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Francesco Nazardo for Bloomberg Businessweek
To enter the FairyTail Lounge, a one-year-old New York nightclub opened by three former commodities traders, guests pass through a sparkle-splattered door into a small room so shimmery it looks like it was painted by Tinker Bell. Above the bar, two male garden gnomes perch on an overhead shelf, frozen in ceramic ecstasy, one’s face pressed against the other’s glazed butt.
Francesco Nazardo for Bloomberg Businessweek
On a dank Saturday night, the only things more dazzling than the bar itself are Roxy Brooks and Lauren Ordair, two drag queens bedecked with enough costume jewelry to sink a pirate ship. “It’s just terrible what happened to those people,” says Ordair, referring to the nearly 1,000 commodities traders who’ve lost their jobs over the last two years. “But it’s happening everywhere. Drag wasn’t my first choice, you know. I studied to be an opera singer. Turns out it’s a small field.” Now the tenor soprano belts out show tunes at FairyTail on Mondays, where one of those laid-off traders, her boss, has just arrived.
“Anthony!” the drag queen suddenly chimes, Cheers-style, as she waves to the bar’s proprietor, Anthony Scianna, a 50-year-old wearing a zip-up cardigan. If Scianna’s job hadn’t been made obsolete, the FairyTail Lounge might be nothing more than fantasy.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a pauper could become a prince if he knew the right person. A reliable guy like Scianna, from a working-class family on Staten Island, didn’t need an MBA, or even a college education, to make good money fast as a floor trader. Moving soft commodities such as cotton, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and frozen concentrated orange juice was an old-school apprenticeship: There was no employment office, no interview, just guys who knew guys. All a pauper needed was a loud voice, a sky-high tolerance for stress, and a friend to vouch for him. Scianna got invited to the ball and worked the business for 20 years, from 1990 until last fall, when it became clear that Cinderella’s clock was going to strike midnight any minute.
As recently as early 2011, 90 percent of soft-commodity options were traded on the floor in an open-outcry tradition—a loud, brash system of hand signals, shouts, and frenzied person-to-person deal- making—going back roughly 142 years. But as electronic trading exploded, that percentage has flipped: About 1,000 traders used to work the floor; that number was down to 100 by Oct. 19, when IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) (ICE) closed its floor altogether and completed the transition to computerized trading. It’s an historic shift in the way business gets done and a clear-cut case of humans being replaced by machines. As the system grows more efficient, these jobs are disappearing, and so goes a tribe of Wall Street.
“I had a beautiful life. It was a beautiful experience,” Scianna says in his New York accent, the day after those layoffs left many of his old friends unemployed. “When I would walk into work, it felt like going home. We really were one big beautiful family.” A beautiful family from whom he hid that he was gay for 15 years, but more on that later.
Leaning against a pile of purple velvet pillows, Scianna says he liked the money, the camaraderie, the Cipriani parties, and the great hours: After coffee trading closed at 1:30 p.m., the rest of his day was free. And he thrived on the stress. “It never made me nervous, it made me excited,” he says. “One time, I witnessed a wonderful man, the father of a dear friend, pass away in the ring, trading copper. They just pulled him out and it kept going. The market never stopped.”
Scianna spent two decades trading futures but never thought much about his own. “Then we watched the business go from what it was to nothing. Suddenly the guy next to you was gone,” he says. “In 2010 I was 48, and I said to myself, ‘Who’s going to hire me? I don’t have any other skills.’ So I needed an idea.”
The find-yourself chick flick Eat Pray Love is playing on the TV above the bar, muted, as Scianna explains that he, like Julia Roberts, began his own second act after a bad breakup. A friend told him he had to get back out there, so Scianna hit Manhattan’s gay club scene. “I noticed every single gay bar was always packed,” he says. “All night long.”
This was a growth business with a future: Bartenders, go-go dancers, and drag queens would not be replaced by machines, at least not any time soon. So Anthony pitched his idea for the FairyTail Lounge to two fellow ICE traders, Joe Carman and Dave Dwyer, who looked over the numbers and signed on as investors in the fall of 2010. Scianna immediately quit his job trading coffee for Chicago-based SMW Trading.
When SMW closed down his old division three months later, Scianna was already at work renovating a space at 48th Street and 10th Avenue, with mixed results. Veteran gay club party promoter Joseph Israel, a flashy Puck on the nightlife circuit, says Scianna’s original bar design was too, well, “ugh.” So he persuaded Scianna to allow him to queer up the place. “The bar was plain, plain, plain,” says Israel with a shiver. “The decoration didn’t even have a fairy tale theme!” So Israel conceived a wonderland of unicorns, satyrs, glitter, and a black-light poster that stars Walt Disney’s (DIS) Prince Charming as a foot fetishist and Snow White being pleased by all seven dwarves.
In a way, it’s not surprising that Scianna’s original idea for the bar was more subdued. He’d spent most of his adult life on conservative Wall Street, where almost everyone was straight—or acted like it. No matter how much he loved his job, he spent about the first 15 years of his career afraid that the more powerful old-timers would find out he was gay and fire him.
“You couldn’t take that chance,” he says, as a slender DJ with a flat-top begins spinning house music in a tiny booth. “You have to realize, Wall Street was a private club for very wealthy people. So I never led anybody to believe that I was gay. In those early days, I didn’t want anyone to have a reason to get rid of me.” He finally came out to co-workers after Sept. 11. “I said, ‘This is who I am. I’m not going to change or come in with a dress on.’ And a lot of the old-timers were gone by then, so it was OK.”
Scianna’s still working in a loud, noisy room filled almost entirely with competitive men who aggressively swap digits. Only instead of bulls and bears, it’s centaurs and unicorns. And instead of waking up at 5 a.m. to make the commute from Staten Island to Wall Street, he’s getting home from the bar around 5:30 a.m., dusted with sparkles. He has new responsibilities as a bar owner—employees, vendors, the glitter supply—but it’s working. When his friend Joanne Cassidy lost her job as a clerk in the ICE layoffs after 20 years on the floor, Scianna was able to give her work as a coat-check girl to tide her over. “There’s a family feeling to the place,” says Cassidy. “It’s like Cheers.”
Scianna says he’s definitely happier, but he sometimes misses the respect, the macho glitz, the big bonuses. “Trading, you could be an a– –hole, you could be cocky,” he says. “You didn’t make money one day? F– – – you, you’d make it tomorrow. Here, I have to take care of so many people.”
“I almost wish I didn’t taste it,” he says of Wall Street. “It’s like the pauper who tastes what it’s like to be rich—the instant gratification of knowing exactly how much money you made every day at 2:30. I’m all right now, but there are employees to pay, vendors, staffing issues. I don’t know how much I’ve made till I pay all the bills.” Scianna is figuring it all out as he goes.
It’s getting close to midnight—almost time for free shots!—and as the go-go boy writhes, the dance floor fills up with handsome young men and Julia Roberts shoves pasta into her face on the bar television. Scianna smiles. Maybe he hasn’t found his happily ever after, but, he says, “it’s a totally whole new life. This is my second act.”