When the giant savings and loan Washington Mutual failed in September and had to be bought by JPMorgan Chase, not much changed for its clients. But its employees were laid off by the thousands. The WaMu workers in Seattle, the site of the S&L's headquarters, decided to throw themselves a party — a festive "WaMu Wake."
"I wanted so much to retire with this company," says Iris Glaze, a WaMu employee who will lose her job at the end of January. "And to think that I am going to be unemployed with so many wonderfully qualified people. I have to tell you, I have my bad thoughts, but why bother? Why would I want to dwell on the bad thoughts?"
Those would be bad thoughts about her job in investor relations, where people used to call Glaze to thank her. Now they call everyday to say things she can't say out loud. JPMorgan Chase will lay off 9,200 Washington Mutual employees this year, so Iris says it's time to have fun together, relax, and get drunk with your boss.
She heads off dispensing hugs as a Beatles cover band takes the stage.
The club fills up with WaMu casualties — and they are shouting along and bouncing. Throughout the set they are literally high-fiving each other while yelling lyrics to the songs: "Tell me why you cry, and why you lied to me" and the emcee even joins in with his own words: "I should have known better than to hold that stock."
The room is full of people who lost their jobs in a dramatic way. Their employer disappeared overnight in the middle of a global economic collapse. They are hundreds of people from human resources, technical support and investor relations who, for the most part, had nothing to do with the sub-prime loans that brought WaMu down.
But the place is full of love and sentimental affection for the company that gambled employees' savings and jobs on risky loans, a company many of them really loved and devoted their lives to. When an auction of Washington Mutual paraphernalia begins, people rush to bid:
"This is quite a collector's item. Let's start the bidding at $25 and see where it takes us," the emcee says.
A "free checking sign" goes for $55; a Kerry Killinger bobble head doll (he's the former WaMu CEO) fetches $225; and a bidding war starts for over 20 years of annual reports, which also sell for $225. The money will go to a WaMu alumni fund for education.
"Perhaps," the emcee says, "your kids really will be able to go to college."
Kaisa Sidell is sitting towards the back of the club. She's been with Washington Mutual for more than 27 years.
"I think most people need a way to have some closure when they've invested a lot of time, as I have," Sidell says. "A lot of my identity has been associated with this company. Been proud of it for most of its existence, and I'm sad to see it go."
For WaMu lifers like Sidell and Glaze, their legacy is now attached to the largest bank failure in history and the celebration seems to be about reclaiming the story and leaving with heads held high.
The very last act of the night is more music — two employees with a special song written for the evening. This is when Glaze — up on stage with the band, covers her mouth, turns her back to the audience — and starts to cry.