Park & Broad, Hartford

While translating an article on the current financial crisis from English to Spanish, I realized that I didn’t know the word for “brokerage” in Spanish, so I looked it up. Usually when I am translating and go to the dictionary, it turns out that I knew the word already, whether in English or Spanish (for this happens both ways – sometimes I encounter a Spanish word that I understand perfectly but for which I cannot conjure an English analog), but couldn’t quite remember it at the moment. This is both frustrating and reassuring: frustrating because time is money and I want to be good and efficient at what I do, but reassuring in greater measure because it reminds me, “Oh, I did know that word. My vocabulary is expansive because I am well-read in two languages, and worldly.” The immediate familiarity of a forgotten word in my second language gives me the same gentle self-satisfaction as when I recognize obscure allusions in an erudite person’s jokes.

The Spanish word for brokerage is “corretaje,” and this word gave me no such warm feeling. I have definitely never heard the word before – and why would I have? In my day job I am public defender at the juvenile court in Hartford, Connecticut. About half the people I talk to on a given day speak Spanish, and it is safe to say that none of them are brokers or transact business with brokerages. I would even hazard that most of them, like me, have never heard the word “corretaje.”

Now, I can discern a relationship between “corretaje” and “correr” – to run – and in some recess of my brain there is a memory of learning in college, somehow, that “corredores” were people who once had some role in formal commercial transactions. Still, this word basically feels like a collection of letters with no particular connection to its substance. But that makes me ask: what is the substance of a brokerage? What does that word mean in English, and what is it that a brokerage house does? I have no fucking idea.

OK, I am overstating the case a little bit. I can surmise that brokerages collect or are placed in charge of money that is not their own, and then invest this money to the advantage of its owners, with some significant residual benefits for the brokerages themselves. I cannot begin to imagine, however, what the daily activities of a broker might comprise. Are they on the phone a lot? In meetings? Giving Powerpoint presentations? I have listened to all those collaborations between This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money team in which Alex Bloomberg and Hanna Joffe Walt explain the financial crisis in a way that east coast liberals like me will understand, and I have done some wikipedia research, but that shit refuses to stick in my head. Brokers wear fancy suits, they work long hours, and then they go drink scotch and look at strippers and buy mansions in Fairfield County. Later, somehow, the whole economy gets ruined.

Here’s the thing: my clients who have no idea what a “corretaje” is are poor, Spanish-speaking teenagers in one of the poorest cities in the nation, or they are the struggling working-class parents of these teenagers. That is not to say they are not smart – plenty of them are – but they don’t have much occasion to meet brokers, let alone deal with brokerages. in contrast, I am a lawyer, highly educated and solidly middle-class. I have an actual 401(k) plan, with which brokerages are likely involved in some way. I have met a number of brokers in casual social settings. Sometimes, I have asked them to explain to me what the hell they do with their days, and infrequently, they have obliged. Still, I am clueless about brokerages.

All of this makes me understand very well the nihilistic apoliticality that prevails among my clients and their families: Somehow, a bunch of rich people were legitimately employed at jobs where they inexplicably got richer while decimating the nation’s economy. Now the government has massive debt that needs to be paid off. The President – a man of modest origins, our first non-white President, elected thanks to massive participation by black, hispanic, and poor voters – created a commission to figure out how to reduce this debt, and the commission proposed, among other things, reducing Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age to 69, lowering corporate taxes, and increasing the gas tax. What the fuck?



August 10, 2010

After work today, I pedaled through the mid-afternoon swamp air to my local polling place to cast my vote in the Democratic (albeit not very democratic) primary. I felt my task was imbued with special importance because I read that my town “may be the swing town among the swing towns,” and briefly entertained the notion that this might give my vote extra weight (OK, not really).

Apparently, I was not the only person who thought the old W. Ha. (or Woo Hah, as I prefer to call it) might be important: Republican senate candidate Peter Schiff was there in person:

Polling place sign, with Peter Schiff in the background
(That’s him on the right, in the parking lot, with the white shirt.)

How could I tell it was him? Frankly, I wouldn’t have known, since I don’t keep close track of what Republicans look like. Luckily, however, he was standing right next to a huge, idling bus with his picture and name on it:

Schiff and his bus at my polling place
(It’s there, on the left behind the tree. Click on the picture for a much larger view.)

In the foreground of these pictures, you may notice a red sign. That sign is placed outside all polling places (per Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-236), and it says:

On the day of any primary, referendum or election no person shall solicit in behalf of or in opposition to another or himself or peddle or offer any ballot, advertising matter or circular to another person or loiter within a radius of seventy-five feet of any outside entrance in use as an entry to any polling place or in any corridor, passageway or other approach leading from any such outside entrance to such polling place or in any room opening upon any such corridor, passageway or approach.

After voting, I walked out the distance from the actual door to the place where the Schiff bus was parked, and it was clear of the 75-foot limit by a solid 20 feet. However, this particular polling place is in the rear building of a school, and if you drive there, you must park in the same lot where the Schiffmobile was idling and walk along the sidewalk visible at the lefthand side of the first photo, above. Now, I’m no lawyer, but – wait, actually, I am a lawyer, and I think the sidewalk from the parking lot to the building counts as a “passageway or other approach leading from any . . . outside entrance to [the] polling place.” Look at this aerial view:

Although Team Schiff was outside a 75-foot radius from the front door of the polling place, they were fully on the property of the school where voting was taking place and, more importantly, practically in the way of voters’ trip from the parking lot to the door. (Lucky for me, I came by bicycle, so I was able to get much closer to the door and avoid the bus and its crew.) Also, annoyingly, Schiff’s young, preppy acolytes were standing just beyond the 75 feet sign and shouting “Vote for Peter Schiff” at voters inside the perimeter. They shouted at me while I was carefully walking heel-to-toe to measure 75 feet to the bus.

Since I love both voting and the law, I went up to a young woman who was standing near the Schiffmobile and told her she was too close to the polling place. “We’re outside 75 feet,” she said. “But this sidewalk from the parking lot is a passageway to the polling place, and you’re practically on top of it,” I countered pleasantly. (Really. I was pleasant.) She seemed nonplussed, so I went back into the polling place and complained to the poll workers. They said they were uncertain how the rule should apply, and commenced discussing amongst themselves. I said I didn’t suppose it was such a big deal, but I thought I ought to say something, and with that, departed.

As I was ambling down the hall, one of the poll workers came after me, apparently to investigate, and we emerged from the building together, just in time to see the Schiffmobile retreating from the scene (although Schiff himself remained, talking on his cell phone and pacing). The Team Schiff Shouters were walking dejectedly toward the street. I went home with the happy notion that I had gone above and beyond the call of citizenship.