Phantoms of Florida Street

It’s called the “Paris of South America.” In many ways it reminds me of New York. Sometimes, I think Beirut. Buenos Aires has everything—it’s my favorite city in South America (so far). It’s intense, diverse, and cocky; it has eclectic neighborhoods, a large artistic community, creative and interesting people. There’s an abundance of color. The Palermo neighborhood is like the East Village meets Havana–cafes, restaurants, bars, bright yellows, blues, and turquoises. People seem to smile more.

In Buenos Aires you can walk into any café, sit down, order an empanada off a menu you’re just seeing for the first time and a waiter—who looks as though he’s worked there for 30 years—will bring it to you, and you’ll take a bite and think it’s be the best thing you’ve ever tasted. There are food carts serving up choripan (like chorizo) sandwiches and 18 different kinds of mustard and salsa. Bife de chorizo in large quantities, all-you-can-eat steak restaurants, pastel de papas, vacio sandwiches, chimichurri everything, afternoon mate, malbec; excuse me while I go make a snack.

There is a sense of lawlessness in the city. Anything related to the government is in disarray. The streets are tattered, the streetlights are broken, its infrastructure is crumbling. Police are allegedly corrupt. Outsiders and Argentineans alike talk constantly about the corruption, about police officers colluding with criminals. When you arrive you immediately look at policemen with distrust; you are sure the policeman with a ponytail is crooked. You notice police officers talking with tattooed men on the street outside your hostel. Everything looks shady.

One evening I stumbled out of a nightclub in the downtown area at 2AM with James, a forgettable Australian traveler from my hostel.  We walked toward a line of taxis across the street with a vague notion about another club to head to that night. “Come on, let’s go.”

I approached taxi #1 when the driver looked at me.

“Reserved,” he shouted. He waved us away.

We walked to the next taxi.

“No, it’s reserved,” the driver said.

Third taxi, same result. That’s strange. Who reserves a taxi in Buenos Aires?

“They’re drug dealers, not taxis,” someone said. I looked at him. “You need to catch a taxi over there on that corner.” He pointed.

“Thanks.”

20 feet away on the street corner were two police women. I looked at them in their uniforms and again at the taxi line, which was in their sight. In a paranoid thought process, I imagined a vast corruption scheme involving 90% of the police force, politicians and local mafia.

A few more days in Buenos Aires and I learned the drug-dealing taxi line was not a unique occurrence. Many taxi drivers sold drugs, or maybe it was that many drug dealers drove taxis. What’s the difference anyway? They sold cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana and drove you from point A to B.

This only added to Buenos Aires’ allure.

Due to an economic crisis, prices are low and fluctuate wildly; money feels frivolous. In a country with two exchange rates, rampant inflation and price volatility, money seems less important. Oh, about that. There  are two exchange rates: the official rate, partially pegged by the government, and an unofficial rate, the “blue market” rate, which is much higher. In February 2014, the blue-market rate price for goods was very cheap; at the official rate, they were also cheap.

A steak dinner cost $10, cigarettes $1, the best beef empanadas you’ve ever had, $1. There was inflation. One day your sandwich would cost $20 pesos; the next, $25 pesos. But it didn’t matter. When you’re dealing in these kinds of numbers, when the beer costs $1.50 instead of $1.25, who cares? I offered to pay for things, bought rounds of drinks, didn’t hesitate at any opportunity to go to dinner. I made it rain.

The crisis benefited tourists and destroyed Argentinean household wealth, another in a series of recent economic disasters. In between stuffing my face with $2 choripan and dollar empanadas, I felt vaguely guilty about the situation. Bankers use the word schadenfreude to describe a situation where one takes pleasure in the pain of others. This wasn’t that, but it did give me pause. The worse the economy got, the higher the exchange rate pushed, the further your dollars went, the more fun you could have. I’m digressing here.

Florida Street was where everyone went in Buenos Aires to change U.S. money on the blue market, as they call it. Florida Street is like Canal Street in New York without Chinese people. It’s crowded, touristy, full of knock-off goods and cheap food and street solicitors trying to sell you everything. Every few feet, there is someone shouting “Cambio?” “Cambio! “Cambio!” which is Spanish for “I want to buy your dollars, gringo.”

I walked down Florida Street for the first time with $200 in my pocket on a sunny afternoon. I needed to buy pesos to pay my hostel. I  was nervous, wearing sunglasses that shielded my hesitant eyes. I’d spoken with friends and people at the hostel about the blue-market exchange process. Everyone assured me it was nothing to worry about. “Everyone goes there,” someone said. “If you don’t change money on the blue market you’re a fucking idiot,” a Brit at the hostel said. “It’s no big deal.” Still, the back rooms, the unclear legality, the shady currency traders made me feel uneasy.

“Shalom, Cambio!” one man shouted at me. Another standing next to him did the same, “Shalom!” A lot of Israelis visit Argentina. I smiled and moved through the crowded street.

“Cambio!” another faceless man shouted. He locked eyes with me. “Where juu from?”

For some reason, I slowed. “Estados Unidos.”

“How much you want to change?”

“$60.”

“Small amount. $100 bills I can give a good rate.”

The traders preferred $100 bills because they stack easier in duffle bags and safety deposit boxes. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to offer $100 because I was afraid–mostly of receiving counterfeit money on my first try, but also afraid of getting robbed or kidnapped.

“I only want to change $60. How much for that?”

The man took out a small calculator.

“11.50,” he said, showing me the digital display.

(The official rate was something like 7.2 that morning.)

11.50 was about the average rate I’d heard all morning walking along Florida Street. Moreover, the guy seemed harmless. You didn’t get a bad vibe from him.

“OK,” I said.

“Follow me. We have to walk one block.”

I followed the man off of the main street. We took a right onto a small side street and continued for another block.

“The rate is very high now.”

“Yes. Everyday it changes. Last week it crashed 40%,” he said and smiled. “We never know what will happen. That’s why we want your dollars.”

“Crazy.” My heart rate quickened as we continued walking for what felt like a long time.

I’d decided in Chile that small talk was a way to humanize myself in precarious situations. It was a way to make the guy think twice before kidnapping me, or so I figured. I did the same thing with taxi drivers, drumming up small talk, especially late at night, so that I did not seem as some faceless gringo the driver could rip off. It rarely seemed to work.

“Here, this way,” the man said, pointing to a passageway, which lead to an indoor mall. The metal gate at the entrance was halfway closed. We crawled under and walked inside and went into a small shop where another man stood behind a cash register.

The store looked like any other office I’ve been to. It resembled a travel agency or a waiting area at a dentist’s office. However, there were no products for sale; the shelves were bare. A radio played Top-40 music in the background. I stared at a man behind the cash register who was writing on a small notepad.

We walked up to the counter; “$60″ my new street friend explained. The cashier was expressionless as he took out bills from the register and counted them and laid them out on the counter. I handed him three $20 bills. I took the Argentine notes in my hands and, one by one, held each one up to the light and examined them, not sure what exactly I was looking for but feigning seriousness. The solicitor rested his elbow on the counter looking at his phone; the cashier continued writing. I maintained the same “serious” face I make in restaurants when a waiter presents me with a bottle of wine. The bills looked like the other money I’d handled; each one had a continuous strip and holographic face that appeared when you held it against light, similar to U.S. money. They seemed legitimate.

“OK. Thanks,” I said and folded the money and put it in my pocket. I smiled and thanked the men. They thanked me back. I walked out, unharmed, and put my sunglasses back on.

15 minutes later I followed a different street solicitor to a different side street, this time into store that sold baby clothing (of all things) and exchanged another $100 at a rate of 11.60/USD.

On my way back to the hostel, out of curiosity, I walked by the corner where I negotiated with the first man. He wasn’t there. A brief moment of panic, and then a test, I bought a soda with one of my new $100 peso notes. The money worked. They aren’t fakes I guess.

I went to Florida Street two more times that week, exchanging money in small increments. I never received a single counterfeit note; no one tried to rob me. It was just business. I found that I actually liked the process. The chaos, the negotiating, the preference for $100 bills, duffle bags full of cash, being part of an operation I’d read about in the news, the resemblance to the trading floor in New York, the people shouting, and haggling, the price volatility, the corruption, all of it, in a strange way, fueled my excitement and love for Buenos Aires. It was the same feeling one gets at craps tables in Las Vegas.

Each time I went back I’d look for the guys I’d exchanged with previously. I’d walk up and down the street looking for people I knew I could trust, but they could never be found. They were ghost-like, faceless figures, appearing in flashes, collecting U.S. dollars, and then disappearing. I was disappointed each time I couldn’t find my guy and had to find someone new. I didn’t like having to start a new vetting process, putting myself at risk each time.

Long-term travelers in Buenos Aires form relationships with blue-market dealers, or commonly trade with each other. They exchange phone numbers and send a text message anytime they want to make a trade. I told myself I’d do that next time. I tried to imagine what it’d be like to live there.


The blue market became popular in 2011 when the Argentine government imposed restrictions on its citizens from buying dollars. The aim of the measures was to slow the flood of wealth and foreign reserves leaving the country. Earlier the year the government lifted some of these restrictions, and banks are now authorized to sell small amounts of dollars. Over the past month, the spread between the blue market and official rate has tightened, and is now around 10.2 versus 8. When I visited it was around 11.5 versus 7. For further reading on Argentina’s economy, check out this article from The Economist. 

Conversation about Job Stuff

-“I need to create something,” he said. “I can’t continue doing a job where all I create are pitch books and loans.”

-“Why do you care?”

Why do I care? What does that mean?

-“Why do I care?”

-“Why do you care?”

-“Well, what am I here for? If it’s just to work in a bank so I can have nice vacations then I’d rather not be here.”

-“You mean that? Look around you. In the whole history of the world, it’s been about survival. Don’t be fooled to think that that’s changed today. Everybody out there is fighting to get what you already have. What are you going to do instead?”

-“Something, man. I don’t know.”

-”Let me explain something. My cousins in India make $500 a month. That’s about what I made per day last year. I know what the alternative is and I don’t like it. I know what it means to be where we are sitting. I think you’ve just lost sight.”

-”Actually I think everything is just now coming into focus. We don’t live in India. This is the United States. You really think that we all need to be so concerned about making money? I could do just fine with half the money I make. Shit, one third.”

-“Absolutely I do. Without question. Would you rather be rich or poor?”

-“That’s not what I’m saying. No one wants to be poor. Everyone needs a little money to live. Don’t you think there are other ways to get money? Do you really think we need to sacrifice everything for this career? So we can be top earners?”

-“What is it? You going to write music? You want to be one of these fucking waiters working here on the side? Act? Paint? Growing up outside of this country I can tell you that is not what the United States is about. There is no honor in that,” he took a sip of his drink and coughed. “What is it you want to do? Write about your feelings? You want to be Michael Lewis? Greg Fucking Smith? That’s it isn’t it. You want to publish those journals. Is that really what the world needs? Another ex-finance guy trying to get a book deal? Be realistic.”

-“Forget it.”

The waitress was standing 10 feet away. He moved his eyes up to her. “Could I have another?” Pointed to his margarita.

 

The Real World

“We don’t live in the real world,” a girl I’ve been dating recently told me. We were lying in bed on Wednesday morning at 10AM. I only had one class that day at 1 o’clock and as I got up to reach for my phone, her comment lingered in my head. I had heard this before, but all of a sudden I was offended. Technically, I had work that day just like everyone else. I still had to pay rent and worry about my bills and my student loans. Why didn’t my life live up to “real world” standards?

I suppose she was pointing out that it was 10AM on a Wednesday and we were still in bed and neither of us was at a desk job. And I suppose she was referring to my idea of work that day which was only one 90-minute class. And I suppose she was pointing out that “work” consists of teaching, which is essentially listening to my students speak about their problems or other topical things and correcting their grammar. I suppose all of these things combined, and the fact that I left a career job and that I live in Santiago, Chile, 5,000 miles from where I grew up make what I’m doing seem like it’s not “real” that I’m not living in the real world. I suppose.

The real world is synonymous with adulthood and taking responsibility for your bills and going out into the workforce and having the courage to live independently, out from the care of anyone else. Graduating from college and suddenly having to pay rent and student loans is like getting ice cold Gatorade dumped all over you. It’s a very real, expensive world out there. Finding a way to pay for the things you want is not easy.

Remember being a kid? Remember what that was like? Mom making you dinner, taking you to McDonald’s, asking dad for money when the slush truck rang outside your house, not having a care in the world about bills or any sense of responsibility? Sure, someone told you what to do all the time, and there were rules, but it was nice not having to do any of the work and sitting back waiting for your meals to be cooked. I used to spend summers playing baseball. My family would pile into the car on Saturday morning and we’d drive all over Massachusetts and I’d play a game or sometimes two and then I’d come home and mom and dad would buy pizza and buy some Coke and I’d sit in the pool and push myself around on a tube until after the sun went down when dad would turn on the pool light illuminating the water beneath me. And I remember just floating around there, not thinking about a whole lot, except my next game. Life was simple.

And do you remember as you got older how people started warning you about the real world that was going to crashing down on your parade? For me I had been hearing about it my whole life. I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, where adulthood equates to suffering. People would talk about business being bad, getting laid off from a construction job, having a tough time getting by, making life seem brutally difficult. My friends and family worked real jobs like running restaurants, working construction, bartending, and manufacturing. I had a great aunt who would take your simple “how are you?” small talk question at Christmas as an opportunity to tell you about her throat cancer and her granddaughter who’s getting divorced and about how she doesn’t have enough money to pay her medical bills. And I’d stand there at 9 years old sipping on eggnog listening to her, wondering if that’s what it’d be like for me. “Just wait till you start workin’,” she’d say.

When I was 18 and home the summer after my freshman year I agreed to take a job managing my parents’ café. It was a miserable job. I’d wake up at 6AM and pick up bread and bagels and open the place and run the cash register and clean up at 2PM after lunch. My first week, weary-eyed I pulled up to the Portuguese bakery off President Avenue and hopped out of my car and walked in to start carrying out the bags of bread, which were piping hot and already waiting for me on the counter. I was wearing a t-shirt and as I was running back and forth to the car I was thinking that surely it would be over 90 that day, perfect for the beach, and I thought about how I’d rather be doing that. Maria, the owner of the bakery, came out from the back and said hello and just as I was putting the last bag in the car, she noticed how tired I looked, that my eyes were barely open and she grinned and said, “Welcome to the real world.” She was standing in the doorway wearing an apron covered in flour, hair up and frazzled, grinning and looking tired herself. It was exactly like the John Mayer song, which in that instant made sense to me. I was miserable being awake at that hour and I shared her pain, and as I drove over to the café that morning I started worrying that this was what was in store for me; the party was over as far as I was concerned.

My father took note on days when I looked tired and bored because I never much took an interest in their business, and he’d say “It’s boring, huh. Doing this everyday,” and I’d just nod my head. And when I started working full-time in finance and I’d complain to people about waking up every day and doing the same thing over and over they’d simply say, “Sucks, doesn’t it?” and the words never sat well with me. As adults we envy the free-spirited, carefree lives children lead, not having to deal with real problems and real responsibilities. For me it was almost like everyone was just waiting for that day when I crossed over into adulthood so I could join them in misery and they could all smile and welcome me with an apron or a business suit or whatever it is I’d be wearing every day for the rest of my life. I pictured a party or a ceremony at the local banquet hall. My family would all be there and they’d be wearing their work clothes and they’d present me with gifts like a tie clip or maybe some business cards and congratulate me on joining them in the adult world. There’d be a cake, maybe some music, and we’d spend the afternoon talking about how we hate our jobs and I’d join them with some story about how I got laid off and about how I’m not sure how I’ll pay the bill for my kid’s tuition.

Of course, it’s not this way for everyone. You hear countless actors and musicians describe what they do as a dream, that it isn’t real, that they “can’t believe they get paid to do what they love.” Their life is a fantasy. Surely, if they’re having that much fun, it can’t be real. When they go to work in the morning they don’t say to their families “well, time to punch the clock,”…or ”hit the pavement,”…or “back to the grind,” or what I used to say to my roommate, “time to suck today’s dick.” Artists and musicians look forward to work, I think.

People sometimes can’t comprehend what I did leaving a job in finance to teach. Leaving New York for Santiago. I live in a different world 5,000 miles away now, and I’m trying out a new profession, but it’s real, sort of. I acknowledge, my schedule is unusual. I have large blocks of free time and sometimes I don’t work Fridays or go five days without working at all. Sometimes my work doesn’t really feel like work at all. But none of these things make it fantasy and not real. The only realness for me is that the job is temporary, that I don’t want to be a teacher for the rest of my life. That, and the fact that I don’t make as much money these days. Not the easy schedule, not the fact that I like the work, not the fact that I don’t find it as soul-sucking as finance, not the fact that I have energy when I finish a day, not the fact that I’m following a dream to live in South America—none of that makes me think what I’m doing isn’t real.

People who act or write music or play sports for a living or do something that they dreamed about doing are lucky. They do all the things we do, pay bills, support their kids, serve as parents, but because their job is so enjoyable and because they do what they want, we say they don’t live in the real world. Maybe they got lucky, maybe they caught a big break or maybe they just worked really hard to get where they are to make sure they never had to do a 9-5 at a job they hated. Whatever the reason, they made it through and they are the ones we, I, admire. What I admire is that their world is every bit real and that they created it that way.

Bob Dylan said “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” With no disrespect to Mr. Dylan, he’s only half right. A man is only truly successful if he does what he wants and finds a way to pay for it. Many people in America have jobs to pay for their lives and they live in big houses and they’re responsible, but their function, what they do every day, isn’t remotely what they want to be doing. They’re stuck in the real world. Contrarily there are more fortunate people with money, who live off their parents, or inherited wealth from some place. They get to do exactly what they want, but someone else pays. And then there’s the third kind of person who follows a dream, who struggles to pay their bills, but finds a way slowly over time. They don’t let personal finance discourage them while keeping at some goal. They find a way to flip the real world on its head and not be a product of it. They acknowledge real world problems and pressures, while still doing what they want.

The “real world” is only real if you let it be real and if you let it control you and dictate your actions and the job you have. By this definition, I suppose, I don’t live in that world. I escaped the real world, for now. I just hope I can stay there.

Something’s Come Up

Growing up, I did well in school. I got all A’s. In fact I don’t think I ever got a B, except for once in art class in elementary school. I was the valedictorian of my high school class. I played sports, baseball all the way up to varsity level. I was in the Spanish club. I was captain of the math team. I was in the honors society. I was class treasurer. I edited the high school newspaper. I got into a prestigious business school and did well there. I got a job right after graduation and started making six figures at 23. I lived in New York City. I rented a beautiful apartment in the East Village. My parents were always proud of me. I had done everything by the book and it had yielded some success. It was always my dream to be a responsible adult and make a lot of money. And then my dream started to come true, and I saw a way towards doing just that. From the outside it appeared that everything had gone according to plan. I had worked hard and everyone was so proud of me. My mother especially loved that I had gone off to New York, and she loved coming to visit and seeing what I was up to. “What a life you’ve got,” she’d say. And it was all very well and good. I only had one problem: I was miserable.

I didn’t become miserable over night. It happened slowly over time, as I kept on barreling down a path that everyone kept on telling me was good, and one that I stayed on because I listened only to what others told me. No matter what I did my family loved it. I’d come home at Christmas and my family would ask me what I was doing, and they’d all be so proud of me for working at a big bank and making a lot of money and traveling around the country to do deals. And every year as I got deeper into it, I started to think that maybe this was actually it for me. You could look at it in one way that the job I had was the product of my entire life’s work. Graduating at the top of my class in high school got me into the great business school, which got me the job that made me a lot of money.

I had inklings in college that maybe I should look at another career. When I’d fall asleep in the back of my corporate finance class. When I did much better in my liberal arts classes. When I realized there were so many people in the business program whom I didn’t like and didn’t want to be around. When going to networking events and interviewing got to be painful. I called my mother in the fall of 2006 to tell her all of this. I said I wasn’t doing well in accounting and I hated the class and that I didn’t find it stimulating. And she responded, “Well, how could anyone like that stuff?” And I started to think that in order to make real money, I’d have to sacrifice liking my job. And if I was going to such an expensive school, and I didn’t want to change that, then how could I possibly explore a career that didn’t bring in big money. And I kept finding ways to justify this life. If I’m going to do a job, I might as well do the thing that pays me the most money. Right? I mean a job’s just a job. Why not do something that pays you the most?

The economy collapsed in 2008 and the firm I interned for went bankrupt, but still I kept going forward. By then I was a junior in college, and it was too late to change anything, surely. Since there weren’t many jobs at graduation, I didn’t have many options. I started working in Westchester at a failing bond insurance company. I commuted one hour from New York City every day. And I worked there for about a year, and it didn’t crush me the way a banking job would, but it was a slow death. Mostly I found the work boring. And after a year, I hated it. I got to go home at 5 every day, and we had summer Fridays, and I worked less than my friends, but I decided that I needed to get out. The money was good, but that was another problem. It wasn’t accumulating fast enough. As I explained to my mother, “I’ll make $100,000 here next year, but it’ll stay that way for a while. I’m not going to get rich doing this.”

When I started looking for a new job, I considered money mostly and I thought of only one place to go, an investment bank. And so, I got a job at an investment bank in midtown Manhattan. It was the opposite of my first job. It was intense and I worked double the hours and made double the money. It slowly consumed my life, and I got caught up in it for a while. My parents would ask how I liked it, and I would tell them it was better because “I was facing clients. Doing deals for them. And I was eligible for the bonus pool.” They were happy because I seemed happy and because it seemed like I was doing something really important even though they didn’t quite understand what I was doing, and neither did I sometimes.

Still I had these feelings that maybe it wasn’t quite right. Slowly I started suffering from the stress, little twitches here and there, more talking to myself. I was working all the time. I was less happy every holiday I went home. I looked at others around me who had worked in the business for 20 years and I saw how unhappy some of them were and I felt like I didn’t want to be like them. And I thought to myself, well, this isn’t good. Because it wasn’t supposed to feel like that; it was supposed to be a happier place. I had worked so hard to get there. I had climbed the mountain and I was getting closer and closer to the top, and now I wanted to change it? Change scared me because when I started to think about it, I had no idea what I would do instead. I was already doing what I had “set out to do.” There were only a few other jobs that would pay me more money, and it would be hard for me to get those jobs, and further I wasn’t sure I wanted one of them. I started to realize that the money wasn’t going to make me happy. I could try another bank, but by the time I settled in over there, I’d be that much closer to 30, and there’s a chance I might be stuck in this world. But if I wasn’t going to work on Wall Street, what else was I going to do?

This question ate away at me for almost two years. I did everything I could to put my fast track plan in full reverse. It was as if I were on lookout for the Titanic and spotted the iceberg and called out and tried to turn my ship as soon as possible and put it in full reverse, but couldn’t quiet get it done fast enough. I obsessed over it, and it paralyzed me for a while.

When I finally found something I thought maybe I could try, teaching English, in Chile, I took another six months to go through with it. Even after I accepted the job to come down I kept interviewing at other “real” jobs as I called them. I spoke with consulting companies, startups and other finance jobs. I kept hoping that one of them would feel OK, but none of them did. I hoped that they would work out because that change would be easier to deal with. Even though I felt the jobs maybe weren’t for me, I wanted to go through with them. I wanted a job offer so I could feel confident and proud and keep achieving conventional things that my parents could be proud of. I didn’t want to have to deal with quitting my job to teach English, because that was basically an admission that everything I had worked for would need to be put on pause, that basically I would be starting over. And it was terrifying to think about that. Even at a young age, I was stuck in my ways. I was already solidified.

Three months after I agreed to come to Chile, and after delaying my start date several times, I decided to quit investment banking. I gave my notice on a Friday in June, and it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I waited until after lunch to talk to my boss, nervousness pouring over me. As the words came out of my mouth and I told her about my plan, and she just looked at me, I didn’t feel any better. She told me about how she ran off to Africa once, but that was for two months “just before business school,” implying that I was crazy to run off without a plan for reentry. And I just said it was how I felt in my gut that I needed to do this, and she said “well, you have to listen to your gut.” I told another senior colleague that day, and since he liked me, he wasn’t happy and he was shocked at the words coming out of my mouth. “Something’s come up,” I said. “I’m leaving the business. I’m moving to Chile.” And then after that I had to call my mother and tell her the same thing because I hadn’t told my parents yet. It was all very tiring.

I went home to my girlfriend that night, exhausted. I didn’t have any plans and she could tell I was a little distraught so she let me tag along to dinner with her friend, and I just sat there the whole night, completely drained and feeling on edge. The feeling only got worse the next week when I had to start telling other people at my bank and other friends. “Something’s come up,” I’d say. And then an email went around the bank and my phone rang continuously over the next few days as it become public. And over and over I had to explain myself. People were supportive mostly, except for one guy who pointed out my poor timing, leaving mid-way through the fiscal year. But still I felt uneasy about the whole thing. I didn’t sleep much for a couple weeks and it was only after everyone knew and I got taken off some projects at work that I started to look forward and feel better.

The prospect of change was so terrifying for me that it almost prevented me from going through with it. The act of going forward with the change drained me emotionally and physically. I had been programmed my whole life to follow convention: work hard, get into college, get a job, stay at said job, get promoted. Stay the course. Quitting wasn’t in my vocabulary, and then all of a sudden it was. It was the first time in my life that I had made a major decision based off a gut feeling that wasn’t dictated by money or wasn’t conventional or wasn’t what my parents would have chosen for me. It was so far out there, and so frightening, and I wasn’t sure how anyone was going to react.

And so it was surprising that my mother was proud when I told her the news. “That’s awesome. It takes guts to do that,” she said over the phone. It was also surprising that many of my coworkers appeared envious that I was leaving for a new adventure. One senior banker even admitted he had been thinking a lot about his own life, and wondering if he should be doing something else. Suddenly, my change which seemed so out there, actually wasn’t that crazy at all, was actually something that others had considered.

I learned the change that I feared for so long didn’t have to be such a big deal. Ultimately I went through with my decision because I felt like I had nothing to lose. If I didn’t like Chile, I could come right back to where I was, and it could just be like I took a three month vacation. I realize now I didn’t have to be so afraid. I didn’t have to delay it for so long. When I felt those feelings in college, I should have listened to them. I learned the hard way that you can’t ignore feelings like that and just sweep them under the rug. They eat away at you, slowly, and over time, you have to deal with it, one way or another. When you consider the consequences of not facing a change, change becomes the easy thing to do. If you don’t love something, quit. It’s just that easy.

Bottle of Red, Bottle of White

In Santiago, waiters rarely smile or greet you when you walk into a restaurant. I find myself missing the forced hospitality you see in American establishments. “Hi, Welcome to Chile’s. I’m Jennifer and I’ll be your server!” “Would you like to hear the specials?” “We have blackened sea bass today!” I actually like when waiters walk me through the specials—when they force themselves to smile to the point that it’s uncomfortable for both of us. I almost always ask a question about the menu, even if I already know what I’m going to get. I think it comes from my indecisiveness and my constant urge to be difficult. “What does the roasted chicken come with?” I might say. Then I might ask an unrelated question, like “What do you recommend: the lamb shank or the veal?” Their response won’t faze me unless they drop a hint that my first choice isn’t very good. It’s not that I don’t respect waiters, it’s just that I like things to be perfect. More importantly I want to be treated well when I go out to eat. I buy into the restaurant system in the United States, and I respect the game to try to get you to spend as much as possible. I’m willing to play along. Talk me into the roast duck special; sell me on that filet mignon. Late harvest wine you say? Convince me I should spend extra on it, and I will.

In 2007 during college, I waited tables at a French bistro in Greenwich Village, Manhattan for about six months. I was quite possibly the worst waiter to ever set foot there. The only reason I didn’t get fired was because I was nice to the owner, a 50-something single Jewish woman, and I think she felt bad for me. On my first day, my first table ordered a $60 bottle of Syrah, which was on special that night. It was then that I realized that at age 19 I didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine, not for myself and certainly not in public for a nice couple from Manhattan. I asked the hostess to do it for me.

“You don’t know how to open a bottle of wine?” She looked at me with this awful condescending stare.

“No. I mean I can try, but can you do this one?”

Amazingly I didn’t get fired after that, and they let me come back for another shift. I went to Trader Joe’s and bought a few bottles to practice on. I broke two out of three corks. I also studied the restaurant menu to try to get a handle on the 75 different kinds of wine we had, but I never got very far. If someone asked me a question about anything related to the wine list, I got this look on my face like I was trying to do a discounted cash flow analysis in my head. “What do you recommend that would pair well with the venison?” “I’d like something oaky and not too buttery,” they would ask. I never had a clue. I’d run over to another waiter or the bartender and ask them. My first few weeks I’d pray that my tables never asked about or ordered a bottle of wine. If they did, I’d hope they knew what they wanted, and that it was one of the screw-top whites we had. Eventually, I got the hang of it, but not before breaking two or three corks, and struggling with a few other presentations. Each time it would happen I’d excuse myself from the table and rush to the bar for backup. The bartender would roll his eyes at me as he fixed my mess, and delicately retrieved the pieces of cork remaining. Dumbass, he would say under his breath.

The process of ordering wine has always made me somewhat uncomfortable, both as a waiter and as a customer. It’s just so formal, so unusual, the pomp and circumstance clashing with modern America.

First, a waiter will come by and drop the glasses; in a nice restaurant these are placed strategically, somewhere near the dinner knife, I think. Then they’ll come around to present the bottle. As a waiter, you have to remember who ordered it, which sounds easy, but I’ve actually forgotten a few times. Some of my customers would put on their reading glasses as they examined the bottle and seem to read every word on the front of the label, forcing me to stand there and wait. Whenever I’m on the other end, I always pretend to inspect the bottle, but usually I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Most of the time I don’t remember the brand of the wine I ordered, just the type, and so I’ll sit there simply looking for the word “Merlot” or “Pinot Grigio” before nodding my head. I suppose my customers at the French bistro could have been doing the same thing.

Opening the bottle is awkward and intrusive, as it’s an unusual amount of time to spend standing next to complete strangers. Do I keep talking to my date, or is that rude for the waiter to have to listen to where she’s from? I mean the guy is standing right there and can hear everything we’re saying. As a customer, usually I stop talking, and reluctantly watch as he screws off the top and pours me a shot so I can test it. I always swirl the wine, because that’s what everyone else does. Then I smell it, because that seems like the right thing to do, and I take a sip. And every single time in my life I then look the waiter in the eye and say “It’s good.” I’ve never once sent a bottle back, nor do I think I ever will. Restaurants don’t know this, but the bottle would have to be filled with gasoline, and the waiter would have to light a match and tell me to go fuck myself before I sent it back. You can imagine how this translated into my serving skills at the bistro.

As a waiter in New York I always tried to be friendly. I smiled often, and apologized when I messed up orders. I was less than graceful, but the point was that I tried. This goes for most waiters at most establishments in the U.S. Customer service is a priority.

Don’t expect any of this in Chile. Waiters never introduce themselves; mostly they are stone faced, and appear annoyed that you are bothering them. It’s as though you’ve wandered over to their house on their day off, and asked them to work. “Hey, could you bring me some wine? I’d like churassco please. More pebre would be nice,” simple requests that suddenly make you feel guilty as though you’re being rude. It’s not the mentality here to get you to spend as much as you can in a restaurant. Waiters are the opposite of pushy. Sometimes you have to beg for menus, asking two or three times before it registers that you require them to place an order. If you want a refill, you’re best bet is to use the bathroom and flag them down on the way. Either way, dinner in a Chilean restaurant typically goes something like this:

You walk in and there’s a hostess standing there who looks at you confusedly, looking like she’s surprised that you’ve come to a restaurant for food. 10 minutes after you take your seat someone may bring you a menu, or they may not. Eventually the waiter will walk over. He’ll offer no smile, no hello, and simply say “Di-me,” “Tell me what you want.” 15 minutes later someone will drop off a drink or two, often around the same time your food comes. You’re splitting a chorrillana and as you dive deeper into the layers of French fries, fried eggs and steak, you think your heart just may stop due to a blockage. You’d love some ketchup but no one’s come over since they ran off after dropping your plates. After you finish the meal, you wait. Your server is nowhere in sight, and by then has probably gone home due to the shift change. Finally, a bus boy comes by to gather your half-eaten beef and egg mess. You ask him for the bill, “the cuenta, por favor?” He nods his head. Five minutes go by, no check, nothing. You get up to use the bathroom again, and ask another person for “la cuenta.” They nod their head. You come back from the bathroom, and still no check. So, you walk up to the register to pay. They take your money, emotionless, no apology. You wonder if you did something wrong—maybe you’re supposed to pay at the register there? But just then you see your waiter dropping a check on someone else’s table as you walk out.

A few weeks ago, I lost my jacket in a club in Vitacura, a posh neighborhood in Eastern Santiago. I had placed it down in a booth along with my roommate’s and wandered off to another room. When I came back 30 minutes later, the room was closed and both coats were gone. I asked the nearest man holding a broom if he had seen them. “Jackets? No, no hay aqui,” he said, shaking his head, and then putting his head down to return to his duties. I asked the bartender, who had a similar response, then another employee who was in the room, and then another, all of them denying any sight of the coats. Finally, one of told me to follow him upstairs to the office. “Wait” he said as he went inside, only to return a minute later shaking his head “No hay.” I was sure no one stole the jackets and that they were there, somewhere. I persisted, which after several drinks and growing anger with an unresponsive staff, meant I started using the F word a lot. I walked up to coat check to continue my investigation.

“Hola, una pregunta. Mi chaqueta estaba alli. Posible que una persona tomo aqui?” I asked the girl. She squinted as she listened to me, trying to understand my broken Spanish. When I finished butchering her language, she simply shook her head, just like the others, no expression, no apologies. It bothered me that she didn’t even turn around to look. I stormed back into the room where I began my search. This time I asked a different person. When he too denied seeing my jacket, kind of giving me this look like “Why would you bring a jacket here?” I went into a tirade. “What is wrong with you fucking people?” I yelled. They just looked at me. I threw my glass in the trashcan and walked out to find my roommate, feeling defeated.

“Any luck?” I asked him. He had been on the trail too and explained to another manager our situation. This man had also promised to search in the back for us in the same office I had been to earlier. We waited, and 15 minutes later, he emerged from the door, with both of our jackets in hand. They were there the whole time.

Sometimes I wonder if they’re messing with me on purpose, because I’m a foreigner. But really I think service professionals in Chile have a distinct idea of what their job is, and you cannot expect them to go beyond that. Waiters earn 10% tips, instead of 20. I’m not sure busboys get anything. Why should they care more? Sweeping floors has nothing to do with finding jackets, so why should they help you? My lack of Spanish certainly doesn’t help, as language interpretation is not in their job description either. Last week, a hostess tried to deny me a table at a trendy restaurant in the Barrio Italia neighborhood. “Sorry, we’re full tonight. You need to make a reservation,” she said in a way that reminded me of New York. My gringo instincts told me not to listen to her. I walked to the patio area in the back of the restaurant where they had beautiful sculptures and art exhibits on display. As we were marveling at the structures, it occurred to us that there were plenty of tables. I asked the bartender if we could take a seat for drinks. “Of course,” he said waving his hand out welcomingly, showing us that we could sit anywhere we like. I glared at the hostess as we took our seats, who looked back at me then disappeared to the front.

I’ve of course had some notorious run-ins in the U.S. There was the time I went to my first ever restaurant that did not serve regular Heinz ketchup, instead only offering their homemade variety. The idea of making your own ketchup dumbfounded me at the time. “What do you mean you don’t serve Heinz?”

Anna, my girlfriend in New York hated the situations I’d get into with waitstaff. “Branden!” she’d say after I’d make a comment or ask too many questions. In the summer of 2012 she took me to a Peruvian restaurant in Murray Hill. It was a Friday night after a long week at work, and I was in one of those moods where I was questioning the very point of my existence. When we walked in, I immediately noticed the place looked kind of dingy; I was sure I’d get food poisoning. They gave us one of the last open tables, and the place was hot, crowded and noisy. Immediately, a man dropped some menus down and then hurried off. A minute later someone else came by asking us what we wanted to drink. We quickly decided a pitcher of sangria would do the trick. When that was delivered, they came by asking for our food order, a different waiter than the last. I sent him away, and then another came by to follow up. It was all happening so fast. “We just want to enjoy our drinks first, thanks,” I said. But they kept coming, an army of them, one after another, asking what we wanted to eat. We finally ordered a ceviche appetizer from one of them, hoping to be left in peace but it continued. It was about the tenth time they had asked, and I went off.

“You know, what is the deal with this restaurant?” I said to the unlucky number 10 waiter. “Are all of you going to keep asking me if I want to order? I told three of you already to leave me alone. I just want to have my drink for now. What is so hard about that?”

“I’m sorry sir. It’s how we work here. We have a system where we all work together.”

“Well your system sucks.”

I’m not sure if this angered my girlfriend or the waitstaff more. She looked at me furiously as I argued with the guy. “You are so tense,” she said. “What is your problem? Why do you have to treat people like that?”

“This place is out of line,” I said. “If I don’t speak up this could go on for years. Someone needs to tell them this is stupid,” I said. She just stared at me, furious.

The restaurant got the message and completely ignored us from then on. When I was finally ready to order, they were nowhere to be seen, which pissed me off even more. I got up and demanded the bill and told them we didn’t need any entrees. My girlfriend didn’t speak to me the rest of the night.

I have to think Anna would love dining with me in Chile. Without good language skills, my indecisiveness and ability to be difficult is constrained. It’s as though here, we could act like an elderly couple and she could keep my dentures in her purse whenever we go out into public, cutting my ability to speak. I comply with the rapid fire ordering system and don’t ask as many questions here, and make quick ordering decisions, simply saying “I’d like the chicken,” without any interrogation. I learned the hard way that “champignon” is the word for mushroom, so sometimes I’ll say “No mushrooms,” but that’s about the extent of menu modifications. This is how it will be from now on, at least until I learn more Spanish.

On Teaching

Students in Chile are often late or don’t show up at all to scheduled classes, my program warned us in training. “Bring a book. You’ll spend a lot of time waiting for students,” John, the head administrator, advised, grinning through a thick Australian accent. He elaborated to tell us about one student who would consistently show up an hour late for his 90-minute class. John would wait the full hour until the student showed up and then do an abbreviated version of his planned lesson every day. Or there was his other student who showed up every morning at 8AM on time for their scheduled class, only to say hello and then close the door to his office for a half hour while he completed the assigned homework, leaving John to wait in the hallway. Or the many students who would plead with him to add on extra time at the end because they were late to a class. In total, John spoke to us for about five hours during training, and of those five hours he probably spent two hours telling us war stories about his past students who showed up late, blew off his classes completely, or complained about their grades. He used seven words when three have been fine, and elaborated in rambling speeches that exceeded my attention span. Many days I’d zone out early into his discourses, assuming they were about vegemite or crocodiles, or other non-important Australian things. It was my first experience teaching, and he made it sound depressing. He made Chileans sound subhuman and disrespectful. I guessed it was his way of preparing us and weeding people out.

John was about 60 years old and looked like someone who might work part-time as Santa Clause in the mall around the holidays. He was overweight, but not fat. He was almost completely bald on the top of his head, with white stringy hair on the sides that he delicately positioned into a half-hearted comb over. He wore cheap wire frame glasses that looked like a purchase from the local drug store, which he would push down his nose and peer over whenever he tried to read something, putting the sheet of paper right up to his face and leaning his head directly into it, as if trying to absorb the information telepathically. He wore a different shirt and tie with a sweater on top every day, the outer layer acting to hold his round shape together. His black Levis corduroys remained unchanged during the program, and frequently tended to slide down his rear whenever he wrote on the board. He smiled often but wasn’t warm or friendly. He chuckled but was by no means jolly. There appeared to be a disconnect between the negative words coming out of his mouth and his jovial appearance (I had sensed this earlier while emailing with him and noticing that he frequently used exclamation points in his writing, even when he didn’t appear to be making a joke or expressing excitement. I shrugged it off as an Australian thing at the time.) He had a mustache that was kept relatively neat. However one day I finally got close to him and noticed multiple patches of long white hair on his neck that he missed while shaving. It looked as though the mirror in his house only extended down to his chin, because he had forgotten about these hairs for a few months, whole patches of inch-long stragglers staring me in the face.

I sat there listening to this man for a week, disgusted by his disregard for neck hair. I was 5,000 miles away from home at his mercy, locked in a stuffy conference room with five other teachers, three of whom who had just graduated college. I didn’t know anyone. By day two, I regretted coming to Chile. When he made me redo my demo presentation, a requirement for all teachers completing the training, I was furious. He pulled me into an empty classroom with my printed work in his hand to tell me “It just wasn’t going to work.” I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. But I kept my mouth shut and stayed. I completed the training. The job was all I had in Chile.

As the days went on during my first week and early on teaching, I searched for a silver lining. Almost immediately, a thought entered my head: “I was better.” I was better than John and I was better than those other teachers who just graduated and showed up here with a backpack wanting to see the world. My students will love me. My story was different, coming from the corporate world, with four years of work experience and an ability to relate to my corporate students. They will show up to my classes. I won’t be like John waiting in the hallway for students to show up, sitting for hours with my book.

My disillusioned thoughts were reinforced during my first few classes. My first day I taught an advanced student named Rodrigo who worked at a large mining company. I was nervous, mostly because Rodrigo was an advanced student, and I actually was worried that I wouldn’t be able to teach him much beyond what he already knew. What did “advanced” mean anyway? I pictured him being well-read, copies of War and Peace and The New Yorker on his desk, scoffing at my Wall Street to Santiago story, calling my boss to demand a better teacher. I started the class slowly, approaching the discussion cautiously and timidly with choppy questioning to get a better sense of his background and needs. From an outsider it probably looked as though I was interviewing for a job, answering his tough questions, rather than me teaching him a new language. While we started slowly, we quickly warmed up to each other, and our discussion extended beyond my questionnaire that I had to complete regarding his needs for the course and background using English. He told me about his girlfriend. He told me about his six years working in the army and that he’s an anxious person who doesn’t drink.

“I’m anxious. This is a problem for me. I had a heart attack last year and almost died…from the stress,” he confessed solemnly. “I have to take many medications now,” showing me a container with his daily cocktail as he continued his story. He told me that he has been introverted his whole life and doesn’t trust people. “It’s my background in the army. I’ve seen a lot of things and I just don’t trust people…When I’m having to speak English at say a conference. I get really nervous. I’m not confidence,” he tells me. “Also I don’t drink, not like my bosses. I don’t know what to talk about with my bosses,” painting a complete picture for me and divulging intimate details of his life. I imagined him at these corporate events, in a corner with a diet coke, sweating bullets and stumbling over the present continuous, as he looked for the exits and analyzed suspicious looking characters, forcing old habits from the army. At one point I started regurgitating advice from my therapist.

“You’re English is actually quite good,” I said, acknowledging his comprehension and ability to communicate during our short class. “You have to change your thinking, and focus on the positives. You’re picturing a negative outcome too often, worrying about messing up pronunciation or saying something wrong. It’s holding you back. You speak three languages; probably more than your bosses!” I had to stop myself; I was there to teach English not be his therapist.

At the end of the class I handed him an attendance sheet and some forms to sign. He scribbled his initials down, slid the books over to me and said in a serious tone, “This is my first time with your company taking a class. And I am impress-ehd. This is very good.”

“Impressed,” I said, correcting his pronunciation.

I left the building feeling explosive happiness, a gigantic smile on my face as I promenaded into the elevator, then deciding to walk the whole way home. I might as well have been a surgeon who just completed his first open-heart surgery, a researcher who just administered the first successful cure for cancer, a fireman coming down the ladder with cat in hand to a circling crowd closing in with applause. I could see the headlines. “Ex-banker uses his powers for the greater good; saves Chileans.” I imagined Rodrigo going home and telling his girlfriend about me, “Branden! The most amazing teacher I’ve ever had!” When I gave out my first homework assignment I was sure he would run home after work and furiously complete it with excitement and nervousness, eager to show me next class what they’ve accomplished. I was certain he wouldn´t be missing many of my classes, looking forward to his 90 minutes with me. This is still how I imagine it sometimes.

Two weeks later, Rodrigo didn’t show up. He didn’t give any notice so I arrived as planned on time at 8AM and waited…and waited. I didn’t bring a book. I sat there for about 45 minutes, at first reviewing my plan for the day, rereading the material I had planned to present. When I finished reading, I scrolled aimlessly through my phone, finally asking for the wifi password from the secretary who sat 10 feet away in the waiting area. I decided to take a few Snapchats of the gorgeous view of the Andes outside our 18th floor window, sending them to a few friends with the finger-written note “Buenos dias, bitches.” Where was Rodrigo?

The secretary, periodically glancing at me with concern, finally offered to call his cell. When she reached him she spoke in cryptic Spanish, “Hola, roraoliginsongo adimi ah si….si….alskj…kinkosbienalsalioriosi….” I stood there with a blank face as she spoke for about two minutes. She hung up the phone and said very plainly to me, “He’s not coming.” With nothing else to do that day I walked from his office to the shopping center across the street and bought a comforter, sheets, and carpet for my new apartment. Heaping large bags with me, I was less than graceful as I trudged back to the bus stop with my purchases, giving a sigh as I plopped my things down on the sidewalk and waited.

I later found out from my institute that Rodrigo had gotten called last minute to take an emergency business trip, and that he was cancelling all classes for three weeks. He returned for one class a few weeks later only to cancel the following two due to conflicts. Since my first day, I’ve added many other classes and have been hired to teach at a second institute. Some days after my class goes well, I feel like a teaching messiah, and then the next week when they don’t show up without warning, I’m reminded that I’m just their English teacher, somewhere below work, family and vacation on their list of priorities. I took John’s advice and carry a book now. That being said, I’ve yet to pull it out of my bag.

Names have been changed to protect identity.

All Eyes on Me

Chileans can spot my gringo-ness very easily. Riding the train or walking on the street, I usually get stared at; they can tell I’m not a native. I asked a few others about it and they have a similar experience here. One person explained that Chileans do this because they’re merely curious about you; it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I guess I can go along with that, but I still haven’t quiet figured out what it is that gives me away. They seem to know before I even open my mouth and reveal my secret lack of Spanish. In my opinion—looks-wise—my nationality is not obvious and can be amorphous. I don’t think I look American. I’m white with brown hair, about average height and weight; I keep a short beard. I don’t necessarily look Chilean but my appearance doesn’t scream American either. I lack blue eyes or blond hair or outspokenness synonymous with U.S. stereotypes. Yet somehow most people can tell immediately that I’m an outsider. It could be other things. Maybe when I walk on the street, my quick pace that’s above average for a local, gives me away. Maybe it’s the way I carry myself or the way I stand on the train. I’m still in the process of figuring it out.

Back in New York, I had a habit of trying to size people up while riding the elevator in my office building. My building had three companies using the same elevator bank. In addition to the investment bank where I worked on floors 26 through 29, there was a consulting company that occupied floors 24 and 25 below us, and a media and information firm which occupied floors 17 through 23. Over time, I could tell immediately where someone worked just by looking at them for one or two seconds. I recognized faces of course and learned where people worked, but could also spot new people as well. It was a really fun game that was a perfect distraction for me every morning while I commuted to an underwhelming job.  When I got really good at it, I got satisfaction from being right all the time.

Investment bankers were the best-dressed, cleanest and best-groomed. Many of the men who dominated my company wore suits and ties every day. The suits were from Brooks Brothers or some other high-end store; they had been tailored perfectly to their bodies. Jackets lacked dead material or stretched areas and were made of classic blue or black fabrics. Pants were cut perfectly and flowed easily, gently shaping backsides. They wore Ferragamo ties with small shapes and bright colors popping off their chests, folded up into flawless half Windsor knots. Shirts were cut perfectly too. Everything was dry-cleaned and crisp. On the surface, my co-workers looked like perfect specimens with flashy haircuts who had made all the right moves in life (Part of this is what lured me into my career in the first place). The clothes were a great distraction, and almost made you not even notice the tired, anxiety-ridden faces some of them wore. I didn’t like wearing ties, but I always dressed well. I wore neatly dry-cleaned shirts, which I purchased from the same store – Charles Tyrwhitt. I kept a steady rotation of ten or twelve shirts from there, all the same size and style: the slim fit in a 15 ½, 35”, in varying colors ranging from light blues, whites or soft purples, some with checkered patterns. My favorite suit that I often wore was custom-fitted. I selected the blue fabric and designed every feature, including the font for my monogrammed name on the inside of my jacket. I was part of the club; I looked like them.

The consultants were also very well-dressed but often much more casual. I never saw them wearing suits or ties. Instead they opted for modern looking pants and crisp, fitted button-down shirts. Many of them looked like models for Club Monaco or J Crew. They often wore colorful socks, something you’d never see at an investment bank. I assume they had casual Fridays since many of them would come in wearing jeans that day. The jeans were pricey designer $200 pairs—Sevens, Citizens, or AGs. The girls who worked there were mostly attractive and on trend. Everybody looked clean and had an annoying confidence that many consultants project. Their elevator conversations almost always were about travel, where they were coming from, or where they were going to for their next project. They looked happier than the bankers. Often in the mornings, girls would waltz into the elevator with expensive carry-on roller suitcases either indicating a flight out later that day or a recent arrival into LGA. They seemed to feed off the bustle and movement of their career, getting full of confidence and cockiness from it. Many days when I was stressed out and sleep-deprived, I’d find myself getting annoyed with their chipper demeanors and false satisfaction from a career less challenging than mine.

The media company people were much worse dressed, scrappier looking, and represented the third, lowest class in our corporate universe. Overall the group was diverse and represented a cross-section different functions on the seven different floors they occupied. Many of the men looked unkempt and needed haircuts or had poor hairstyles to begin with. There was one guy who had a disgustingly obvious hairpiece that made me sneer every time I saw it, especially when the space was crowded and I had to stand close to him. Their clothes were cheaper and didn’t fit as well. If they wore suits it looked as though they bought them off a discount rack at Men’s Wearhouse, Macy’s or Century 21, an ill-fitted attempt to dress up. Some guys wore horrendous two-tone shirts with the white collar and solid-blue body, which went out of style shortly after Gordon Gekko made them popular in 1987. Others, whom I assumed were journalists or photogs, were dressed down every day. They wore jeans, but usually nothing resembling a designer cut, with tennis shoes and t-shirts. Some men had beards and looked artsy, well-traveled and interesting. There appeared to be a large administrative staff of middle-aged overweight women who probably commuted from New Jersey or Long-Island. They didn’t live in Manhattan and they looked bad. Other women were younger and more attractive, sporting sexy clothing in the summer months. They were more tolerable.

I found comfort in playing my little game and knowing what was what in my small universe of employment. I also loved being part of the elite club of well-dressed bankers. Over the years I had figured out the different classes of people and got to know their small talk and how they dressed. When someone new entered I knew the signs to look for to quickly categorize them. Ferragamo ties almost always meant banker; colorful socks + Sevens, consultant; regular non-designer jeans and a beard, media co. As time went on and my ability to spot people improved, so did my growing disdain for people who dressed poorly and didn’t have a job as important as mine. I got caught up in my little club and felt secure in knowing that I was better than those on the floors below me.

These days for work, I wear a dressed-down version of my banker clothes, incorporating the remnants from my recent career. I usually wear khakis or dress pants with a button-down shirt, matching belt and shoes. I have yet to find a drycleaner here and don’t own an iron so my clothes are more wrinkled. I have a beard now and could probably use a haircut. Generally though I try to look presentable for my students, many of whom work at large corporations in glass office towers. On weekends or when I’m not working I dress the same as I did back in New York, sporting straight leg dark wash jeans and flannel shirts. In both cases, the Chileans are constantly looking at me, staring, trying to figure out wear I come from.

I used to enjoy my ability to put people in neat order and that I stood near the top of a certain hierarchy. It was a way to convince myself that my decisions were good and that somehow I was better than them. I worked harder, dressed better and made more money. I found comfort in knowing my universe. Eventually the feeling wore off and I quit. Over time, I started looking at others differently in contrast with myself. Instead of looking scrappy and poorly dressed, they looked happier, well-rested and they talked about weekend plans. I started disliking the reflection that looked back at me, my tired look and slightly receding hairline depressing me, my forced elevator conversation with coworkers nauseating. Somewhere along the way my game turned on me.

I still find myself acting out old habits, playing a game of social Plinko in my head. There are several finance companies in Santiago, and every now and then I’ll catch myself scoping out a banker on the street, looking smug and neat. I have mixed feelings when I see them. On one hand, I feel relieved that I’m no longer confined to a cubicle, that I’m out roaming South America. Still part of me misses my suits and that excitement in my step that I derived from a stressful career that would have eventually killed me. Even though I don’t need to, I still dress well in Santiago. I traveled here with my blue suit just in case I might need it. I walk with purpose and speed just as I used to, even though my days are less busy here. I remain curious what Chileans see when they look at me.