Twenty years ago, the doomed tenants of the One World Trade Center’s 87th Floor embarked on one of the greatest challenges in American business history: how to continue when you’ve lost literally everything. Their day-to-day saga had vanished from history – until now.
Pretty much every 9/11 story is personal. This one is different: it looks through the lens of an entire cohort. For the 30 days after the Twin Towers fell, I tagged along daily, amid the smoldering rubble, with the 52 surviving employees at the May Davis Group, doomed tenants of the 87th floor of One World Trade Center. They were involuntarily testing whether an organization that, in the pre-cloud/pre-smartphone era, lost everything instantly – all records, contacts and, yes, their most valuable employee – could even continue to exist.
When the story appeared in the print edition of Worth Magazine in November 2001, it attracted a good amount of buzz. And then it vanished just as quickly. If you checked earlier this week – and our research team tried and tried — there was no digital record, or version in a database, or copy in a print archive. Like so much from that terrible day, it had disappeared. But as with pretty much anything pertaining to 9/11, if you look closely enough, there’s always hope. In this case, one surviving copy buried in a storage closet. Below, a story of human resilience that hasn’t been told in 20 years.
Owen May had always been quick with numbers, but in his shock on the morning of September 11, he didn’t trust his own math. May’s semi-eponymous investment bank, the May Davis Group, occupied the 87th floor of One World Trade Center. He stood on Vesey Street, directly below his building, watching the top floors spit out black ash like an angry coal oven. May counted up from the lobby, past Bank of America and the Port Authority, until he came to the 82nd floor, above which the smoke and flames became all-consuming. In disbelief, he counted down from Windows on the World until he found the same floor. He recounted several times. Up. Down. Either way, it didn’t add up to 87.
May’s cell phone stopped working, so he borrowed one from the bus driver gaping next to him and called his partner, Kevin Davis, who works from a satellite office in Baltimore. “Kevin, it’s right where we are,” he screamed. “I don’t think everyone’s going to make it.” May had already called upstairs and learned that 13 of his 53 employees had arrived. He would have been up there himself if he hadn’t hit the snooze bar on his alarm clock, one of fate’s little miracles; instead, he was 30 seconds from driving his car into the building’s infamous parking garage when the first plane hit.
College buddies, May and Davis started their firm in 1993 with the dream of building their own home on Wall Street, in part to take advantage of new opportunities for African-American bankers. They had nurtured the firm like a precious baby, nursing it countless times though all-night deal closings.
Their move into the Twin Towers five years ago proudly signaled the company’s adulthood. May Davis, the partners would gleefully note to anyone who would listen, may not have been the biggest, but it was surely the highest minority-owned firm in the world. The firm prominently displayed the Twin Towers on its Web site, on its business cards, and in its brochures. As much for themselves as for important out-of-town clients to whom they showed off the office, the prominence of the World Trade Center was interwoven with the partners’ identities. Unlike some big tenants such as Morgan Stanley, May Davis had no other facilities that could absorb its operations after the attack. The Twin Towers were May Davis.
And there was only so much time that it could reasonably expect to hold together its fragile coalition of customers, employees, and capital before all would scatter and the firm would be left an empty shell. The first 30 days after the disaster would largely make or break the firm. The partners, especially Owen May, would have to successfully navigate a maze of urgent issues.
How do you run a business that no longer has working telephone numbers, computers, or a place to congregate?
How do you run a business that no longer has contact lists or payroll tallies, client data or tax returns, records of what is owed or records of what is due?
How do you run a money business that can no longer readily access money, a sales operation that has no way to sell, a trading operation missing its head trader?
May wakes up after a surprisingly sound sleep. A frenetic man, even for hyperactive Wall Street, the investment banker hurriedly showers and puts on his suit before grasping the new reality: He has nowhere to go.
May takes account of what he knows. The vast majority of his colleagues have survived. That in itself is a miracle: The 87th floor of the north tower was squarely in the death zone. May Davis’s immediate upstairs neighbors are quickly becoming a who’s who of the corporate cursed: Cantor Fitzgerald, Marsh & McLennan, Carr Futures. Combined, those three firms are missing more than a thousand employees.
May Davis is missing only two people: Jason Braunstein, a trainee; and Harry Ramos, the head trader. Three numbers explain their luck: 90 feet (the distance between May Davis and the flight path of American Airlines Flight 11), 180 degrees (the firm’s offices took up the southwest corner, while the plane came from the northeast) and 30 minutes (the crash came at 8:48 a.m., when three fourths of the firm’s staff wasn’t in yet).
Instinctively—he averages 5,000 minutes a month—May reaches for his cell phone. For 24 hours, May Davis employees have been frantically calling each other, battling the crippled communications system, trying to establish everyone’s whereabouts.
May spends much of the day talking with Ramos’s wife, Migdalia, or Mickey. He’s known Harry Ramos for a decade (May is partial to hiring trusted associates, including two childhood pals). Ramos was single-handedly responsible for nearly one third of the firm’s revenue. Mickey Ramos is alternately distraught and resilient as the pair coordinate a sweep of Manhattan hospitals. May’s chief deputy, managing director Michael Jacobs, a no-bull Queens native known ubiquitously as Red for his flaming carrot top and goatee, spends much of the day with two associates, including a physician-turned-broker named Kage Merkel, at St. Vincent’s and Bellevue hospitals looking to match various John Does with Harry Ramos. No luck.
By nightfall, Braunstein is able to get a call out. He has just been released from a Brooklyn hospital, suffering from severe dust inhalation and a corneal abrasion. Ramos, however, still hasn’t turned up, and Owen May fears the worst.
For many at the firm, the day after proves as traumatic as the day itself, and each discovers his or her own way to cope. May retreats into television news, where he views the collapse time and again. Merkel confronts the change in his life by storming off to a hair salon and ordering his brown locks dyed platinum blond. One of the senior officers, Adam Mayblum, who was with Ramos the previous morning, decides to emote, pounding out a stream-of-consciousness e-mail to friends. The gist of that e-mail follows:
Outside it looked like a ticker tape parade. Inside, the May Davis offices were filling quickly with thick, white smoke. No one had seen the airplane, so while the building swayed 20 feet back and forth, everyone assumed it was a bomb. The phones were working, so both Ramos and Mayblum left messages for their wives, then moved out. The 78th floor required a switch of stairwells, and for a while, the pair directed traffic. Then Mayblum went down stairwell A, and Ramos followed a few flights behind. On the 53rd floor, Mayblum came across a heavyset man named Victor, who couldn’t move. He offered to help, but Victor instead asked him to send for rescuers. When Ramos came across Victor a few minutes later, he insisted on staying with him—if you asked Ramos for a ride, he would loan you his car. Joined by another colleague, Hong Zhu, Ramos nudged Victor down another flight, then they all rode an elevator to the 44th-floor sky lobby. Back into the stairwell they went, ever so slowly creeping down the steps. Somewhere around the 39th floor, they felt the force of the adjacent south tower collapsing. This left them 30 minutes to get out. Victor, however, remained nearly immobile. “Lean on me,” Ramos implored. But Victor couldn’t do it. Firemen running up the stairs ordered the May Davis duo to leave Victor and get themselves out. Zhu heeded their call, exiting the building 10 minutes ahead of the collapse. The last words he heard from Ramos came echoing from behind. “Victor, don’t worry. I’m with you.”
May’s office at the World Trade Center overlooked the Statue of Liberty, which is appropriate because his hiring philosophy would make Emma Lazarus proud, with a heavy dose of alumni from mediocre colleges, doomed firms, and the school of hard knocks. Wall Street wasn’t particularly welcoming to the 42-year-old May. His first job, even with his Duke M.B.A., was a $4-an-hour entry-level position at Lehman Brothers. So along with Davis, 44, he created the financial world’s Island of Misfit Toys, a dysfunctional family that somehow managed to work.
Davis and May played this family’s stern father and frazzled mother, respectively. The pair—among the few African-American business students at the University of Miami—bonded, and their two-decade relationship has had the same strains as a marriage. Ask either one about the other and he’ll invariably roll his eyes. May’s scoop on Davis: a pompous stick-in-the-mud from irrelevant Baltimore who kisses a mean ass. Davis’s scoop on May: foul-mouthed, loud, cheap—a typical New Yorker. Both are plenty smart, and as in most good partnerships (and good marriages), their respective strengths salve their weaknesses, while their long history prevents serious friction.
May Davis may not have been the biggest, but it was surely the highest minority-owned firm in the world. The firm prominently displayed the Twin Towers on its website, on its business cards, and in its brochures.
The whole May Davis family has come to May’s suburban house on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Emotions come pouring out easily: hugs, kisses, and tears. Harry Ramos still hasn’t turned up. The two partners have enlisted six grief counselors, including Lutheran and Episcopal ministers, who spend much of their time listening and nodding. May addresses the group, offering words of encouragement. “We’ve got priests, we’ve got liquor, we’ve got a spare bedroom,” he says. “Do what you have to do, because these are strange times.” May copes by pushing aside his feelings and closely attending to numerous family members of his lost associate.
The person drawing the most attention is Mickey Ramos, who carries a World Trade Center floor plan and calmly quizzes everyone about where and when they last saw her husband. The second-most-watched person, however, is someone not even affiliated with the firm, someone who found the gathering as a result of Mayblum’s e-mail, which has proliferated faster than a tasteless joke. (Eventually he received more than 1,000 responses.) At 3 a.m., a woman named Rebecca had frantically called Mayblum’s house. She’s the wife of a heavyset man named Victor, who, like Harry Ramos, has yet to return from the Twin Towers. She shows Mayblum a picture of her Victor; Mayblum’s face indicates that it’s the same man. Rebecca looks stoic, comforted by the thought that, contrary to her worst fears, Victor did not die alone. It’s Mayblum who starts bawling.
EMPLOYEES, COMPETITORS, AND CLIENTS ALIKE HAVE GIVEN May Davis a grace period, but as Owen May sits in his dentist’s chair, in a vain attempt to foster the illusion of normalcy, a cell phone call ends the honeymoon. On the line is the chief executive of a California-based Internet security company. May Davis had been in the process of delivering to it a $200,000 cash infusion, plus a $5 million credit line—money the Internet company had been desperately counting on. But now all that paperwork is smoldering at ground zero. There will be no money for the time being. May holds the cell phone from his ear and lets the Internet executive vent. “My hands are tied about this,” May says. But his assurances come with the air of someone who has far bigger problems.
If you were to summarize May Davis’s pre-September 11 revenue model, you could carve it into three equal parts: financing deals, over-the-counter trading, and institutional sales. Restarting the firm’s finance business will prove the most time-critical issue.
May Davis has developed a highly profitable niche: distressed public companies that have burned through their underwriters. “If you can get better terms from Goldman Sachs, go to Goldman Sachs,” shrugs Red Jacobs, who oversees most of these offerings. May Davis attempts to save babies from bath water, tapping into a pool of money sources it has nurtured. These are mostly small funds and wealthy individuals, including a healthy dose of royals from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The loans convert to stock at a premium of about 20 percent. For its part, May Davis receives a fee of up to 10 percent, and sometimes stock warrants, as a sweetener. These companies are often desperate, however, and the deals are perishable.
Deals that May Davis loses will be business that the firm sorely needs. This has already been a lousy year at May Davis, as it has been for most investment banks. The company cut 30 positions after reaching its high-water mark. Revenue has been coming in well below last year’s $16 million pace, and the firm has been losing money for the first time since its inception. In July, May Davis, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to a $10,000 fine to the National Association of Securities Dealers for failing to record trading orders in a timely manner. Just the day before the attack, the company also had finally settled a long, bitter legal dispute with the Wall Street firm S.G. Cowen, a battle that sucked up tremendous amounts of time and badly hurt the firm. By mid-morning, May is on his way back into Manhattan for the time since the attack but with bigger problems than ever.
As May walks down Wall Street, in front of the J.P. Morgan building, his cell phone rings. It’s one of the young brokers. “I need my paycheck,” the broker says bluntly. May Davis has furloughed its entire staff, encouraging everyone to go on unemployment until the firm can regroup. May tries to explain the situation: The company has no handle on what everyone is earning, no Social Security numbers, no checks to write.
When the response is a veiled threat to sue, May, who even in normal times issues a profanity with every third word, curses up and down Wall Street. “You don’t do that to someone who lost everything,” May says after he hangs up. May’s right-hand man, Jacobs, later follows up with the broker. Jacobs had been stuck in an elevator when the plane hit, waiting an hour for help and finally prying the doors open himself with just a few minutes to spare. He’s in no mood for squabbling, and he tells the broker to find another job, the first post-September 11 employment casualty.
May, meanwhile, has arrived at his destination: 120 Broadway, a 40-story building dating back to 1915, one of Manhattan’s original skyscrapers, which on this day earns the distinction of being the closest office tower to ground zero allowed to reopen. He proceeds to the 28th floor, where he’s introduced to Mark Goldwasser, president of Olympic Cascade Financial, which operates a brokerage called National Securities.
A mutual business associate put the two together, knowing that May Davis was looking for space and that National Securities had extra room. “If there’s anything I can do to help you out, it will be my pleasure,” Goldwasser says, with the soft accent of someone who grew up in the former Rhodesia. He brings May to an abandoned corner of a trading floor. It’s his as long as he needs it, gratis, one of 10,000 kind deeds done in the city that day. Later, Goldwasser, who had watched the mayhem of September 11 from his aerial perch just two blocks away, explains the simple origin of his offer: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
BEFORE SEPTEMBER 11, IN A COUNTRY SO BORED THAT television was dominated by shows that created scenarios of mock adversity, May had a dream: He would be a contestant on Survivor. So last spring, he had a digital video camera follow him around the office. “Welcome to my world,” he told the camera as he staged a sequence in which he barked orders, cut a million-dollar deal, and handled half a dozen emergencies. “Mentally, all I do is strategize,” he said. “Physically, I have to perform CPR on myself.” The video cuts to May in a camouflage outfit, giving the producers a stern look. “Let’s get busy,” he says.
Although May didn’t make the show’s cast, his home video is significant for more than its irony or its glimpse into his pre-September 11 audacity: it is the only surviving visual record of May Davis’s old offices. The firm’s space was sprawling, at 14,000 square feet—a kingly amount for some 50-odd employees. Support workers sat in the middle in low-walled cubicles, and the perimeter offices had glass interior walls that let all enjoy the 180-degree views of New York Harbor. From May’s corner office, you could look through the slit windows, past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, all the way, it seemed, to Davis’s Baltimore branch. Or you could gaze westward over the Hudson River and across the mainland United States, like the famous Steinberg cartoon in which Manhattan dominates the globe and everywhere else is just a dot.
While on the phone, May eyes a planter, and within the planter, he finds an electrical outlet. His mind starts racing: I could plug in my phone and conduct business right here. With phone service nearly impossible, the partners finally tell everyone to work from home until Monday, but May makes a mental note. In a pinch, a planter at Chase Manhattan Plaza could be his office.
From National Securities’ offices on the 28th floor, a smattering of May Davis staffers who have chosen to preview their new digs look out over quite a different view. Through the soot-covered window, they gaze down upon ground zero, which smolders like an angry volcano. The space itself is nothing fancy: a quiet corner of the trading floor, 1,500 square feet, comprising one row of work spaces and a few desks.
May looks across the space and envisions how his firm will operate. He can foresee restarting institutional trading. But without Harry Ramos, getting back to business in OTC is a conundrum. A bad trader mistake could wipe out the company.
May wants to make the new space functional as quickly as possible. “Where are the Israelis?” he shouts. The Israelis are Terrence Julius and Adam Shuster, the co-founders of a company called TeleVend that May Davis incubated and helped raise $1 million. Veteran Israeli army officers, the pair came up with a way to buy soda or candy from a vending machine using a cell phone. This market can wait, however: Julius and Shuster are now the technology department. Tapping their back office in Jerusalem, they’re working to reconnect May Davis with the outside world. Together they try to calm the staffers with stories of terrorism close calls. “Congratulations,” Shuster smiles. “You’re all Israelis now.”
KEVIN DAVIS HATES NEW YORK CITY, AND HE HATES NEW Yorkers: the cockiness, the rudeness, the cutthroat attitude. It’s why he rarely visits the New York City flagship and steadfastly keeps his little Baltimore office, which serves congenial clients such as the state of Maryland. September 11 and its aftermath may have created a few million “I Love New York” converts across the country, but the best Davis is willing to do on his first visit since the disaster is “I don’t hate New York quite as much.”
The three guys Davis starts the day with embody every New York stereotype he disdains, even if they are technically from Connecticut. They represent the firm of Giordano Associates, an independent insurance adjuster. The idea of an insurance adjuster is a bit of a misnomer. Adjust implies a slight alteration in one direction or another. These guys are here to make sure May Davis’s insurance company, Chubb, adjusts the number in only one direction: north.
Their pitch is polished, their look and demeanor straight out of central casting. The salesman wears a cheap gray suit, which matches his prematurely graying hair. He throws out insurance lingo the way Joe Torre might discuss baseball. “You guys are in a catastrophe situation,” he says. “I used to do a lot of cat work.” Suddenly, every sentence has cat in it. The boss wears a dark navy custom-tailored suit, which matches his wet, jet-black hair. He blathers about all his connections: the member of the Republic National Committee, the powerful Democratic state legislator in Connecticut…. Their lawyer looks like a squirrel and rarely opens his mouth, though when he does, the rest take notes.
As Davis, May, Jacobs, and the May Davis lawyer, Adam Goldberg, listen intently, they get to the point: To get the serious dough, you need to get your claim in early. Chubb will be looking to get settlements out of the way but will dig in as losses mount and stragglers file claims. “For the first 200 guys through the door, it’s Christmastime,” says the salesman in gray.
“Everybody’s a salesman,” May replies. “Just because you guys have nice suits and pretty ties doesn’t mean anything. I need the money, I need it fast, and we want it done right.” After some tense back and forth, the May Davis team excuses itself.
As the four huddle, Davis seems ambivalent. He’s most concerned about beating them down on their fee. “They’re at 10 percent,” he says. “Let’s get them down to 7.5.” May doesn’t trust these guys at all. “I want references,” he says, over and over; Goldberg repeatedly vouches for them. The four bicker for five minutes before Davis waves his hand, his tacit approval given: “You guys live the nightmare.” After a private unity dinner with Jesse Jackson and a dozen other African-American leaders at the New York Hilton (“Burdens to share make them easier to bear,” Reverend Jackson intones in a prayer for both May Davis and Harry Ramos), Davis leaves town and doesn’t return for a month.
IT FEELS AS IF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER IS STILL FALLING down on Owen May. One of Verizon’s major switching facilities was severely damaged on September 11. Phone service throughout lower Manhattan is unreliable. National Securities has just 12 lines in operation and can spare only one, which works only sporadically. So the dozen staffers who have filed in use cell phones. These devices can be frustrating in normal times, but when it’s your business lifeline and you’re working from the 28th floor of a building that gets lousy reception, the situation is maddening. This holds particularly true for May, the manic cell phone user, who has his mobile number posted on various emergency-related Web sites as May Davis’s de facto headquarters.
“How’s the environment up here?” May shouts at the first of 50 callers that day. “There is no environment up here! I’m swimming upstream here.”
Jacobs finds May and runs down transactions they had been near closing, including deals with Flexxtech and 5 G Wireless Communications. Still another California company is complaining. “He ain’t going nowhere,” May snarls.
Jacobs isn’t too sure; he reports that one company they had been constantly examining has received money from a rival financing source. “That shit-ass company got money?” May says.
After attempting to reach a few clients May finally bolts from the 28th floor. He ventures out to the sidewalk, where he gets better phone reception. Soon Jacobs joins him, as do other staffers. There they stand, four abreast, yammering into their phones on the sidewalk, their new office, trying to make things happen.
Eventually the little posse gravitates across Nassau Street to Chase Manhattan Plaza. While on the phone, May eyes a planter, and within the planter, he finds an electrical outlet. His mind starts racing: I could plug in my phone and conduct business right here. With phone service nearly impossible, the partners finally tell everyone to work from home until Monday, but May makes a mental note. In a pinch, a planter at Chase Manhattan Plaza could be his office.
A giant gold-plated door plaque regally announces that you’re entering the New York headquarters of National Securities. Taped onto the lower-left corner, a small sheet of paper marked “May Davis Grp” points the way for the 20 employees who show up for the first semi-official day of work. Salaries aren’t being paid, so it’s mostly commission-based employees who come, eager to create their own cash flow.
Shortly after 10 A.M., May stands up at the end of the floor and tries to instill some order. People are milling around like third-graders on the first day of school. No one has files or computers or personal mementos or any of the things that tie you into a space. May orders everyone to pick a seat and then stay there. “No musical chairs!”
With none of the firm’s dozen or so financing deals ready to close, May wants to get the institutional sales operation running. Heading the department is Patsy Senese, a 20-year Wall Street veteran. May calls her “Ms. Bulldog,” with both respect and apprehension. She claims the chair near the only phone, although the line won’t accept incoming calls. Nonetheless, she wants to execute trades herself, on her cell if necessary.
Cell phones aren’t reliable enough, rules May. “This is not Goldman Sachs, which has several billion in assets and can afford to make a mistake,” he declares. Instead, the process will work like this: Senese will get the orders and call them down to Kevin Davis in Baltimore, who will then call a licensed floor broker to execute the trade. Davis will get the order confirmations and relay them to Senese as best he can.
Meanwhile, Jacobs raises compliance issues. Although the National Securities OTC trading team is currently working from an outside office, when it comes back, May Davis will reside on the same floor as another brokerage—a no-no under conventional circumstances. Jacobs tells the staff to image an invisible wall that they can’t go through.
Not too long after the market opens, an institutional client puts in a big order, for 200,000 shares of a stock currently trading at $20.50. The client doesn’t want to pay any more than that, and hopes to pay less. Senese grins widely, a toothpick dancing in her mouth, and relays the details to Davis.
Davis is less enthusiastic. He hasn’t actually executed a trade since the first George Bush was president. He already hates this. Papers and order notes start filling his desk. In his booming baritone, Davis calls down to a floor broker to buy the first 100,000 at the $20.50 market price and further instructs the trader to pick up the rest “not held,” figuring he’ll cobble together a bunch of smaller trades at lower prices.
“We’ve got priests, we’ve got liquor, we’ve got a spare bedroom,” Owen May told his team. “Do what you have to do, because these are strange times.”
“Not held” is a Wall Street term that means the trader isn’t limited to any specific price. His floor broker obliges, calling Davis back with the news that another 20,000 shares have been purchased—at $20.60, 10 cents higher than the client’s ceiling. Davis is furious.
“You didn’t tell me it was a limit!” the broker responds. The correct terminology, Davis is informed, is “limit order.” Davis has a correction of his own: “How about if I get in the car, drive up there, and whup your ass?”
While Davis curses out the trader, May tackles logistical chores, retiring to a small conference room along with Goldberg, his lawyer, and Barbara Zingalli, his hard-working assistant. It’s not in May’s nature to trust, and that goes for all the September 11 charities popping up. He wants to set up a separate scholarship for Ramos’s children. “If the kids want to go to Harvard,” he says, “why should they have to go to a state school because that’s all the damn money they have?” Goldberg suggests setting up a trust, but May turns his skepticism toward what he views as another threat—a conniving future stepfather. “There’s always some jerk trying to break into a trust,” he warns.
Goldberg, meanwhile, has received a $150,000 advance from Chubb, courtesy of his independent adjuster, and in order to expedite the final claim filing, he is developing an inventory of everything the firm lost. “Some of the faxes were leased!” Goldberg says in an epiphany.
“Did we own the soda machine?” Zingalli counters. “That’s right. I had $38 in quarters in my drawer,” she says, with the sigh of someone brought up never to waste. “And we just bought $121 in sodas.” She pauses, pondering the mundane. “Oh my, all my shoes and all my pictures.” She pauses again. “My $30 Metrocard. And my gold pen.”
Jacobs enters the room, arguing on his cell phone with a vendor who claims that Jacobs has been logged on to an expensive stock-quote machine, “My office is blown up!” Jacobs yells. “I assure you I’m not logged on.”
The conversations around him darken May’s mood. He decides to get out of the office, but the wind is blowing east from ground zero and Wall Street smells like burning tires. “I hate this shit,” he says bitterly. “I hate coming to work and watching people wearing gas masks, worried about germ warfare. Watching this, it’s like being in Israel. Then I get to work and everyone’s going, “‘There’s no phone.’”
May calls up a buddy, and the two head to Barney Mac’s, a high-ceilinged bar on one of Greenwich Village’s most touristy thoroughfares. May sits there, quiet and glassy-eyed. He’s been having nightmares, one a night, like Ebenezer Scrooge. In one, he’s in his old office, looking at the Statue of Liberty, when the floor starts shaking as if in an earthquake. In another, he’s looking over New Jersey and sees mushroom clouds. In the worst one so far, he’s with Ramos in a big truck, on a winding dirt road on the side of a cliff. The truck is having trouble getting traction, so May gets out and walks around it. Just then, the cliff crumbles, taking Ramos and the car sitting next to them. May’s wife is a psychologist; she tells him he’s making progress.
The bartender, Sharon, serves May a beer and comments on his sad demeanor. He solemnly explains the situation. She perks up. “I was recently let go by Merrill Lynch,” she responds. “Do you have any jobs open?”
It used to take May half an hour to commute from his house across the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway to his office. Now his trip takes a good 90 minutes. Sometimes he drives across the bridge and takes the A train down 200 blocks. Sometimes he takes a commuter bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and then a subway. Most often, he drives down to Weehawken, New Jersey, takes a ferry to the Wall Street area, and walks.
President Bush comes to town this morning, meeting with business leaders about a block from May Davis’s temporary home. That means, to May’s surprise, that there’s no ferry to Wall Street. So his commute consists of a drive to Weehawken, a ferry to the midtown dock, a shuttle bus to the Port Authority, and a subway downtown. Downtown, police have cordoned off 120 Broadway, and only by pleading does he get in. May Davis employees don’t have official building identification. It’s 11 A.M., two hours since he left home.
“The $64,000 question,” he bellows. “Do we have phones?” Maybe tomorrow, he’s told for the fifth straight workday. Jacobs, meanwhile, has used his cell phone and an e-mail fax account to close the first financing deal since September 11—a $350,000 infusion for the circuit-board company FIexxtech. But he’s made only minimal progress on a host of other deals.
“Just get me the revolver,” says May, surveying the scene, “and let me put myself out of my misery.”
Jacobs enters the room, arguing with a vendor who claims that he’s been logged on to an expensive stock-quote machine, “My office is blown up!” Jacobs yells. “I assure you I’m not logged on.”
May decides to step up his real estate search. When first offered, the space at 120 Broadway seemed a godsend. May even planned on staying until January 1 so he could offset any rent increase with several months of no rent. But now he sees “going back into the war zone” as his first post-September 11 mistake. Every day, his firm must literally face the disaster, when what his people most want is to move on. May has a shopping list: a downtown space, perhaps half as big as before, that’s ready to go, including furniture and maybe computers. Most of all he wants value. In a town that loves a bargain and obsesses over real estate, May is a master at both. He once surveyed 300 apartments before choosing one, and he moved his firm into the World Trade Center despite the 1993 bombing specifically because that event made it a bargain. He paid only $26 a foot for space that some assume cost triple that. May is ready to bargain-hunt again. “I have to look at 1,000 spaces in order to find the one that’s going at crackhead prices,” he says with a shrug.
May has already checked out half a dozen more. The Manhattan commercial real estate market is in flux—13 million square feet of office space vanished with the attack. But as May tours the buildings around Wall Street, the market seems remarkably stable. For the most part, the spaces fall into three categories: gold-plated, with fancy addresses such as 40 Wall Street and rents to match; temporary digs that offer large rooms with working desks, phones, and computers for $5,000 a month; and dot-com bombs, complete with track lighting, Aeron chairs, and desperate subletters. (“It’s ready to go tomorrow,” says one CEO.)
What seems to move May could be considered a fourth category: “Wall Street cheap,” places, such as the World Trade Center, that convey the look of a successful company but at below-market cost. Goldwasser has dropped hints that May could take over a larger space at 120 Broadway permanently. But this afternoon, May walks in to 7 Hanover Square, which is dominated by Guardian Life Insurance. A firm called Paragon Capital Management is offering most of the second floor. It’s a boring space: Formica desks, square offices, kitschy art prints. But it’s as far away from ground zero as you can get in the Wall Street area, it’s on the second floor, and it’s priced to move, at $25 a foot. “Very workable,” May mutters.
Later, he brings over Mayblum and Jacobs for a reality check. The latter is resigned—a view freak, he’s the only one in the firm advocating for another high floor—but impressed. “We were so spoiled,” he sighs. “We have a beautiful space in the World Trade Center, and now we’re here in the second floor of a bullshit building.”
May finishes up his day by interviewing Sharon, the trader/bartender whom he met two days ago. Their chance meeting appealed to his underdog hiring policy, and her institutional sales background fits well with May’s evolving concept of his firm. May has become increasingly hesitant to replace Ramos, and not just for emotional reasons. Ramos was a market maker, betting the firm’s money—on each trade he made. May trusted him, but he’s loath to train, much less trust, someone new, and Ramos’s young deputy isn’t ready for the job. Instead, May ponders beefing up Senese’s division, and Sharon, a Hong Kong native with Canadian roots, offers an international Rolodex. Pressed for time, May decides to multitask. May had two pieces of art in his office: Over his credenza was an Erte print, Golden Fleece, depicting a woman with ram’s horns and a cape (“It jumped out to me”), while behind his desk was a Mark Kostabi print called Upheaval, depicting people wielding plungers. Worried that insurance will give him only what he paid, without appreciation, he starts ducking into Soho galleries. Sharon has three galleries to demonstrate why she should be rescued from slinging drinks at Barney Mac’s. “Do you guys carry Ertes?” he asks the saleswoman at a gallery, adding, “Don’t get excited, I’m not going to buy anything.” While they can’t hazard a guess on Golden Fleece, they do tell May that the Kostabi he bought for $1,500 is worth $1,750.
Less than pleased, May heads to a few other galleries, none of which is helpful. All the while, Sharon gives him her elevator pitch: “This is what I can bring to the table: experience, youth, energy, and contacts.” May listens and tries hard to discourage her. “This is not a real firm,” he says. “This is a very small boutique.” She says she’s looking for the collegiality of a small firm. “You’ll get scared off when you deal with Patsy,” he replies. Trying to move the discussion, Sharon asks him what he thinks of a watercolor. “Too joyful, too nice,” he says. “It needs a couple of gas masks.”
A plastic grocery bag shows up. Inside is an account statement that reports that on February 22, 2000, May Davis sold 1,000 shares of Winstar. This crusty document was found in Park Slope, Brooklyn, five miles and a river away from the old offices. A do-gooder identified May Davis via the statement and, thinking it might be important, somehow tracked down the new office to return it. It’s the only hard file left from the old office. When Jacobs picks it up, a thimbleful of soot flies into the air, creating a little plume of smoke that lingers.
The sense of loss is accentuated by looking across the room. The National Securities OTC trading team has returned. A dozen people now inhabit the other side of the invisible wall Jacobs conjured up. Each of their traders has access to working phones, as well as two terminals with Bloomberg and Quotron. On the May Davis side of the room, Patsy Senese controls the firm’s only phone. It now accepts incoming calls, but it no longer does outgoing long-distance. Plus, it’s an entirely different line. “They changed the num-bah on me!” she yells.
Goldwasser comes in to apologize. National Securities has only a fraction of its original lines and needs to get its own operation squared away. He promises 10 lines as soon as he can, and the National Securities staffers prove diligent about transferring calls. May again heads out to look at real estate. On Nassau Street, in front of the New York Stock Exchange, he eyes a van that’s up on a jack as two workers change a flat, a situation he finds unnerving. Soon after, he sees a helicopter hovering noisily over the World Trade Center site. His first thought: It’s going to blow up! May shakes his head. “Psychologically, I’m screwed up,” he says.
Senese, meanwhile, can’t bear the temptation. She creeps over the imaginary wall, hijacks a National Securities phone, and begins reeling off calls. Ah, a working phone! As it turns out, the National Securities traders won’t need it. That very day, Goldwasser breaks the news: 10 of them are laid off. Business was bad before September 11; now it’s atrocious. The traders don’t get emotional. Theirs is a mercenary business. “It’s par for the course,” says Jacobs. The traders file out as quickly as they marched in. The floor belongs to May Davis again.
The burden to do the right thing, both by the firm and its staff, has been straining May, and he decides he needs help, at least with business. Paychecks are still weeks away, and just 23 employees, almost all commission-based, have returned. Of the remaining 29, three have officially quit, and while the others expect to be back, they’re currently in an odd state of limbo. The firm’s expected monthly revenue will be less than half of what it was a month earlier.
So as May sits down to breakfast at the Plaza Hotel with Doug Breeden, the new dean at his business school alma mater, Duke’s Fuqua School, it’s easy to read his face: Finally, someone to tell me if I’m doing okay. He starts peppering Breeden with questions. How should he balance taking care of Ramos’s children with the fact that his firm is cash strapped? Should he use this opportunity to restructure, even if it means throwing people out of work? How does he talk candidly to his employees without further discouraging them?
Like a kind priest, Breeden provides absolution: “The best way to ensure that you can take care of the whole family is to take care of the firm,” he says soberly. Take care of the firm. That resonates. As the breakfast winds up, May feels better.
It’s exactly one month after the worst day of their lives, and as if with the turn of the calendar’s page, there’s a palpable mood change on the floor at May Davis. A lot of it has to do with the phones. They’re finally working, outgoing and incoming, local and long-distance, all 10 of them. A main number and nine rollover lines that Red Jacobs confidently answers, transferring calls around the floor. “Oh, it’s to die for,” gushes Senese.
Armed with phones, Senese and the firm’s head research analyst, an old-timer named Bill Laemmel, who’s partial to wearing his overcoat throughout the day, spend the early morning faxing handwritten notes to clients. The homemade stationery (copy paper, with an old business card in the corner and the firm’s new info handwritten next to it) all bears the same message: “Thank you for staying with us during these times.”
As the morning goes on, the orders pour in, many occasional customers in sympathy, many regulars happy to return to some sort of normalcy. May’s feeling okay too. The previous night, he dreamed he was in an SUV with his father, flying over a gorge, Evel Knievel-style. “I’m not in Afghanistan, not in New York, not dreaming of Harry,” he says with a wistful smile. “It could be progress. It could be a major breakthrough.”
May has decided to move on 7 Hanover Square. He grabs Goldberg, who will handle the negotiations, and they march over. Once there, they grill Mike, the landlord’s representative, about nitty-gritty details. A communications closet will be needed, and wiring and data jacks must be redone. In-building parking needs to be secured.
“I want an à la carte list,” says May, the cagey buyer.
“Why don’t you make up a wish list?” responds Mike, the eager seller.
“Don’t you guys do some charity work for the victims, a couple free desks?” May says, only half-joking, pressing his advantage.
Upon returning, May tells his assistant, Barbara Zingalli, that he thinks they’ve found a permanent home. “Second floor!” she cries. “That’s wonderful—I could just jump out!” Zingalli reports on all the progress she’s made, courtesy of the working phones. She’s tracked down Lehman Brothers, which had a large check ready for May Davis for several weeks but didn’t know where to send it. “We’ll come get it,” says May. She also found out that Mickey Ramos, who without any remains to mourn over has clung to hope that somehow Harry would one day walk through the door, has decided to have a funeral. (Ramos will later get a hero’s send-off in a packed Newark church, with more than 600 attendees, including the city’s mayor.)
Davis, meanwhile, relieved of day-trading duty, has interviewed Sharon, the bartending investment banker. The partners agree to give her a tryout in institutional trading. But it’s still uncertain whether Ramos’s OTC group will be revived. Twenty feet away from May, Sharon’s future boss, Senese, has traded more than a million shares—a banner day, even pre-September 11. “It’s awesome,” she exclaims. “And there are a lot more people that owe us.”
With May back in the office, Zingalli makes another critical phone call. She rings up the office of May’s physician, Dr. Horowitz. “How would I get a psychiatric referral?” she asks. “My boss was at One World Trade Center.” She gets a number for Aetna. Before calling, she asks what kind of psychiatrist May would like. “New York midtown, Park Avenue,” May replies.