The Financial Crisis Was My Fault

There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the past week or so as the nation assesses the worldwide crisis that trashed financial markets 10 years ago. Over the past decade, many slide rules have been worn to nubs trying to prove who was to blame.

So many candidates. Banking regulators who didn’t stop profit-focused lenders from selling grotesquely risky home loans to deluded households that want bigger pieces of the American dream than they could rationally afford, which were then bought up by greedy Wall Street tycoons who slathered them in snake oil and sold them to easily duped investors. One thing all agree on is that this was absolutely not the fault of the U.S. Congress, which is never to blame for anything that goes wrong.

I realize now it was my fault. On July 14, 2008, I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal program to discuss a forthcoming Federal Reserve Board regulation on mortgage brokers.

Several callers were more interested in the rapid boil in financial markets that in less than two months would poach Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I should have used the opportunity to implore all those regulators, lenders, mortgage borrowers, Wall Street hucksters and innocent investors to come to their senses and stop the madness. But I didn’t.

My bad, America.

Windshield Photography on the Viking Trail

A Hertz Chevy Cruze, sunroof window cracked open, tuned with fresh air pulled through the top of the cabin windows. A cool vacuum over my skull, running its fingers through what’s been long gone. The late afternoon light drawing color and shadow from a soaring, roaring park road on the western edge of Newfoundland.

Madness takes over from the phone. One Step Beyond, it urges.

Okay, I say. Lifting off at the crest.


More from Me and My Monkey

She is already done with me. I climb down the steep steps to the main deck and maneuver along the leeward promenade toward the bow just as we smash into the ice again and make about 10 or 20 yards before we have to back up, rev the engines and ram forward again.

There is a small but hearty band of us forward on the main deck, intent on our progress, pounding away at the ice regardless of how cold the seawater had to get to freeze.

After a couple of cycles of stall-backup-ram ahead, I see us as an American football team with no passing game. We have to rely simple-mindedly on our offensive line and running backs to wear down the ice that separates us from that channel of open water near the iceberg.

At the moment, we are 100 yards away. But we are notching first downs, moving forward in eight-, 19- and 26-yard gulps and all of us on the bow are convinced this is just a matter of time.

I’m standing by a bell when a prize position near the center opens up and I move to the line of scrimmage. We huddle and the quarterback calls the same play every time, fullback dive, sometimes to the left guard, sometimes to the right. We hammer away. And hammer away.

The chains keep moving. I turn to the fellow on my right and ask him, ‘Is it one or two more?’ He says one, but I think it’s two. And sure enough, we get about 12 yards from the goal line when the defense stiffens and stops our forward progress. We huddle again on second down and of course every man and woman among us knows the play by then.

I like to think the captain revved it up a little more, but he probably didn’t. Or that we on the offensive line drove more resolutely into the wilting defense. The ship surges forward, the ice cracking and scattering to the side, plowing toward that clear sea ahead, but losing momentum and then the guards, tackles and tight ends lean into it, our hips thrusting forward, the quarterback helps drive the pile of a dozen or so humans trying to will a multi-ton iceberg ship forward to the promised land, our momentum staggered but not extinguished over those last few feet and then.

We are through. Touchdown. The offensive line turns as one and cheers for the captain. “Ring the bell,” I say, and Lakshmi – I didn’t know she was there – flails away at it and I see Dr. Nashville leaning gleefully over the rail, snapping memories into his camera with abandon.

It is almost anticlimactic, streaming toward the big iceberg in open water, a victory lap after ejaculation, as the rest of the tourists pour up from below to the main deck and the captain throttles down and we drift as close as we can toward the iceberg which is, after all, flipped over and shrunken enough to get out to the open sea. With most of itself hidden underwater.

It looks big out here, but it was bigger before, maybe a year ago when it sheared off the glacier and began its long journey, perhaps to sink a poorly navigated transatlantic vessel. We glide toward her, cameras clicking electronically.

Another bit from Me and My Monkey

“I cannot promise that we’ll get out to the icebergs because the sea is quite frozen,” the tour  guide says. “But we will try.”

It’s not every day that your boat ride might get cancelled because the sea is frozen. I wait until Beehive chooses one of the two vans. Then I get in the other. Not trying to avoid her, just avoid her in public.

The harbor is only a few blocks away, but we tender tourists must be coddled, I suppose. Plus, it is another opportunity for the locals to show off their disdain for snow-packed, narrow lanes, whipping us around blind curves on threadbare tires.

The harbor, coated in snow, countenances no nonsense. People come here to wrench a living from the sea or wait for supplies to come in when the bay isn’t frozen shut. The guide climbs out of the van, leaving us idling diesel fumes into the cold morning, waiting for the iceberg tour-boat to arrive.

After a little while, it appears, smashing what looks like a puny layer of ice in a channel out in the harbor before angling for a nearby berth that looks ominously frozen. The boat gets sort of close to the pier. The crew maneuver a staircase just over the edge, connecting ship to shore and its stream of tourists eager for icebergs.

It is just the littlest bit dicey navigating the stairs at the bow of the tour ship, and the helpful captain grabs elbows as necessary and guides the revenue to somewhat safe and steady footing on the deck, where we follow ourselves below to a cabin that holds a couple three dozen of people. Benches on either side of tables. I find myself across from the Danish family from the airplane: the distant husband who smokes, handsome wife and teenage son.

The tour guide delivers a mandatory safety lecture. I’ve heard hundreds of these on airplanes and still sometimes listen because, well, you never know. But not so many on watercraft.

At one point, the tour guide mentions the unlikely event of an emergency and the presence onboard of immersion suits and how we are to crouch – either before or after taking off our boots, I’m not sure about the order – and stand up, whereby we will be magically in the immersion suit that will prevent us from freezing to death in an arctic sea that is, itself, so frozen that we’re not sure we can get this boat out of the harbor, much less anywhere near the icebergs which are, coincidentally, frozen in place.

I want to ask the tour guide to go back over that bit about the immersion suits because I’m still low on sleep and English is probably her third language but I realize this would be too gauche, like raising your hand during the mandatory safety explanation on an aircraft and asking whether it is really necessary to put the oxygen mask over one’s face before helping others, including infants.

From across the table, Mr. Danish asks the tour guide if smoking is allowed on the ship. The guide says no. Looks a little disgusted that he has asked.

Then the iceberg tour ship backs away from the wharf, out into the harbor, a little over three degrees north of the polar circle. Captain points us to sea and shoves it into Drive and the tour guide says we can go aloft. The congregation rises with near unanimity to clamber topside. I notice on my way, following the herd, that Beehive and Lakshmi and a few other souls are staying behind. Again, the feeling that we have been assembled at a place from which there is no escape, notwithstanding the immersion suits.


July 4, 1968

Speedy makes his first “I Flick Butts” bumper sticker and places it on a 1967 Plymouth Valiant.

At a red light, we pulled alongside a new Plymouth Valiant. A woman about my mother’s age was smoking a cigarette. She blew the smoke out the window. Her Valiant was a two-door coupe in luminescent aquamarine, a boxy trunk with suggestive, miniature fins. The woman didn’t look like a thrower, but you never know.

“Let’s see where this goes,” my father said. When the light changed, he hesitated long enough for the Valiant to pull ahead of us. The driver seemed to be done with her smoke; her right shoulder dipped slightly as though she might have been grinding out the burning end in the ashtray.

As we were slipping in behind her, the cigarette came flying out the window. She appeared to toss it with her right hand, across her body.

She pulled into a shopping center and wheeled toward the supermarket. We followed her, which was beginning to feel a little less creepy, and parked a few spaces away. She gathered up her things and pulled down the visor to check her face before she opened the door and slid outside. She walked around the back of her car and toward the market.

My father slowly pulled out of our parking spot and rolled behind the Plymouth and then stopped. He tore off a length of tape about 16 inches long and stretched it temporarily across the steering wheel, uncapped the marker with his teeth, and inscribed “I FLICK BUTTS” on the tape.

“Slide over and take the wheel,” he told me. “But don’t start driving until I say so.”

He pushed the gearshift into park and got out of the car, closing the door softly behind him. As I pulled myself behind the steering wheel, he ducked below sea level in the parking lot, into the underwater of tires and side panels and grills below the windowed auto world where the top third of motoring humanity is visible. I watched him carefully place and smooth his homemade bumper sticker on the Plymouth.

He stood up and turned to me. “Go ahead. I’ll come around and get in the other side.” He was a little breathless. I wondered who this man was.

June 27, 1968

A man driving a 1963 Rambler Ambassador throws his cigarette onto the road. Speedy runs him down, knowing the butt-flicker is the owner of the newspaper where he works.

After work, Izzy has an important meeting with Juliana.

The maintenance barn was an inheritance from the days when the country club had been somebody’s farm on the edge of town. It was filled with equipment—mowers, tractors, three-wheeled jitneys for getting around—and a small mountain of 70-pound bags of fertilizer sold by the public works department of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and manufactured by the good people of Milwaukee doing what comes natural to them.

I washed up more thoroughly than usual and sauntered down the lane toward the employee parking lot. Juliana was smoking a cigarette in her family’s Fairlane parked under a tree.

She had her waitress uniform on and it was a little tight, which I later found out was by design, and the top two buttons were undone. It was hot, but having been outside all day I was used to it. She ground her cigarette out in the dashboard ashtray, looking at me with a smile in her eyes.

“You were going to throw that out the window, weren’t you?” I said.

“And have the whole goddamn Boy Scouts of America breathing down my neck?” She fired up the Fairlane, and we rolled in a very well-behaved manner out the entrance road of the country club. I studied her thighs beneath the steering wheel.

It was soon clear that we were not going directly home.

June 20, 1968

Riding home with his mother from work, Izzy spots a butt-flick from a 1964 Volkswagon bus. In Thailand, the air force was dropping flowers and popcorn from airplanes to celebrate the adoption of a new national constitution. When they get home, Speedy is excited about a constitutional argument about the legal standing of trees.

My father was excited because a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Minnesotan named William O. Douglas, was there to support the protesters.

“Justice Douglas said that trees and paths and waterways should have the same legal protection that people and corporations have,” my father told us over our hamburgers and salad as the sun began to set. “He said the environment and all its parts should have standing to bring lawsuits in court. It was the damnedest thing I ever heard.”

I was trying to picture trees in a courtroom.

“When I was a kid, we used to go fishing over there and no one gave much thought to the barges on the canal. And then one year, they weren’t there. It was funny to have this big-shot Supreme Court justice and his newsmen and photographers and FBI spies making so much noise about preservation.

“Nobody can bring the barges back,” he said.

Then something came to his mind. “I started to interview this guy who didn’t seem like one of the protesters—his shoes just weren’t right—and he started to tell me why he was there and then stopped. He asked me if I was undercover, which is the most bizarre thing anyone has ever asked me.

“I told him I worked for the paper, and he thought about it for a moment and said he didn’t have anything to tell me.”

June 16, 1968

June 16, 1968, was Father’s Day.

Izzy comes across a woman enjoying a cigarette in the passenger seat of a 1959 Mercury Monterrey. Later, he and his sister visit their uncle at the hospital.
“‘You’ve got untold worlds that empty into thee,’ I said. His eyes flickered with the strain of struggling to command his voice. Then he looked away.”

June 9, 1968

Izzy and Speedy follow a kid in a 1957 Buick LeSabre who is looking for a way out of the draft. They end up at a Quaker meeting.

“In the Army, my father also met a soldier who told him about Dick Mobius, a mythical apostle of Herman Melville who started an anonymous society with no leadership, no secret handshake, no dues, no organization and no mission statement. The sect is held together only by its oral tradition: memorizing passages from the tale of the white whale and spouting them when it seems appropriate.”

Day 1 in AutoFlick chronology

June 7, 1968, is the first day of the AutoFlick story. Izzy and his father see two kids in a 1965 Triumph Spitfire throw cigarette butts into the road. They follow them to a gas station.

While there, a woman driving a 1963 Chevy Malibu comes into the gas station and drops her cigarette on the pavement, crushing it with the toe of her shoe.

“At the time we were riding to our work that June morning, I had no idea that a social science experiment was about to happen to me.”