From Ordering Steak and Lobster, to Serving It
by Mary Pilon
Monday, June 1, 2009
Carlos Araya used to order lobster, filet mignon and $200 bottles of red wine at the Palm Restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
Now, he seats customers at its Tribeca branch.
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Mr. Araya, 38 years old, lost his job in 2007 as a crude oil trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange. After visiting dozens of headhunters with no luck, he applied in August 2008 to be a host at the Palm to support his wife, two young daughters and mortgage payments. His salary has plunged from $200,000 to $25,000.
If the financial crisis was the flood, then the Arayas are one of the families standing in the stagnant waters left behind. Some former Wall Street employees, highly trained and accustomed to comfortable salaries, are having trouble translating their specialized skills to other fields that pay well, and instead find themselves forced to accept low-wage work. Now, Mr. Araya is on the brink of losing it all and is doubtful that he will ever return to Wall Street.
And he isn't alone. Nearly 25,000 jobs have been lost in New York City's financial sector since August 2007, according to the New York State Department of Labor. The finance industry in New York is expected to lose 56,800 jobs from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2012, according to projections from the Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded information agency.
John Carbonaro was let go as a floor clerk by Bank of America in January 2009, and despite his job-hunting efforts, remains a "Mr. Mom." Joe Morrone, a laid-off trading clerk from Prudential, has been unemployed for two years and struggles to support his daughters and grandson. He has had stints as a deli worker, a doorman and a bouncer. "I used to have three cars," Mr. Morrone says. "Now I share one."
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The result is an unlikely stream of erstwhile Wall Street pros need help.
"I've got 'em all -- Lehman, AIG, Citi," says Bob Townley, head of Manhattan Youth in Tribeca, an organization that gave the Arayas financial assistance to pay for childcare while they are working. "I can hear it in a parent's voice when there's trouble. Others are too proud to ask for help."
Many of these parents once made donations to Mr. Townley's program. Now they are asking for aid to pay for their kids. Mr. Araya's daughters, ages 6 and 7, are in an after-school program at Mr. Townley's center.
Nowadays, during Mr. Araya's late nights at the Palm, reminders of his old life crop up when former colleagues come in. Some are encouraging and offer hugs. Others sneer, he says. "The way they look at you, you know they're thinking negatively," he says. Some are laid-off like him, and ask if the restaurant is hiring.
As a host, Mr. Araya wears a suit and tie. He's on his feet most of the day, either escorting guests to tables or manning the podium at the front, answering phone calls, managing reservations on the computer and fielding orders from wait staff and managers.
Although he's thankful for the work at the Palm, paydays can be bittersweet. "At the end of the week, I get my paycheck," he says, "and I think, 'I used to make this much in a day.' "
Matthew Craig/MJR for The Wall Street Journal
In Carlos Araya's new job as a host at New York City's Palm Restaurant, he sometimes seats colleagues from his former life on Wall Street.
Mr. Araya's wife, Dennise, has gone back to work as an administrative assistant for a construction company and leaves home at 6 a.m. Mr. Araya often works until one or two in the morning and on weekends, leaving little time for the family to be together. He calls his daughters every night during his break at the restaurant on his cellphone to say good night.
Mr. Araya now is the one who gets his children ready for school. He's learned to tie pony tails, inadvertently shrunk sweaters in the wash and knows which grocery store has the best price on milk.
The Arayas stopped dining out, pulled their daughters out of ballet and tumbling classes, and dropped cable television -- even though the flat screen he bought when they first moved in still sits in the living room.
Last month, for the first time, the Arayas didn't make a mortgage payment. Their savings are almost depleted. The mortgage, taxes and fees for the family's condo cost $6,200. Combined, he and Denise bring in $4,000 a month. Three months ago, he and his wife applied to restructure their mortgage. The bank told them it is still processing the request. They fear foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Recently, their oldest daughter asked Mr. Araya if the family would have to move. He told her he didn't know. She countered: "How much money do we need?"
"The way she looked at me," Mr. Araya says, "I could tell she was counting the money in her piggy bank." He went into the bathroom and cried. After a few minutes, he dried his eyes and walked back into the living room.
Mr. Araya, the son of a cab driver, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in nearby Queens. Like thousands of New Yorkers, he used a Wall Street job to vault into a comfortable lifestyle that included his apartment -- bought for $960,000 four years ago -- in Manhattan's Battery Park City neighborhood and family vacations to Cabo San Lucas, Disneyland and Las Vegas.
The Arayas purchased the condo in 2005 with a 20% down payment and a pre-construction price. The proximity of the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment to the trading pit allowed Mr. Araya to spend more time with his family and less time commuting. Ms. Araya diligently managed the family budget with Excel charts to ensure that they had no credit card debt, good credit histories even an emergency fund saved over five years that is now depleted. Mr. Araya says he would be lucky to find a buyer and break even on the apartment now.
Mr. Araya dropped out of college in 1992 to work in the pits, where he quickly advanced from runner to trader. He shifted between large firms like J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and smaller shops like Aren Brokerage Service, the firm that eventually laid him off.
A wrestler in high school, Mr. Araya was known for elbowing his way through the loud commodities pits. Nights were late; mornings began at 4:30 am, fueled by coffee.
"You'd clock in and just try to kill each other till the bell rang," Mr. Araya says.
He had a knack for the Merc job. He could gauge from the roar of traders' voices how the market was faring. He gained loyal clients, and was confident enough to engage in profane shouting matches with them on the phone. Mr. Araya still has dreams about the hand signals traders use to indicate orders. His trading jacket hangs in his closet.
Every day lately, he spends two hours online, trolling job Web sites like Monster.com and e-mailing former colleagues. The leads have dried up, since some of them are laid off themselves. He's contacted headhunters, been on a dozen interviews in the last year and a half, but nothing has come of them.
"It was a hard reality at first," he says. "I used to see unemployed people and think they were lazy, that it was all on them. Now it's happened to me."
Write to Mary Pilon at mary.pilon@wsj