June 25, 2013 | 7
I was always attracted to numbers.
In middle school my baseball card collection spilled into a second drawer, driven by my love of the statistics on the back. I would spend hours sitting on the floor searching for trends and hidden meaning in the batting averages. The players’ pictures and “personal detail” mattered little.
In high school I bought a telescope so I could track the moons of Jupiter. I kept a tiny notebook where I wrote details and figured out the patterns.
Numbers were comforting and relaxing. When assigned the odd problems for math homework I would do the evens as well, sucked in by the rhythm of the task.
In grad school I would jokingly tell people in bars that getting a PhD in Math required me adding immense numbers. I said that for my thesis I was adding together numbers so long that to write them down required a thousand yards of paper.
When telling this I saw myself joyfully working my way down a scroll the size of ten city blocks adding and adding and adding. The image made me happy.
After my PhD I went to Wall Street. Finance was becoming quantified and people who could find patterns and understand data were valuable. I was now being paid well for my love of numbers.
I spent the first few years there building huge spreadsheets and trying to explain what I thought the numbers said about the possible future.
Soon they suggested I gamble money based on my reading of numbers. I was decent at it. I could look at a country’s numbers, its GDP, its Current Account Deficit, its Primary Surplus, its Debt/GDP, its Nominal Rates, and so on, and tell you what I thought would happen. Russia will default. The US will grow. Indonesia will devalue its currency.
I did all this and really didn’t deal much with the people. I mean I thought I did. I went on international business trips. I ate in restaurants. I went out for beers at night. I talked to taxi drivers and bellhops and flight attendants. I spoke with others like me. We went to conferences where we argued and nodded at smart things being said.
Still I never got to know the people who were being affected the most. Wall Street really didn’t think it was the correct way to spend it resources. Business trips were about meeting politicians, economists, and investors. We sat at tables and sipped our drinks, discussing numbers.
We consoled ourselves: People are not logical, not at the individual level. At the aggregate level they were, or so we thought.
During one trip to Brazil, in the middle of one of its financial crises, I spent three days straight in an office tower watching computer screens. I would leave each night taking a taxi to the hotel.
That Friday I left early. The markets were in panic and little good seemed to be in the future. As I walked to the mall I was surprised: Why is everyone just being normal? Where is the hysteria that I saw on the market screens?
Instead I saw an average day, filled with small dramas: A mother upset with her kid who wanted ice cream. A young couple holding hands, both with shiny braces on their teeth. A cluster of old men on a bench looking judgmental.
I left Brazil that Friday night and flew home in first class. I went back to my job in New York and back to the comfort of my numbers.
After fifteen years trading on Wall Street I transferred to a job where all I did was look at numbers: Trading for the bank with their money. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone. Wall Street had shifted from using phones to using chat rooms. It was all just numbers and words on a screen.
In 2007 a financial crisis hit that affected me in a direct way. My company, Citibank, escaped bankruptcy only because of a government bailout.
It is also when I started photographing New York. I would go on long walks, to escape the crisis. For the first time in my life I let decisions be guided by unquantifiable things like empathy and curiosity rather than probability.
I let events and people take me wherever they did. It led me to some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
Three years later I was spending almost all of my free time in Hunts Point, the Bronx, photographing and writing the stories of addicts. I was finally looking beyond the numbers and interacting with people on a visceral level.
I was hearing gut-wrenching stories, going into crack houses, helping addicts shoot up, and watching as friends die. I was seeing just how messy life is, filled with ambiguity and unsolvable problems. I was also seeing how amazingly resilient people could be, how happiness can be found amidst pain.
I would still spend my days looking at numbers but they did not hold the same thrill as before. They seemed shallow and lifeless.
They had also been wrong. Deadly wrong. Wall Street’s faith in numbers had proven to be disastrous. That structured world had been co-opted and hijacked by greed and ego.
The world had handed numbers people the keys and we had almost driven the car off the cliff.
A year ago I left my job to focus on photography and stories.
Recently I came home from a day in the Bronx, exhausted by the cumulative effect of a thousand little dramas. I opened my computer and looked at my twitter stream. My old world reappeared. I read smart commentary on places like Brazil. I scrolled through tweet after tweet, all shouting the story of the day.
It was all logical and rational and clever. Everyone was throwing different numbers around to show they were right.
Few were telling the messy and complex stories of the struggles to navigate the illogical and absurd reality of life, about the consequences of the news on, you know, people.
One smart columnist, Matt Yglesias, was arguing why the death of 1,129 people in a clothing factory in Bangladesh was understandable and “OK.” Poor countries need lax labor laws before they can be rich . . . It went something like that.
The author had fallen so far down the wormhole of numbers and clever arguments that he had forgotten humans were involved. Like Wall Street and I had forgotten that it was humans we were loaning money to and that it was humans who we were foreclosing on and it was humans whose governments were defaulting.
I wanted to tweet back. “Go to Bangladesh. Talk to one of the children of the dead. Hell, don’t just talk to one. Spend two weeks listening.”
He hadn’t gone to Bangladesh. He had just read a few headlines from a competing columnist and decided to argue based on that.
After much thought I tweeted to him, “you are an idiot.”
Since I was a kid numbers have won. They took over baseball with the advent of moneyball. They have taken over finance and are starting to take over politics.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Rational arguments can trump emotions. Yet it can and has gone too far. We have become so intent on maximizing some efficiency function that we need to be reminded that the tiny data points being argued about are people with stories and tragedies and moments of joy
Yes it is trite, but it’s remarkable how much damage is done when we forget.
In January of this year on of my subjects, Millie, passed away. Her unclaimed body was tagged #97 (the 97th death in the Bronx during 2013) and shipped from Lincoln Hospital to the New York Medical Examiner’s office. After two months she was buried in a trench on Hart Island by the department of Correction.
She and the close to 900,000 others buried on Hart Island have no tombstones or a place for relatives to remember or lay flowers. Millie’s death notice was the gossip on the streets. Her life story, growing up in Puerto Rico the daughter of addicts, of twenty years of prostitution, homelessness, and drug abuse will not register beyond a close circle of friends.
I am thankful and fortunate that over the last two years I got to know her as Yafna Garcia, not just the 97th death in the Bronx of 2013.