The first time I saw Bruce was at an interview with the investment I ended up joining. I was in one of the many rooms on the floor of the building reserved either for client meetings, where bankers professionally bullshitted various companies into paying out exorbitant fees, or for candidate interviews, where new recruits vied to become cogs in the banking machine.
An immaculate room
It was a finely decorated room. Everything about the setup, from the gold-framed paintings mounted on the wall to the mahogany round table in the middle of the room, gave off an utterly clear signal: large sums of money are the core of this institution. I felt I had to maintain a perfect, upright posture when in the room. Even the staff that sat at reception and welcomed me upon arrival made me feel like an actor in this grand play.
Receptionist: “Good morning sir. Would you kindly follow me to your designated room?”
I imagined bright-eyed, young candidates sitting in this very room, awed by the setting and dreaming of nearby riches. Turned soft as silly putty by the time the interviewer stepped in.
In one corner of the room was a table with coffee, tea and ginger biscuits. I peered closely at the goodies. Not just any tea: Jasmine Pearl (according to the labeling, highly recommended at lunchtime), Moroccan Mint and White Tea from the Fujian province of China. They sure didn’t mess around.
I pocketed a few tea bags, sat down and waited for the interviewer to enter.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Bruce enters the room.
I think to myself: this guy definitely visits the gym at least four times a week, if not more. His shirt buttons are fighting to hold on. I imagined him gulping down a creatine shake on his way over. Maybe even did a few push-ups in the elevator to make sure his pecs bulge.
I stand up, we approach one another, go through the motions (i.e. hello, name, etc) and firmly shake hands. Bruce is a Managing Director in the Investment Banking division.
I know not to judge people based on first impressions, but I thought to myself, hey, he seems pretty nice and normal.
Thankfully, the interview was more of a discussion rather than your traditional question & answer session. So in the end I also got to learn a little about our friend Bruce.
First impressions can be misleading
With each passing minute, my suspicions about his normalcy grew. Ten minutes into the conversation, I formed the solid belief that this guy’s personality was nothing but a collection of exaggerated imitations. I could see him as a first year investment banking analyst back in the day at some random dinner party boasting to his friends about his prescient managing director (MD). Wide-eyed and proud, he’d describe his MD as if preaching the next coming. Precisely, the sort of worshipping and unquestioning soldier the institution wanted.
How in the world will I avoid getting fired if I get this job, I thought to myself.
In time, I learned that much of Bruce’s behaviour was somewhat of an act. Most of his responses were variations of the same sentences he always used. He reminded me of a pullstring toy like Woody of Toy Story. We’ve all known at least one person like Bruce. The guy who acts, behaves, dresses, talks and even laughs like those he desperately wants to be. He was so out of touch with who he was that if you asked him something he couldn’t provide a rehearsed response to it was as if you’d just spoken to him in Aramaic. He just froze for a second and would, as if suddenly given a set of instructions, subtly smile and nod his head up and down in affirmation. Probably thinking to himself: ‘shit, I have no clue what he/she just said, hmmm…ok, still no clue, I’ll just play along and pretend I get it, don’t want to look like an idiot’. He invariably made that expression when you spoke to him about something he knew nothing about but was too embarrassed to ask. Over time I came to read Bruce like a book. And, naturally, I’d occasionally take advantage to get a few laughs out of it.
In the elevator
One day I was in the elevator with Philip, a junior member of Bruce’s team, discussing startup ideas, en route to grab some breakfast. Entrepreneurial discussions were one of the few things that kept me alive in the early days. I had to believe there was a light at the end of the tunnel for me.
We were deep in discussion and therefore caught off-guard as the elevator door opened and welcomed Bruce, who took one giant step and next we knew was almost close enough to given anyone looking the wrong impression – if you know what I mean. Surprise!
Philip, like 97.8% of junior bankers in the presence of their superiors, quickly straightened his back as if to acknowledge the presence of a four-star general during wartime. In order to avert the awkwardness precipitated by the – taboo – topic of discussion I launched into an update of a supposed transaction I was working on. That’s what managing directors like Bruce loved: knowing more deals were en route which would bring them even bigger bonuses with which they’d offer their wives bigger homes in the country side and their mistresses more comfortable flats in the city. The usual.
The ibanker: “Hi Bruce, how are you?”
Bruce: “Not too bad and you?”
The ibanker: (speaking very fast) “Very well, working on a potentially very lucrative pitch. We had a long conversation with Minister Abdullah Abu Jasem Bin Talal Bin Sohool. He thinks the Sheikh will agree to give us a mandate for the land.”
Note: that was a completely made up name and I didn’t even specify who the Sheikh was.
Bruce: (pauses for a second then smiles and nods his head up and down for) “Very good. Let’s make some money. You boys take care of each. Philip, make sure to get that market update done asap!”
Bruce, Bruce, Bruce…what a character.
I’m too sexy for
One thing everybody in the bank knew was that Bruce was unequivocally obsessed with his physique. He was in love with his body and loved to show it. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’d catch him simultaneously flexing and feeling his pecs. It was as if he were caressing a baby panda.
Would he just crash when he arrived home after work from all that flexing? I always wondered. Everyday motions and movements, from picking up a diet coke can to pointing to a drawing board or even picking his nose were enacted as if inspired from Greek mythology. It wouldn’t look so odd if a sculptor was a few feet away working to capture his pose but that clearly wasn’t the case. When he pointed in some direction he would hold his pose and stance an extra second. Always. And he would squint his eyes as if he were a Spartan warrior surveying a battlefield at dawn.
My favourite performance venue was the big meeting room where we held the weekly Monday morning meetings.
Showtime at morning meeting
At these meetings the senior people were seated around the conference table while juniors stood all around. It was nearly always a full house. The demographics were the usual: few woman; lots of skinny young people – some with slicked back hair; and plenty of bald older men with bulging stomachs, expensive watches and shiny cufflinks.
‘I must please the crowd,’ Bruce would think to himself at 5am that morning while working through the fourth set of morning pushups. Rocky’s training montage is playing on his Bang & Olufsen system.
Bruce made sure he sat where the lighting was strongest and where everyone in the room could see him. Same set up every meeting. Individuals around the table would take turns giving the rest of the audience an update on where everything stood vis-à-vis their respective teams. As soon as it was Bruce’s turn, his shirt would tighten as if air was just released inside. Then, for the length of his two to three minute update – the few people in the room who were awake and paying attention to him would notice -every muscle in his upper body was markedly flexed. As soon as he concluded his update , he would slowly ease back into his seat, relax his muscles, smile and savor the performance.
The rise of Achilles
What a few of us coined ‘the rise’ was arguably his most famous, signature move. I’d laugh so hard when he did this that I’d occasionally have to put my head under my desk when it happened. I could have spent the last hour getting bitched at by four managing directors at the same time but as soon as I saw ‘the Rise’ all that stress vanished within seconds. It was comedy central.
In essence, the ‘rise’ had to do with the manner in which Bruce would rise from his chair. There’s no set way of getting to your feet from a chair but his style was so ridiculously unique and uniquely ridiculous that it became a story of its own. I watched him very very closely. No, I’m not crazy. I’m just curious and I love a good laugh 😉
Back to the ‘rise’…
You could always tell when he was going to do the ‘rise’. Nine out of ten times it was preceded by a loud exhale. Clearly, his intention being to grab people’s attention around him. He’d straighten his back, reminding me of an Olympic diver half a second away from taking the leap. He was calm and concentrated.
All of a sudden, then, he would quickly rise from his chair – much faster than one normally would and so people automatically looked his way. On his way up he’d push back his chair a few feet, continue to rise up to the point of having to stand on his tip-toes. He’d pull his shoulders back as far as possible so as to allow his chest to protrude. His arms would stay about a foot away from each hip, respectively – as if his lats would not allow his arms to near his hips. With feet in place, and without moving his neck an millimeter, he would turn his whole upper body together from left to right very slowly pretending to look for something or someone. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator.
What kind of loser does this in this day and age? I don’t care cause it beats going to the movies!
Long live the ‘rise’.