Issue #09/90, May 11 - 25, 2000   smlogo.gif

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A Perfect Day for a Gorilla Suit

by Matt Taibbi

The sky was cloudless and the heat was sweltering as the lunch hour approached in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday, May 9–two days after Vladimir Putin’s inauguration halfway around the world in Moscow. On my cab ride down to Broad Street in the heart of the financial district I’d heard a news bulletin over the radio announcing a new record temperature for that date in New York; 95 degrees, or one degree warmer than the previous all-time high set on May 9 in 1979.

I was feeling every degree of that heat with exquisite displeasure as I walked, pouring sweat, into the lobby of the Goldman Sachs building on 85 Broad Street. I was wearing a brand-new gorilla suit, complete with scary mask, which I’d bought that morning at the famous Abracadabra costume store on 21st St. I was also carrying a grilled chicken sandwich in one hand, and a briefcase in the other. The blazer-clad security guard paid no attention to these latter items as I tried to pass through the turnstile on the way to the elevator.

"Um, excuse me?" he said, gaping at me. "Where are you going?"

"Goldman, Sachs," I said, voice garbling in the mask. Assuming the answer was satisfactory, I tried to move past him.

He held his hand up to the black matted hair of my bodysuit. "Whoa," he said. "Wait just a minute. Are you an employee?"

I cocked my head. "Do I look like an employee?"

"Well, then, what are you doing here?" he said, eyes darting back and forth. A heterogeneous crowd of janitors and Goldman employees in suits was forming around us. "Why are you going to Goldman, Sachs?"

"It’s hot outside, and I figured I could have my lunch in here, where it’s cool," I said, holding up my sandwich. "I figured you guys would have good air conditioning."

Whatever the guard had been expecting me to say, that clearly wasn’t it. Stumped for the moment, he backed up and scratched his chin. Ten seconds passed. In the meantime an attractive Asian woman in a gray suit came out of the elevator and burst out laughing at the sight of me. "Oh, my God!" she said, pointing. "Look at you!"

"Hi!" I said eagerly. "Want a bite of my sandwich?"

"No thanks!" she said, giggling.

"Hey," the guard interrupted, clearly displeased by this ominous escalation of the situation. "Cut that out. Now, seriously, buddy, what are you doing here?"

"I’m a friend of Larry Summers," I said. "He said if I was ever tired, I could come by to use the couch."

Stumped again, the guard paused another five seconds or so before reaching for a binder, which I guessed contained the Goldman employee list. I would have a half a minute or so at most before he discovered that there was no Larry Summers on the Broad St. employee list. In that time I needed to formulate a better answer for why I was there, because the cavalry was surely coming.

Of course, there was no chance of explaining myself in any way that would be acceptable to anyone there. While there are certainly some people who would understand, there isn’t a cop or a cop type in the world who’ll buy the argument that there are some days when you wake up in the morning and you feel you just have to dress up in a gorilla suit and eat your lunch, consequences be damned, on the floor of the headquarters of the Goldman, Sachs investment bank.

Furthermore, there was not likely to be anyone among the guards who had my
U.S. Treasury Secretary pimps Thailand's poor on behalf of Goldman Sachs. Russia is next.
background as a Russia-watcher, and would therefore have any idea why I might choose Goldman in particular as a place to visit in a gorilla suit. And even if by some chance they did have that background, they certainly wouldn’t care. No, convincing anyone of anything was out of the question; the best I could hope for was to prolong the confusion for as long as it took to finish my lunch. I advanced this cause by shouting out to passersby as the guards conferred with each other:

"Hey there, folks!" I said. "Bob Rubin’s gay lover here! Bob Rubin’s gay lover! In a gorilla suit!"

"Okay, pal," said another guard, silver-haired and obviously more senior. "What’s it gonna be? You don’t have any business here, so you’ve got to leave."

I shook my head. "Look," I answered. "If Goldman, Sachs can make a $50-million commission selling worthless Russian government debt, then I figure I can come into their offices in a gorilla suit and eat a sandwich on their floor."

I sat on the floor an unwrapped my sandwich. It smelled good. Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, the mouth-hole in the mask would not permit the sandwich to pass. I tried breaking off a piece and shoving it under the mask, but I got a big mouthful of hair with the bite. Oh, well, I thought. Every plan has its hitch. Not wanting to reveal my mistake, I simply held the sandwich in front of my face as I sat back against the security desk.

The older guard bent down. "Listen," he said. "If you don’t leave voluntarily, we’ve got to call the cops. That’s the deal. We can’t force you out on our own, but the cops can."

"I’ll leave voluntarily," I said. "But not now. In ten minutes."

Now it was the older guard’s turn to be stumped. "In ten minutes?" he said, after a long pause. "Why not leave now?"

"Because I don’t want to. I want to eat my sandwich. It’ll take ten minutes. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll leave voluntarily."

The guard scratched his head. This was an agonizing decision for a corporate automaton; allow an obnoxious trespasser to dictate terms to him, or forgo a peaceful solution to a potentially unnerving problem? He paused again to think it over, but I knew what decision he would ultimately make. And he did:

"No," he said finally. "You’ve got to leave right now."

"Why?" I said. "I said I’ll leave in ten minutes. You can’t allow me to sit here for even ten minutes?"

"Look," he said. "You’re sitting here, in a mask and a suit–"

"So what?" I said. "Everyone else here has a suit."

He sighed. "But you’re in a gorilla suit!"

Some lettuce had spilled out of my sandwich onto the floor. A Hispanic janitor wearing a uniform marked "ABM"–an employee of the very same ruthless corporation which the Los Angeles janitors went on strike against last month after being refused $1 dollar raises–came over to sweep the lettuce up. To my amazement, the guard stopped him. Seven bucks an hour–and you can’t even clean up some lettuce when you want to!

"Don’t sweep that up," the guard barked. "That’s evidence."

I stood up. "Are you serious?" I said. "You want to preserve lettuce as evidence? Come on, even you must find that funny."

And in fact, a smile broke out across the old guard’s face. He turned his head. A third guard, younger and more jovial, with a 1970s Bill Veeck Oakland A’s handlebar moustache, appeared and tried to talk his superior into letting me off. "He says he’ll leave in ten minutes. Why don’t we just leave it at that?"

The older man shook his head. "No. We have to call the first precinct."

As he reached for the phone, I stepped forward one more time. "You know, if you call the cops, it’ll take them at least ten minutes to get here." I said. "By then I’ll be gone. I mean, I’ll be gone in eight minutes from now. Do what you want, but be aware that whatever decision you make now is meaningless, except as far as I’m concerned. It’s a test, do you get it? You can either be cool, or you can call the cops. It’s up to you."

The younger guard was clearly opting for being cool, as were most of the people in the crowd-by now about two dozen men and women in expensive suits–who were literally beaming at the sight of this interloper in a gorilla suit invading their office. Something different was happening at the office! Something new! But the old guy, he wasn’t sure. Finally he gestured to the first guard.

"Call Goldman," he said.

The first guard got on the phone and dialed an extension. In a moment he was on the line to someone upstairs. "Hi, this is security… uh, we’ve got a guy in a gorilla suit down here at the entrance. He says he wants to eat his lunch on the floor…. No, he won’t leave. I mean, he says he’ll leave in ten minutes. We want to know if we should call the cops."

He nodded as he listened for their answer. The whole lobby was silent in anticipation of the verdict. While we waited, a fourth guard–a pudgy old Irish-looking type with slicked-back gray hair–tapped me on the shoulder.

"So," he said. "Do you have any business here, or just monkey business?"

I sneered through my mask. "Is that supposed to be a joke?" I said.

He said nothing. Meanwhile, guard number one hung up the phone and looked up to the crowd.

"They said to call the cops," he said.

ON MARCH 21, 1999, Communist Sergei Glazyev delivered a report compiled by a temporary parliamentary commission he chaired that had been charged with the task of investigating the reasons behind Russia’s financial collapse the previous year. The report had been based upon a series of interviews with some of the key players in the Russian government’s handling of the crisis the previous year, including Oleg Vyugin, Dmitri Vasiliev, Sergei Dubinin, Boris Zlatkis, and others. Refusing to be interviewed by the commission was an all-star collection of Western media darlings: Yegor Gaidar, Sergei Kiriyenko, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Fyodorov.

At the time Glazyev issued the report, Yevgeny Primakov was still Prime Minister. As he had done with information about Boris Berezovsky’s handling of Aeroflot money, administration antagonist Primakov might have been expected to initiate criminal charges on the basis of the report–if it contained anything damaging to his political enemies.

It did. On page 3 of the report, Glazyev alleged no less than treasonous conduct on the part of the small group of Kremlin insiders who he claimed acted unilaterally on an end run on August 17 to devalue the ruble and default on foreign debt without consulting the Parliament or the board of directors of the Central Bank. Glazyev alleged that the group, which included Chubais, Dubinin, Kiriyenko, Gaidar, Mikhail Zadornov, and Sergei Aleksashenko, had violated Russian national security by consulting with foreign financial interests about their plans prior to the devaluation. Here’s how the report reads:

"In the course of preparations for the decision of August 17 made by Anatoly Chubais in conjunction with the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and the Chairman of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation consultations were conducted in the absence of any authorizing directive or adherence to normal procedures for guaranteeing national security with the leaders of foreign financial organizations which had their own interests in the Russian market. The latter were given information of a confidential character, information which was intentionally concealed from the Russian participants in the market, from the rest of the Russian government, and from society at large. In addition, no measures were taken to ensure that this information would not be used by non-residents for their own commercial ends, and to the detriment of Russian national interests."

Glazyev’s report might have resulted in a criminal case, but it was not to be; Primakov was sacked by Yeltsin shortly after the report was released, and the matter was dropped. In fact, the report was not even made public until almost a year later.

Though Glazyev’s report explicitly named IMF executives Stanley Fischer and John Olding-Smee among the foreigners who were given insider knowledge about the timing of the crash, it did not name any of the private foreign interests who might have used insider knowledge "for their own commercial ends."

Glazyev didn’t name names, but he really didn’t have to. For almost anyone who observed the pre-crisis period closely suspected that certain Western banks were acting on more than a hunch before the crash. Goldman, Sachs, for instance, performed on the Russian market that summer with such a suspiciously high level of skill that even The New York Times was inspired to depart from its usual pattern of selective attentiveness to take the extraordinary step of noticing it. In the wake of the crash, Times reporter Timothy O’Brien described how Goldman that June had earned a whopping $56 million commission for floating $1.25 billion worth of Russian debt in a Eurobond issue. O’Brien reported that Goldman had invested large amounts of its own capital in the Eurobond before the issue, but that after the debt had been floated, it quickly changed its position to "flat" or "short." He compared the technique to a publisher who buys up copies of a new release in order to get it on the best-seller list.

Anyway, we all know what happened after that. Less than two months after the Eurobond was floated by Goldman, Russia announced its default, leaving investors holding the bag. O’Brien’s article even reported that many investors in the Russian market blamed Goldman for accelerating the crash by trimming its position after the bond issue.

Circumstantial cases don’t come too much more compelling than this. If Glazyev is telling the truth, and the IMF knew about the oncoming crash ahead of time, then it is reasonable to assume that, at the very least, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Rubin knew about it, too. After all, as the United States goes, so goes the IMF. And if Rubin had insider knowledge, it is certainly reasonable to assume that Goldman, Sachs, the investment bank Rubin had once headed, would be in a position to have it as well.

There are some who would go even farther than that. Author/investigator Anne Williamson, who testified before Congress last fall at the hearings on the Russian money-laundering scandal, believes that one or more American banks helped to secretly bail out the Russian government in December 1997 in exchange for a short position on the country’s GKO market.

Circumstantial evidence bears this theory out as well. As some of you may recall, Russia that month needed to come up with about $4 billion to avoid a default on its debt payments. How it actually came up with that money to avoid the crash then has remained a mystery. As Williamson writes in her forthcoming book, Contagion:

"True, Russia had rounded up $780 million from the IMF and ensured the release of $1.6 billion from the World Bank. But those two loans add up to only $2.38 billion. Where did they get the other $1.62 billion?"

Williamson has a theory about that. Like Glazyev, she believes that the collapse of the GKO market was to some degree a managed affair, an "inside scam enabling privileged bankers and officials to pocket the IMF’s billions."

"And what," she writes, "if the kingpin of the operation was a Westerner? Say, maybe a Westerner (or Western entity) who’d lent the Yeltsin government something like $2 billion desperately needed dollars in the autumn of 1997…. Such a loan could have been interpreted as a payment for a short position on the entire Russian GKO market.

"The careful reader will have noticed any number of possible culprits in this telling of the Russian debacle; George Soros was not the only high-roller frolicking in Russia during the years of Yeltsin’s ‘reform.’ And then there was the omnipotent presence at Treasury’s Olympian heights of the legendary Wall Street Bond trader Robert Rubin."

Eerie coincidences follow Goldman, Sachs vets everywhere in their Russia dealings. Rubin once directed Harvard University’s endowment fund; Harvard won the contract to handle privatized U.S. aid to Russia while Rubin sat on the Clinton cabinet. Former Goldman, Sachs man John Harmon chairs the U.S. Ex-Im Bank, which recently granted a $500 million loan to Alfa-Bank; Alfa has long been reputed to be a silent partner of Goldman; Alfa, like Goldman, was one of the few banks to come out looking good after the 1998 crash.

In the wake of the 1998 crash it became fashionable even among mainstream Western commentators to describe Russia as a hopelessly corrupt nation, whose more or less overtly criminal government was cynically propped up by the West using thinly veiled payoffs in the form of IMF and World Bank payments. This has been considered "edgy" journalism over the course of the last two years, these knowing assertions of cynical realpolitik support of the Yeltsin regime on the part of the American government.

It also became fashionable to talk about how the Russian state is run by an insular network of oligarchical insiders who are not accountable to the people they rule, and who have insured themselves against the ravages of the market by securing access to international loans and tax dollars.

But no one has yet dared to assert that the reverse is also true–that it is the United States which is run by an insular network of chummy insiders, none of whom are accountable to either the electorate or, ultimately, to the market, and who use emerging markets like Russia to launder their plundering of public money in exactly the same way that Russian politicians use international aid money to stay afloat.

When Wall Street investors (those same people who contribute so heavily to the major political parties) bet wrong in places like Mexico and Russia, the U.S. government and/or the IMF/World Bank are there to bail them out, just as they bailed the Yeltsin regime out when it screwed its subjects. In both cases the bill was ultimately picked up by ordinary taxpayers, both foreign (in the form of repayments of international loans) and domestic. And in both cases, it was massive amounts of money gleaned from plays on easily manipulated speculative markets–all backed by guarantees of government or international financial intrusion in the case of collapse–that proved to be the decisive factors in major elections. It is worth noting that Goldman survived the ‘98 crash to contribute heavily to Democratic candidates in the 1998 congressional elections.

If Glazyev, Williamson, and others like them are right–and the West used insider information in its dealings with the Russian market–then one really has to ask: what’s the difference, really, between Anatoly Chubais and Robert Rubin? Between Goldman, Sachs and Uneximbank? Between Clinton, the beneficiary of publicly financed big money, and Yeltsin, the beneficiary of publicly financed big money? Between self-financed Duma "candidate" Boris Berezovsky, who reportedly bribed his opponents to drop out, and self-financed New Jersey Senate candidate Jon Corzine, the former co-chair of Goldman, Sachs whose $300 million personal fortune was reportedly a major factor in Christine Todd Whitman’s decision not to seek the Republican nomination?

What’s the difference? Better suits, better dentistry, better p.r. people. And better addresses–like 85 Broad Street.

ALL MY LIFE I’VE WANTED to own my own gorilla suit. It’s been an active ambition of mine ever since my teen years, when I first started to have my own money. But a few months ago I turned thirty without having yet owned my own ape costume.

It took the biggest break of my life to make it a reality. Last year I sold a book, and then sold the film rights to the book to a major New York production company. For an unknown young writer, this was like winning the lottery. Yet when it was all said and done I didn’t receive my check until a little over a month ago, and even then it was only for $4500.

I lived off that money for most of the last month. When I went into Abracadabra earlier this week, I had only what was left to buy the suit.

They had two costumes. The first, the one on display, was a stunning beauty. It had a giant head-piece with an extraordinarily lifelike ape-face, a mesh mouth, and painted glass eyeballs. The clerk, a young ponytailed Filipino covered in tattoos, turned the head upside down to show me the costume’s centerpiece.

"There’s a fan inside the head," he said. "So you can keep cool as you walk. It’s a climate-controlled suit."

Some people talk about how they fell in love the first time they saw their first ‘65 Mustang, their first sailboat, the gold Fender Stratocaster hanging on their wall. I fell in love with this ape mask. It was, quite possibly, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, it also cost about $800. I could afford it, but… even for love, that seemed like a lot of money. I cradled it longingly in my hands for a moment, then handed it back to the clerk.

"What else have you got?" I sighed.

The Filipino went into a back room and came out with a very ordinary gorilla suit with a rubber head. I frowned at the sight of it, but it was much cheaper–only 200 bucks.

It was a tough decision. No taxpayer bailout was going to rescue me if I chose wrong. I was, I realized, completely subject to the market on this one. So I picked up the cheap suit, and went upstairs to pay for it.

Two hours later, I was sitting on the floor of Goldman, Sachs, feeling vindicated in my choice. The guards had just called the police and I had no intention of going anywhere. Normally when I play stunts like this I feel like I’m playing a role, and am anxious for them to be over as soon as possible. But sitting there in this gorilla suit I felt completely at home. I was so far gone and marginalized that I wasn’t losing anything by wearing such a disreputable costume and pissing off an oligarchical investment bank. The fear of losing something is what would normally make such a situation unpleasant. If anything, I felt more confident and more within my rights than when I’d first walked through the door. The whole situation just felt correct somehow.

What’s more, my luck started to change immediately. As soon as the guards called the police, a man in a black uniform appeared out of a side door with a yellow Labrador retriever on a leash. The bomb-sniffing dog! I was carrying a briefcase and without any pretense of adherence to due process they simply took it from me and shoved it under the dog’s nose. But as luck would have it, the briefcase was covered with gorilla hairs from the cheap suit. As the dog sniffed the case, the hairs shot up its nose, sending it into a violent sneezing fit.

The crowd roared with laughter. The guards, meanwhile, looked at me with renewed rage, offended on behalf of the dog. One of them dialed the police to ask what the holdup was. The response; the patrol car was held up in traffic. Downtown is pretty sticky at lunchtime.

Meanwhile I looked at my watch. Three minutes to go before my own deadline was up. Without hurrying, I was probably going to beat the police out the door. I smiled behind the mask, but nobody saw it.

"You know," I said, holding up the sandwich to older guard, "the restaurant across the street advertises this as the best grilled chicken sandwich in the world. But I’ve got to say it’s pretty ordinary. But I’m just going by the smell."

"Yeah, sure, guy," he said, looking at his watch.

"Two minutes to go," I said.

"They’ll be here," he said.

"Not in time," I said.

More people came in and out of the building; somebody waved to me and shouted "Nice suit!" For reasons I didn’t understand, somebody else shouted "Viva Las Vegas!"

As the clock ticked down I walked over to the wastebasket and tossed my sandwich into it. When there were just seconds left, the reasonable guard with the handlebar mustache walked up to me.

"So what about our deal?" he asked.

"Okay, time’s up," I said. "I’m out of here." I shook his hand. "Thank you, gentlemen."

"Take care," he said. "Good luck."

Amazingly, the rest of the guards shook my hand, too. Then, on my way out the door, what was left of the crowd applauded. I walked out of the building and looked both ways. No cops. I’d won. So I started off slowly down the street, to give them time to catch up if they wanted.

I could have taken the suit off right away, but somehow I didn’t feel like it. Instead, I decided to go up a few blocks and, despite the heat, take a victory lap down Wall Street. It was hot, but I didn’t feel nearly as hot as I had on the way down to Broad Street.

At the intersection of Broad and Wall Streets a black construction worker burst out laughing at the sight of me.

"Man," he said, "you ain’t going to get no pussy like that!"

The rest of that walk… If you’ve never walked down Wall Street in a gorilla suit carrying a briefcase, you wouldn’t understand. It was an awesomely liberating feeling. Every face I saw brightened at the sight of me. No one would ever brighten at the sight of Matt Taibbi. But a gorilla… that was a different story. As I disappeared into the subway station, wondering how I was going to get my wallet out from under the suit, I felt, for one moment, like Lech Walesa.

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