The headlines scream ‘depression.’ I closely monitor the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Bloomberg as an Investor Relations Manager for one of the largest financial services companies. One by one, the highest ranking executives in the industry have been forced to resign—scapegoats or accomplices to one of the worst housing markets since The Great Depression. With the economic issues plaguing the top brass, I recall a time not too long ago when I myself was soaring high, plummeting like today’s executives when the bubble finally burst.
In 2001, I was making close to six figures including my quarterly bonuses—I was 26-years-old. The technology startup I worked for on 3rd and Howard in downtown San Francisco had a web-based sales and marketing ‘effectiveness’ application that garnered $3MM in funding. Unfortunately, we were more effective at spending than selling and marketing.
A miniature version of Costco, our kitchen housed the caffeine and munchies. The overflow of soda cases were stacked neatly in the cupboards. In the afternoon, the smell of Bagel Bites microwaving or Orville Redenbacher’s popping wafted through the crop of cubicles. Ding! Slowly more workers sprouted up and ventured to the kitchen for a tasty treat of their own.
Round the clock sustenance was a perk—although a minor one. Lunches were paid for, too. 90 minutes before noon, we placed our orders from the menu of the day. Tokyo Express for sushi. Max’s Diner for grilled sourdough sandwiches. Order what your heart desires. No limit. It would be sitting in the Alcatraz conference room at noon for pickup. Also, if you worked past 9 (and you almost always did), one of the senior managers would expense the dinner and bar tab at LuLu’s or Plouf. You didn’t have to bother offering. Food and entertainment were always taken care of a handful of nights a week at the trendiest restaurants. The evening of our official company launch, the Director of Marketing handed me a shiny nametag. Right behind her, Gary our Director of Finance tapped my shoulder, “Do not lose that. It’s made of gold.” Rolling his eyes, he murmured, “Oy vey.” I was more giddy about the caviar bar and the bottles of wine with our company name labeled on the front. Two weeks later, we went on an all-expense paid cruise to Mexico—over fifty of us—including Gary who even toasted ‘Mazel Tov’ after several whiskey shots.
By 2001, I’d been working at the startup for almost three years. Everything was going smoothly. 20% bonuses were still kicking in until September 11th when the dot-com bubble turned into a dot-com bust. We lost several major accounts, the pink slips were distributed, and I had a few good cries. One month later, my application to the University of Chicago MBA program was accepted. I was laid off, but lucky, heading to business school the following year.
I had more than enough money to tie me over until school started with an adequate severance package, monthly unemployment checks, and ample savings but I looked into performing some odd job: hostess, waitress, paid tutor—to pass the time. I came across a curious ad on Craigslist. The posting read, “Looking for cute girl to clean my loft.”
Intrigued, I responded, “Cute laid-off dot.commer looking to make some money under the table.”
He asked to meet on a Tuesday at 3 in the afternoon at Kelly’s Mission Rock, the Mission Bay waterfront restaurant. I became more intrigued. Was he a trust fund baby? Was he living off of an inheritance? Was he also laid off like me?
Dale was a modern day Master of the Universe. An options trader for the Pacific Stock Exchange just like Sherman McCoy straight out of Bonfire of the Vanities, he shouted ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ and calculated pricing spreads, but on the west coast—the San Francisco financial district—instead of Wall Street in New York. He worked from 6:30am until 1:00 then was free to golf, sail, row, or drink at the bar several hours before everyone else could happy hour. Only two years my senior, Dale had a commanding presence. He was tall, 6’1” with curly brown hair and dark brown eyes. He looked like the typical East Coast frat boy—attractive and academic with his wire-rimmed glasses. When he came over to introduce himself with a hungry look in his eyes, I knew I had just secured a job.
After four hours spent gabbing away like old friends catching up on each others’ lives, it was now time for business. We drove separately in our cars to the loft he owned nearby in a prime location of Potrero Hill. It was dark and I couldn’t see anything until he turned the lights on inside. The tri-level loft was new construction, built within the last couple years. It was a homeowner’s dream: stainless steel appliances, indoor washer/dryer, floor to ceiling windows, remote-controlled parking, and three bathrooms—one on each floor. I had never seen such a spacious home in the city. When my eyes widened, he asked with concern, “Oh no. Do you think my place is too big to clean?”
I shook my head no, but as I wandered the halls and walked up and down the stairs, I realized there was one big concern. The place was already clean. It was immaculate.
Starting that week, I went on to clean Dale’s loft once a week. It took me no more than three hours each time. Calling it three hours was a stretch. I hooked his cordless phone to my jeans and talked to my friends while dusting. But I spent most of my time watching movies on his wide-screen TV while waiting for his laundry to dry or the dishwasher to finish.
Months later, I was surprised to walk in and find shopping bags on the dining room table. They were from high end boutiques in the city, their contents wrapped in pastel-colored tissue paper. Determining it was someone’s birthday, I continued surveying. I ran upstairs and spotted an empty cup on his bedside table. As I reached to grab it, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a head of smooth shiny black hair peeking out from the top of the blanket. Surprised, I put my right hand over my mouth to stifle my gasp. I stared for a few seconds longer, realizing Dale had a girl in his bed. It was 10:30am and she was still here. Didn’t she have to work? I was here to do my job and now I couldn’t since she was in the bed. I tried to figure out what to do. Should I clean his bottom two floors and come back tomorrow to do the upstairs bedroom? I’d have to come back. I couldn’t very well start vacuuming loudly while she slept in bed. But what was she doing here? I felt a pang of jealousy.
After I descended the stairs, she called out, “Hello there. Are you the cleaning lady?”
I heard footsteps above.
“Ummm, yeah.” I answered.
She came down in one of Dale’s extra-large t-shirts. Face-to-face and eye-to-eye, I felt like I was staring in a mirror. She looked very much like me.
“Hi I’m Julie. I’ll get out of your way in a second, but I need to show you a few things.”
I followed her back up the stairs to the bathroom where she pointed out the mildew in the shower and the yellow rings circling the inside of the toilet bowl. “I just wanted to point that out to you, but I’ll be on my way. More shopping to do. I think the shopping here is so much better than Hong Kong.” I later learned that unlike Dale or me, Julie was a trust fund baby—traveling the world and living a magazine lifestyle thanks to her rich father, a shipping magnate in Japan.
I walked out of Dale’s loft that day, feeling like I was living Cinderella’s fairy tale life, but in reverse. Instead of wining and dining, someone was now telling me where to mop and scrub.
Dale didn’t need a maid anymore than I needed to be a maid. Just like the tech world didn’t need another dot-com anymore than today’s housing market needs another foreclosure. But everything ultimately unwinds itself. The Pacific Stock Exchange has been replaced by an Equinox fitness club. Dale moved back home to Boston to work in the family publishing business. Julie’s dad made her get a job, ringing up the cash register at Banana Republic. The dot com boom went bust just like today’s housing bubble goes pop. And I found myself huddled in the basement of a university library, studying the economics of it all.