"It was a massive carnival scene right outside our front door. I was on the second floor. You could look out the window and see all these people. It was like being in a bunker. You just didn't want to go outside," says Jared Dillian.
A former Wall Street trader, Dillian is speaking not of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
At that time, Dillian had worked on Wall Street for eight drama-soaked years. That drama was external -- he witnessed firsthand the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and it was also internal, directly personal for Dillian as well.
Stressed out from his high-stakes ETF trading role, drinking heavily and suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, in 2006, he suffered a nervous breakdown that led him to spend weeks in a psych ward. When he emerged from the mental hospital, it was only to witness Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, with reporters massing on the street outside and eagerly confronting the banks' employees.
The Human Side of Wall Street
Dillian recounts his experiences in a gripping and admirably candid memoir, Street Freak, just published by Touchstone. As an insider's look at the workings of a storied investment bank, the memoir is similar to Michael Lewis' classic Liar's Poker. But it's also grittier and more emotional, supplying a human face for an opaque and powerful institution at a time when Americans' frustration with Wall Street may be at an all-time high.
"Wall Street people don't do a very good job of humanizing themselves," says Dillian, "but I'm not into the whole invincibility thing."
A Horatio Alger Tale
A "freakishly ambitious" guy, Dillian wasn't born to a Wall Street dynasty. Growing up in a middle class family, he played the organ at a church as a part-time job. He attended the Coast Guard Academy, double-majoring in math and computer science. After graduating, he served five years in the Coast Guard.
While stationed in a small town in Washington state, he happened into a used bookstore and read Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which inspired him to get an MBA in finance.
Bootstrapping his way into the job at Lehman Brothers, Dillian nonetheless found himself out of his league in another sense: He wore cheap suits from Men's Wearhouse, while his colleagues sported designer clothes. Even though he'd achieved insider status, he was still an outsider.
His story goes straight to the heart of a cherished American ideal: a deserving smart kid, without undue advantages, working his way up to the top, overcoming whatever obstacles he encounters along the way. And yet, it begs the question: How much can we identify and sympathize with someone who made almost $1 million a year?
"Some people have read the book and told me that's an unbelievable amount of money. Others have told me I was being underpaid," says Dillian, who discloses in Street Freak how much money he made each year. In his final year at Lehman, he made $850,000.
Economic Rewards, Outsized Salaries
Warren Buffett has said that ours is "an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions."
But as Dillian puts it, "People who work on Wall Street are just people. My story is not an uncommon story." And he would know, having lived to tell it.
What's your take, DailyFinance reader? Is it right for our society to reward "those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions"? Is $850,000 a year worth a stay in a mental ward? Share your opinions in the comments section below.
Motley Fool contributor Catherine Baab-Muguira has no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned.