By Guest Author James Adams
As evidenced by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and European debt debacles, the pervasive sense of economic malaise that began more than three years ago isn’t fading anytime soon. The apparent ineffectiveness of stimulus packages and a zero interest rate policy have left Americans understandably skeptical of their government’s ability to return their living standards to pre-recession levels. Stagnant economic conditions have generated at least one positive development, however: spurring a long-overdue interest in financial education.
After my layoff from a money management firm in early 2009, I decided that I needed an extended hiatus from financial services. Two years spent apologizing to banks, pension funds, and insurance companies for imploding mortgage securities that my firm had purchased for them had drained my zeal for the profession. As my growing sense of guilt for my small role in the financial crisis deterred me from pursuing unemployment benefits, I decided to instead work at McDonald’s. There was just one problem: despite repeated application efforts, they wouldn’t hire me. Eventually, I was hired as a Waffle House server and assigned to work on the weekend graveyard shift.
No sooner did I land at the diner than I found myself under the tutelage of Edward, one of the restaurant’s only two “master grill operators.” The mustachioed veteran barely showed thirty-five of his nearly fifty years of age. An otherwise average build was accentuated by broad shoulders and sinewy forearms. In addition to cooking, Edward provided trenchant (and usually ribald) commentary on all customer and employee activity. Beyond entertaining the wait staff with colorful innuendos and euphemisms, he imparted a few career lessons I’ll never forget.
During many of my early days at the store, I found myself frequently apologizing to Edward for my incompetence. My career in finance, I explained, had depended on my ability to think abstractly. While developing that talent had once helped me to thrive in the bond market, it hadn’t prepared me for the realities of restaurant life.
“If you’re so good at abstract thinkin’,” he said, “Did you see the big crash coming?”
“I expected a slowdown, but not necessarily a crash,” I responded.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“No, I guess not, Edward.”
He directed me to follow him to a booth that had recently been vacated.
“Can you see all these syrup stains?” he asked, pointing to the table.
“Outstanding. Even though you can’t find anything else in the store, you’re still more valuable in here than you were at your last job. Now grab a wet towel and get to it.”
I wiped down the table, trying to recall an occasion in high school or college when I had seen the Socratic Method employed so brilliantly.
For as much time as he spent upbraiding me, Edward appeared to genuinely enjoy guiding my transformation (however gradual) from hapless financier to server extraordinaire. Several months after taking me under his wing, he was boasting of my newly-acquired skill set to two customers at the counter. After cataloguing my abilities, Edward segued into an economics lecture. “There’s always work to be done, somewhere,” he said, gesturing towards me. “The only question is what kind of job it is, where the job is, and if you’re willing to accept the wage. As long as you’re willing to adapt yourself to different kinds of work, then there really ain’t no such thing as a recession,” he posited.
I began writing Waffle Street: The Confession and Rehabilitation of a Financier with the thought that readers jaded by the financial crisis would enjoy a fish-out-of-water narrative chronicling a financier’s attempt to work at an “honest job” for a change. And indeed, serving customers after last call provided one humorous story after another. Given the venue and my assigned shift, I anticipated as much. What I didn’t expect, however, was the number of lessons about money and banking that Edward and my customers would teach me.
Seen through the lens of 3 a.m. table waiting anecdotes, economics is far from a “dismal science”. In Waffle Street, readers receive a one-of-a-kind education in the world of money. More importantly, they get a lot of laughs at a financier’s expense along their journey of discovery.
James Adams began his career with Protective Life Insurance Co. and Jefferson-Pilot Financial, serving as a corporate bond analyst at both companies. Subsequently, he was a vice president at a $30 billion money management firm. Although he earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation and an MBA in Finance, most of the author’s financial knowledge has been gleaned from his recent foray into foodservice and the writings of forgotten 19th-century economists. He prefers his eggs over easy and his hashbrowns “all the way.”
Excerpts and video trailer available at www.wafflestreetbook.com.