Friends, I wish to bring up a question I find most vexing, a question
I shouldered yesterday at the same moment as I raised my Japanese golfing
umbrella to the heavens in the face of an unexpected rainstorm.
Now as most of you know, I have a day job in the financial district,
working Monday to Friday in the World Financial Center. Some of you don’t
have day jobs, but take it from me, they’re not hard to understand. The
idea is that the place you work and the place you live are two different
places; that you travel to the former from the latter in the morning,
and retrace your steps in the afternoon. The vast majority of people in
the financial district on any given weekday fall into this category; the
remainder are generally tourists who have come to gawk at the Statue of
Liberty and carrying a chip on their shoulder about not having got a place
on the first ferry of the day to Liberty island. (Only the first ferryload
per day is allowed up to the crown.)
So what I wonder is this. How can it be that you never see people with
umbrellas if it isn’t raining, but everybody seems to have an umbrella
if it is?
I hope you see where I’m coming from here. If it’s not raining in the
morning, you don’t see people with umbrellas. But come the afternoon,
when they leave their offices for the commute back home, they all seem
to have procured one. Where do all these umbrellas come from? They’re
not the three-dollar jobs you buy on street corners, they’re the really
large golfing umbrellas which are 90% of the width of the sidewalk and
which generate a ballet of ducking and arm-raising between the sorts of
people who are normally at pains to avoid each others’ eyes. It would
probably be really quite amusing to watch if it weren’t for the fact that
it was pissing it down with freezing rain a few drops of which have managed
to make their way down the inside of your collar and are meandering down
your spine, soaking your shirt and rapidly approaching the waistband of
You can see why people want those big umbrellas, though. You take one
of the little black numbers out into any self-respecting New York storm,
and it will be torn to shreds within five minutes. Not that a shredded
umbrella really affords much more protection than one fresh from the little
Asian woman from whom you bought it: the lashings of near-horizontal rain
mean that it will protect one small spot on the back of your head if you’re
lucky. Even with a monstrous motherfucker of an umbrella everything below
your thighs can be considered write-off territory.
But anyway, the logistics of umbrellas. We assume that people only have
a finite number of the things. Now if you work in the corporate communications
department of a bulge-bracket investment bank, you can simply nab yourself
a freebie umbrella any time it rains from the dedicated storeroom downstairs.
But most people don’t have access to such a treasure trove.
Which reminds me: the New York Stock Exchange does a roaring trade in
umbrellas. It, like, sells them, for cash, from the little shop the tourists
flock into after taking their free tour. And most of the time, it’s not
even raining. Let me ask you this: do any of you know a single person
who would pay $17.95 plus tax to parade around in the rain with that dreadful
sub-IBM striped logo and the worse slogan “the world puts its stock in
us”? I mean, that ranks below “banking on success” in the world of dreadful
cliched financial puns.
I have a feeling that the people who buy NYSE merchandise fall into
two camps: German tourists, on the one hand, and New Yorkers, on the other.
The former we can safely put to one side, on the grounds that no one has
ever been able to fathom the internal workings of the mind of the German
tourist. The latter we can suppose fall into two categories of their own.
The first would be the poseur, who thinks that if he wears an NYSE sweatshirt
in a nonchalant enough manner while playing frisbee in central park, some
nubile blonde rollerblader will see him and automatically think him loaded
enough to be a possible date. The second would be the die-hard capitalists,
who wear it as a sign of allegiance to the hegemon that is multinational
global capitalism and the longest bull market of the century. In this
respect they’re a bit like the people who wear Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts
because they think they’re cool.
But back to the umbrellas. The point is, there are a lot of asymmetrical
days — days when it’s raining in the morning but not in the afternoon,
or raining in the afternoon even though it was dry in the morning. Don’t
the people who take their umbrellas into work in the morning take them
back home in the afternoon even if it’s stopped raining? But you never
see them, these hordes with their rolled-up umbrellas. Maybe they leave
them at work — that would explain where all the umbrellas come from on
the days when it starts raining around midday.
But how do they know? How many umbrellas would you need to own to make
sure that you’ll always have one at home if you need it and one at work
if you need it? I mean, what if there are, like, four or five days in
a row where it rains in the afternoon but not the morning? How many umbrellas
can you reasonably keep in the office until everybody thinks you’re a
complete nutcase? And have you ever seen offices filled with umpteen umbrellas?
I don’t know. Maybe there’s a roaring trade in people biking their umbrellas
back home in the middle of the day when they realise they won’t be needing
them that afternoon. Or maybe these umbrellas all dismantle, like those
rifles you see in movies, and pack up into a common-looking briefcase.
I can see it now — the first thing you learn when you come out of your
MBA programme and you start your job at Goldman Sachs is how to dismantle
and put back together again a full-sized umbrella in less than 15 seconds.
Get it done in single figures and you automatically get a job on the bond-trading
desk; take more than half a minute and you’re a junior equities analyst
for at least a year.
Friends, there’s a whole world out there we have no idea about. Go out
there and explore it, I implore you! And tell me where the umbrellas go
when it isn’t raining.