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The Upside of the Downside

Here’s to bad times—may they restore the city that many of us moved here for.

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The boomtown… returns to earth. Illustrations by Hope Gangloff  

Here we were on the F train a few weeks ago, stuck for some time between York Street and East Broadway, waiting for the conductor to come over the PA and announce that there’s a stalled train or a sick passenger up ahead, some explanation for why we were still crammed shoulder to shoulder, sweating under our heavy coats and scarves for going on ten minutes. A snowsuited kid in a stroller was screaming his lungs out, nose running all over his chapped cheeks, and his mother was struggling to take off his hat and mittens and lift him out of the stroller to comfort him. She didn’t have much room to maneuver, though, and right in front of her sat this guy in an elegant herringbone suit and cashmere overcoat, fantastic haircut, staring down and brushing the tip of his index finger over his iPhone. An older, gray-bearded guy next to him, who also had a seat, turned and nudged the well-groomed guy and said, “Why don’t you give her your seat?” The well-groomed guy looked up from his iPhone, a little befuddled and irritated, and replied, “Why don’t you?,” then went back to caressing his little device. Gray Beard leaned in real close and looked the guy straight in the face. “Why don’t you stick that thing up your ass,” he said, loud enough for everyone in the near vicinity to hear, and before the well-groomed guy could respond, he added, even louder, “You Wall Street dick.”

I loved that. True, Gray Beard was obviously a total crank, and who knows if the other guy had anything to do with Wall Street, or if he was even all that unlikable (though he did have a look about him)? I just loved it as a pure expression of class rage, a small rebellion, as I’ve come to think of it, against the ethos that has dominated the city in recent years. A couple of other passengers laughed, and Gray Beard looked up. I was smiling right at him, but rather than locking eyes in solidarity, as I thought we would—me and him and the struggling young mother and child allied against this latest American Psycho and all the aggressive wealth-hunting he embodied—he said with complete disdain, “What’re you smiling at? You’re a dick, too.”

Had Gray Beard been talking to my shrink? Because not long before that subway ride, I’d spent an hour and $150 saying pretty much the same thing about myself, going on and on about how I’d recently realized, among other things, that I was a complete hypocrite about money, on the one hand constantly and tediously bemoaning where I’d come from and carrying this ridiculous grudge around toward people who’d grown up with money or made a ton of money or somehow overtly expressed their comfort with having money, while on the other hand wanting so much of what those people have. The iPhone, which in my mind is the first link in a whole daisy chain of desire; the high-def TV; one of those sleek and super-designed sofas that gracefully folds down into a bed (wow, do I have a thing for those, in part because my wife, Kate, and I still use the same futon sofa we bought in graduate school, even though the mattress just slides off it now and you constantly have to struggle to get it back on the frame, and in part just because they are, as objects, the antithesis of every piece of overstuffed, overworn, plaid furniture that my family ever owned); dinners at Masa and Bar Boulud; this beautiful but very expensive orange leather bag that would look fantastic hanging off Kate’s shoulder, from a tiny boutique that opened not long ago where a wood shop used to be, down the block from our place; renovated kitchen with slate countertops and Wüsthof knives and pots and pans hanging over the industrial range; brownstone that contains said kitchen; summer rental in Montauk … I could keep going, but you get the idea.

It’s shameful, of course, to want this much. And while I don’t mean to suggest that I’m utterly consumed by these things, I didn’t used to think this way at all. I didn’t used to lie in my bed and on nights that I couldn’t sleep sometimes play this mental game in which I consider how I’d arrange our things (minus the futon) if we lived in the beautiful homes that many of our friends own. I never imagined I’d find myself in the curious position of having so much more than my parents ever had, of having more, frankly, than I ever thought I would have—and yet simultaneously feeling like I’m falling behind, that I need to earn more, save more, invest more, acquire more. When did I begin to feel this anxiety of acquisition? How did I become such a jackass?


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