What I Learned At Runner Academy

Working on Wall Street was a learning experience, I passed history, geography and ethics were part of the curriculum but never took finances.

 I have a secret to share – I do not know what makes the stock market tick.  its ups and downs are a complete mystery to me. I have never directly bought a share of stock although I do have a 401K plan that invests in stocks sold in various markets. My closest encounter with Wall Street was in the late 1950s when I wasa high school student and worked as a “runner”- the term used on Wall Street for messenger. I worked for two firms, Gude Winmill & Co. and Whitman, Ransom & Coulson. The former specialized in “odd lot”  trades. These are anything less than the standard 100 shares for stocks that most Wall Street firms buy and sell for their clients. The latter was a “white shoe” law firm that had a brokerage sideline for its legal clients. Fashion gave birth to the term “white shoe,” and it was usually applied to a law or financial firm that hired WASP guys from elite universities and catered to an “old money” clientele. I never actually saw any of the traders or lawyers wear white shoes during the summers I worked there but occasionally I did see some men on my rounds that did wear them along with seersucker suits and straw boaters.

Runners were usually old  men or young boys who were less fashion conscious and who shuttled stock certificates, bonds and other financial documents between the various stock exchanges, brokers, bankers and law offices that populated the financial district. These duties did not require any financial knowledge but one did have to know the exact location of the pick-up and drop-off points and the fastest way to navigate there. More importantly, from the point of view of runners, they had to know how to plot a course that kept them dry, warm or otherwise in accordance with the the weather. This entailed a complete knowledge of the myriad connecting tunnels, basements, corridors, alleys, courtyards and loading docks that served each building. With this knowledge, a runner could (theoretically) travel from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan as far north as Canal Street without getting wet on a rainy day. Although runners were low-wage employees (I think we got about 60 to 75 cents an hour)  we were entitled to bonuses and I recall that we got them several times a year that amounted to several months pay and once I got a whole year’s salary bonus.

In addition to learning the geography of the financial district  I also learned much
about the history of “Olde New York” during the late 19th to early 20th century.  The old men who were runners and informal mentors to kids like me freely dispensed the lore, legends and history that enveloped lower Manhattan where New York City began. Early in my training, I learned about Federal Hall on Wall Street where George Washington was inaugurated. Across the street,
I was shown a building where vestiges of damage that was caused by an
anarchists bomb in 1920 could still be seen. The blast killed 38 and seriously
injured about 150 others. Over on Broadway at the intersection of Wall Street on
my way to the American Stock Exchange Building my mentor told me about Trinity
Episcopal Church and it burial grounds where such figures as Alexander Hamilton,
John Jacob Astor, Albert Gallatin and others who shaped  our nation’s financial history were interred On my routes particularly along the eastern edge of the area, I was able to  see the shipwright’s warehouses and their faded but still readable façade signs that indicated the names of these and other businesses that once thieved there. I was particularly intrigued by ones of the Hispanic cigar makers and learned that from the mid to late 19th century  New York City was the center of a U.S. based cigar making industry that was dominated by Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Spaniards.   

Another lesson I learned was the importance of one’s word. Wall Street at least when I worked there had an honesty ethic. As a runner, I did transport paper that represented money that in certain circumstances could be sold to unscrupulous parties. Nevertheless, my fellow runners and I made our daily rounds unsupervised.  Another manifestation of trust was that on days that we worked late we could have dinner at a local restaurant where my employers had an account. I don’t recall the name of this place but what stands out in my mind was that you could order anything you wanted by simply telling the cashier that you worked for the firm. No dinner check was issued and no ID or signature was required and when I questioned this I was told something to the effect that one’s word was one’s bond - "dictum meum pactum." I don’t know about now, but back in the day, that Latin phrase was drilled into everyone from runners to traders and that without this principle, Wall Street could not function for one second. Greed and chicanery seems to be what moves things along in current times. This “ethic” clearly reflects Warren Buffet’s adage that “Wall Street is the only place that subway riders go to, in order to seek financial advice from strangers who arrive there by limo.” 

Maybe this fog of deceit has always blanketed Wall Street. In retrospect, it seems that my rose-colored runner’s goggles failed to penetrate the mist surrounding  this place and its code of conduct that in actuality floats in the sea between word and deed.

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