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October 2020 Issue [Readings]

Mortgage-backed Insecurities


From Having and Being Had, a book of non-fiction, which was published last month by Riverhead Books.

Every year, financial advisers come to campus to meet with faculty, but I haven’t met with one until now. He’s looking over the details of my retirement account with concern. Is there a reason, he asks me, why none of it has been invested in the stock market for the past decade?

“A Story of Wall Street” is the subtitle of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Bartleby was a passive resister, a worker who refused to do certain work at first, then refused to work at all, and finally refused even to be fired, all by saying politely, “I would prefer not to.” His resistance had no end, and he didn’t seem to be trying to accomplish anything except resistance. I remind myself that Bartleby starved to death in prison, because somehow his story still reads to me as a triumph. Jane Desmarais writes, “Bartleby’s freedoms are incompatible with life.”

Like Bartleby, I would prefer not to. I would prefer not to be told what to do and I would prefer not to invest in the stock market. I would prefer not to put money into a system that extracts profit from other people’s labor. That’s one reason I chose the “no risk” option when I set up my account. But I don’t tell the adviser this. I just say, I’m conservative. He looks skeptical. With money, I clarify.

Well, he says, moving some papers around, let’s not talk about how much money you’d have now if you’d invested it. Let’s just get the account in order. When do you want to retire? As soon as possible, I say. Most of the professors he advises plan to keep working well past the usual retirement age, he tells me. Yes, I know those professors. I work with them, or for them. I don’t explain the difference between my job and theirs—the higher course load, the lower pay, the basement office, the glass ceiling. I just say, I’m not like them.

Then you’re going to need to invest aggressively, he says. High risk, high return. He shows me a pie chart of stocks and bonds. He’s talking about various kinds of investments now, index funds and hedge funds and options and futures. I ask, half-heartedly, what futures are. His explanation doesn’t clarify much, but I didn’t expect it to. I can tell that he doesn’t entirely understand all the intricacies of this business himself. I wonder, silently, whether I might actually be buying other people’s futures.

This financial adviser works for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, which I’ve only ever known as TIAA, the place where retirement money goes. It was established a hundred years ago by Andrew Carnegie, who sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan and became the richest man in America. TIAA is the largest agricultural investor in the world, the third largest commercial real estate manager in the world, and number 80 on the Fortune 500.

Now my money is out there, being aggressive. I keep thinking about it, wondering what it’s doing. I consider calling the financial adviser to tell him that I would prefer not to be aggressive. I decide I will, and then I don’t.

The bank regulator who lives across the street wants the house kitty-corner to mine “shut down.” There was a shooting in the alley last week, and two of the shooters, teenage boys, ran into that house. Nobody was hurt, but there was a scene with the police. When John and J came back from playing basketball in the park, our block was taped off and police officers holding guns were standing on our lawn talking to the boys in the house through megaphones.

I thought this neighborhood was safe, a mother at the playground complains to me. She and I both moved here from the same neighborhood in Chicago. That neighborhood wasn’t considered safe, and it’s not far away. We don’t get out of living with what everyone else lives with, I think, just because we own houses now. We can’t buy our way out of shootings. I’m impatient with this conversation and with her illusion of safety. This wasn’t the only shooting in our neighborhood this year, it was just the closest.

The bank regulator barely lives here. He works in two other cities, and there’s usually nobody in his big house on the double lot. He’s the least likely person on this block, I say, to get hit by a stray bullet. He’s not concerned about his safety, John says, he’s concerned about his property. The house is an investment, and the value just went down by $5,000 at least.

The bank regulator organizes a neighborhood meeting while I’m away for work. The chief of police comes to the meeting and says that it isn’t legal to force an eviction. Everyone seems to agree, a neighbor tells me, that you can’t just shut down a household. Even so, a month later I watch the people who live there carry their things out to a U-Haul. I watch this the way I might watch bad weather—as if it has nothing to do with me.

Now I’m in my attic in the dark and I see the bank regulator’s shadow projected by the security lights on his lawn into the mist of the night. His shadow is stretching through the trees, sending long fingers across the street. I’ve seen this scene before, in a black-and-white Dracula movie. I recall the workingwoman, the typist, who was Dracula’s neighbor in London. He forced her to drink his blood, which gave her access to his mind. She was able to track his every move because she could see what he was seeing, as if she were looking through his eyes. And she knew she had to destroy him to save her own soul because she felt herself becoming a vampire.

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