Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Conferences of Consequence

The best things at work, no matter where you work, are the things that break the mundane. When I worked at JFK airport, where most of my time was spent behind a counter indoors, one day that stands out above all others is the day that I spent driving people around the airport in a van. The times I was out and about are the ones that stick in my mind as pleasant and interesting.

I traded the mundane spot behind my desk downtown for a mundane spot at a conference in midtown. Still, being out of the office is good, even if the most enjoyable part of the day is walking to and from the subway, watching the city life up close and just being out and about during the workday.

For the past eight years, I have worked as a financial journalist. Working in financial journalism is like being a pornographic film star in a way. You get paid more than most people in the same position in your field, but you're stuck in that category forever. Ron Jeremy may do the best Hamlet we've ever seen, but we'll never see it at the Royal Shakespeare Company because no matter what other great work he might do, he'll forever be known as a porn star.

Being in the business of writing about business, one has to learn the lingo and use it, and also stay awake. Some of what we do is interesting. It's interesting, especially in times like these when the economy is hitting the shitter, to be able to explain to people what's happening and why. But most of the time we are trying to keep up with what's happening and interviewing people who know vastly more about our fields. We try not to sound like idiots on the phone and direct our fire at the printed page.

Disaster seems to follow me when I begin working in a given field of financial journalism. I began working in financial journalism in early 2000, when the dot-com era was reaching its peak. Dozens of companies that were selling pet food through the Internet were getting millions of dollars to develop their businesses.

This bubble began bursting with a stock market meltdown that April. After a bout of unemployment and several more years covering venture capital and private equity, I took the job where I am now, writing about credit markets. When I joined, in November of 2006, the credit markets were setting all kinds of new records and everything was coming up roses. Seven months later, the credit markets melted down and threw the economy into its latest tailspin.

Should I get another financial job, find out what sector that job covers and then get whatever investments you have in that area of finance out. Stuff your money in your mattress or buy gold (unless I'm covering the bedroom furniture or gold markets).

I arrive at the most recent conference at a midtown office building after a nice walk that lets me enjoy breast and leg season. I show my ID to a man behind a security desk and get a temporary pass that I'm supposed to stick to my jacket like a “Hello My Name Is…” nametag. I don't.

I take an elevator lined with ridged stainless steel to the appointed floor, get my materials, find the complimentary caffeinated beverages that will keep me awake for the next few hours and find a seat.

A discussion panel ends and people flood to the front of the room to speak to one or more of the speakers. I should be doing this, in order to meet important people in the field of finance I write about. But I refuse to join this bitch line. I tell myself that I will buttonhole one of these gentlemen (they are rarely women, but it makes no difference: the idea that women will bring more openness or more nurturing instincts to the business or political world is a myth) at one of the assigned coffee breaks, but most of them leave as soon as they are done speaking.

So I remain mostly in my seat, taking some notes and daydreaming, knowing that every day, in sterile hotels and banquet rooms, dozens of business conferences like this one are going on. There are conferences about real estate and the stock market and round table discussions on the credit crisis and private equity. There are breakfasts, briefings, conventions, forums, summits and symposiums. There are seminars, cocktail hours, lectures and lunches. There are bleary-eyed businessmen and women serving themselves coffee from the same stainless steel contraptions that in a few hours will be whisked away by a catering service to be refilled and sent out again to another and another and another.

And today I am one of those bleary-eyed men. Today it is my turn to try to make good use of this time, but it's time spent trying to be a better drone, to glad-hand yourself into the hearts of people who view you as another barnacle in a bountiful ocean.

You can only get so good at paying the bills. At a certain point, the paycheck job becomes just that, and you go through the motions and do what you have to do, all the while noticing younger, hungrier versions of the 10-years-younger you in action across the room or hall. You also see people 10 or 15 years older than you, with the light gone from their eyes, and you know you were not meant for this, and hope you can get out, do something else. But your thoughts drift back to the rent, the pile of bills.

But I’m supposed to enjoy these times away from the office. I’m supposed to use this time to clear my head, and I leave with a renewed sense of purpose: to get moving to where I want to be, and let the mundane conferences become a thing of memory. That’s what Ron Jeremy would do.

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