In the Stocks

“I never expected it,” says R., “but when my favorite uncle S. died he left me some money—well, lots of money. And yet it wasn’t enough to fund my own revolution the way I used to dream (Belize looked promising), and now I can hardly afford my Park Slope apartment. It would help if I had a job, but I can’t possibly work for anyone and right now I don’t have to. Anyway, there’s plenty left for lunch, the Pinot Noir is a bargain and will go very well with that venison steak in morel reduction you ordered.

“The worst part is, all uncle’s money is in stocks—my own private social security account before I even retired. I hadn’t even started to work! He’d wanted to help me with my writing career, that’s what the will said, but it’s strange, I mean he’d only read these poems I wrote at 16. I should be grateful, but then, you know, all that money really burns a hole in your conscience.

“I got these statements every month. At first I couldn’t really look at them. I was told never to throw them away in case I got audited, so I just put them in a shoebox in my closet. Now I have six closets. It’s like they pay for their own storage space. So for a while I couldn’t read them, just thought of it as money in the bank, like a savings account. Then a box tipped over one day and they came spilling out. All those numbers and names! What did they mean? And how could I be expected to read them?

“Those were the Nineties, the tech-bubble hadn’t burst, and there was a sense you could do no wrong with stocks. I read the names on the portfolio, boy, they would not have gone over well in my college chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops: Gap, Walmart, Wrigley, News Corp., and Archer Daniels Midland, world’s largest exporter of genetically modified soybeans. At least they sponsor NPR. I had no idea what the other companies did and their names were no help (I suppose that’s the point): Rentokil, Cendant, THX-88. And then the T-bills, lots of T-bills. The federal deficit could keep going up forever and I would finance it.

“Uncle’s portfolio outperformed the market consistently, that’s what the investment advisor said when I went to see her in her big midtown office with panoramic windows. The barren, ravaged land across the river encouraged the long view—it was either stocks or barbarism. I was wearing my USAS button on my leather jacket and plunged in on the subject of ethical investing. She was sympathetic. She’d heard of people who refused to invest in companies that didn’t promote Christian values or were linked to violent television. It turned out that Uncle had also set some limits: no weapons manufacturers, but he’d had faith in the drug companies (even when they wouldn’t let go of the AIDS drugs patents), and he’d started to go soft on Philip Morris when they rescued the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But what about companies that, you know, treat their workers well and don’t destroy the environment and don’t finance wars? I was getting bolder. What about companies that actively try to improve the lot of the poor?

“‘Like Wal-Mart?’ she asked.

“I liked my advestment advisor, but there was a bit of a gulf here. We settled for a hippocratic compromise: let me own no companies that do positive harm to the environment or their workers.

“For a few years I felt virtuous and continued to make money, even after the tech-bubble, the accounting scandals, and the market dive after 9/11. My advisor was a genius and I tuned out. I got settlement checks from class action suits, was asked to ratify board choices for CEO in several elections. I received big glossy annual reports, though there was a notable decline in paper quality after the first big economic downturn. These, too, I held onto. I’d read them someday. It’s very easy to live as a member of a parasitical rentier class if you don’t look down. Occasionally I had my doubts when I came across a sinister name in my portfolio. ‘This petroleum company you bought, Morgoth Petroleum—petroleum means it’s an oil company, right?’ I had called up my advisor.

“‘Well, actually they deal in recycled petroleum products, plastics, vaseline, engine oil, and, um, lubricants. They’re Canadian.’

“‘So they’re not oppressing the Ogoni people then?’


“‘Oh that’s alright I guess.’

“But eventually it became too much. I decided to take matters into my own hands. These companies all put their addresses at the bottom of the statements, you know. At every shareholder meeting, I was there: eating cucumber sandwiches. On every ballot, I marked an X to oppose whatever the board wanted to do. Dejection. Disillusionment. Anything I voted against was approved, the stock prices soared, I got fat, they’d put cream cheese in the finger sandwiches.

“At the back of the hall lurked a few other people like me, the shareholder activists. But at their meetings, too, in the church near Wall Street, it was hopeless, no one liked my schemes. Was it so wrong to ask for warning statements on credit cards? I drifted to the radical wing. My cell chose me to strike the blow. ‘I’ll pick something up at Dean & DeLuca?’ No, they said. We make them ourselves.

“As I streaked across the podium, landing a cream pie on a CEO’s chubby face, not so unlike my own, I thought: What will they do with me now? ‘To the A train at 59th street!’ I shouted as I jumped in the first cab I saw. ‘No, wait, all the way to Kennedy!’

“And that is how you find me here today.”

Poor R. The double-bind he’s in has made him lose his mind. Or maybe it’s the Pinor Noir? It’s gone to our head too. We part with him on good terms, as he pulls his hat down to shade his face. We’re humming the ballad of the stockholder intellectual.

Ballad of the Stockholder Intellectual
[to the tune of “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife”)]

Und die statements
Kommt too often
Und die index
Funds perform!
Meine friends nicht
Can afford me
Und after clearing
Kommt der sturm!

No mehr writing
No mehr thinking
Für ich dwell on
Where die oilmen
Beat dem locals
Und die profits
Buy my Cuisinart!

Das Kapital-uh
Die Prison Notebooks
Beat die drum
Ich habe dem alle
In luxury editions
Aber also 1,000 shares of!

Over at Pushkinskaya, we spot a group of jugglers performing tricks. They are observed intently by their fans, all in dark suits. “Ah,” we say to a passerby, “is this a literary reading?”

The stranger looks at us. “Those are jugglers.”

“So those—those are the writers?” We indicate the men in suits.

The stranger smiles. “That is the secret police.” He looks around, spots a man in patched-up rags sitting on a nearby bench with a book. “That is a writer,” he says. “A pretty good one.”

“In Russia,” he explains, “everything is as it looks. And everything looks bad. How are things in your country?”

Oh! we begin to tell him. He doesn’t know from bad! In our country there is a crisis. Literature is in danger. Everyone says so! Our authors are calling us to arms . . .

More from Issue 3

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Not utopia, but it was nice.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Dear Oprah, None of us can prove our books are of genuine worth yet. Instead, we’re impatient.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Do not think that we were being horrible, indifferent parents.

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Today the concept of global peak oil is widely accepted in the energy field.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

People read less, but ideas once derived from books, and now turned into circulating rumors, are all they have.

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Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop
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A Violent Season
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First Love
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The Neoliberal Imagination
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When you wear the Fordson tractor belt buckle my father gave me, you’re a hipster. When I wear it, I’m a redneck.

Issue 3 Reality Principle
Two Fairy Tales
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What Independent Film?
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Or Things I Did Not Do or Say
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And yes, one knows what it is like to receive a harsh review; and yes, one is aware of the basic inhumanity of the critic’s task.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of close reading.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

Levitt, then, far from being a rogue, is really Becker’s dutiful heir.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

A Rushdie novel, like its author, is a public figure, its thingness easy to lose in the sound and the fury.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

The point of these shows was not just how people would be altered, but that they could be altered.

Issue 3 Reality Principle

“Does he who fights douchebags become, inevitably, something of a douchebag?”

More by this Author

Issue 27 Deep End
Issue 18 Good News

Hundreds of NSA staff left work one night as salaried employees and returned the next day as contractors.

Issue 7 Correction

Forgive me for so crassly responding to your piece by finding myself in it. But somehow I feel invited to!

February 13, 2013

If your only priority over at B of A is your bottom line, such practices aren’t panning out from a fiscal standpoint.

March 6, 2012

How often we are told to read for pleasure! Pity we so rarely take this advice literally!

Issue 9 Bad Money

Computer games are the latest cultural form to benefit from the collapse of the old categories of high- and lowbrow.