Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Following a dream - from Azerbaijan to New York

A crowd of onlookers had gathered around Mischa, and they were gasping. For a street artist, this is, of course, a really good thing. More patrons, more sales. More gasping patrons, many more sales.

Four years earlier, Mischa had moved from Azerbaijan to New York by way of Moscow. He had a scholarship to study here, but it wasn't just education he was seeking. Mischa already had a Master's degree. He'd even been a well-regarded graffiti artist. 

At first, Mischa wanted to learn English. His scholarship paid for school, but when it ended, he needed to find another way to make ends meet. Graffiti doesn't exactly pay the bills, so Mischa considered other ways to create art. One thing led to another, and he discovered an unusual painting technique on Youtube. So, he taught himself the method, and began working the streets. 

Donning a gas mask, Mischa uses an assortment of spray paint, blades, old newspaper, and heavy metal discs to carve skylines into canvas. Deft curves for the Brooklyn bridge, sharp edges for skyscrapers, and a speckled night sky. And if that hadn't been enough to wow those of us gathered around him, Mischa completed each painting in just ten minutes and charged only ten dollars for a freshly minted piece. All this while he took requests from customers, and questions from me. 

"Do you love it?" I asked him, expecting an obvious answer.

"No," he said. "This is not my dream." 

"Then what is?" I said, dumbfounded by this surprisingly unhappy marriage of talent and passion.

"I love to paint," Mischa said. "I love it. I love doing this. But not on the streets. I want to paint somewhere, art, for someone." 

Watch the video above to see Mischa paint the Manhattan skyline. A customer in the crowd had asked him to include the twin towers, and he did just that. For now, before Mischa makes the leap from street artist to artist's loft, find him on 48th and 7th Avenue in Times Square, where he works daily. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Following a dream - from Detroit to Mexico

"Get your fresh donuts here! Pineapple, strawberry, and caramel! Better than Krispy Kreme!"

Until he claimed his donuts were better than Krispy Kreme's, I'd been ignoring him. After all, I was reclining on the secluded Mexican beach town of Sayulita, a half hour or so from Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita is famous for its waves and its assortment of fresh fruit juice drinks, certainly not its donuts. Not quite anyway.

"Best donuts in the world!" the donut seller called out, and I was curious enough to be sold.

"Why are you here?" I asked Santiago the Donut Seller, as he offered me a homemade pastry filled with Mexican caramel and dusted with cane sugar. He had an American accent. Specifically, he had a Midwestern accent, and I was intrigued. Why on earth was a young Midwestern man selling cheap beach donuts in an off-the-beaten path Mexican surf town?

Three years ago, at 23, Santiago moved from Detroit to Mexico City. "I looked around me in Detroit," he explained. "And I realized that all my friends were dead." So, he decided to move to Mexico. At first, he worked in construction in the capital. But things weren't going well, and one day someone suggested to him to try out the small town of Sayulita. He packed up, and headed for surfer's paradise, met a woman, got married, and cooked up their own plan to make ends meet, trying to figure out how they could both work together to fulfill their dreams. One brainstorm led to another, and finally they decided on...donuts.

Skeptically, I sampled his wares. My skepticism didn't last for long. The caramel donut was hot to the touch, fresh from his missus' oven, and the cateja, the Mexican caramel, was buttery and rich. Santiago was right. His donuts were better than Krispy Kreme's, and I pointed this out right away to him.

"Look around you!" he cried gleefully as I munched. "This," he said, pointing incredulously at the beach around us, as if he were seeing it all for the first time, every single day."This is my office!"

Maybe the best part about Santiago's story is that he is so completely in love with his new life that he doesn't even bother to reconnect to the rest of the world. I'd offered to tweet about him, and he shook his head, "I'm not on Twitter." What about email, I asked. "Nope," he said. "But I really gotta get me one of those accounts one day." So, if you or someone you love likes a good donut as much as I do, you'll have to travel to a secluded Mexican surfing town to get it. Look for the donut seller, and listen for his big, bold claim that his donuts are the world's best. He isn't wrong.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Do the Bankers Secretly Agree with the Protesters?

"They have a point." the banker said to me, under his breath, when I asked him what he thought of the protests.

Yesterday, I went back to Wall Street. I wanted to see what the Occupy Wall Street movement was all about. Does it have any teeth, any cohesion? Do the masses have a message? So far, what I'd gleaned from every media report I'd read and watched was that the protesters were dogged in their determination, but that they didn't seem to have a clue what it was they were determined about. So, I set out to see for myself.

I worked as a Wall Street banker for about ten years. I loved it, I hated it, but mostly I took my paychecks and ignored for a long time what I really wanted to do with my life. And so I can tell you one thing about this Occupy Wall Street movement - the government would be doing Wall Street bankers a massive favor by enacting regulation.

Yes, I said regulation would be a favor to the bankers. In fact, I said 'massive favor'. Why? Because in all my years on Wall Street and off Wall Street, I have not met one single banker, not one, who did not harbor a dream to do something else with his or her life. Sure, they get a kick out of what they do. How could they not? They're getting paid a lot of money to play mental sport in an adrenaline-induced environment. Every single day is a challenge; every single day is a battle to be 'winning', to outsmart the opponent.

But that's just the point - these minds, these Wall Street minds, they are brilliant. Just look at the creation of complex derivatives and options pricing models, the debut of black box strategies and macro hedge funds. Every day, all day, bankers are putting to use the very best of this country's mental gunpowder to increase alpha. Which is to say, some of the very best intellect is being wasted on devising ways to make more money.

There's the salesman who wants to work in non-profit, the analyst who wants to teach, the trader who has an uncanny gift for golf, the middle office manager who wants to study fashion design, the director who wants to open his own restaurant, the global sales manager with a stunningly beautiful operatic voice and a gift for dissecting Japanese politics. And what are they doing? They're working in Wall Street banks, making money. Simply having a dream doesn't mean actually living it.

But what is it that the protesters and the government have to do with all this?

Well, Wall Street is actually on their side. Only secretly, and certainly not entirely. The demands to "Eat bankers", "Forgive all debt", and "Sack Goldman" are not constructive, and are rightly viewed with dismissive scorn. But what about calls for accountability, for performance-based pay packages, and for an end to tax loopholes that hedge fund managers agree are excessive even as they take advantage of them? Tap into that, protesters, and you're onto something. You're onto something that your opponent wants too.

A few years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave Wall Street. I didn't do so without doubting myself. But I had a dream, and I wanted to follow it to Mongolia. So that's what I did. But I'd be lying to you if I told you I never looked back. Of course I looked back. After all, it was a pile of money I was leaving behind. And that is precisely the point.