by Art Shay
(Swans - February 9, 2009) A local journalist recently pointed out with mixed metaphors that "Instead of hushed, autumnal perfume, ear-splitting leaf blowers gag the air with noxious fumes." How emblematic of our prelude-to-Depression days hereabouts are those opprobrious leaf blowers. Those wielding the power blow the garbage of their lawns, lives, decisions, guesses, and careers onto your life. As my broker whinnied the other day after shepherding one annuity from $135,000 to $73,000, when I jumped ship. Why just then? I've never bird-dogged my several investments, but I was frugally trying to talk myself into buying a new $1500 Nikon. I looked at my numbers and noticed my annuity had been leaking $1500 a DAY for several weeks! Down, down, down. So I bought the camera and ambushed my broker without a phone call. He was sweating. "Everyone is in bad shape," he murmured. He didn't mention that his company, the stumbling Swiss giant UBS, was, according to those beleaguered "left wing" New York Times experts, scrambling to raise $30 billion. "You should hold on until a bottom is reached. Things can't get much worse." But they did. This was the week McCain and his idiot economics advisor averred that the economy was in great shape and investors should stop whining. (Not yet, at that moment, the hint of a financial fart from Bernie Madoff.) Turns out by laterally passing my money into the hated (by brokers) 2% Money Market I saved $25,000, going on the 1931 instincts I picked up as a kid in the Bronx -- instincts honed in The Crash by my carpenter grandfather who lost his entire life savings of $700 when he went to his bank to withdraw his money and the bank was shuttered. There was a sign on the door expressing the regrets of the management. Period.
I don't think the Depression will hit this upscale purlieu for another five or six months. Boston Blackie's is still wall-to-wall. George's is down a mere 25%, and McDonald's is thriving. But up at the Renaissance movie theater I accidentally gave a five-dollar Lincoln to the girl and opened the package -- Goober's Nuts -- while she made change. There, into my disappointed palm, she'd placed a dollar and a quarter. Three dollars and seventy-five cents for candy being sold for $1 at Walgreen's three hundred yards north. Too late to return, but a strong lesson for the future. I watched the surprised older woman next to me pay $3.25 for a pretzel she remembered, as I did, "paying ten cents for outside my high school." Hard times will change all that.
Having gotten tired of the multitudinous calls I had to make to Comcast to repair all three of their services, I recently changed to AT&T. Big mistake. It took ten separate AT&T "repair" men to hook up my wife's TV so that she can change the channels with the remote. Said one repairman, "It's the box." It wasn't. Said the second, "It's the feed between the set and the box." It wasn't. The third said it was the outside connection going into the house. He changed it. The fourth said it was my wife's telephone setting up a competing field of electrons. The fifth said it was yet another errant field coming from a coiled extension cord. The set worked intermittently after the above surgery, but wasn't finally fixed until the 10th man arrived. He was barely a man. He was nineteen and having troubles with his girlfriend, who wouldn't listen to him as she was so wrapped up in her own life. But this kid glanced at the problem and figured out that the TV set was throwing too much light back to the remote, confusing it. "All we gotta do," he said, "is move the Cisco box across the room." Three other blameless boxes had been changed along the way to no avail, but finally our fix was in. As in the Old Testament, the Tenth Man was crucial. He -- as did his predecessors -- gave me the 24-7 number AT&T professed to use. Uh-huh. As I had found out earlier, I had to "please call back during regular business hours." You know things have gotten out of hand when the employees don't know the hours their store is open, or as in recent bouts with Macy's and Home Depot, where their headquarters are located. This will change as jobs become scarcer and Depression thinking sets in.
Speaking of employees soon to depart, I was dealing with a credit card mistake a Macy's employee had made. The unpaid bill for my $87 winter jacket was now up to $127 and climbing at the rate of a friendly, if usurious, 23% a month. The fourth Macy's person to deal with a Macy's mistake was a pleasant credit voice in Omaha. He walked me through expunging my Macy's credit card -- and the bills have stopped coming -- but are replaced with new offers, twice a week. To think we've defeated the super-organized Germans and Japanese and eked out a draw with the meticulous Koreans losing but half a million kids.
When I was 12 in 1934, my father, a political activist in Russia but a tailor in America, went looking for work in downtown, much-Depressed New York City. I sometimes accompanied him. He'd start at the top floor of a seven-story building in the garment district and work his way down, looking for a chance to work on a sewing assembly line for a dollar an hour. Or less. Not much luck for five years or so. Richer families than we accepted relief. The most envied person on our street was Bill Ruderman, a $27-a-week mailman. Somehow our family avoided those food stamps. We were lean but not mean. Every now and then the one uncle who owned a car -- a Jordan -- would take us for a ride. Once he took me to Yankee Stadium and I saw Babe Ruth hit a home run. I also got Lou Gehrig's autograph before his hand began to shake with the disease he would give his name to. Everyone has a hard time in a Depression, with little glints of joy bursting through the gloom like robins out of season.
At my busy Lifetime Gym in Winnetka, the Minneapolis management is tentatively planning to close one of our racquetball courts, having decided there are more exercise "spinners" than racquetball players. New exercise machines are en route, we hear. They don't quite believe they're going to lose 50 of us racqueteers to a more welcoming gym in the area. Already the gym's parking lot is easier to park in. Some $70-a-month members are dropping out. A manager in Minneapolis called me. "What can we do to keep your racquetball players?" he asked. The Minnesota cerebellum, overworked from recounting votes, cannot believe hard times will hit them, too. Keep me from sinning, Oh God, but not just yet.
As Ernest Hemingway remarked to young me one golden WWII day in High Wycombe, England: "So you came through your combat missions safely -- Good. In Africa the Masai told me, Nature and God and Death care hapana ("nothing" in Swahili) about us. They'll all continue to fuck us no matter what we do." He thanked me inordinately for letting him use our secret scrambler London phone to set up a fuck with Time reporter Mary Welch, who would become his final wife. "Sex helps a lot, kid," he said with a wink I've often replayed in the tiny theater of WWII memories that truly have helped sustain me even as I enter my last act, which will play out during my second Depression.
I think Papa, mistaking my serious mien in the presence of a master for worry, meant, "Don't take everything so seriously, son. This too shall pass. And so will you and all your troubles."
Which was bullshit, from Pamplona, for my idol. For when the world became too tough for Papa, as it had for his father before him, when he could no longer write or fuck, as he said in a note to a pal, he put his lights out with his shotgun.
My dad, who died at 70 in 1951, gutted out the Depression in the Bronx, as I hope to do right here in Deerfield. He was an atheist as I am, so life is more sacred to me than death. Of course I can understand the appeal of the afterlife and its voracious virgins, and the powerful medicine of holding in your hand the means with which you can end your world or that of the guy whose leaf-blowing machine bugs you too much. Or his religion. Or his country, or both.
"Things fall apart," Yeats wrote in the Recession just a year before my birth in 1922, "the centre cannot hold." He rued that the falcon could no longer communicate with his falconer, that mere anarchy was loose in the world, that the best (like us) lack all conviction, while the worst (you know who They are) are full of passionate intensity. Yeats's immortal poem spoke enigmatically about a rough beast, its hour come round at last, that was slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. The Irish genius hopefully entitled his work, "The Second Coming."
Would that our world was more like the Super Bowl, where the center cannot hold either -- but the penalty is a mere 10-yard infraction and a do-over. Not like poor Obama's onrushing Depression, inherited from Bush, which is about to penalize us half a decade with no do-over of the down syndrome that got us here.
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