An essay originally written for a Lilly Endowment seminar on vocation in 2004
At Tufts, I had been a Classics major, which meant–my friends assured me–that I had no hope of work in “the real world,” and so it was partially as an act of spite that, upon graduation, I took a job at the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company (a major subsidiary, I soon learned to intone, of the Boston Company, a 40% partner in Shearson Lehman Brothers, itself a part of the American Express family).
Actually, I began working before graduation, during the last week of classes, and had to make special provisions for all my finals: it tickled me to tell my professors that my boss wouldn’t let me come to the final (I made have even said, odiously, “my boss can’t spare me at that time”), to ask my friends condescendingly how school was wrapping up for them, to reveal with minimal prompting how weird it all felt, you know, having to finish up schoolwork while I was working downtown, yes, at Boston Safe (it’s part of Amex, um, sorry, American Express).
It was, you have to understand, 1986, the go-go Reagan 80’s, the era of deregulation, junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, Michael Milliken and Donald Trump. When I got off the subway to go to work in the morning, the streets teemed with professional people sprinting off to their offices; it was an atmosphere charged with Purpose, about as far from the study of the useless Classics as I could imagine.
The first several months of my life as a banker were heady, to say the least: I was in the booming Mortgage Department, and at the end of the summer, to celebrate an especially productive quarter, the boss rented a cruise ship for the Boston Harbor, with open-bar and free buffet. All the anti-capitalist (anti-American!) bullshit they’d taught me at college really rung very hollow, let me tell you, as I sipped glass after glass of free champagne from the deck of a fancy yacht.
It only occurred to me later, of course, that the big bosses on the boat were snorting loads of cocaine, in part as a reward and more so as a matter of habit. Especialy productive quarters, after all, set up expectations, and expectations had to be met, by hook of by crook, as they say, or, as they also say, you can kiss your ass goodbye: I sometimes think of these Masters of the Universe (to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase, from Bonfire of the Vanities), and the wrecks they were making of their lives to satisfy the Man. But at the time, of course, I knew none of this: I thought these folks looked great, and I wondered ifI had the stuff to be one of them. Hell man, it was Morning in America, and I wanted an extra big helping of the self-deception.
About a year into this nonsense, I began to realize that my girlfriend (a classical flutist and English major) and I increasingly had nothing to say to one another, for there was virtually nothing about my job which I wanted to tell her. We went, one weekend, to the Museum of Fine Arts and I remember poking around in the splendid collection of John Singleton Copley portraits. As I looked at one painting, the name seemed familiar to me, and I racked my brain for an hour trying to make the connection. A famous author, perhaps? Or some minor Founding Father?
The next day at work, it occurred to me that the name on the painting was, by coincidence, the same as one of the accounts I was processing that week. This realization came with a certain amount of disgust: this was not the sort of information I wanted in my head. I wanted to know real things, not just the random access contents of a cubicle rolodex. But, I was beginning to realize, the fruit of that tree was the only one Mammon wanted me to eat from.
The trip to the Museum, as with many things I was doing at this time, it now occurs to me, were parts of an unplanned program of self-improvement, an attempt to acquire through force of will a life somehow more complete than the sum total of its parts. This program, if we can call it that, was fairly haphazard: it would occur to me that, you know, I read Huckleberry Finn in high school but did I really understand it? Hmmm, better have another look. You will recall that this was the era of Allen Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, and my malaise seemed to be that of the culture as a whole.
Why I was still willing to trust yet more right-wing cranks is a mystery to me. The fact is that the sense of purpose I had admired in the well-shod Financial District foot traffic had, for some reason, lost its luster and had begun to seem more like a headlong flight from reality, the really real reality in which what we do and what we think have a genuine effect upon who we are and what we will become.
It was around this time that I picked up Juvenal again from a used-bookstore, a copy of the Satires from an old nineteenth-century annotated text of the sort I am still charmed by. Juvenal’s Latin isn’t simple, and for one decidedly out-of-practice as I was, it was especially difficult, yet the difficulty, for perhaps the first time in my life, was actually pleasing to me. The only time I found I could devote to it was before work, and so I began to get up early to read Latin with my morning coffee.
As I said, Juvenal was rewarding reading, not just because it did not come easily, but even more so because, when I got it, boy, it really made sense. The Third Satire deals with the City and the sorts of people you see in it, and suddenly my morning commute, once so depressing, became a literary exercise. Juvenals’ world-view has been called dark, but to me, on my daily commute, he seemed to be the only one who ws making any sense.
One morning, in the midst of a particularly compelling passage from Satire Ten, on the Vanity of Human Wishes, I found myself overwhelmingly reluctant to stop. I wondered, then, whether I couldn’t read Latin wasn’t for a living, and go to the bank when I found spare time for it. This is my story, a part of it, though I’ve told it often enough now that feels a little alien to me, no more really mine than the conversion of St. Augustine or the wanderings of Aeneas. Yet laying claim to it once again is a pleasure, because at its heart I know it is true.
Of course it is not the whole story. There are the years in high school, during the monumental silliness of the Bicentennial and the agonizing period of forced busing; there is the benign neglect of my parents who were handling their other children suffering from various mental problems; these stories are stages of the journey, too. My vocation, such as it has been, has never consisted of a single voice calling me in a loud, true tone to a specific destination, but rather a cacophonous chorus, discordant but persistent, never sure of the right path but of the many wrong ones, unfailingly critical.