Martha’s Bizarre Love Triangle!- Date Triangles! -180 eggs, 139 1/4 cups of sugar, 133 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 169 1/2 cups of flour used so far- 75 recipes to go!

January 28, 2011

Martha's Date Triangles

André's Date Triangles

Dates are kind of a polarizing fruit. I think it’s because they closely resemble a prune. Personally I think they’re delightfully paradoxical. Dry yet moist, sweet yet smokey, light yet so very rich. This fancy cookie, although calling it a pastry would be far more accurate, is a definite nod to the wonderful desserts from the Middle East like baklava and mammoul.

The dough is a sweet and tangy concoction of flour, egg, butter, sugar, and spice punched up with the grated zest of an orange along with its fresh-squeezed juice. The dough is then chilled so that it can be easily handled. Two inch balls of dough are rolled into flat disks and filled with ground dates, honey, ground almonds and even more fresh-squeezed orange juice. The dough is then folded over the top of the filling to create a triangle which is adorned with three sliced almonds. Before baking, these delectables are given a honey and water bath so that as they bake they develop a shiny veneer of sweetness. Once they are golden and removed from the oven to cool they are given another drizzle of honey for an extra touch of sweetness and shimmer.

I think these have been one of  my favorite cookies to bake. I like to stretch beyond the usual and expected in the kitchen and this cookie certainly afforded me that opportunity.

They resemble an Italian fig cookie in taste but the sweetness of the honey and the crunch of the almonds certainly reflects their middle eastern origin. They were far easier to make than what I thought they would be and were much appreciated by the impressed recipients who voraciously ate several.

It was January of 2004. I sat in a lower office in one of the high-rises that littered the financial district along Battery Park in lower Manhattan. My thick wool peacoat draped over my arm, my rarely worn grey suit, fresh from the cleaners wrapped around me like a piece of marketing shouting “Hire this poor slob!” I sat in the waiting room of Franklin First Financial to interview for an entry-level position as a loan officer. Years earlier I had worked as a loan processor in Indianapolis after a long illness had left me in crippling debt. Now, back in NYC, I found myself in need of money and I knew from my work with the mortgage company in Indianapolis, I’d be able to earn a lot of cash in a few short months if I really hustled.

My interview went something like this: Arj, short for Arjuna was a British bloke around the same age as myself. He had been a financial analyst before coming to work as the operations manager and floor trainer for the company. The owner of the franchise was an old friend of Arj’s and when he was released from jail for trading fraud and no longer able to work on Wall Street, he called up Arj to set up the franchise’s office. I was amazed that Arj shared all of this during the initial interview but I appreciated his honesty. He asked me a few detailed questions about the mortgage industry which, to his surprise and frankly mine, too, I was able to answer correctly. He told me he was impressed and that I could report to work on Monday morning.

I did.

The floor of Franklin First Financial was a boiler room of men and women of all ages, all colors, all different backgrounds squeezed into ill-fitting power suits and then squeezed into tiny cubicles. I was introduced to Jerry, my mentor. He was a young man in his early twenties born and raised on the upper East side of Manhattan. His brother, Ronald worked at the company, too. Both brothers were aggressive, angry, insensitive, vain, money-driven, homophobic misogynists. They say that in sales one must burn with the hunger for their next sale in order to be successful. These two men burned with the intense desire for their next commission check. There’s no irony that money thrown on a fire only makes the fire burn hotter and these two young men were ablaze. I didn’t know how to communicate with either of them but in order for me to move beyond the mentoring period, I’d have to generate fifty leads for Jerry. This would be done through cold calls made from a prepared list based on demographic and geography.

Generating a lead meant that I’d have to get the person on the other side of the phone call to engage in a serious conversation about their present mortgage situation and I’d have to convince them that my reputable company could get them the lowest mortgage rate available.

Jerry’s style with potential clients was aggressive and a bit smarmy. I was a little more calculating. Before placing the call I made sure I could pronounce their name correctly. I would look up their address and use the internet to check their local weather so that my greeting sounded something like this-

“Good afternoon, Mr. Grayson. This is André du Broc with Franklin First Financial. I understand you’re getting a lot of snow today. How’re you dealing with that?

If they answered the question then I knew the rest would be easy. We were engaged in a conversation, the first step towards building trust.  From that initial exchange I was able to quickly steer the conversation towards a discussion around mortgage rates. Jerry was impressed I was able to generate almost fifteen good leads for him in my first shift. It had taken him, as well as many other agents almost three months to generate their fifty qualified leads. I did it in less than three weeks. I think this was mostly because they were so hungry to sell they forgot that conversations should go two ways. That meant you’d have to listen to the client. None of the agents at Franklin First seemed to be able to do this.

During the three weeks of cold calling, the daily monotony was interrupted for two hours in the afternoon enduring Arj’s classes in New York mortgage law and the principles of mortgage securities. Arj was a nice guy but his classes were ethically questionable at best. His first rule was that real estate will always increase in value therefore no one should make it a priority to pay off their mortgage when they can simply continue to refinance for a lower rate taking out equity from the ever-increasing value of their home to finance vacations, or even better, renovations to increase the home’s value even more. It’s this generally adopted philosophy that caused all the securities mishigas of the past few years.

During those three weeks serving as Jerry’s minion I found myself biting my tongue hourly. Jerry was a twenty-something, over-privileged, Upper East Side, rich kid with a sophomoric approach to life.  He referred openly to me as his queer assistant. I kept my mouth shut. He’d send me emails of naked transsexuals in various sexual acts with the caption – My Assistant’s ‘Girl’friend – and copy everyone in the office. As inappropriate and tasteless as his actions were, I knew that in a few months I’d be walking out of that office with enough money to pay off my debt and move on with my life. I simply smiled quietly and seethed with burning hot rage under my carefully crafted professional veneer.

I did not speak with my co-workers. I did not go to their parties. I did not join them to snort mounds of coke in the bathroom and I did not vomit when Jerry and Ronald spoke of the prostitute they shared the night before. Although, I secretly hoped they both contracted a scorching case of herpes.

Instead I focused on the mission at hand- make enough money to get the hell out of there.

After successfully completing my three-week mentorship I was given my own cubicle, phone and computer terminal. I quickly obtained two clients.

One I’ll refer to as Mr. Sloane and the other as Mr. Cooper.

Mr. Sloane had a small beach home in the Hamptons no bigger than the modest home I now live in in Kansas City. His 3 bedroom 2 bath 2000 sq. ft. home was valued at 4.5 million dollars. It was one of several homes Mr. Sloane owned. He wanted to refinance his property so that his monthly payment was absolutely as low as it could be so that he could invest in another beach home he had his eye on. He’d heard of a mortgage product called a Monthly Treasury Annuity (MTA) loan. This is essentially an interest-only loan where the mortgagee would be charged a 1.25% interest rate for 11 months with a much larger payment due on the 12th month. This was really a loan developed for investors to create liquid capital for other investments with plans on selling the collateral property before the 12th month payment becomes due. Of course, if they don’t find a buyer by the 12th month, they’re screwed. Mr. Sloane wasn’t thinking that far ahead. He only saw how much money he’d save those first 11 months and planned to refinance again before the 12th month. I thought to myself of the old adage- A fool and his money are soon yadda yadda… but he asked for it and I happily gave it to him knowing I’d soon have a $45,000 commission check in my pocket.

Mr. Cooper, on the other hand, was a father of four in rural Arkansas. He had a home no bigger than Mr. Sloane’s but it was valued at $150,000. Mr. Cooper was a blue-collar worker for the government and had a marginally poor credit score. He wanted to refinance his home for a lower rate and cash out some equity to take his family to Disney World. He told me that he’d never taken his family on a proper vacation. I told him I’d see what I could do. My commission potential for Mr. Cooper was a mere $1,500 at best but I liked him. I liked that he was trying to do something nice for his family.

Mr. Cooper barely had 20% equity in his home valued at $150,000. In order for him to keep his 20% equity and still have enough to pay the fees and have enough money to take his family to Disney he’d need the value of his home to come in from the appraiser at around $175,000. It didn’t.

I explained the situation to Mr. Cooper. He cried. He had already told his family they were going to Disney World and he couldn’t let them down. I looked out of the window of my office. It overlooked the New York Harbor. The Queen Mary II was making her maiden voyage and pulling into the port and I sat and listened to this poor redneck pour his heart out to me. In a moment of weakness I gave him another option. He could take out two mortgages. One would be a fixed rate mortgage for 80% of the value of his home and the other would be an adjustable rate mortgage for 20%. His monthly payment would increase $150 a month but he would have the money to take his family to Disney World. I warned him this meant he would no longer have any equity in his home and that in five years time, the 20% mortgage’s rate could adjust up to a dramatically higher interest rate. He didn’t care. He was a man of his word and his family was going to be in mouse ears in a month’s time.

I closed Mr. Sloane’s and Mr. Cooper’s loans.

I arrived at the office to collect my commission check. It was the largest first commission check that branch had ever written- $47,000.

The owner of the business gathered everyone in a circle to proudly give me my commission. I, in turn, handed him an envelope of my own. Inside was a note. It simply read-

I can’t do this anymore.

I have a soul.

I quit.

P.S. – You run an office of assholes.

As the owner read my note I had already begun heading towards the door. His pink, Irish face turned beet red and he called out after me, “Get the fuck out of here you fucking pussy! Get out of here! Go grow a pair and then go fuck yourself!”

I didn’t even pause to look back. I simply raised my hand to wave a select finger at him and cut a direct path to my bank across the street to deposit my check before he could cancel it.

I have always been ashamed of this period of my life.

I know what dirty money feels like.

It feels like regret.

Every time I hear a report on the mortgage crisis and the financial fallout that followed I know, in a small way, I had a hand in that.

I quite possibly destroyed a poor family in Arkansas for what?  A little money?  I’m ashamed.

I know this has’nt been a very uplifting or even a terribly interesting post but I hope it does put a bit of a more human face on the recent financial crisis and the men and women who made it happen.

Sorry folks.

Greed is NOT good.

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