ounce of cocaine was still plausibly recreational, at least by commodity trader standards, but a kilo? That had “intent to distribute” written all over it. Initially there had been something very cool about the whole “hey, it’s just like the French Connection” kind of deal, but the longer I sat there staring at that immense bag of coke, the more things seemed a lot less cool and a lot more ominous, until it struck me: “Hey, you stupid fuck, this probably is just like the French Connection, full of ruthless drug traffickers and shoot-to-kill cops,” and I began to feel slightly flushed, slightly nauseated, slightly short of breath, not panicked exactly, more like pre-panicked, acutely aware that panic lay right there on the horizon, a real possibility.
FAB zeroed out the scale, then slid the top rider half way along the beam. “Shall we say fifty grams?” he asked me.
“Hey, it’s your party,” I replied, trying to keep things light, just as Freddie interjected: “Maybe he wants to try it first.” I was pretty sure he was joking, but FAB didn’t think so.
“Try it? What, you think you’re at 31 Flavors? Not happening. I told you before, I don’t do drugs. There will be no drugs consumed on these premises.”
“Fine with me,” I said, shooting Freddie my best “Will you please shut the fuck up” look, to no avail.
“Hey, FAB,” Freddie said, “it’s probably none of my business, but for a guy who keeps insisting he doesn’t do drugs, you sure do keep a shitload around.”
“Fucking right it’s none of your business!” exclaimed an exasperated FAB. “What, you think that puny deck covers my nut? You think it buys this view?” He gestured wildly towards the floor to ceiling windows with his left hand, almost knocking over the vase of flowers. Collecting himself, yet still shaking his head, he took a trading card from his shirt pocket, folded it in half lengthwise, used it to shovel coke into a baggie, then dropped the baggie onto the scale. “Close enough for government work,” he said, with no detectable trace of irony, rolling up the baggie, licking the top like a cigarette paper to seal it, and handing me almost two ounces of coke.
A week later Freddie stopped showing up. Just like that. No warning. Not a word to anyone. But, here’s the thing, it’s not like anybody really cared. I mean, sure, for a while people wondered, “Hey, where’s Freddy?” “Whatever happened to Freddy?” But you’ve got to remember, the Merc housed more transients than the Lawson Y. Moving on or up or out was the name of the game, with or without formal leave-taking. I did make a few inquiries; I even asked Harald Lang, who assured me Freddie’s membership was still active and his account still open, but claimed to know nothing besides. I suppose a small part of me did take it personally. After all, although we weren’t exactly friends, I still felt, I don’t know, betrayed is too strong, disrespected, I guess, hurt. After all, it was my trading acumen he’d parasitized for three months. You ever flirt with someone at a party and things seem to be going really well, but when you cruise back later to seal the deal you find out she’s already left? Technically, she didn’t owe you anything, but still. That’s about how I felt towards Freddie.
Then one spring morning he’s back, just like nothing’s changed, just like old times, and my immediate impulse is to give him some shit, something like: “Three months on, three months off? Where do I sign up?” But then I get a better look at him and I see that, whatever’s called for, it’s not humor.
Over vending machine coffee in the broker’s break room Freddie filled me in. He said he’d picked up this horrible tropical disease in the Amazon. He said he hadn’t planned on going back down there, hadn’t wanted to, but that his dissertation director, desperate for experienced manpower, had threatened to terminate his leave of absence and to restart his degree clock unless he signed on, which, at the last minute, he did, a decision that just about killed him. Certainly he’d lost a lot of weight. His trading jacket sagged like a loose shroud and his formerly chipmunk cheeks now resembled the bony, gnarled protrusions of a starving rat. Judging by his color, he’d lost a lot of blood as well, his skin now a pasty, pale gray, dappled with contusions and scabs, not just on his face, but also on his wrists and hands, where it looked like someone had repeatedly botched inserting an IV. Those dainty gold-rimmed glasses I loved to mock had been replaced by drugstore Clark Kent frames, while his lustrous, Breck Girl hair had been buzzed, save for several spots where it appeared to have fallen out of its own accord. But all these changes—the boniness, the pallor, the bruises, the sores, the cheap glasses, the patchy scalp—were as nothing compared to the singularly most disturbing feature of the new Freddie, his mouth, from which emanated a faint, yet unmistakable laboratory stench, exposure to which instantly made me think “carbolic,” although I couldn’t have defined the term, for the poor guy had lost a whole necklace worth of teeth, while many that remained appeared precariously anchored. In sum, Freddie looked all set for Halloween, done up as his own corpse.
“What’d you say it was called again?” I asked.
“Leishmaniasis,” he replied.
“Jesus, sounds almost as bad as it looks. How’d you get it? Not from mosquitos.”
“No, sand flies. They’re what’s called the vector.”
“Jesus, hard to believe a little tiny fly bite could cause so much damage. Are you going to be OK?”
“You mean am I going to live? That depends,” he said, pausing for effect.
“On whether it stays out of my liver. So far, so good.”
This time he hung around a week, not trading much, hardly at all, in fact, avoiding the pit, mostly just sitting at the Lang desk talking on the phone. And then he was gone, for good, as it turned out, and again people went around asking, “Whatever happened to Freddie?” but less insistently than before, and less frequently, too, until eventually, with the gradual extinction of open-outcry, there was nobody left to ask or answer.
Whatever did happen to Freddie? Well, believe it or not, that’s exactly what I’m now finding out, as I sit lingering over the paper at Brokers Inn, absorbed in a conversation two tables away I can’t help but hear, between two guys I’m sure I know, but haven’t quite placed. About the same age, early sixties, their faces deeply creased and tanned, one of them reminds me of a concierge at some storied European hotel, fastidiously attired in a light gray suit, the exact color, possibly even the texture, of his buoyant pompadour. He’s even got on a gold lapel pin, although not, alas, in the shape of crossed keys. By contrast, his breakfast companion appears comfortably ruffled in loose, black warm-ups and a canary yellow polo, his own gold displayed as necklace, bracelet, and Rolex, each hunkier than the last. Risking a glance, I see the one’s black brogues almost touching the other’s white sneakers, just as something I hear finally and firmly fixes their identities: the concierge is Tom something-or-other (Burlington? Burlingame?), the Merc’s former lobbying guy, a royal asshole, while Mr. Casual is Carl Antonucci, Lang’s long-time floor manager. I haven’t seen either in twenty-five years.
“But that’s just it, Tommy, Harald knew all about it,” is what Carl has just finished saying.
“No fucking way. I don’t believe it, an undercover agent? You sure we’re talking the same guy? LBJ? JFK?
“Ha! That’s right! FDR. I knew it was a president. Freddie Roche, right? With the peach fuzz and the faggoty-ass glasses? Looked like he was twelve? You’re telling me that guy was a DEA agent? No fucking way.”
“Not DEA, FBI. He was part of that whole sting operation, the one that got FAB, Jimmy D., all those guys, put away.”
I flashed back to the arrests, to FAB’s getting cuffed, right in the middle of trading, right at the edge of the pit. Maximum exposure. Maximum humiliation. And to the paranoia that followed. Were more busts coming down? Who would be next? I swear the whole thing scared me straight for weeks.
“And Harald told you this,” Tom more states than asks.
“They needed Harald to get Freddie an account. All that stuff about research in the Amazon, remember that? Well, it was all bullshit, just an elaborate cover, but true enough in its way. He was down there alright, but not chasing butterflies!”
“Chasing los narcotraficantes!” said Tom with exuberance.
“Hey, that’s some muy excellente español, amigo,” Carl chuckled, “except the way Harald told it, it was the other way around.”
“Harald told me it was the bad guys who were doing the chasing, and when they finally caught him it wasn’t pretty. Yanked out half his teeth for starters.”
“Just goes to show you, all that stuff we were always talking on the floor, all that stuff about how ‘your word is your bond’”?
“Never meant shit. You think you’re trading with a stand-up guy, turns out he’s a fucking Fed.”
“Yeah, I see what you mean. You can’t trust anyone anymore,” Tom said, laughing.
“Sure, yuck it up, fellas,” I thought to myself. But even I had to admit it was funny. You see, I’m one of those guys who likes keeping score. In fact, that’s maybe the thing I loved most about trading, the way from minute to minute, from tick to tick, you always knew the score. And, until this morning, I always figured I knew the score with Freddie, knew who owed whom, and about how much, not in money necessarily, in intangibles, I guess you’d say. And that’s what’s so funny, realizing just how wrong I’ve been.
I folded my paper, stood up, left a tip, and walked to the cashier. I considered stopping to say hi to Carl, we’d palled around some back in the day, but it no longer felt like I knew him, or anybody else, for that matter.