A moment last Monday, just after noon, in Manhattan. It’s slightly overcast, not cold, a good day for walking. I’m in the 90s on Fifth heading south, enjoying the broad avenue, the trees, the wide cobblestone walkway that rings Central Park. Suddenly I realize: Something’s odd here. Something’s strange. It’s quiet. I can hear each car go by. The traffic’s not an indistinct roar. The sidewalks aren’t full, as they normally are. It’s like a holiday, but it’s not, it’s the middle of a business day in February. I thought back to two weeks before when a friend and I zoomed down Park Avenue at evening rush hour in what should have been bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This is New York five months into hard times.
One senses it, for the first time: a shift in energy. Something new has taken hold, a new air of peace, perhaps, or tentativeness. The old hustle and bustle, the wild and daily assertion of dynamism, is calmed.
And now Washington becomes the financial capital of the country, of the world. Oh, what a status shift. Oh, what a fact.
If you want to feel the bruise of what’s happened, pick a neighborhood full of shops and go up and down the street. Here’s Second Avenue in the 80s. A jewelry and consignment store on 84th has a new sign on the window: “We Buy Gold.” Paul is at the counter, spraying the tarnish off a silver chain. How’s business? “No buyin’, no sellin’, no nothin’. It’s a joke. People scared. They’re in shock.” Nearby, an empty storefront, a bar that had been in business only 10 months. The sign on the window—you see it all over Manhattan now—says, “Retail Space Available.” Next door, in a small beauty salon, the owner says “We’re trying to survive.” In September business plummeted. It’s down “at least 30%,” she says. July and August had been surprisingly good; her clients didn’t go away on vacation. In the fall they were fired. “They lost the job, so they don’t need to cut and color so much.”
In a liquor store just off 82nd, the owner, from India, says volume is still high but profits are down. “In business, if you have a product under $15, is good. People used to spend $70, $80 on a bottle of wine, all the bankers, the young kids. Nothing moving more than $15.”
On 81st, the kosher restaurant has closed. On 79th, the Talbots is gone. “Left a few months ago,” says the doorman next door.
Turn down to Madison Avenue in the 80s. A high-end butcher who’s been in the neighborhood more than 30 years is moving to the West Side because his rent has been raised more than he can afford. Why are landlords raising rents in a recession? It’s not landlords, he says, you can reason with them, it’s co-op boards that own a building. The people in the apartments upstairs are paying high maintenance, and they’re worried about their jobs, their businesses, their bonuses. So they raise the rent on the shop downstairs to cut their maintenance. When the shopkeeper says he’ll move and who’ll take his place in this economy, the boards say, “It’s Madison Avenue, we’ll be able to rent it.” He says, “They will for a while. But not if it gets worse.”
The windows of the Jil Sander shop on Madison off 79th are newly covered in paper. A sign says they plan to relocate. How’s business in the small art gallery down the street? “It’s soft,” the owner says, discreetly. At 84th and Madison, a ladies boutique has a new sale: “Buy 2 sale items (already marked down 50% off) 3rd item Free!” The Boltons on 86th and Madison, gone. The shoe store three doors down, gone. The children’s boutique off 87th, gone. Not all the news is bad—there’s a new department store coming in—but people don’t close up shop when the immediate future is promising. And every day there’s a new surprise. Wednesday it was the little French dress shop on 91st and Madison. The sale sign in the front window said 80% off. “Is she moving?” I asked a woman in line for the dressing room. “She’s closing,” she said.
Politicians keep saying, “People have to begin to understand we’re in bad shape,” and “People should realize it’s a crisis.” I think they know, Sherlock. Do you? Our political leaders are like a doctor who rushes to the scene of a terrible crash, bends over a hemorrhaging woman and says, “This is serious, lady, you can’t take it lightly.” She looks up at him: “Help me, do something, I’m bleeding out!” The doctor, to the local TV cameras: “I hope she knows she’s in trouble.”
There’s a sense that everyone’s digging in. President Obama has dug in on this stimulus bill: Pass it or see catastrophe. Republicans are dug in: Pass it and see catastrophe. The digging in is a way of showing certitude, and they’re showing certitude because they’re lost.
We hire politicians to know what to do about empty stores, job loss, and “Retail Space Available.” But they don’t, and more than ever we know they don’t.
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And there’s something else, not only in Manhattan but throughout the country. A major reason people are blue about the future is not the stores, not the Treasury secretary, not everyone digging in. It is those things, but it’s more than that, and deeper.
It’s Sully and Suleman, the pilot and “Octomom,” the two great stories that are twinned with the era. Sully, the airline captain who saved 155 lives by landing that plane just right—level wings, nose up, tail down, plant that baby, get everyone out, get them counted, and then, at night, wonder what you could have done better. You know the reaction of the people of our country to Chesley B. Sullenberger III: They shake their heads, and tears come to their eyes. He is cool, modest, competent, tough in the good way. He’s the only one who doesn’t applaud Sully. He was just doing his job.
This is why people are so moved: We’re still making Sullys. We’re still making those mythic Americans, those steely-eyed rocket men. Like Alan Shepard in the Mercury rocket: “Come on and light this candle.”
But Sully, 58, Air Force Academy ’73, was shaped and formed by the old America, and educated in an ethos in which a certain style of manhood—of personhood—was held high.
What we fear we’re making more of these days is Nadya Suleman. The dizzy, selfish, self-dramatizing 33-year-old mother who had six small children and then a week ago eight more because, well, she always wanted a big family. “Suley” doubletalks with the best of them, she doubletalks with profound ease. She is like Blago without the charm. She had needs and took proactive steps to meet them, and those who don’t approve are limited, which must be sad for them. She leaves anchorwomen slack-jawed: How do you rough up a woman who’s still lactating? She seems aware of their predicament.
Any great nation would worry at closed-up shops and a professional governing class that doesn’t have a clue what to do. But a great nation that fears, deep down, that it may be becoming more Suley than Sully—that nation will enter a true depression.