Panera’s University of Commodities Trading

Back in Orange County, but still working on NY projects means that I have to get up at 5AM, for the most part, and start my day by 6.  For the last few weeks I have tried to get into my office at around this time, and half the time the alarm goes off in the lobby when I use my key, and I have no way of turning it off. It’s pretty irritating, and I can’t work with the stupid thing ringing throughout the building, and so I just leave and head for a place where I can work (and even have breakfast!) which is Panera, not Starbucks, because at Panera’s they have cheaper coffee, better breakfast, a self-serve mentality, and for an old guy like me, better music.  Classical in the morning and Classic Jazz so good in the afternoon that my Dad couldn’t have put together a better playlist.

But the last few weeks have been especially great because twenty minutes after I arrive each time there is this older guy who shows up at the table across the room from me and proceeds to trade commodities through a combination of Internet and phone conversations with someone who is either his student, or the person who’s money he is managing, or both.  Not sure.  But it’s been absolutely fascinating as well as a little frustrating because I have to focus on designing and documenting CRM solutions while trying to listen with half an ear to a whole other world — just as technical, by the way — that I know nothing about, but have always been interested in.

What an opportunity!  I mean, this guy is obviously some kind of retired master of the trade, and just as passionate as he probably always was about it, because every time he returns from a trip to the coffee machine he’s cursing the pork belly prices, or hog futures, or cattle whatever …

And his conversations are priceless — I can only hear one side of the conversation, but it’s every bit as technical and arcane as what I suppose my conversations with my colleagues and students must sound like.  I suppose the difference is that the upside of learning that trade is a lot larger than the upside to learning to produce elegant entity relationship diagrams.

Or is it?

Starbucks is full of similar opportunities in learning, and the other day when I was pretty much stuck there on Saturday for eight hours banging out a monster document, I made friends with the woman who was sitting right next to me at one of those community tech tables that first made their appearance in Seattle in ’95, but which I suppose has led to friendships, maybe even love affairs and marriages — who knows — all over the world, perhaps… anyway this person was a lawyer who had turned first-grade school-teacher out of frustration and when I asked why I kept running into lawyers who turned into something else (I told her the story of my best friend thirty years ago, Dave Irving, who passed the NY bar and never practiced law because, as a paraphrase .. ” … the one thing I learned from Law School is that lawyers are scumbags and I don’t want to be one!”) she proceeded to explain in the most articulate manner as anyone I have ever heard exactly WHY I shouldn’t waste $54,000 and three years of my life to get a law degree.

This was a valuable lesson, because I really have been toying with the idea of going to law school, for  a few reasons —

1. Because I know I would be really good at it.

2. Because I am a little tired of working hour for hour at a rate that can barely pay the bills in this insanely expensive part of the country in which I live — or I should say, in this insanely expensive lifestyle that I have chosen.

3. Because I have a distinct and pleasurable memory of conducting kangaroo courts at the age of eight in the cellar of our house in Orange County, NY.  I remember being the defense lawyer in all cases, having no taste for prosecution.  I did, however, like to win.  I even remember the book I had, although not the title.  Just the smooth blue binding and the photos of big glass buildings and I think the Lincoln Memorial on the cover.  Men with black suits looking up in the foreground like on some kind of higher mission of justice …

But all of that romanticism notwithstanding, my new ex-lawyer friend from NY (who else but a New Yorker would take forty minutes from a day to make a new friend in a coffee shop?) explained the entire fifteen-year experience in law in a single sentence:

” Fuck me …?   Fuck You!!!”

That was about it.  As she said, it’s essentially a nasty business run by nasty, angry people.  Everyone’s angery.  Judges, colleagues, partners, non-partners trying to make partner … it’s just a social mess.

And you know?  I somehow believe her.

It turns out that none of my three reasons are really enough to take the trouble in getting the degree and then taking the bar, and finally making my way in that industry.  It’s a tough one to let go, but I really have to.  There are other ways to make a better living — like eavesdropping in Panera at 6:30 AM!