In another life I’d have been at the KCBOT that last Friday for its sad send off…
I earned my first paycheck there when I volunteered to help out over the Christmas holidays in the mailroom of my family’s firm, B.C. Christopher & Company. I was 15, pretty much a geek and $1.25 an hour was a lot of dough to me then. So much so, that when I returned the following summer, my dad refused to let me to work any overtime – even though they needed me – because he didn’t want me ranging around loose with too much money.
I graduated to the elevator department a year or two later. We leased or owned and operated about 30 country grain elevators and merchandised grain purchased directly from farmers in small towns like Mayfield, Kentucky and Gideon, Missouri. We sold it to firms that either processed the grain (like Archer, Daniels, Midland) and/or exported it (like Louis Dreyfus).
I worked in the elevator department, checking each and every ticket written up at our country grain elevators for the truckloads of grain purchased from farmers, then stored and later sold. There were computers back then, but they were room-sized and reserved for more important functions like sending out customer statements for stock, bond and futures transactions.
The gear employed in our accounting department consisted of large, mechanical adding machines, with row after row of numbered buttons. To anybody born after 1960, those so-called “calculators” would be unimaginable. It was tedious work and took great concentration, the payoff coming when we’d find an error that benefited either the firm or the customer. At which point we’d notify a gentleman named Randall Finke and he would remedy the matter with the given elevator manager.
After a post college stint in the United States Navy, I returned to the Board of Trade as a trainee basically, entering customer orders direct to the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Talk about fast and furious – it was baptism by fire (at a slightly higher scale of pay) during some of the wildest days of commodity futures trading in modern history.
Russian wheat deals, flooding along the Mississippi and record high grain, livestock and precious metals prices made for wild intraday price swings. All of which attracted novice investors unaquainted with the fact that the highly leveraged investments could – and usually did – result in them suffering stunning losses and staggering margin calls. Small fortunes were won on occasion – but more often, larger ones were usually lost – in those go-go days of the mid to late 1970s.
It was a wild, heady ride to be sure, albeit a stultifying and ultimately unhappy one for most customers who hoped – naively – to profit from the price swings. Futures brokers coined expressions that fit the times and uttered them daily – expressions such as, “Chicago giveth, Chicago taketh away” and “Forget the cheese, let me out of the trap.”
At 1:15 p.m. sharp every weekday, the traders and futures brokers at the Kansas City Board of Trade would march gleefully up Main to the Streetcar Named Desire and/or The Peanut – to have a Streetcar Cheddar Burger or Peanut BLT – and alternately drown their sorrows, celebrate their wins or just take the edge off a frenzied trading day. Often, in fact usually, many would not return for several hours – if ever – and only then in various states of inebriation.
And that’s the way the game was played at the KC Board of Trade and other futures exchanges around the country from time immemorial. Suffice it to say, alcoholism ran rampant among grain brokers and commodity traders in those days. It more-or-less just came with the turf.
And while I enjoyed being a part of that scene – it really wasn’t me. I preferred working with the grain elevators and helping with their day-to-day operations. To that end, I spent nearly a year living in a small motel room and later a single-wide trailer by a soybean field in the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky. I drove there from Kansas City in a new, brown Fiat X1/9 mid-engine sports car, carrying as many cases as I could wedge in of Coors Beer from Kansas.
Coors was like gold back then, as was not available in Missouri or any of the eastern states. Bestowing a case, a six pack or even a can of Coors on the manager of a grain elevator or another local, was almost like to being one of the wise men and delivering gold, frankincense or myrrh.
On my return trips to Kansas City, I would bring the bounty of Kentucky – moonshine and country ham largely – even though I lived in a “dry” county. After one such trip I learned that the son of the owner of Miller Pontiac – Sam Miller – had been hospitalized for bleeding ulcers after a Sunday afternoon of sipping shine with me.
You had to be there.
I was into photography big time back then – had my own darkroom, etc. – and I made the very large purchase of a Leica M4 rangefinder 35 mm camera in Memphis while living in Kentucky. However, the prospect of returning to KC (and the Board of Trade) and needing to make a down payment on my first house in Prairie Village prompted me to advertise the Leica for sale in the Kansas City Star. The ex-wife of one of the owners of Kelly’s in Westport answered my ad and came to my father’s office in the KCBOT to examine the camera. I asked him later what she looked like and he said she was quite attractive.
So I set up a meeting with her on my next return trip to KC a few weeks later to show her the camera, which resulted in a rollicking good time and a year or two of booty calls, including a visit to her in the Pittsburgh, Kansas area where she’d moved. Jane never bought my Leica by the way, but what the heck – it’s still kind of a decent Board of Trade story, huh?
Somewhere in the late 1970s, I recall, the Board of Trade was electrified by word that a house of ill repute had opened just up the street – on the west side of Main just south of 51st Street. I never actually went in, but I sure did eyeball it several times. Not sure whatever became of it, I think we heard it got busted finally, but… Had I been the Hearne Christopher of my Pitch, Star or KC Confidential days, I’d have charged right in, camera and reporter’s pad in tow. But I was still somewhat of a geek, and besides, the last thing I was about to do in my 20s was pay for sex with some stranger.
Speaking of which, I had some great times at the Board of Trade – including the time I got busted trying to have a few private moments with my one and only high school girlfriend, a carhop that worked at Winstead’s on the Plaza. It was over the Christmas vaca senior year of high school and I was home from Tucson. Being as it was winter and I had no particular place to go, we ended up on the ladies room couch on the first floor of the KCBOT. That is until the door swung open and in rolled a cleaning cart accompanied by a – wait for it – cleaning lady. A kindly sort who more-or-less forgave my incomplete transgression and allowed us to make our ungraceful exit.
I learned a lot about life at the Kansas City Board of Trade.
I learned to curse like a sailor – something I’d totally never done before – even while an actual sailor in the US Navy. I’d like to think I learned some life lessons about what not to do as well; and that’s drink like a fish everyday until late at night while my family rolled their eyes knowing full well where I probably was.
I learned that it really was a dog-eat-dog world and that there was indeed honor among thieves (i.e. floor traders). I learned about investments and economics, including sage expressions like, “Buy the rumor and sell the fact.”
I learned what an Oklahoma Guarantee was from a gentleman named Wade Owen – but I won’t disclose it here.
I learned how to stand up for myself, even when it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
Like the time I challenged a Man Mountain by the name of Joe Neff to step outside in the parking lot and settle our differences. Joe had been messing with some of the grain elevators I was in charge of communicating with and I’d had enough and went Scribe on his ass. Joe was farmhand strong and had he accepted my generous offer I might not be here today. So I lucked out and got it out of my system. Win-win deal, right?
For the last however many of my years at the KCBOT I was a floor member and designed gray trading jackets for our pit trader, Sam Willoughby. Still have mine. I never succumbed to the lure of trading Kansas City Wheat or Value Line on the floor. I can be a fairly frantic at times, but it wasn’t my thing.
Too bad for me.
Because sources say those full memberships brought somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000 each or more in the final sale to the CME. Nice.
I left a part of me behind when I departed from the Kansas City Board of Trade in 1986 – a big part. A year later I was running a record rag called The Pitch while promoting mostly alt rock club acts like They Might Be Giants, Soul Asylum, The Pixies and Mojo Nixon. Please don’t ask me to explain but I even did Jay Leno at the Music Hall.
Sometimes I wonder why I ever left, but you can’t go back, right?
And as of last week, there’s nothing to go back to anymore. Because just like the Kansas City Star, computers and the Internet have rendered the KCBOT more-or-less an anachronism. The frenzied madness of the trading floor – the colorful coats and the colorful language, the strong men that wore them and uttered them – all gone.
Raising the unanswered question of, who’s going to keep the Peanut afloat now that all those day drinkers are moving to Prairie Village and god knows where else?