When I came to this country, I was an uber-naive teenager who had never worked in his life. I had graduated from high school in Manila and suddenly found myself in Jersey City with my whole family for the first time in so many years, with one family-assigned goal: to find a job.
The Philippines has a shorter educational system than the U.S., so many of us finish high school relatively young. In my class alone, the youngest was fifteen. Most of us had never worked, and wouldn’t have to think about it until college, or after college, if there was work, that is. In my case, I had to leave the country. And life, the new American life, would change just about everything.
After many jobhunting tryouts (one of which was with my own mother, at MacDonalds), I found a job on Wall Street, now the center of a global recession blame game. The woman who interviewed me, Martha, was the Manager, who told me months later that I reminder her of her son. In short, I charmed her, this white woman who thought I looked like her son. If you were an FOB (fresh off the boat), you wouldn’t pay too much attention to such flattery. First of all, you would be paycheck-focused. Nothing else mattered, not what Martha said, nor what her son looked like. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be working for Martha, but for her boss, a golden aged virago with a voice that could rattle a dormant earthquake fault. Let’s call her Cruella de Ville, 80s version, this way I wouldn’t have to describe her, because in fact, she looked very much like that cartoon, minus the dogs and the black and white color theme (or you can also age Merryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada and get a good image of this woman).
We had our own building on Wall Street. It was a seven-story building with a garden on the rooftop that was being kept by Cruella’s scantily-clad young gardeners (yup, I noticed). My desk was at the center of the floor, directly overlooking Cruella’s big oriental-inspired office, and was surrounded by glass windowed clerical offices. My morning task was to open Cruella’s mail, sort them, and hand her the ones with checks. I was being trained by two women, one black and one white. I would find out later, in my complete naivete about ethnicity, that this “white woman” was Colombian. I only knew of Colombia from watching Miss Universe for years. I had no idea how they really looked like. But our Miss Colombia never admitted to being Colombian. In fact, her last name was Garcia, which she spuriously pronounced as “Gar-sha.” It was the eighties, and her Garsha hair was as high as a hairsprayed mane could get. She grew up on Long Island, the land of self-denial, if you get the drift. The other woman was black, a very dark skinned one at that. She was pregnant and was about to be promoted to the first floor. In that building, the first floor was the penthouse. That was where all the white men were. That was where the “computers” were. Those were the last years of electric typewriters, but we still had them. In fact, on my floor, there was a whole room of typists, and across from them, proofreaders. I, a self-taught 70 wpm Executive Assistant, sat at a desk in the middle of it all.
My first few weeks were calm. I was given a tour of the whole building from the ground up. I was, after all, the assistant of the Vice President, an itinerant gofer on leather shoes. The first floor was reserved for executive positions, mostly white men, and their colored minions (one of whom was the newly promoted black woman). That floor was always closed. Always. Like some big secret ritual was happening there . The third floor was the lunch room, with a small wall-attached TV that played daily soap operas. All the women would go to lunch at exactly the time when their favorite soap was on. They would eat their ethnic food and completely immerse themselves in the lives of the characters on the 17 inch TV. They would have conversations about them as if they were cousins or neighbors. The fourth floor was Accounting, home to a Filipino family. I was on the Fifth with Cruella and her clerks. The Sixth was an underrenovated floor that housed three people, two of whom were overweight. There was one restroom on that floor. One lazy afternoon, after Cruella kept calling that floor and nobody would answer, she sent me upstairs to investigate. I found the two obese white employees coming out of a tryst, the restroom, at the same time (the male, zipping his fly), with one message for me, Don’t say anything to anyone. I never did, until now.
Compared to the towering architecture around us, we were a miniature. But it was always mesmerizing to watch the rest of Wall Street from our cafeteria window. I had not know then how different we were from the rest of Wall Street. I had no concept of immigration, race, or ethnicity. I had no idea that all the ethnics coming out of the train would all end up in my building.
And this made this Wall Street firm most interesting, at least in retrospect; most of the employees were immigrants. The countries: Philippines, India, Guyana, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and the Republic of the Bronx. For them, I was just one of them. For me, it was all strange; and I was in it for the experience. I had nothing to compare it with. I had no idea what the next day would bring. And of course, there was always the clueless Long Island hairspray girl named Garsha.
Garsha’s dream was to work on the first floor. She would come to work wearing a tightfitting dress that accentuated her breasts and her butt. She was about to get married and replace her Garsha last name with an Italian one, which profoundly excited her. Her hair would reach the ceiling. She was a goodlooking woman unwittingly diminished by her ethnic self-denial. She would do anything to get through the day, including hiding checks in the drawers that she couldn’t finish processing. Those checks were commercial paper and Treasury Bills checks. For the life of me, I had no idea what they were for. All I knew they were supposed to be handed to Cruella. What did I know? It was my first job. I didn’t even know Almond Joy was a chocolate bar. I would find that out after another secretary asked me to get her one, and my pride precluded me from inquiring deeper. I came back with my cup of coffee and a question: What is Almond Joy? Of course, after being called “stupid,” I had my first exposure to the world of obesity and American snacks.
Garsha would soon find herself in big trouble. Cruella knew the ins and outs of the building, of desks, and of every nook and cranny of her office and everyone else’s around her. One day, she threw a fit upon discovering Garsha’s secret treasures: weeks-old Treasury Bills and Commercial Paper (I suspect that she went through people’s desks when everybody was gone). I had never seen a white woman so angry in my life. I had never known facial wrinkles could get more, er, wrinkled. She called Garsha and me to the office and started screaming at both of us. The veins, oh the turgid veins on her dear neck. I thought they would explode on my new Bloomingdale’s outfit. Garsha parried the accusations by kicking my leg, trying to keep my mouth shut. So I did (I was already humanitarian). Yet, there was one person who knew the truth: Martha. Remember Martha? She was the one who thought I looked like her son.
Oh the solicitous Martha, with a Spanish last name, I remember now. In a closed meeting, the woman defended me and ransacked the poor career out of Garsha. But you see, during the time, I was already applying to go to college. Not that I didn’t care, but since I didn’t have any other work experience to compare it with, I was going with the flow, a constant flow of screaming, irascible, and high blood pressure-bound Cruella. I don’t remember what happened to Garsha after that, but I do know that soon after, I had my own assistant.
Every now and then, we would get a visit from the newly-promoted secretary from the first floor. She spat when she talked. You would rather not look at her. She and her husband went to the Carribean for a vacation, and she flaunted her tan afterwards. The typists had a ball on her, because according to them, she was too dark to even think she could get a tan (these were black people making fun of her). It was my first year in America, and my first exposure to race. I didn’t even know when to laugh, or why I should laugh at these jokes. All I cared about was what I wore to work.
I thought about this today, because a friend from that era has recently emailed me. She found me on the Internet. She is Filipino, too, and perhaps the first one I have met in this country. She is a victim of the recession, which we know now had its roots on Wall Street. Because of the Filipino family who worked in accounting, we outnumbered the other ethnics in that company. I often wondered why. When Martha’s son visited, she introduced him to me. It was only then that I realized that her Spanish last name was Filipin0. Her son didn’t look like her at all, and most likely took after her estranged Filipino husband. And no, for the grace of god, he didn’t look like me either.
Wall Street taught me many things about life in this country. I think now that it must have profoundly affected me that I had continued to work with immigrants since. What I learned from being there a year was not about Commercial Paper or Treasury Bills or CDs or Investments, but the daily struggles of the people who make the system work. Unfortunately, many of them recruited into this system were not being made aware of the internal mechanics of such system. Months after I left, I found out from my informant that the Securities and Exchange Commission had come in and shut down the firm. Stories flew about the company not having enough assets and how the president was physically dragged out of the building. Who would have known? They were all perfunctory paper shufflers, more worried about spell checks and typing errors than obviating the arrival of the Feds over liquid assets. Most of all, they were all immigrants. I wonder about the hiring now, whether it was purposeful. Was there an assumption about immigrant workers, their loyalty, their naivete, or their ability to feign indifference inorder to keep a much needed cash flow? The ones who might have known the real goings-on were behind closed door on the first floor. We didn’t even know their names; we hardly saw them. But at the time, it was all behind me. I was about to embark on a new world–college–and nothing else mattered but what was ahead. There was much to look forward to in my teenage years, including among other things, getting a whole collection of this new hot artist named Madonna.
Related Reading: Don’t Cry for Wall Street, Awake, Wall Street, With SEC charges, Goldman Sachs’s reputation is tarnished, You’re Welcome, Wall Street, Wall Street: Is It Good to Apologize for Greed?, No More Deceit: Strictly Regulate Wall Street, Financial Reform at a Crossroads,