Six Signs of a Sick Economy


Six signs that the economy is tanking, sinking, resembling, in Chuck Schumer’s words, Charybdis, which, for all you non-Homeric scholars, is a sea monster that will suck you into a swirling whirlpool of water that resembles a toilet bowl.

1. This week’s charity auction entitled “Hip Hop’s Crown Jewels”—featuring a roster of garish bling formerly owned by people like Jay-Z and Ja Rule, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott, and described by the auction house Phillips de Pury as “offering key pieces of jewelry and artifacts from Hip Hop culture”—has been put off until March. The gallery says the delay “will allow Phillips de Pury Company to accommodate the increased demand from consigners and buyers.” Ya think? Or maybe trying to raise money by selling off a pile of lurid baubles during the worst week since October 1929 isn’t such a swell idea?

2. My inbox is stuffed with even more preposterous messages than usual: A company with the salacious name Redlight argues that “the downturn of the economy is affecting Americans all over the country. Skyrocketing gas and food prices has led many Americans to stay in and ‘party’ in virtual worlds, such as the Red Light Center, that let you date, socialize, and partake in risqué activities without even leaving your house.” (Not leave my house? I already know the hot honey I’ll meet there: me.) Another missive with “How to Beat a Market Meltdown” in the subject line advises that I “Spend Smart” and “Be an Optimist.” (I do this! How come I’m broke?) And a subscription solicitation from The Wall Street Journal offers a full year at 80 percent off with the guarantee that “it’s risk-free!”—but isn’t that what AIG said when I took out that annuity last year?

3. I shut off the congressional hearings on the bailout and trudge up to 18th Street for the annual sample sale of the house of Hermès. Instead of a Birkin, I’m carrying a red tote sent to me by a jewelry company called Semi Precious Weapons that says “I Can’t Pay My Rent, But I’m Fucking Gorgeous.” The line outside the sale is staggeringly long and hysterically anxious—are people selling their securities and sinking their money into $800 key cases marked down to $400, ostrich-leather dog collars, and other durable goods? I don’t buy anything, but who cares? I’m fucking gorgeous.

4. I kill a few hours with my new obsession, Fox Business News on channel 43, then take the F train to the J.C. Penney event at Sara Roosevelt Park on Chrystie and Houston streets. Once a notorious needle park, the place has been reclaimed by the community and now sports a brand-new basketball court paid for by J.C. Penney.

Penney’s has set up a big white tent and laid down an Astroturf floor on which are poised examples of its new Linden Street furniture line, including stuffed beige couches and a dining-room table far too vast for the surrounding tenements to accommodate. According to the PR woman, Linden Street is all about “family, relaxed, comfortable, cozy—cuddling up with your kids. Is your street a Linden Street? It’s about neighborly goodwill, all about community.”

I hate families, I hate kids, and this kind of talk makes me want to run to the nearest vomitorium. Still, Penney’s did fund this court, and a gaggle of little monsters is enjoying the hell out of it right now, which warms even my sour old heart. Plus the furniture, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with, sports recession-friendly prices, like $899 for a couch, and according to my PR friend, it’ll never actually cost that much because “you know Penney’s—everything is always on sale.” (How shameful is it that I’d rather have a Hermès key case than a Penney’s couch?) When I ask her why Penney’s is funding a park on the Lower East Side, since it doesn’t even have any stores in the city, she says the chain is planning to open in the Manhattan Mall in 2009. Maybe in the space vacated by the recently bankrupt Steve & Barry’s?

5. The next day, I take a couple of items I never wear to Ina, who owns the upscale resale shop of the same name on Thompson Street in Soho. In the dismal spirit of the season, I pack up a Marni jacket (bought at the Marni sample sale last year and never worn once) and a strange Lanvin camisole (it came with a dress at the Barney warehouse sale and is 90 sizes too small) and head downtown.

I meet Ina—first name only, like Cher or Rihanna—at her original store in Soho (she now has five branches), where she is flanked by, among other merchandise, a Louis Vuitton dress (staggeringly beautiful and marked $1,200) and a pair of Martin Margiela cleft-toe boots. Ina says she thinks her business will be just fine, no matter what, because “We represent—psychologically, at any rate—one place where you think you can find a bargain.” Of course, a bargain doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone—in the past week, Ina sold three vintage Birkin bags, all in the $7,000 range, along with what she describes as a “really, really bad Kelly” for $800. (Wish I’d got that.)

Lately, an influx of Europeans with bulging pockets has kept things lively, but the bad economic outlook has also served to bring more New Yorkers through the doors: consigners looking to raise some quick cash; customers craving labels for less. (Frequently, these are the same people, on a compulsive buying-and-regretting merry-go-round that I myself have been riding for years.) But even the upbeat Ina—who, unlike me, is staying far away from Fox Business News and other cable-TV scaremongers, and who, in fact, is doing a fair amount of business during my visit—says soberly: “”I think it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”

6. I go home and rummage around in my closets, where I identify hundreds—maybe thousands—of items that are rarely, if ever, worn and could be turned into cash. Feeling as buoyed as Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs by the prospect of a sudden influx of dollars, I walk down to 8th Street. In front of Gray’s Papaya, I run into a friend, a jewelry dealer who sells exquisite gems on 47th Street in the diamond district.

How’s business? I say, smirking facetiously. “Everybody’s melting,” he replies, by which I know he means that people are converting their gold into cash. But then again, for just one second, I think that maybe he’s referring to our whole way of life, all our getting and spending, disappearing as fast as the Wicked Witch of the West dissolved when Dorothy doused her with a bucket of water.

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