09 January 2009

The State Of Our State Is Perilous

I was only halfway listening to the radio when Governor Paterson came on to give his State of the State address. I had meant to pay attention, but something or other had distracted me, so I thought I heard him say "The state of our state is terrible."

Wow, I thought, at least he gets points for honesty. In my time I've heard quite a few State of the Union and State of the State speeches, and almost invariably the President or Governor started out by pronouncing that state to be somewhere on a continuum of good, excellent and outstanding. I'd never heard any of them suggest it was "not quite as good as we'd like," let alone "terrible."

So I was a little disappointed to read the text the next day and discover he'd actually said "perilous" rather than "terrible." Not that "perilous" is the sort of word that fills you with confidence either; if anything, it leaves ample room for things to get even worse than "terrible" even while implying that they may not have reached that point just yet.

I grew up hearing stories of the Great Depression from both my parents. My dad had graduated high school in the winter of 1931, when things were just about at their bleakest, the same year my mother and her family lost their home to foreclosure and had to shelter in another family's attic. Being a wiseass kid in the prosperous 1950s, my eyes soon began to glaze over at these tales of woe. Parents always exaggerated things, I figured, for the sake of teaching lessons. By the same token, I suspected World War II must have been a lot more fun and exciting than they made it sound.

Until recently, the closest I ever came to experiencing a stock market crash was in October of 1987, and at the time I thought it was simply hilarious. I had no money in the market; in fact I had almost no money at all, and what little I did have was in cash, buried in the back yard (I was living in the mountains then, and it was a long way to town and the bank). Still in full-fledged youthful nihilist mode (despite turning 40 that year), I practically wallowed in schadenfreude over the thought of all those greedy capitalists getting their comeuppance.

Despite telling anyone who would listen that this clearly marked the final unraveling of capitalist society, I quickly lost interest in the travails of Wall Street, so much so that within weeks after the crash I was investing the last of my meager savings into a new business putting out 7" records for unknown bands. It never occurred to me that the timing might be bad for such a venture, and as it turned out, it wasn't, because the business prospered from the get-go, and within a few years was producing sales in hundreds of thousands and then millions of dollars.

During all those years I took even less notice of Wall Street. I didn't own stock, and my company didn't issue any. Apparently (I read about this much later) the country went through quite a recession in the early 90s and then hurtled forward into boom times for the rest of the decade, but all that seemed to have very little to do with how our business developed. It was only when I retired with not only some time on my hands but also some money to invest that I began to understand why people might make a very big deal indeed out of the market.

Despite risking everything I had on a seemingly unpromising independent record label, I've never been a particularly adventurous investor. In fact, I've been downright cowardly; if I'd plowed most of my savings into stocks and bonds back in the 90s, I would be rich enough today that even the recent crash would not have been able to dent my wealth too badly. As it was, however, I kept most of my money in the bank, only venturing very tentatively into the market in recent years.

As a result, I haven't lost all that much, but on the downside, I never gained that much, either. So while I'm in better shape than those unhappy folks who've lost their jobs and owe more on their houses than the houses are worth, I'm not sitting so pretty that I don't have to worry along with everyone else about what's going to happen next.

On paper, it can seem as though we have little to look forward to except total ruin. The government is promising to save us with trillions of dollars that, as far as anyone can see, it's producing out of thin air and, for all the effect they're having, might as well be disappearing right back into thin air. As much as I'm hoping Obama can rally the country with Rooseveltian measures, I'm aware that for its first several years, the New Deal did little more than assuage the pain and prevent people being thrown into yet greater penury; the full effects of the Depression didn't dissipate until we began arming for World War II.

At least half a dozen people I know have already lost their jobs, and though I devoutly hope that no more will, it's hard to believe it. The mad building boom that had new condos and apartments going up on every other block in Brooklyn has ground nearly to a halt. Within walking distance there are several block-long holes in the ground where there used to be factories and loft space; what was slated to become the next tranche of luxury high-rises looks set to remain holes in the ground for some time to come.

Rumors abound of greatly reduced real estate prices and apartment rents, but there's little tangible evidence thus far. I'm very happy where I'm living now, but like many New Yorkers I keep my eye on Craigslist "just in case" I should have to move, and neighborhood rents remain at levels that would seem stratospheric in boom times, let alone the (now officially declared) perilous ones we now inhabit. I wonder what will happen if things continue to deteriorate, if the young and well-to-do who came flooding into this area fresh out of college will be able to sustain their lives here, perhaps even prospering under the new conditions, or if they will have to retreat to their ancestral homes, heralding a rollback of gentrification and possibly even the re-slumification of many reclaimed areas of the city.

I have a recurring fantasy and/or nightmare, and I suspect I'm not alone in this one - where I relocate to some small town in Pennsylvania or Michigan, where you can buy a house for pocket change and everything costs a fraction of what it does in New York City. If I were to do that now, I could probably ride out even the worst sort of Great Depression II in some style and comfort, but at the same time, as I keep reminding myself, I'd be in some small town in Pennsylvania or Michigan. Not, I hasten to add, that there's anything wrong with that, but somehow it just doesn't feel right for me.

So I expect I'll stick around and see what happens. I had a professor at Berkeley named Jerry Cavanagh - my favorite professor, I might add - who used to get practically rhapsodic when extolling the virtues of life in New York City during the original Great Depression. "We didn't have any money," he'd tell us, "but we more than made up for it with the sense of community and shared values that kept us going." He made it sound like a lovely time, all for one and one for all, at least on your particular block, anyway.

If I were a bit younger - or if my friends hadn't already signed up all the good bands - I might even try defying the odds a second time and start another record label, but I think once is enough for that particular adventure. Better I should write a book about it, but I just read today that half the publishers look in danger of going out of business, and don't even get me started on the fate of independent - or even not so independent - bookstores.

"If you have a job, hang on to it, and if you don't have one, get one," is the advice from one colleague who's been pretty accurate thus far in his predictions for how this economic catastrophe would unfold, and I'd like to take his advice except that I suddenly seem to have few if any marketable skills. Thankfully the internet bill is paid in advance, as well as the cable TV, and I found several varieties of dried peas and beans on sale today, so I won't be starving or bored for at least another month. I know it's foolish and childish to expect Obama Claus to solve everything within a week or two of taking office, but I sure do wish Bush had gotten out of there a couple months ago and let him get on with trying. Whatever happens, I keep reminding myself, millions upon millions of people have survived worse, and so I continue to look to the future, quietly, almost implausibly confident that somehow we'll muddle through.

1 comment:

Ted said...


You nailed the feeling regarding moving to a small town in Michigan
or Penn State in your previous posting about Hoboken & NJ:

"There's just something, if not wrong, then not quite right about it."

Your writing has been outstanding these new days of 2009--capturing the spirit of the past (Asheton)and present (State of our State) while presenting the shapes of things to come! Perhaps, being back in your New York element is providing momentum for your writing to soar.