It is January, 2010, and it is cold in Chicago. A man in a grey Chevrolet Impala drives into the city on Interstate 290. It’s known locally as the Eisenhower Expressway, or the Eisenhower. Traffic reporters often just call it The Ike. He has driven the route 1,000 times if not more. On the Eisenhower, an extension of Interstate 88, he cuts through western suburbs that used to be farms. He passes tough West Side neighborhoods, rail yards and warehouses and luxury condominiums on his way to the Loop, the area where the elevated trains – Chicago’s “El” — rattle in from the neighborhoods, circle a section of the downtown area and head back out again. As he approaches, buildings jut up like glass and steel blades of prairie grass. The old Sears Tower,recently renamed, looks particularly tall from this angle, a black stripe against the morning sky.
The man, whose name is Charlie Andrews, is briefly in traffic but not for long, which must be some kind of miracle in Chicago,where there is always traffic. He prefers grey cars because the color hides dirt, as well as dirty snow. He navigates the Loop’s many one-way streets and stops short of Michigan Avenue, where tourists from small farming towns sometimes walk down the street with mouths agape and eyes wide as they wander between the skyscrapers. He parks the Impala in a lot on the southern edge of the Loop.
Andrews walks to La Salle Street,the main artery of the financial district. He passes impressive, heavy buildings that block the sunlight and cast long shadows. He’s the kind of man you don’t necessarily notice, but if you do, you wonder if he’s lost, or wandered in from a different place and decade. Andrews is six foot four, 72,topped with a shock of white hair. He wears a green suit and an oval-shaped belt buckle, the kind you can find in glass cases at Alcala’s Western Wear on West Chicago Avenue,an emporium popular with inhabitants of the city’s many Latino neighborhoods.It’s a rarity here on La Salle Street, where men wear blue suits, starched shirts and the sort of shoes that benefit from frequent polishing.
Andrews enters a building at the end of the street that stops La Salle in its tracks, a Gothamesque Art Deco tower at the end of the block. It looks taller than it really is. You might recognize it. It turns up in the background of movies. In The Dark Knight, a semiflips over in front of it. Today, in the snow, it looks like a giant armchair.An oversized clock ticks above the main entrance; on top of the building stands an aluminum statue, a few stories tall, of the goddess Ceres, the daughter of Saturn. Romans believed her to be the goddess of grains, or cereals. Here she’s on lookout, or would be if her face had any features.
Andrews pushes through revolving doors into the lobby, which features nine kinds of marble. Around him,woven into odd places like heating vents, are stylized decorative versions of wheat. Deeper into the building, the elevator doors close and reveal more sheaves of wheat, this time in a shape that resembles a martini glass. But today, he doesn’t get that far in.
The building’s lobby features a newsstand, a bank, and a restaurant with large glass windows looking into the lobby. The restaurant, once called Sign of the Trader and now called Ceres, feels clubby and cliquey, the kind of place where men who know each other meet for hushed lunches. It would be full of smoke if this were the movies, or if Illinois hadn’t banned smoking in public places. And it would be raucous and rowdy at the bar if the business being done upstairs in this building hadn’t changed. That said, even now, every drink is a double.
Andrews enters the restaurant,takes a seat in a booth and gives a waitress his order, a sole sandwich with tartar sauce. He gives the order slightly louder and slower than seems normal.But he is not from around here. He lives in Kanopolis, Kansas,population 500. His great-grandfather was a butcher from Scotland who moved to the states and shot buffalo to feed railroad crews. His grandfather bought a farm and cattle.
Cowboys are prone to some talltales, and Andrews is no exception. He has a few stories, and he will tell most without hesitation. For example, while buying cattle he went to Mexico and met the actor John Wayne, with whom he went on a two-day bender.The rest of the story involves the phrase, “15 fresh whores an hour.” I’ll leave it to your imagination. There’s another story, told by a friend of his who has an office upstairs, about a visit to Clayton, New Mexico. That’s where a friend of his put a ranch horse in his hotel room as a prank. The man doesn’t remember what provoked the prank, but he remembers the animal, as cowboys do. “I wanted that horse,” he says, and says he took it home. “He turned out to be a tremendous horse.”
But the most interesting story he tells has to do with the business he got into in Chicago. There he was, from Kansas, traveling to Mexico and around the U.S., buying calves and light cattle on behalf of feedlots, which fattened them up to sell to slaughter. In El Paso, in 1962, he opened a trading account with E.F. Hutton, a now-gone brokerage company (best remembered for their ads’ tagline: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”), and put $5,000 into it. He started trading something obscure, futures contracts on pork bellies. He became an active speculator. It fascinated him, he said, “because money is the way you keep score.”
Shortly after that he went to Chicago, where millions of cattle were sold in its stockyards and killed in its packing plants. And while there, he visited the building in the Loop where he sent his pork belly orders. It housed Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a member-run club. He continued to trade pork belly futures, and then futures contracts on cattle.
As the stockyards declined,the futures trade grew brighter, and exciting. In 1969 he saw a hog futures trader, happy after a good day, pour liquor on his chest and light it on fire for fun. It was a wild town. Andrews spent many nights on stools at Division and State Street,a then-lurid nightlife district that put him in close vicinity of both mobsters and housing projects. One night he heard machine guns as he walked down an alley at 2 a.m. He hid behind a dumpster.
In 1973, he joined the small futures exchange. Some of the wildest things he saw, he saw there, at what they called the “Merc.” Men there were in the business of taking risks, and mostly with their own money. Some were successful. He saw a man rack up $10 million on a series of good trades. Many were not. He saw more than one trader on the floor lose everything. When new men came to trade, he learned to recognize the ones who wouldn’t make it. He could predict who would take risks wildly,without considering the consequences, and who would eventually lose their money, confidence and sense and be wheeled out of the trading floor on a stretcher. Andrews stopped trading for himself early on, after he lost a large amount of money, but continued advising people.
The longer Andrews stayed, the more futures contracts he had to choose from. The traders branched out into foreign currencies, stocks and interest rates. Quickly the cowboy was a broker advising money managers in New York and other places. It had an unfortunate side effect. Andrews left in 1995 for a two-year stint in jail. He had pled guilty to perjury in a case in which a customer of his was accused of running a Ponzi scheme. Andrews says that he pled guilty only because his lawyer advised him, wrongly, that he would not serve jail time. He believes the lawyer purposefully gave him bad advice in order to win a different case. From prison,he successfully fought off civil suits and continued to call his office everyday, collect, to relay his views on the market. When again a free man, in 1997,he moved back to Chicago.
It felt different. The traders had long dominated their corner of the financial world. But they seemed small compared to a new group of people. Some traded from offices with large amounts of other people’s money. There seemed no limit on how much they could make or lose. Others traded by computer. Andrews worked from an office above the trading floor. Then, in 2005, with a sense of foreboding, he moved back to Kansas to work from his home.
From there, he watched as the futures business quickly changed, and took the world with it. Food and oil prices skyrocketed. The speculators at institutions started to remind Andrews of the traders who came to the trading floor and took risks with money they couldn’t afford to lose, and inevitably did. In mid-2007, he says, he advised his customers in the financial markets to proceed with caution. He says a few did,while others ignored him and switched to different advisors.
But in fall of 2008, the financial system ground to a near-dead halt. American taxpayers paid billions of dollars to prevent the financial system from collapsing. Andrews watched it on the news from his home office, with a view of his horses and pasture. When it happened, Andrews just shook his head and was amazed at how much had changed.