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Midstater's book, movie offer personal take on financial crash

Mechanicsburg native James Adams wrote
Mechanicsburg native James Adams wrote "Waffle Street" to chronicle his experience following the 2008 financial crash. It has been made into a movie of the same name. - (Photo / )

In January 2009, amid the depths of the last recession, James Adams walked into an unemployment office armed with the perfect icebreaker.

Sensing a dour mood among the people around him, he kept quiet. But he didn’t forget.

The icebreaker eventually found its way into a film based on the book Adams wrote about his experience during the downturn: “So, what kinds of mortgage derivatives did your former employer invest in?”

It probably wouldn't have gotten a laugh at the time, but it should now.

You can hear it yourself.

The film, called “Waffle Street,” is slated for a 7:30 p.m. showing this Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Carlisle Theatre. I had a chance to see it earlier this month in the home theater of a friend of Adams. The book of the same name was published in 2010.

The book and movie recount Adams' voyage of self-discovery. The Mechanicsburg native went from a job analyzing mortgage bonds for a hedge fund to a job waiting tables at a Waffle House restaurant in Durham, N.C.

The drastic change in career had a deeper purpose.

“I was in the financial industry and I loved it,” said Adams, 38, who now works for a wealth management firm in Lancaster County. “But I didn’t really feel good about it.”

Spoiler alert: A happy ending

After the financial crash of 2008, not many people felt good, especially people working in finance.

The crash was triggered by highly leveraged trading in risky subprime mortgages and exotic securities that few people understood. In the recession that followed, banks foundered, stocks sank and the unemployment rate soared to 10 percent.

Adams was laid off, along with tens of thousands of others. His is not the first literary treatment of the crash. Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” is among the best known. That book also made it to the big screen.

While Lewis gives the crash a journalistic treatment, analyzing the personalities and securities at the center of the bursting bubble, Adams takes a more personal approach.

His book is full of anecdotes about drunken diners, colorful co-workers and stuffed toilets. Underlying it is a man’s quest to find work that is both satisfying and socially useful.

“Part of that is finding a way to add value that is honest and personally edifying,” Adams said.

He also weaves in doses of economic theory and financial history, which could be a bit heavy for some. But the main hook is his experience at Waffle House, where he worked for about six months in 2009 in a bid to get as far away from finance as possible.

“Waffle House was an incredibly rich milieu,” said Adams.

The movie's narrative arc follows the main character’s effort to buy a Waffle House restaurant of his own, and the resulting tension between him and his wife. He finds something of a life coach in a streetwise co-worker played by actor Danny Glover.

Adams, portrayed by “One Tree Hill” star James Lafferty, keeps something of an ironic distance from the often-hilarious action around him.

The distance collapses, however, after he experiences a deep disappointment. Adams turns to his wife, and their embrace is the movie’s most tender moment.

In real life and in the movie, Adams eventually returns to finance, with a focus on financial planning and wealth management. At the end of the film, he is shown helping his former Waffle House co-workers set and reach investment goals.

The movie is being distributed by Los Angeles-based Mar Vista Entertainment, and will initially be available via digital download and on-demand.

A lesson learned

Adams clearly learned something from his experience in the crash. I asked if he thought people in general had learned anything, a question that is increasingly relevant given the turmoil in equity markets and the energy industry today.

People are mindful of history and business cycles, he said. But the lure of short-term gains often proves too strong to resist, and the lessons can be forgotten.

“Really, you’re fighting an uphill battle against human nature,” he said.

The week ahead

This weekend you’re probably fighting an uphill battle against Mother Nature, digging out from what was supposed to be a big snowstorm (as of this writing on Friday, at least).

Some of the coverage of this month’s storm focuses on one that hit 20 years ago, in 1996. It knocked out a portion of the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg and wreaked other havoc around Central Pennsylvania.

The 1990s also marked the coming of age of Generation X. That generation – sandwiched between two larger generations, Baby Boomers and Millennials – is the focus of this week’s Central Penn Business Journal.

Our staff reporters will be bringing you stories of the leadership role Gen X is playing in the workplace. It’s an interesting one, given the transformations in work and career that have taken place during the last 30 years.

There are no lists this week

Find the week’s networking opportunities here.

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