Always strike up a conversation with your bartender.
I say this for two reasons. Firstly I used to be a barmaid myself, and when customers spoke to me as a human being rather than a brainless beer-mongering skivvy I would reward them handsomely – an extra large shot in their vodka and coke, an optimum head on their perfectly poured pint, a free bag of Seabrookes crisps slipped furtively over the bar top, and so on. It’s an extension of the rule that you should always be polite to waiters because otherwise they’ll spit in your soup.
Secondly you never know who your bartender is or has been in the past, and I was reminded of this in spectacular style last night. I’m currently in staying in Beirut – a fabulous, modern and vibrant city which also suffers from constant third-world style power cuts. The electricity had been off for several hours in my apartment and the last bit of charge had finally drained from my laptop just as I was in full article-writing flow. So I headed to the bar across the road, plugged my laptop in and, in fine journalistic tradition, got pissed as I carried on writing.
I also started chatting to the bartender – a guy who looked Lebanese but spoke with a perfect American accent. I asked him where he was from, and he told me that he was born in Lebanon but grew up in Orange County. Then he asked me what I did, and I told him that I’m a journalist.
“I hate journalists,” he said.
I’m so used to hearing this that it doesn’t bother me at all, but I’m always interested to find out why people hate journalists so much. My trade has its seedy side but without the press no-one would know about Watergate, or Abu Ghraib, or MPs’ expenses, to name just a few. So I pressed him for his reasons.
“Journalists ruined my life,” he said, whipping his ID card out of his wallet.
His name was Daniel Sadek and straight away I looked him up on the internet. At the top of the search results was a bank of photos of the guy standing in front of me. It was definitely him, but in rather more high-rolling times. This is my personal favourite:
It’s the man who was serving me my beer, flanked by honeys at a party hosted by his good mate Wyclef Jean. I know, right? How blinging – but why the hell is he now serving drinks in a bar in Beirut?
Just a little further down the results list I found the answer, along with the reason why he hates journalists – a Vanity Fair article from 2009 with the title The 100 to Blame. It’s a list of the people that Bruce Feirstein – the journalist who wrote it – felt were most responsible for the 2008 economic crash, and my barman came in at number 86.
Feirstein explained his reasons for including Sadek in the list so succinctly that I’ll quote his entry in full:
86. Daniel Sadek.
Meet Predator Zero in the subprime-mortgage game: Armed with a third-grade education and the $250 he paid for a California lender’s license, Sadek quit his job as a Mercedes-Benz salesman (in Orange County!) and opened Quick Loan Funding, whose TV commercials promised,“No income verification! Instant qualification! You can’t wait, and we won’t let you!” According to a competitor, Sadek would have written a loan to “an insolvent arsonist.” By 2007, Quick Loan had approved $4 billion in subprime mortgages and was pulling in almost $200 million a month selling them to Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Bear Stearns. His personal take-home was $5 million each month, which he splashed out on fast cars, million-dollar Vegas gambling jaunts, and a $26 million feature film—Redline—whose $8 million gross barely covered its budget for Porsche destruction. After it all went south, in 2008, the Lebanese immigrant fell behind on his own mortgage payments. Citibank modified his loan.
(You can read the full article here: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2009/09/100-to-blame-sex-and-the-city-the-super-bowl-and-more)
Sadek told me that this article opened a Pandora’s box. Suddenly he was a public hate figure, pursued by a pack of journalists and under investigation by the FBI. When they cleared him of any wrongdoing a year ago he left the States and came to Beirut, where his parents are currently living. “I couldn’t go anywhere in America without people recognising me and giving me abuse,” he said.
In some ways I sympathise with him. He certainly wasn’t the only sub-prime lender in the States before the 2008 crash, and I’ve always felt that the people who took out those sub-prime loans should have taken a bit more responsibility for their own mistakes. If you’re on a low wage, and you don’t have any savings, then you can’t afford to buy a property – and if a smooth talking salesman convinces otherwise then more fool you. I also find the references to his ‘third grade education’ and immigrant status slightly uncomfortable, as well as superfluous. Surely it’s even worse to flog dodgy mortgages when you have a degree in Finance from a top university?
However, Sadek didn’t appear to want to take much responsibility for his own mistakes either. Every time I tried to press him for a bit more of his story he responded with theories about why he was singled out for blame in the press. In his eyes it’s because the American media is Jewish owned and he is a Christian Arab outsider, and nothing to do with the fact that he presided over one (admittedly small but still substantial) part of an almighty global fuck-up. I’m no big fan of Israel’s foreign policies or America’s unquestioning support for them, but my eyes do tend to glaze over when someone starts talking about Zionist conspiracies.
But overall Sadek’s a personable guy who made some pretty huge errors and is now paying for them, and I’m sure that he will go on to do well: he said he was planning to write a film based on his story and if it’s done right I can imagine that it will be great. It was fascinating talking to him and he also gave me a free beer, which was very nice of him given his disdain for what I do for a living.
And that brings me back nicely to what I said at the beginning: always strike up a conversation with your bartender.