The Conversations

Photo: Newscom (Barbie and oven); Mattel/Newsmakers/Getty Images (Ken)

Shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Stan, an equities trader at a midsize Wall Street firm, realized that he was going to have to break some bad news to his wife: They’d need to put off remodeling the kitchen of their 100-year-old Westchester Colonial until the financial crisis passed. “Tell her before you leave the office,” one of Stan’s co-workers advised him. “That way she can get her crying done while you are on the train.”

In the end, Stan ignored his colleague’s advice and told Amy the bad news about the kitchen face-to-face. “Well, I broke down in tears,” she says.

Amy knows that new countertops don’t really matter, but, before this crash, they were easy to take for granted, part of their comfortable progress in life. But with the market in turmoil, these assumptions have to be renegotiated, which often involves a series of painful conversations between husband and wife.

“You get to the point where you almost don’t want to go home,” Stan says at a softball game at the New York Athletic Club in Westchester. “You’re always bringing bad news. You start looking for things you need to cut back on. But you know that every cut is a cut into the life that your wife is used to living.”

Amy agrees. “I’m always afraid of what I’m going to hear when he comes home,” she says. “There are plenty of examples of scaling back I can think of.”

Stan gives her a pat on the shoulder. He tells her that his firm hadn’t suffered huge losses, and that he’s the No. 2 producer on his trading floor. They’re a good- looking couple. Both are blond, tall, and thin. They’ve got two children: an infant son and a 2-year-old daughter. You can sense the warmth between them. But Stan’s eyes betray his worries, his concern he’s letting Amy down. He jogs back onto the NYAC field for the next inning.

A week or so after coming to terms with the kitchen, Stan and Amy agreed that they would have to skip their annual February trip to Harbour Island, in the Bahamas. That was an easier conversation, partly because the news was worse for their friends. One couple had put in a bid on their dream house, but they had to withdraw when the hedge fund for which the husband worked unwound its investments and went to an all-cash position. This move is sure to crimp the fund’s profits and therefore reduce bonuses paid to employees.

Then, last week, e-mails to Stan started bouncing back. “The recipient does not exist,” the message said. Stan was out of a job. He’s still stunned by the speed with which it happened. “People are kind of looking for reasons to fire people in this market,” he says. “Maybe they think if they fire you, they’ll hold onto their own jobs.”

Stan and Amy are still staying at his mother’s house, where they first moved when they started the home improvements. “It’s kind of depressing, I guess—an unemployed guy living in my mother’s basement,” he says. “Actually, though, with the kitchen on hold, we should be able to move in sooner. We’ll just learn to live with an old kitchen.”

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The Conversations