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Local Lit: how Ted Fishman picked himself up off the floor



Ten years ago Ted Fishman was working full-time in Chicago's financial district. Every day he joined the mass of traders who shoved their way into the pits, waving their arms, shouting and screaming, riding the market like postmodern surfers. "First I traded currency futures," he says, "then I traded cattle, and finally I traded stock indexes."

His twin brother, Zack, had made a fortune in the pits by the early 90s, but it was an odd place for the soft-spoken Fishman to be. All his life he'd wanted to do something in the arts--writing or painting or sculpture. "My father is an architect," he says. "I studied art after school at a private art school." In high school in Highland Park he wrote regularly for the school paper. In college, at Princeton, he was in the fine arts and writing programs. He even took creative writing for two years from Joyce Carol Oates. But like a lot of students going to school in the late 70s, he thought he should do something practical.

He tried to combine practicality with fun, studying in Japan between his sophomore and junior years, focusing his attention on Japanese business practices. "As part of the program I worked in a Panasonic factory over there--I sang the company song." In the morning he learned Japanese management techniques, and in the afternoon he and his fellow American students were shuttled off to work on an assembly line.

After graduation Fishman went back to the Far East on a fellowship, working at a university in Java and learning Indonesian. He stayed two years, returning only after he became ill with hepatitis and dysentery. "I was delirious for two weeks. I called for a rabbi--I thought I was dying. That's what my family told me. I don't remember any of it."

Fishman then decided he would go to law school. "All of the Princeton kids who were too dumb to go to medical school went to law school," he says. While waiting to hear whether he'd been accepted he took a job with a law firm in Manhattan. "I found there were a lot of people with all of my interests working in law firms. They were really wonderful--artistic people, former writers--and they were really beat up as lawyers." He quit the job and returned to Chicago to work with his brother as a clerk on the Chicago Board Options Exchange while he thought things over.

He found he loved the exchange--the excitement, the adrenaline rush--and he was pretty good at his job. His brother gave him the money to become a trader, but Fishman moved over to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. "I think he was hurt when I moved to the Merc," he says. "But there were practical reasons for it. You don't want two people who look exactly alike working in the same exchange. It could cause confusion. Also there was the competition. I didn't want the pressure. It would have taken enormous success to accomplish what he had already done."

He threw himself into the trader's life. Some days he made a lot of money, some days he lost a lot. "I traded through the crash [of 1987]. I did pretty well."

In 1988, now married and starting a family, Fishman began writing on the side, doing short pieces on art and theater for New City. "It was fabulous writing for them back then," he says. "You could really develop your own voice, because the paper was basically unedited."

Then in January 1991 his trading life fell apart. "It happened during the gulf war," he says. "I was trading cattle, and I had no clue the gulf war was going to affect the price of cattle. I had a very big position in cattle that turned out to be very risky. I didn't get wise to it soon enough, and it just exploded in my face."

Over the course of two days he watched all of his earnings go up in smoke. "I went completely and spectacularly broke. I'd gone broke before and come back and done well. But I had kids now and it was horrible."

He went to work for somebody else, trading S&P options until the day in 1992 when he saw something that still infuriates him. "There was this sad-sack whipping boy. He was a little older than me, this sallow, girlish, ugly guy. And these big, pig-faced brokers would tease him all the time. He would just take it and try to get his work done. One day these pigs wanted to drive him out of the pits, so they took him to the rail which goes around the pit and tied his necktie to the railing. Then they pulled down his pants and took turns mock sodomizing him. They thought it was very fun and jolly. No one stopped them, because the guys who did it were the power of the pit--they were the ones everyone needed. It was horrible. I thought, God, is this what I do for a living? These are my colleagues? That was the day I closed out of everything and walked off the floor for good."

By this time he'd managed to set money aside, and he figured that if he and his family were careful they had enough to last two years. "I thought, OK, I'm really going to try to make it writing full-time, doing nothing else. I focused on getting some good clips, and then I was going to try to go national."

Fishman broke into the national market writing short pieces on the First Amendment for Playboy, which later sent him undercover for three months to get the scoop on the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. But he didn't really find his niche until he started writing about the financial world he'd left behind.

His story on trader Darrell Zimmerman, who'd tried to corner the U.S. Treasury bond market at the Board of Trade, earned him a place on the masthead at Worth and helped send Zimmerman to jail (Fishman updated the story for the Reader in 1996). He's also written in Harper's about currency in cyberspace, the dark side of investing in third-world markets, and the culture of scandal on Wall Street. "Everything I've done became important in my career as a writer--having insight into the Japanese economy, having been a trader, understanding how markets work, being able to talk to traders in an idiom they feel comfortable talking." The 90s also turned out to be a good time to write about the financial world: "Everybody's obsessed with money."

Sometimes, he says, he wants to go back. "I miss the high adrenaline. I wasn't the world's most gifted trader, but I could make a living."

Fishman will read from his work as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Harper's on Wednesday, February 16, at 6 PM in the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (use the Plymouth Court entrance). Short-story writer Stuart Dybek will also read from his work, and he and Fishman will read selections from the Harper's archives. For more information call 312-747-4050.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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