Down on Wall Street for Day One

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AMY SANCETTA/AP

Police wait outside the flag-draped New York Stock Exchange Monday morning

By the time I left the New York Stock Exchange at mid-morning Monday and headed north in search of a subway back to midtown, I was closer than I’d ever been to knowing what it was to lose a hundred friends in an hour. The Dow’s losses had stabilized in the 600-point range by mid-morning, and the only thing to do was to shuffle back though the smoke and the dust and an impertinent sun, back to my usual market-watching perch in front of the TV in my cubicle. Just in case the bottom dropped out.

I was walking with a fellow financial writer who was recalling his cub days, working the night police beat in a smallish Southern city. When the cops there were uncooperative, he would get his stories by knocking on the doors of victim’s families, asking if they would mind talking to a reporter about their son or daughter who had been killed that night. Ghoulish work — and yet these newly bereaved, he said, were often willing, even eager to sit down with him. They didn’t have many other people around to talk to.

Traders, however, are their own community — the ear of a stranger with a notebook and a tape recorder is nobody's first choice. Aside from a filial tolerance of floor-roamers like Maria Bartiromo and their camera crews, the NYSE is not built for media, and Wall Street as a news object is the opposite of Washington — it doesn’t need or want coverage to make its living, and traders don’t do soundbites in the best of times.

And these were not the best of times.

Problem was, the post-apocalyptic resumption of U.S. stock trading Monday was also arguably the most breathlessly anticipated session of all time. Three thousand traders crowd the floor of the NYSE every day, but as we all milled around outside in the hours before the reopening bell — breathing air still gray and bitter with smoke and dust and dawn — they were easily outnumbered by the professional gawkers who had descended on the Big Board from all over the world, panning for soundbites, owing copy.

And I was one of them.

"No."

"Can’t talk."

"Nothing to say."

With every rebuff, I would edge away and look around, and the scene — and my journalistic role in it — shook me up. Traders in their colored blazers, men and women who shout for a living, silently grasping at each other with tears in their eyes. Men in suits with flag ties and slumped shoulders, sucking forlornly on a cigarette or a cup of coffee. Scattered halves of cell-phone conversation — "Jimmy’s a nut case now… No, I don’t feel like eating today."

I saw Japanese reporters in dust masks accosting men in suits like the natives of some new planet with an uncertain atmosphere. German radio correspondents leaning over police barricades with grapefruit-sized microphones, shouting "Are you a trader?" to anyone who walked by. Dutiful wire-service scribblers forming Oscar-night gauntlets along the path of anyone who would talk.

And after getting too many quiet no-comments from too many grim mouths, I did what any self-respecting professional gawker would do when he starts to feel like a bull at a funeral: I got in the press line and waited to be taken away.

After one briefcase-sniffing dog, one X-ray machine, and a lot of ushering through corridors by the NYSE’s swamped but immaculately mannered press-handlers, we reached our quarantine in the exchange’s ad hoc press pen. A vaulted-ceilinged, red-carpeted, den-of-J.P. Morgan room with a long mahogany table and oil portraits of NYSE chairmen past on rococo-detailed walls. No view of the exchange floor. No windows at all.

Just a big TV screen.

At 9:23 a.m. we began watching the direct feed of the one event NYSE chairman Richard Grasso really wanted us to see: the well-polished head of NYSE chairman Richard Grasso delivering his opening line — "Welcome back to the greatest market in the world" — and preparing to ring the opening bell.

At 9:30 Grasso was still winding up a speech that began with the American capitalist phoenix and veered into the necessity to "obliterate" its terrorist enemies and the countries that support them. A journalist joked under his breath that someone was going to have to pull him away from the microphone before the 4 p.m. close.

Maybe Grasso was nervous about the wiring holding up. But I was breathing easy again. Spin — and symbiotic, mutually desired journalism — was back.

Then came the two-minute moment of silence (broken once by an inadvertent bell) and the Marine woman singing "God Bless America" in an operatic tremolo, and finally, at 9:34, the bells dinged, Grasso beamed, and the stock market was back from the ashes.

With a vengeance, as it turned out, but a rational and contained one that by 10:30 had ceased to be terrifying. Time to head uptown.

At cross-streets, my co-walker pointed out the western views as they accosted us in flashes of sunlight: The listing black stumps of the World Trade towers, the surviving-but-abandoned American Express building. Other, windowless shells whose names I didn’t retain.

Back at the office, the air was clear. I watched the session end quietly on CNBC: record volume and record point losses, and Grasso had seen his feverishly rebuilt infrastructure hold up admirably, just as he’d promised. The center had held, but despite Fed rate-cutting and SEC permissiveness the big indexes had broken through technical lows that nobody wanted to see again, and most forecasters admitted it was hard to know what would happen from here.

And late Monday night, as I walked past candle-studded Union Square, I noticed suddenly that the wind had changed, and once again the air across Manhattan smelled of vigils and destruction.