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Living With Less


The Recession may not be as scary as some of the things the city has faced recently -- which is not by any means to understate its effect on our lives. There's some comfort, however, in the fact that we're not in this alone. Not that one need have total sympathy for all of the victims as New York's culture of wealth -- and often, frankly, of excess -- collides with stark economic realities. In New York's recession, there's a hierarchy of pain. Does giving up your trainer count as suffering? Selling your country house? Taking your kids out of private school? Postponing your wedding? Moving out of town? Turning down the heat so you can afford to pay your bills? These are hard times, as hard as this generation has seen. And everyone (except, perhaps, Mike Bloomberg) will have to give up something.

The Lawyer
"Today was a confidence-building day," says Emily, 28. She's just returned from her first job interview since she was let go from one of the city's top-ten law firms a month ago. "I left an hour and fifteen minutes to get there because I had no idea how long the bus would take. I was 40 minutes early!" she says, flopping down on her couch and biting into a slice of pizza, her first meal of the day even though it is 5 p.m. "I went and got coffee, walked around. Finally, I just showed up and apologized."

One of the reasons she became a lawyer in the first place was so things like this wouldn't happen. " 'Be a doctor or lawyer,' I always heard, 'and you won't get fired.' " During her four years at the firm, recruiters were constantly calling. Dot-coms were still luring colleagues with stock options, but the firm's many incentives made Emily stay put.

While the prospect of being laid off never occurred to her, she was acutely aware that it was her $150,000 salary plus $45,000 bonus that allowed her and her husband, Michael, to live a New York life they could not have afforded otherwise. His salary as a cardiology fellow will stay at about $43,000 for the next three years. "We have a lot of loans, two undergraduate plus medical school and law school," she says. Dinners out were their main weekend activity; now they've opted to meet friends for drinks and order dinner in. She is trying to restrain herself from sample sales. The Katayone Adeli cashmere dress she's wearing was $80, down from $450. "See these boots?" she asks, sticking out a knee-high suede number with a stiletto heel. "My friend who works in fashion gave me three pairs!"

Their winter vacation is cancelled. "My severance ends in January. I've been put in the position where my time to look for jobs is over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, when no one is hiring, so if early January is my first real shot at looking for a job, how can I leave?"

Their bad luck in real estate turned out to be a blessing. Last summer, the $615,000 bid they made on a SoHo loft was rejected. "Thank God!" she says. Shortly after, they were pressured by the hospital to give up their $2,700-a-month one-bedroom in TriBeCa in favor of decidedly less chic Upper East Side doctors' housing ($1,400 for two bedrooms). Their moving date? September 11.

She's noticed that the tragedy has affected her response to being laid off. "A lot of my emotions have become extreme since all of that. If I'm having a really happy day, it's extreme. If I'm feeling sad or anxious, it gets heightened also. With this job stuff, it's the same thing. You just feel it all a little harder than you might have." She is quiet for a minute. "There are days when I think that nobody wants me. Then there are days when I feel like I will totally get a job. There's no reason why I shouldn't get a fantastic job. Then I go back to thinking I'll be lucky if I get a job, period. I'll be lucky if I get into a firm that I wouldn't have even looked at a few years ago."

The Bartender
"When you go to work, it's like showtime," says Sal Marciante, 43, a twenty-year veteran of the Tall Ships Bar & Grill in the former Marriott World Trade Center. "I didn't even feel like a bartender. You know what I felt like? The commissioner of tourism. Like Mr. Bloomberg should give me a call and offer me a job because I've been bringing people back here for years and I did it without a title."

He brought home $1,000 a week with tips, which supported his wife and 3-year-old daughter. "She knows Dada lost his job." Every day he picks her up at pre-K across the street. "That gives me something to do," he says. "I was trying to get her started on the computer -- they're learning that now. But it was 900 bucks. That's the thing, what about her future? What about a college fund? Now the money might have to start going in different directions. Like survival."

He gets $400 unemployment and $100 a week from the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union. Taking a job at a non-hotel bar isn't an attractive option. "I don't want to start working down at Ludlow Street in one of the new dives they've opened. I'm a union man, and I'd like to get my pension some day. My plan is to wait until the hotel business starts to pick up again. Be an asset to someone who gets to scoop me up. Because they wouldn't even have had a chance at me if the place didn't blow up."

After the 1993 bombing, it was easier. He found a post at the Barbizon Hotel until Tall Ships reopened. "This time most hotels have had layoffs already.

"I've been on a couple of wild-goose chases where you're more qualified than the person that's interviewing you," he says with a sigh. "But they mean well. They can't give you something they don't have."

Marciante has found it hard to scale back his habits. "Clients from the bar gave me tickets to the Knicks, Rangers, Yankees -- any event in Manhattan, I could have tickets if I wanted to," he says. "I never did anything cheap. I always did everything elaborate. Windows on the World. Smith & Wollensky. Maloney & Porcelli. Cité. Now I've started to cook at home -- steaks, chops. How much Chinese food can you eat? They say, 'Go out, don't change your lifestyle, go shopping, spend money.' Only so much you can do if you don't have a job."

The Caterers
If there's an upscale Manhattan equivalent of the proverbial canary in a coal mine, it's the catering business, a near-perfect barometer of the city's mood and its spending power. Entertaining is part of New York's essence, the marrow in its bones. The question isn't whether to party, even in trying times, only how lavishly. Among those caterers, Peter and Diane rank in the upper echelons -- a sort of mom-and-pop answer to Glorious Food. Their clients range from high-end department stores to trend-setting magazine editors and Park Avenue matrons.

But even Diane's creativity (she once made perfume-scented ice pops for a designer launching a new fragrance) and Peter's brass-knuckles business acumen haven't managed to shield their business from recession. "Our sales were down 30 percent in the spring from the year before," Peter reports. "We had a good August and September on the books; things were starting to pick up. And then the attack occurred."

It killed any hope of recovery, and not just because the police put their TriBeCa kitchen and small café, blocks from the World Trade Center, off-limits for several weeks or because the rich stopped throwing parties. They didn't. After a socially acceptable interval, they resumed. It just means that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, the customers now drive a harder bargain.

"There's a lot of still-wealthy people in New York not affected by the recession," Peter observes. "They're still asking for expensive things -- I still get asked for caviar -- but for lower prices. I probably lost a few jobs because we're still expensive."

None of this would be so terrible if the couple were inclined to frugality in their personal lives. But part of their success lies in their ability to understand the aspirations of their clients -- and, to some extent, embody them. They have two sons in school at a combined $40,000, an $850,000 home on the Brooklyn waterfront, and a jewel-box farmhouse, ready for its shelter-magazine close-up, on the North Fork of Long Island. Winter vacations in the Caribbean are de rigueur, along with summers sailing around the Greek islands or renting a villa in Provence.

Their cars include SUVs and Mercedes. And there isn't much investment income to help out. Like many others, Peter got killed playing the stock market. Heavily invested in tech stocks, he watched the value of his portfolio plummet $100,000 -- it now stands at $150,000. "I've never socked money away," he admits. "It's possible we may have to sell our country house. I know I should have sold that last year." In the meantime, he's cutting where he can. "I'm trying to cut fixed costs like health insurance," he explains.

He's also eliminated the first thing New Yorkers reluctantly do without when they find themselves in financial peril -- his parking garage. "I'm saving $5,000 a year by parking it on the street," he says.

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