The Day-Trader

Every day for ten years Robert had come to this café on the second floor of the Borders on North Michigan Avenue. He was a talented day-trader, fluent in the language of the market. He saw candlesticks and skylines in graphs where those with less training saw only the patternless movement of a line; in cloud-clusters of data points he saw writing as clear as Times New Roman type, with outliers dotting and flourishing the letters.

Some of his peers embraced the label “speculator,” but Robert rejected it – he was an investor, a finance professional. In earlier days, he had meticulously showered and donned a suit every morning, combed his hair and been out the door with a nod to the morning doorman and a swinging briefcase by seven-thirty – but that was only to visit Ahmed’s news-booth on the corner of Clark and Adams to purchase his cluster of morning papers, and then it was back to the office he kept in the corner of his small studio apartment. Dressed every bit as keen as if he had been entering the Board of Trade with a badge on his label and a firm behind him, and incoming calls on a cellular phone.

He did keep a phone, but it rarely rang. He was a broker for himself, and worked full-time on behalf of the same. His habits were rigorous: six morning papers (and the Journal read twice), several newsweeklies, and then the messages of the market. When necessary he would carefully consult the shelf of experts that sat above his trading desk: Fabozzi, Graham and Dodd, and others, and the great 20th century economists – Hazlitt, Hayek, and Von Mises, whom he loved, and Keynes and Galbraith, whom he abhorred but kept around just in case.

Now seventy, he still worked and would work until forbidden by the seal of the casket. But for the past ten years he had not worked from home; his practice was based out of the café in Borders. To his great impatience, the store did not open until 9:30, long after the market’s opening bell. (He had struggled with himself and with his sister over whether to move to New York to be more in tune with the schedule of the market, had several times packed the contents of his apartment into a few boxes and vowed to make the move that very weekend before the markets opened on Monday, but never seemed to be able to finalize things, to bring that decision to its lonely conclusion).

When the Borders manager-on-duty turned the lock of the first foyer door, Robert would be waiting without fail – the two exchanged a familiar nod and good-morning, and Robert quickly made his way up the escalator to claim the first cup of coffee poured that day, which he drank black. And then he sat at the very same table as the day before, the one with the best view of the old Water Tower through the trees and the horse-and-carriages stomping at the side street. After a sigh and an unlidding of the coffee he would fan his morning papers out across the table and pile a stack of books and company prospectuses high upon an adjacent chair and get on with his business of underlining and graph-reading, finding pictures heavy with meaning in the dimensionless points of the scatterplots and the suggestive starts and stops of the trend-lines.

It was the seventh of June, one of those rainy and sixty-degree days so familiar in the early Chicago summer. He knew the date well, and paused a moment with his pen hovering over an underlined section of a page. His hand trembled with a tremor he carefully ignored. The branches of the fir trees in the plaza stirred, and he paused to reflect: it had been ten years since he made his last trade.

Events in the window and in the café were different and the same – the other regulars, the eternal students, the homeless, and the businessmen seeking refuge from their offices in the Loop, had aged and changed their wardrobes, and many familiar faces were gone, having moved on to other cities and other lives. But Robert was a fixture of the place. On the rare occasion that a traveler with a bit of fondness in his heart for the café would stop by and look to Robert’s table and find it empty, a moment of disorientation and even sadness would follow: a reminder that even the most permanent things of this world must pass.

Ten years since his last trade, and ten years since he moved his daily operations to this table in the bookstore café. He permitted himself only a moment to reflect – this was one memory he could not stand to look at for long, and anyhow there was much to get done before lunch, and he could not afford to fall behind. But the anniversary of that day forced itself into his consciousness, will it away though he might.

One day, when very recently he had begun to dabble in short-selling, that is, betting that a stock would fall but assuming unlimited liability in case it should rise, he had misjudged the direction of a stock. A grave, grave misjudgment – his books and papers had failed him, and it was all he could do not to burn them and burn his apartment and trading desk down on top of them.

The next day, he was sick and missed the morning bell for the first time since his first day on the job as a mail-sorter and clerk for a small brokerage operation in his Indiana hometown. And the day after that, he had been lured away from his desk for a breakfast with his brother-in-law; his sister, who by order of some long-ago court supervised his accounts for reasons of a diagnosis he refused to name as he knew it to be false and a lie, begged off and was unable to attend. He ate anxiously with the brother-in-law and thought of the markets and how he might climb back to where he had been; he thought also suspicious thoughts, thoughts of betrayal – the food tasted strange and the tone of his brother-in-law’s voice was strange. His eyes were strange. Some of the more ominous messages that one finds in the chart of a stock-price may sometimes be found as well in the eyes of a man; this, too, Robert understood.

But it was too late. He returned from the breakfast to find his trading desk empty of its most prominent feature – the array of computers and monitors that surrounded and cradled him as he sat in his hard-backed chair. He always, without fail, locked his apartment door; for Robert to forget to lock his door would be for to the sun to forget to set or for Kant to forget to take his afternoon walk through Königsberg. Besides the landlord, only his sister had a key.

He searched the apartment and opened every cabinet five or six times over, threw his books and papers around the room, kicked his treasured copy of Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis sprawling spine-broken into a corner, pounded with his fists on the imperturbable plexiglas of his floor-to-ceiling thirtieth-floor window overlooking the desolate landscape of the West Side. The computers, and his livelihood, were gone. Stolen by his sister, his one link to the non-economic world.

His was a blue-chip firm, and he had read much about companies bouncing back from crises. His business, too, would recover from this setback. It must go on – there was meaning in it, it mattered. And within days he had moved his operations to the table in the Borders café, the one with the best view of the old Water Tower through the trees and the horse-and-carriages stomping at the side street. The computers were gone, but in the end he had never thought much of that method of trading – had found it effeminate. The old paper-traders knew how to do things right after all.

Enough of such thoughts: Robert turned back to his papers and began furiously underlining the latest intelligence about the movement of copper prices – it was serious business, it would affect the summer production schedules of many firms in which Robert had an interest.

Eventually he finished his first reading of the morning Journal and, with a sigh and a cracking of his knuckles, turned his attention to the Tribune. Familiar headlines; then he unfolded it and his heart broke as he read, and read again:


Ryan McCarl is a contributing editor of Fogged Clarity. He is a frequent contributor to, and his writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Crain’s Chicago Business, Sojourners online, The Colorado Daily News, The Muskegon Chronicle, and elsewhere. McCarl lives in Ann Arbor, where he is a graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Education.