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The Upside of the Downside

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Right. But I understand what she’s talking about. It’s not so much that making more money has turned us into outlandish spenders; it’s more that over the years, we’ve absorbed and internalized the tastes and habits and priorities of the shifting culture around us, which is something I suspect has happened to a lot of people. (I like good cheese as much as the next guy. I’m just saying it’s odd, or at least noteworthy, that I don’t blink when I fork out $26 for a pound of it.) And somewhere inside ourselves, we’re aware that this is what’s going on.

I asked Kate when she thought it started, and as you might expect, she guessed sometime around 1997, when the dot-com nuttiness really kicked in. “But do you have a specific memory?” I asked. “Is there a moment you can point to when you thought, Things aren’t like they used to be?”

She contemplated. “I guess it was the personal juicer,” she said.

She was referring to our friend’s boss at an Internet start-up, a guy who got paid ten gajillion dollars about fifteen minutes after he started his company and then went bananas. Among various eccentricities he hired a Rastafarian to travel everywhere with him and make him juice.

It’s a great example of the just-before-the-fall-of-Rome feeling of the times, and I was happy to think about it again, but there was something different about that era. The dot-com bubble in general felt like one long Casino Night run amok, especially in New York, where the contributions to progress were mostly stupid shit that irrational investors threw money at and not exactly, you know, Google. People seemed to accept the blind luck of it all, and if you were in the right place at the right time and a big pile of money suddenly fell on top of you, well, then good for you. Have fun in Ibiza.

What those times undoubtedly did do, though, was prime us for the epidemic of acquisition that came later. Suddenly, all these people were making a fortune and buying apartments and houses and investing a ton in the market and—you don’t need me to tell you this, but things started changing very fast. A cigar bar opened on Seventh Avenue and 12th Street in Park Slope, a corner where a year earlier these two guys used to sit on boxes most of the night getting drunk with their mangy dog barking. I remember being at dinner in 1999, drinking a $300 bottle of wine (which I’d never done before) with a friend whose stock had just split, and he told me he needed to hire someone to decorate his new place. The next time I saw him, he had an apartment filled with mid-century-modern furniture that four months earlier he wouldn’t have been able to distinguish from Ikea’s Poäng line.

But the bubble burst, and then came September 11. There was a genuine feeling in the air that something other than the pursuit of wealth bound New York together, and it was there again later, during the blackout, but it vanished both times with scarcely a trace. Money, and all its attendant obsessions, just took over. The Wall Street guys acted like the city was their playground. The art scene became like the nasdaq circa 1999, as did the Williamsburg condo market. Out here in Park Slope, as in other parts of the city, boutique furniture and clothing stores and specialty food and wine shops bred like mayflies, taking the place of old diners and social clubs and dusty shoe-repair stores. Suddenly—I’m guessing it’s around 2003 when this dawns on me—I’m standing in my living room looking at my Pottery Barn furniture, which I’d always kind of liked, and I’m feeling deeply ashamed of my taste. I’m staring at Design Within Reach catalogues like they’re porn. I’m drinking Pinot Noir in my friend’s kitchen and admiring his Wolf range the way guys in some other part of America might stand in a driveway gawking at an engine block. Goddamn, I’m thinking, I would love one of those. As soon as I can buy a brownstone, I’ll renovate my kitchen. And when I renovate my kitchen, I’m getting one of those. And when I get one of those, I’m gonna crank up the burners and smelt some gold.

The problem is, I’ll never buy that brownstone and renovate that kitchen and smelt that gold, because the house on my block that was $500,000 a year ago is going for six-fifty now. Wait, no it isn’t, it’s up to eight hundred. Nope, that’s not right, either, because the couple that bought it last summer just listed it for $1.2 million. It’s in the window of the realty office where the Lopez Bakery used to be.


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