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Down And Out Embarrassed and Undone

This morning I walked up Columbus Ave on my way to work and passed a Danskin store that had a sign outside that said “Seized by the U.S. Marshal”. Things are bad when people on the Upper West Side are no longer buying leotards, although it’s possible that stores like Lululemon, which cater to the yoga crowd, may have undone the Danskin purveyors. But something embarrassing has happened to me twice in the past couple of months that has convinced me more strongly than ever that the recession is still with us.

Much like Orwell reported on the state of poor down-and-out people in European capitals in the early 1930s, I feel obliged to report to you the indications of how the recession has affected working people in New York. And at greater risk to my reputation.

In the 1970s New York was indeed a walk on the wild side. Simon and Garfunkel in The Boxer sang about the ladies of the night on Seventh Avenue. And if you drove anywhere near the Lincoln Tunnel there were women who looked like they were freezing to death as they patrolled the streets of the far west side in hot pants (you may be too young to know what those were). New York then wasn’t New York now.

Even in the Eighties there was a visible underside. I once took some small children to another child’s birthday party at Dezerland on the West Side, and when we came out looking with no luck for a cab on the windy icy street there were virtually unclad women waving at cars that went by.

“What are they doing?” one of the kids I was shepherding asked me.

“I don’t know,” I lied.

“I know,” a seven-year-old girl said to me. “They dress like that so it’ll be easier to get a taxi.”

That was then. Now Times Square is Disneyland and everything is clean. Or so I thought.

Several months ago I left a business dinner at 9 pm and walked up Park Avenue on a nice fall evening. As usual, of course, I was minding my own business, thinking about the sorts of high-minded cultural things that people in New York think about. Suddenly, two very elegantly dressed women in their thirties, laughing and chatting to each other, walked towards me and started to talk. I paused. I thought they wanted help, but instead they offered to help me. I declined. They gave me a business card with a location and a phone number, and the admonition “No Blocked Calls Accepted”. I’m glad they knew how to look after themselves.

To me these Park Ave women didn’t look like the kind of people who did business on the street; they should have been, I imagine, doing their Belle-du-Nuit thing in an East Side townhouse that cops are supposed to raid, escorting the patrons outside to the pop of flashbulbs while the men cover their faces with their hats. The fact that they were out drumming up business near the Mercedes Benz and Aston Martin dealers and the Waldorf Astoria means that even the luxury spenders are spending less.

Which brings me to two nights ago. It had been raining and snowing and I eventually took a walk around 8 pm in the evening, heading to near the Time Warner Center. Weather fit for neither man nor beast. Minding my own business, thinking about nothing of course except the finer things in life, and looking of course like all I was thinking about were the finer thing in life, like the latest William Kentridge exhibition or the solution to a partial differential equation, I ambled along head down. (Methinks the gentlemen doth protest too much? Nevertheless, it’s true.) Somewhere around 58th street I stopped, my feet in a puddle, to read an email newsletter from SSRN on my cell phone. Half a minute later, still engrossed in the latest reports on risk management and asset allocation, I sensed someone standing beside me waiting for my attention. I looked up.

“Reading your email?” said a woman, easily 10 years or more older than me, peering up. “Go ahead, I can wait.”

Nice but frail lady, a touch of ill-matched make-up, the sort of person you see buying Aleve and pet food for their cat in supermarkets.

Modesty and my perennial good taste permit me to reveal no more about what she said to me. Suffice it to say that it involved choices and various kinds of rhymes I’d never heard before. Then she handed me a card with initials only, a phone number and an address. She was apparently an ACCOUNTANT whose office hours were 1:00pm – 9:00 pm and she did her spreadsheets from home.

Is there something friendly and unprejudiced about the way I walk or stand, even when I’m simply looking at my Droid that suggests I’m open to this sort of stuff? Usually I like to blame myself for things, but I have to say I don’t think so.

The people who used to hustle in this business in New York used to look like they were hustling. You could tell them a mile off by the way they dressed. Or they looked like addicts.

When people who (i) look as though they normally ply their business indoors in expensive places or (ii) look as though they should be home drinking hot Lipton’s tea, are out on the street in the rain taking dangerous chances, I have to conclude that life is still tough.

Even after the Stimulus.

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