Michael L. Gray - writing and photography
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Why do Vietnamese grow so much dope?
Stories from Hanoi
At night at the races
Songs of a strolling blind musician
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Cloud over Sapa
Stories from Amsterdam
Trained monkeys
The alchemists in the basement
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VNGOs and civil society
Highland development NGOs: a case study

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Site design, images and writing © 2007 by Michael L. Gray
The alchemists in the basement
-by Michael L. Gray

Now that I'm on contract, I can relax a bit, right? Take some time to walk around the two towers and get a feel for my new environment. The trading room, the artwork – there's a lot to look at in this enormous structure. But I never figured on finding a bunch of very small men in the basement, churning out lumps of solid gold.

I needed a break one afternoon last week, so I announced that I was going for coffee and slipped out of the room. On the far side of the bank, near where I park my bike every morning, there is a small café on the ground floor that brews the only palatable coffee in the building.

I took the elevator down to the second floor and headed past the trading room. It was the middle of the day and the dealers were busy. But I didn't linger too long above the action. Maybe it's bad form to stare down at the screens too long? I'm trying to fit in here and I don't know all the rules yet. So I moved on.

If this bank had a workshop,
I just had to see it

When I turned away from the dealers my eye caught a short hallway that I hadn't noticed before. There was a stairwell halfway down the hall. To get to the café, I had to walk all the way around the back of the trading room, then down to the first floor. Maybe if I took this staircase, I could find a shortcut on the first floor?

I took the stairs down and emerged into a long hallway that brushed up against the trading room. I turned down this hall and soon found another option to consider.

There was a door held open by an old cardboard box. I walked toward it and stopped to listen. I could hear a jumble of noise in the distance. It wasn't voices, however, as I would expect in an office building. It was some type of banging and the sound of machinery, but muffled by a long distance or a number of walls.

My interest was piqued. If this bank had a workshop, I just had to see it. A printing press? Not in this age. A repair garage? No, everything like that is outsourced these days. I stepped over the box and through the door. Another staircase led down to the level below the trading room. Guessing this was just the parking garage, I almost turned back and continued down the hall. Only my curiosity about the noise moved me forward.

I was now in a narrow corridor underneath the trading room. No sign of the parking garage. As I walked forward slowly, the noises grew a little louder. Several pipes lined the ceiling of the hallway, which I thought was rather sloppy. Open piping underneath the dealing hall? Don't they have building codes in this country? Somebody should call Compliance, I thought.

I stepped forward…
and that's when he saw me

The strange hallway led directly toward the far side of the building, where I hoped to get a coffee, so I continued forward even though I was unsure of my precise location. When I reached what I thought must be the very centre of the complex, yet another staircase emerged, twisting down in a tight spiral to a hallway just visible below.

The industrial noises were much louder now, and I could make out some voices as well. There were some shadows being thrown around just outside my line of vision. I stepped forward to peak down the staircase, and that's when he saw me. The floor above the staircase was metal grating, and the hard soles of my dress shoes made a loud clang as I stepped forward. I found myself staring into the face of a peculiar little man wrapped up in a heavy apron, wearing a cap and a pair of leather work boots.

"Hullo there," he said, a smile emerging on his face once the surprise of seeing me faded.

"Can I help you?" he added.

He seemed completely unthreatened, so I took a few steps down the stairs.

"I was looking for a shortcut to the café," I offered, pointing in the direction I thought it might be.

"Well, that's two floors up from here. But now that you've made it this far you might as well follow through on your swing, so to speak."

I had continued walking down the stairs, and shortly I met the unusual man at the bottom landing.

He really was incredibly small, the top of his cap coming no higher than the middle of my chest. He had a round, cheerful face and long, bushy sideburns of the sort popular last century, during, say, the industrial revolution.

I was wearing a dark gray business suit with a blue and yellow tie, and in my slim pointy dress shoes I suddenly felt ridiculously out of place – as if abruptly I had become the freak in this unexpected meeting.

A hiss emerged from the press
and steam billowed forth

It was much darker down here than in the hallway above, but as my eyes adjusted I could see a room before me filled with similarly attired men, all of the same tiny stature, moving about with great industriousness. The air was dirty with an odor I couldn't quite place. The noise that had attracted my attention came from a row of machines that looked like presses of some type.

"Come, I'll show you how we get along," the man said.

We walked into the room, and several people looked over, one or two nodding hello.

It was a workshop indeed, and it took me several moments to take it all in. One of the men had just loaded a press, and after fiddling around a bit he grabbed the long handle at one end by reaching up almost on his tippie-toes, before pulling it down strongly with both arms. A hiss emerged from the press and steam billowed forth from the pan at the far end.

What the hell was this show about? I thought.

"Let's take a look shall we?" my guide interjected, before I could speak. He grabbed my arm and led me to the machine, which I could now see was an ancient-looking device of great complication. The second man lifted the handle of the press and quickly reached forward with a pair of iron tongs.

"Cool it off and let's have a gander," said my increasingly cheerful companion.

After dipping the tongs in water and waiting not a minute, the little technician pulled them out again and plopped the result of his work right onto the palm of my guide.

It was a chunk of gold the size of a squash ball. A bit rough around the edges, but unmistakable: solid gold.

"Now that's something you don't see everyday, ah?" the little man said with a wink.

The other workers all smiled at this, like it was a well-worn line, oft-repeated when the suits came down for a visit.

"Wow," was all I could muster, not quite believing my eyes.

But there was even more. As I looked around I found the source of the strange odor. In the corner of the workshop was a large container of pitch black rocks, and a small ray of light showed the air above the rock was heavy with dust.

The dry odor of impurities
wafted through the room

I pointed at the container in amazement, like a three-year-old at the zoo.

"Coal? That's coal."

"Yes, yes," my guide enthused, "Amazing isn't it?"

"Of course it's old hat for us, but I gather that you're new around here."

"I started a couple of months ago. I never knew this place… Can I… see that again?"

"Sure, sure. Frederick, line up another one," he said quickly , waving at one of his fellow workers.

Little Fred grabbed a lump of coal, dipped it into some sort of liquid, then plopped it onto the small pan at the end of the press. Underneath the pan, he sparked a burner and a red flame shot up. He fiddled with the nozzle until the flame settled to a brilliant blue. Then he added a coating of what looked like a thick, gelatinous grease to the open side of the pan, before closing the two sides together. Back at the other end, he reached up to the long handle and pulled it down with all the force he could muster.

"I cannot believe you are turning lumps of coal into solid gold," was what came out of my mouth just as the steam hissed loudly from the end of the press and the smell of sulfur hit my noise. (Christ it’s not even good coal, I thought, as the dry odor of the impurities wafted through the room).

"Oh indeed, indeed," the little man said. "It's a fair game for sure. Of course it's not just coal, we do add a bit more to the recipe, so to speak."

"Has the bank always done this?"

He gave a pensive look and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I've been here a long time, but this bank has been around longer than me. I should think they've been doing this a good while, in one form or another."

I could sense I wasn't going to get very clear answers from my otherwise helpful escort. I thought this whole scene might be some clever joke, but it seemed too absurd to be anything but true.

I decided humour was the only way to cope.

"Wow, you guys make a pretty good margin on this," I said, in an obvious understatement.

"You must even kill the folks upstairs," I added, lifting my head toward the trading room two floors up.

This got a good laugh from the workers.

"We do in a relative sense, the margin is quite pretty. But not the absolute numbers, mind you, as we're a small operation compared to the global deals."

Did my colleagues know
about the gnomes?

He was obviously enjoying the role of guide, my little friend was. But work called, and he hinted with a look that maybe I should move on.

"Does everyone know about this place?" I asked as we headed back to the stairs.

He gave an unclear shrug of the shoulders, as if that wasn't his concern. "Mostly the business side just sends someone down now and again to make sure we're meeting our targets."

"Sure, sure," I agreed readily. I'll fucking bet they do. No wonder this bank is so god-damn big.

"Wait, do other banks have the same thing?"

And here it seemed I had asked one too many questions, although I thought it was a perfectly reasonably query.

"I really don't know," was all the man said.

"Well then, take care," he added. "Maybe you could move that box on your way out, to close the door. We just wanted a little fresh air."

With this, I made my way back up the stairs, down the hall, up the stairs again, and back to the hallway outside the trading room. Now I realized that I had, in fact, covered a fair bit of ground. I quickened my pace as I walked to the elevators.

When I got back to my floor, I straightened my tie and instinctively brushed off my suit jacket, in case I had picked up some of the coal dust.

"How was the coffee?" my colleague asked when I sat down at my workstation.

I had completely forgotten about my drink.

"Ah…" and here I paused. What to say? Did my colleagues all know about the gnomes in the basement, turning lumps of dirty coal into solid gold?

When you're new to a place and you're trying to fit in, sometimes you feel uncertain of mentioning what you've seen. If everyone knows, then you look foolish for bringing up the obvious. And if they don't know, maybe you look like a braggart, or at the least very nosy. It seemed to me that people in these enormous companies keep their cards pretty close to their chest. I decided to play it safe.

"…Ya, the coffee was fine," I said. "Thanks for asking."

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Site design, images and writing © 2007 by Michael L. Gray
From The money tower blues: stories about working at a bank.