Victoria Parker

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.

Katherine Hepburn

Late September, 2017

To paraphrase my doppelganger, the Most Interesting Man in the World, “It’s not often I drive to Benicia, but when I do, I make sure it’s for a damn good reason.” Today I’m on my way to this delightful little hamlet shouldered between the muscular Carquinez Bridge to the West and a blockade of oil refineries to the East to break bread with one of my favorite people on the planet: Victoria Parker.

Those borne of misfortune or misguidance who spent some of their hard-earned money and infinitely more valuable time to read my novel “Pearls of Asia” may recall an integral character named Victoria Parker, the socially progressive, financially fearless and genetically-gifted mother of the books’ protagonist, Mac Fleet. What most people don’t realize is that the stubbornly fierce yet enchantingly feminine Victoria Parker was based on an actual person I had the pleasure to know during my years on Wall Street who went by the name of…Victoria Parker.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Miss Parker. It was February 1997, the Tuesday after the President’s Day holiday. Just hours earlier I had given my cannibal-of-a-boss at Robertson, Stephens & Company my resignation and headed out the door for a three-block sprint to my former stomping grounds of Montgomery Securities. Re-entering the twelfth floor of the Transamerica Pyramid as a returning POW was fun and borderline surrealistic, but the real highlight of the day was watching this too-sophisticated-for-to-be-here woman hold court over the testosterone-filled, Category Five calamity that served as Montgomery’s trading floor. The San Francisco trading community being the small world that it was, I had heard the name Victoria Parker for years but somehow managed to never meet her. But there she was, standing bolt upright like a Marine Corp drill instructor, her hands firmly placed on her narrow hips and wearing a fashionable burgundy suit that most likely cost more than my car. Engaged in a verbal wrestling match with a manly over-the-counter trader, and sensing she was about to lose the battle, Victoria ignored his protestations and calmly sat down and proceeded to win the war by picking up her phone and giving the customer on the other end an execution she believed they so richly deserved. The trader went ballistic, of course, and screamed and called her names that would make me turn crimson and want to crawl under my desk and beg for forgiveness. But Victoria, already a seasoned twenty-year veteran of trading floor mayhem, sweetly smiled and batted her big brown eyes before flipping him a perfectly-manicured middle finger.

I fell in love with her in less time than it takes to type this sentence. Victoria Parker was more than just a wickedly smart and classy lady blessed with a pretty face. She was tougher than a Gucci leather belt with animal studs (only $1,980…free shipping included).

To succeed on a Wall Street trading floor, one has to bring more to the table than raw intelligence and the ability to think quickly on their feet. They have to be responsible, disciplined, patient, independent, and forward-thinking. They also have to be witty, thick-skinned, and maintain a near-pathological work ethic. Last but not least is the can’t-be-taught-at-school ability to straddle the fine line between catering to a laundry list of difficult and needy customers versus the requisite, team player spirit of cohesive camaraderie required to survive in a virtual locker room filled with roving packs of maniacal traders, egotistical analysts and uppity support staff. Based on my three decades of experience, to accomplish this success as a woman required she be nearly twice as good as a man at everything I just mentioned. And no woman did it better than Victoria Parker.

But it’s not enough to say Victoria was the best female sales trader I ever worked with. She was one of the best, period. Just ask her customers. I did, and nearly every one of them professed their utmost respect not only for her professionalism, but for her compassion as well. Victoria possessed that rare, almost impossible-to-find on quality on Wall Street that separates the legendary from the good, the fabulous from the ordinary, the storied from the infamous. Put simply, she gave a damn. About their job. About their families. About them.

Shortly after the turn of this century, Victoria made the decision to retire from Wall Street. Despite being her direct supervisor as well as her friend, I was completely caught off guard. Victoria was still in her prime, and she looked and acted twenty years younger than her actual age. I organized a retirement party, and on a rainy Saturday afternoon in January over fifty of her friends and Montgomery Securities colleagues schlepped their way to Bix, a classy downtown San Francisco supper club befitting the honoree. I wrote and delivered a toast extolling her professional virtues, and near the end I got personal and drove home a point every person in the room would agree on. What really made Victoria the mythical figure she became (and remains to this day) was her youthful energy, a positive, can-do spirit that permeated every fiber of her being. That’s what those of us who came in contact with her on a daily basis will fondly remember forever. Rare was the day Victoria was in a sour mood, and even rarer was the day when she didn’t ask about you. How are you doing? How are you feeling? What are you up to? Conversely, ask Victoria those very same questions and she would tell you in a few short words that everything was fine, that the world never looked better, and when are we going to go out for a cocktail? In short, when it came to Victoria Parker, it was never going to be about her

I arrive at our appointed lunch spot in Benicia a few minutes before she does. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, and I’ve got nobody to blame for this act of blatant stupidity but myself. Victoria looks amazing as she strolls up the sidewalk in a pair of tight jeans and Jackie-O sunglasses. Every head in the restaurant turns to look at her as we stroll to our quiet table in the back near the bar, oblivious to the fact that the reed-thin, silver-haired heartbreaker they’re staring at just turned 70.

We order beers and spend the next several hours playing catch up. Yes, she’s still living at her cozy Wine Country dream house in bucolic Glen Ellen. Yes, she still spends her days trading her portfolio, loving her three ginormous dogs and tending to her chickens in the back yard. Yes, she’s still with her ruggedly handsome beau of nearly two decades. And yes, he’s still 24 years younger than her.

Monday, October 9, 2017

6:00am– I step into my garage to grab my workout clothes. It smells of heavy smoke, and I wonder if my next-door neighbor’s house is on fire. It’s only after I arrive at the gym that I discover from the television that five wild fires have broken out simultaneously in Napa and Sonoma county, both over fifty miles away. The images are frightening.

8:00am– Back at home, I tune to one of the local news channels. A remote crew is broadcasting from a Glen Ellen neighborhood, pinpointing the exact street Victoria lives on, a street which is only a few blocks long. I immediately text her, and she responds within minutes, saying she, her dogs and her man are all safe but that she has no other information to share. I begin to worry. A lot.

Monday, November 6, 2017

I decide to drive to Victoria’s house in Glen Ellen to see for myself the damage done by the deadly fires. Based on all of the news reports, you’d think the entirety of Sonoma County had burned to the ground. But Sonoma Square is busy and quaint as always. So is the luxurious Sonoma Mission Inn, located a few miles up the road. As I continue driving north on Highway 12 toward Santa Rosa, I see nothing of the raging firestorm that I’ve been hearing about for a month. Then, just two-tenths of a mile from her street, I see the smoldering remnants of a house, it’s charred chimney the only visible remains. Then another house. And another. I finally turn onto Victoria’s street, a once-lovely lane of rustic homes under a canopy of lush sycamore, maple, and eucalyptus trees. The neighborhood is leveled. It’s now a war zone. Everything, and I mean everything, is gone.

I park my next to Victoria’s property and begin surveying the devastation. Except for the burned-out shell of a car in the driveway, everything inside her home’s foundation bears the depressing greyness of ash. My eyes well with tears. How could this happen? How could this happen to her? She’s seventy years old, for God’s sake. Why on Earth does this woman, who worked so hard and put up with so much for so many years, have to start all over? How, in all this sadness, does one even begin to pick up the pieces

Suddenly, far off in the distance, I hear a woman’s voice. It’s Victoria. She’s walking towards me while at the same time shouting encouraging words to someone, as if telling a friendly neighbor that she’ll be stopping by later with a bottle of wine and some fresh gossip. She’s as cheerful and spunky and energetic as always. We embrace and give each other the Mother of All Hugs. She steps back and notices the quivering angst written all over my face, and proceeds to give me a comforting look with her eyes that says everything is going to be okay.

She gives me a tour of what’s left. The chickens survived, she says, because the coop had an aluminum roof. The backyard patio furniture surrounding the circular grass plot looks like it wasn’t touched, though she has no idea why. The wine cellar, however, is gone. So is her jewelry. And so is a copy of the toast I gave at her retirement party. In the dark of night, with scorching flames about to consume her property, Victoria had less than ten minutes to gather herself and anything precious to her. I look around at the apocalyptic scene and try to imagine what I would have done in her shoes. I can’t. I simply cannot.

Yet despite all the carnage and upheaval, Victoria excitedly points out a dozen native plants which are already starting to bloom. She also details her plans to rebuild, and that I shouldn’t be surprised if she’s back under her own roof within a year. She has her bad days, she says, when she’s depressed and feels sorry for herself, but then she quickly realizes there’s no point in mopping around. She learned long ago that fair is a four-letter word, and that waiting for others to pick you up is a losing strategy. Victoria Parker has always lived life on her terms, and nothing is ever going to change that.

We hug one more time before heading back to our respective corners, and on the drive home I can’t help but think about the spiritual strength exhibited by this remarkable woman whom I love and admire so much.

 

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