This past Sunday, five minutes before the first complete off-book rendition of Junk, the scene in the rehearsal room was bustling. Stage managers prepared props and furniture, actors drilled lines, and a stagehand wafted in and out. My focus, however, was on dairy animals in South Dakota.
You see, as I was assuming my seat, to watch the “stumble-through” as unobtrusively as possible, I had passed a stack of books on the table of the director, Doug Hughes, and his team. Some of them were the expected studies of the age of high-flying, 1980s finance that Ayad Akhtar dramatizes so expertly in Junk: Den of Thieves, by James B. Stewart; The Predators’ Ball, by Connie Bruck; and Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Some were analyses of societal and economic malaise connected to the financial crisis of 2008: Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt, and Makers and Takers, by Rana Foroohar.
But of all these books that have been consulted by the playwright and by many of the actors only one brought back memories of my Dakota youth: A Giant Cow-Tipping by Savages: The Boom, Bust, and Boom Culture of M & A, by John Weir Close.
At age 12, I didn’t know an M (mergers) from an A (acquisitions). But, thanks to one hot night in June of that year, I was familiar with cow-tipping. For those of you whose knowledge of agriculture doesn’t extend beyond the produce aisles of Whole Foods, cow-tipping constitutes a rite-of-passage in some Midwestern and Western states. At least it did in my childhood days, in the 1970s; rural lads in 2017 are as engrossed as their urban counterparts in their smart phones and are thus as likely to be watching livestock on a small screen as noticing it as they stroll amongst amber waves of grain.
I had been observing cattle closely since the age of about three and so was very aware that cows sometimes sleep standing up. I also knew that early-adolescent boys sometimes, in the dead of night, engaged in cow-tipping. It was only at age 12, though, that I was finally invited by one of the local dairy-farm lads to participate. I was sworn to secrecy. I was told to show up at the edge of a cow field around midnight. I complied. There were nine of us assembled – such a squad was potentially necessary as a mature dairy cow weighs around 1,400 pounds. Only boys were allowed: girls were thought too weak to perform physical mischief.
Mischief is an ill-chosen word: cow-tipping, as Close’s book title indicates, is a dastardly deed. You sneak up on the animal, lightly lean into its torso, and gradually increase the force of the push until the cow tips over. On the night-in-question, I refused to take part in the act itself. I feared, rightly as it turns out, that being pushed over could harm the cow. In the event, I’m not sure which was worse: refusing to take active part in the ritual, or merely observing and thereby becoming an accessory to the act. I was cowardly AND complicit.
I’m not going to provide here a full, Huck Finn-type description of how the cow-tipping went down, except to say that the cow, I found out the next morning, had luckily not been injured. I was thus teased by my friends both for my over-sensitivity and for my refusal to be part of the team.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the commotion of the cow-tipping awoke a nearby male member of the species. Stationed at a remove from the crime, I had had a head start on avoiding a goring, and once over the field’s fence, I had the perverse pleasure of watching my friends sprint Pamplona-ishly for their lives.
Since this is ostensibly a blog entry about Junk and its narrative of Wall Street, I suppose I should end with a connection to the financial market and to the beasts connected with that market’s rise and fall. I’m happy to acknowledge those animals but only by means of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, at least in its version that night in South Dakota: “Exit, pursued by a bull.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.