As a young anarchist punk in the mid to late 80s, I took my witchy self down to look for a job on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange. I was broke, living off ramen and barely able to afford rent, and I was determined to learn something about the U.S. economic system while getting paid for it. I started off as a runner, graduated to data entry, and by the end of my tenure had formed my own one person company as an assistant to three Market Makers. I quit when one of them started talking about sponsoring me as a Market Maker myself. I knew that I had learned enough – our system was based on gambling and greed – and that to continue would be to sell my soul.
This was the time of Apartheid in South Africa. You were in prison. Steven Biko was dead. Students and activists were getting arrested at UC Berkeley and in front of Bank of America, calling for divestment. Nightclubs in the Mission were blasting The Specials “Free Nelson Mandela” as we sweated, flirted, and moved our bodies through the cigarette-smoke filled air.
I, a working class kid with a blue flat-top mohawk and gold Dr. Marten’s, was stomping around the stock exchange floor, dealing with misogyny, sexual harassment, and many other social ills. I was angry a lot. Though African Americans worked for the Exchange itself, there was only one Black Market Maker on the whole floor at the time. We worked from 5:30 to 2:30 every day in a large gray room lit by white fluorescents and glowing green computer screens. The bell rang at 6 am to mark the beginning of trading. I called the floor “a heart attack waiting to happen”. I would confront sexism as best I could, and classism, and would occasionally ask traders how they could trade with Dutch Afrikaaner companies.
One day, the floor was going crazy. Paper was flying. Men were shouting. Blood pressure was rising. One of my Market Makers called me over to his trading pit and shouted an order for me to buy Krugerrands – the South African currency minted from gold. I looked at him and said, “No.” He stared at me. I stared back. His face flushed red, then purple, color rising from his neck up to his forehead. His mouth pinched. He threw his trading cards down and stormed out the of pit to buy the gold himself.
Word spread around the floor like wildfire. At the end of the day, after the last bell had rung, I was collecting reams of paper for recycling – this was in the days before recycling was commonplace, I and another woman gathered the paper and carted it away. The lone African American trader crossed the floor, held out his hand, and said, simply, “Thank you.”
Today, I say to Nelson Mandela: you were a giant in our minds. You were an inspiration. Your life was a clarion call goading us toward freedom and justice.
Mr. Mandela, today, I hold out my hand in thanks.
Late note: No, amazingly enough, that Market Maker didn't fire me for refusing to do my job. Angry as he was, I remained his assistant until I left the trading floor.