The Upside of the Downside

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?

I’m not sure, really. I’ll admit to possessing plenty of homegrown neuroses around money that I nursed for years in depressed and depressing upstate New York, and which I managed to preserve more or less intact through college and graduate school and then eventually packed up and carted to the city along with my books and cats and milk crates full of southern-fried rock albums. But there’s something else that’s been going on, too. Something that has to do, I think, with the low-level but persistent psychic effect of living in a place that is so in thrall to money, so dominated by the monoculture of luxury that even if you’re not on the front lines, working for a hedge fund or whatever, the values encroach on your life.

Kate and I have three daughters and we rent a decent-to-crappy apartment in the south end of Park Slope. We moved out to this neighborhood in the mid-nineties, and while the decision was largely one of financial necessity, we also did it because it felt like an alternative not just to Manhattan prices but to a Manhattan state of mind. It seemed like the kind of place where if you had more or less reasonable expectations of how to live, even if you didn’t have a ton of money, those expectations would be met.

I’m amazed at how poor we feel in relation to our surroundings. When did we move to Beverly Hills?

And for a while, they were. Our combined income when we arrived here was about $45,000, and yet we didn’t sit around our table at night wondering, when the time came, which of the cats we would eat first. We bought our falafel from Mr. Falafel and our pasta from Russo’s and our meat from a pork store around the corner on Fifth Avenue and our bread from the little bakery at the end of our block, Lopez Bakery, which was open 24 hours and where, in addition to delicious and cheap bread and rolls, Señora Lopez would sell these tamales on Fridays for a dollar apiece that were so good Kate and I would bring them home and sit on our living-room floor eating them like wild animals.

Things were good, is what I’m trying to say, and not just because we liked to eat so much. They were good in that way that the uncomplicated cheap life lived in the midst of a thriving city is good. We went to free concerts in the park and we found a couple of warm bars that we liked and occasionally we splurged on a play in the city or gorged ourselves at New York Noodletown and then headed back across the Brooklyn Bridge. After our first daughter was born, I’d often walk with her late at night through our neighborhood, trying to get her to fall asleep. I’d look into the windows of other people’s homes and see what there was to see, who was arguing and who was making out and who was sitting in their underwear bathed in the glow of their TV. I occasionally felt something approaching giddiness during those walks. No doubt, I was out of my mind with sleep deprivation and drunk on being a parent for the first time, but there was something else, too, that had to do with the place itself, the nice racial and economic mix that existed on block after block, this connection I felt to my neighbors.

What I’m mostly struck by now is how much poorer we feel in relation to our surroundings than we did then, though we make about five times as much money. We have another baby, and when I walk with her at night, I still feel the wonders of parenthood, sure, but I don’t experience nearly the same connection to the people around me. The neighborhood now seems like a colonial outgrowth of Manhattan money culture, and I tend to feel envious and critical and, if I’m really being honest, even fairly hostile toward many of my neighbors. (And then, of course, I’m soon full of self-loathing for comparing my life—my things, really—with theirs, and for thinking I’m anything but absurdly lucky and comfortable.)

Kate came home after picking our daughter up from a classmate’s house recently and said, “Do you realize that almost every one of Addie’s friends owns a house or apartment that costs more than a million dollars? When did we move to Beverly Hills?” These aren’t classmates at St. Ann’s, either; they’re classmates at dinky little P.S. 107. The next evening, she said, “I do this thing now where I’ll go into a coffee shop and order two coffees and two cookies, for me and Hazel [our babysitter], and an Orangina or something for one of the girls, and I’ll hand over a $20 bill and not even expect change. How weird is that? I think of money like we’re rich. We’re still not rich, right?”

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.

But it’s not just real estate. It’s everything, or near everything, and it’s ratcheted up even more in the last few years. As the value of homes and stocks and salaries has spiked, there’s been a kind of arms race of acquisition that has touched every little facet of our lives. You don’t just go to the store and buy groceries, like a regular person; now you fetishize the meat at Fairway and the fish from Blue Moon and the organic greens and the Greek yogurt and the cheese, always the cheese. The place that became a cigar bar in the late nineties, now it’s a Union Market, where among other preciously presented items there’s a loaf of raisin-walnut bread that isn’t quite as fresh and delicious as the raisin-walnut bread the Lopezes used to bake. But it is three times as expensive.

Wine. Jacques Torres chocolates. Kiehl’s skin creams. Kids’ clothes! Jesus. Why do we dress our kids like Johnny Depp and Kate Moss? We’ve all gotten pulled into this slipstream of wealth. We have some friends who have a friend who chartered a jet to fly 50 or so of his closest friends to a Mexican resort to celebrate his birthday last year. There’s no way they can repay that in kind, obviously, but the pressure’s on a little at the next dinner party he comes to, you know what I mean?

This is all tricky to talk about without seeming laughably self-absorbed, and I want you to know that I know how loaded we are, comparatively speaking, and not just loaded in that abstract compared-with-the-developing-world way; we’re loaded compared with most of the people in this city. But that too is part of the problem. You don’t feel connected to anyone, in a way, not to the people who have so much more than you and not to the people who have so much less. Money has stretched us all apart from one another. I may be overstating it a little but not a lot. It’s messed us up.

What might help, though, is a return to some semblance of the city we lived in before it was flooded with money. This isn’t all a setup for more tired nostalgia for the days when New York was less flush but more artistically and counterculturally compelling. I’ve read Chronicles; I’ve seen Basquiat. It goes without saying that things were more interesting when Bob Dylan was shuffling through the snow with his guitar and harmonica from one coffeehouse to another, or later, in the broke New York of the late seventies and early eighties, when all sorts of musicians and performance artists and just plain weirdos could afford to live out their pansexual lives in the East Village. I think most of us can agree that the existence of CBGB was more vital to the life of the city than a John Varvatos store. But I never knew that New York, except through albums and picture books and Desperately Seeking Susan, and as Dylan himself might say, wishing for those days to return is hophead talk.

What I’m looking forward to is something subtler. It’ll start with the gradual receding of real estate as the focus of so much of our mental energy. New Yorkers will never stop obsessing about real estate entirely, I understand that, but if our homes are all worth a little less, then maybe we won’t feel quite so compelled to talk about them all the time, since we won’t really want to pick at our wounds—and then they can go back to just being homes. And maybe the truly ostentatious buildings, like those awful downtown condo towers that might as well be made out of bullion and babies’ skin, will be embarrassing to be seen in. Maybe, in fact, there will be a bit more of a shame-check on the conspicuous flashing of wealth in general. Having your kids picked up from school in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes SUV will seem unsightly; flying off to Paris for a Louis XV auction might no longer be something to boast about to friends. Let these concerns return to the tiny cult of the inbred dilettantish rich where they belong.

My friend Kim, a former lawyer turned painter, was at our place recently. “I hate Christmas,” she said at one point. “By the time Christmas is over, I feel so sick of it, like I’ve spent all this money I shouldn’t have spent and I have all these things I don’t really need or want, and I feel gross about having indulged so much, and I just want that feeling to come that comes in early January when everyone just reins it in, when we all privately acknowledge that there was something a little dirty about what we just did. You know what I mean? That’s what New York has felt like. It would feel good, like in a good-for-the-soul-of-the-city way, to collectively focus on something else.”

Exactly. Picture a city in which, since spending and acquisition are no longer the only game in town, there’s that much less tolerance for people who cradle their BlackBerrys at every social engagement as if any e-mail that might come through is infinitely more important than the human beings right in front of them. And maybe habitual late nights at the office will return to being the mark of someone who lacks the skills to lead a normal life. How might that change the mood of things? I don’t imagine poetry readings will suddenly flourish or that, rather than directing their talents toward getting rich, thousands of young M.B.A.’s will go into early-childhood education. I just think it’s possible that we all might become a little more aware of all that’s around us, that we’ll take a little more pride in cultural rather than commercial success. And on a personal level, maybe those of us who didn’t go into finance or speculate in real estate won’t have to contend too much more with that nagging feeling that we’re grinding it out to stay above water while all these bozos on Wall Street are filling their bathtubs with oysters and Cristal.

I’ve done plenty of trashing of upstate New York, where I’m from, but mostly I mock because I love. And one thing I love about where I grew up (though it’s a complicated love) is that because no one really had a lot more than anyone else, people’s money woes felt like a shared burden, at least psychologically, rather than a uniquely humiliating one, and everyone kind of dealt with them as best they could and tried not to become too undone. A little bit of that mind-set might be good for New York right now. You don’t own a place yet? You haven’t eaten that $100 truffled foie-gras hamburger yet? You missed that wave of wealth that everyone around you rode to glory? Well, that wave’s receding now, and it’s bringing a lot of people back with it.

The Stench of ‘89
The Everything Guide to Belt-Tightening

The Upside of the Downside