Chapter 1 (revised)

Striver Chapter 1

Salinas, California ~ July 1, 2007

Sitting at my desk, my morning coffee warred in my head against a wine headache that throbbed in cadence to my pulse. The headache, though, was earned—my girlfriend Chelsea had taken me to a yacht club party the night before and we had taken down nearly a half a case of vintage wine between the two of us. Despite the brain fog that accompanied the throbbing, I could still sense a thick nervous tension in the room that was palpable. This was a special morning. So special, that my colleagues and I all seemed to be suffering a collective inability to concentrate on what we were being paid to do–sell home loans.

Ken “Cash” Castellano, the regional vice president for half of California, was due to arrive any moment for a hastily called all-office meeting. Ken was the youngest VP in the country for Big Nation’s Subprime Lending Division and had only visited the Salinas office once in the year I’d been working there. That had been for a congratulatory speech regarding our branch’s performance. No one knew what was prompting this morning’s appearance and it had put everyone, including me, on edge. I hoped that it was going to be congratulatory again; I was the reigning producer-of-the-quarter, maybe I would even get recognized.

I flicked on my computer monitor. My headache, for the most part, was well worth it. The yacht club party had served a surf-and-turf dinner with whole lobster and I had drunk about $1,000 worth of wine. My only complaint was being kept hostage until 2 am by Chelsea and her elderly gentleman admirers. I glanced at a tiny Eiffel tower on my desk, a gift from Chelsea to remind me of our upcoming trip to Paris in just two weeks. As if I needed a reminder.

I looked up at my white board that was filled with a varied collection of home loans awaiting funding. I smiled as I thought of my upcoming paycheck. It was looking like a twelve-loan month. Only four of those being subprime—which was nice, subprime paid a lower commission. That would mean at least another $10,000 bonus check. A check that would help me keep up with Chelsea and her friends for at least another week. I had never hung out with a crowd that spent money like they did—but I had never hung out with a crowd as rich as they were either. I was spending money faster than I could make it—which made saving for my winery pretty tough.

Selling home loans may have seemed like an odd profession for an Ag Business Major with a Minor in Enology, but things don’t always go according to plan. I had needed money and people in real estate were making it faster than they could count it. It seemed like real estate prices would never stop increasing, though the unspoken thing that everyone knew and wouldn’t admit was that this couldn’t last forever. Like everybody else, I just wanted to make as much as I could before the bubble burst. And hopefully have something to show for it.

Everyone in the office was leasing brand new Beemers and Benzes which was great for them—I was still driving my old Volkswagen. My plan, and the reason I was selling subprime mortgages, was to do what I was truly passionate about in life, start a winery—I had spent half a decade getting my business plan sorted out, yet here I was. At least I still didn’t have even a single credit card. My plan was going great too, that is, until I met Chelsea. After that, saving became the least of my concerns—I was struggling not to bankrupt myself.

Most of my coworkers were buying as many houses as they could on adjustable rate loans and selling as soon as the prices went up ten percent. They were doing some of this with their Big Nation earnings, but mostly with side cash. Everyone in the office made massive amounts by selling leads to independent brokers. This, I had always assumed, would probably be frowned upon by upper management.

My co-worker Tiffany, clad in a black coat, black skirt and red stilettos, made her way to her desk that was directly in front of mine, in what was affectionately known as “the pit;” rows of desks in the large open-space office. Our office was a cacophony of buzzing, ringing, and shouting: sell, sell, sell. At the front was our manager Victoria’s office, which contained a large one-way window. She could see us. But we couldn’t see in, and she’d been spending a lot of time lately on the other side of that window.

“Hey, Tiff, how’s the pipeline coming?” I asked.

It wasn’t just me, everyone in the office was required to keep a whiteboard “pipeline” above our desks so everyone could see each other’s loans—potential successes and impending failures. Tiffany had only four pending loans, a rare off-month from a usually staunch competitor. Ten loans a month was the goal and I had twelve at this point, more than anyone in the office. It felt good to be on top.

“Fuck off, Wilson,” she said, throwing a paper clip at me without turning around.

“If you want, you can borrow my producer-of-the-quarter trophy for when Ken gets here.”

“I’ll show you where you can stick that trophy.”

At that moment the main door to the office swung open and a confident man in his early thirties–tanned, with close-cropped blonde hair, and a sharp jawline–strode in, approaching Victoria, who had just emerged from her self-imposed exile in her office. Ken Cash had arrived, all the way from San Diego.

“All right, everyone,” he said, clapping. “Let’s all gather in closely please; we have an announcement to make.” Victoria stood next to him, looking grim.

“Corporate has decided to shut down several offices and the entire Salinas branch is to be closed effective immediately. A few of you will have the opportunity to transfer to the San Jose branch. I’m here to issue your severance checks. If any commission is due you from your open home loans, it will be distributed in two to four weeks. Please collect your belongings.”

"Shit," I thought. "This isn’t a congratulatory speech, were all getting the axe." I picked up my tiny Eiffel Tower and squeezed it in my hand until if felt like it would pierce the skin of my palm. Then my phone buzzed. I looked at the screen. It was Chelsea calling. I sent it to voicemail.