Desperation Moves from Wall Street to Main Street

New America Media, Published September 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: After stocks plummeted earlier this week, the Dow Jones industrials rose more than 785 points Thursday and Friday. New York-based writer Russell Morse chronicles the shifting mood on Wall Street this week, from one of desperation to optimism. But in the rest of the country, where empty, foreclosed homes line the street, people still don’t know what to do. Morse is a writer for New America Media.

NEW YORK — Tuesday morning in downtown Manhattan was overcast and dark. By 8:30 a.m., Wall Street was busy as thousands of men and women filed out of the subway station for another day at work. Old men with crooked ties and tassels on their loafers carried newspapers under their arms with the headline: “Nightmare.”

Desperate New Yorkers looked each other in the eye, searching for reassurance or doom. Tired faces marched to work: pregnant, bald, suited, goateed, all of them carrying some secret panic. Young, beautiful women perched atop the highest shoes filed into fortified buildings with soft, nervous smiles. All of them crept past like teenagers sneaking home after a long night out after curfew.

In front of the New York Stock Exchange, a man stood in the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets handing out flyers and wearing a sandwich board that read “We Buy Gold.”

The old black man giving out free newspapers at the top of the subway stairs had to fold each paper over to hide the headline: “Massacre.” It was silent up and down Wall Street, except for one man’s voice, as he called out to people, “New York’s strong! New York’s strong, baby! That’s right! We’re strong!”

In the lobby of the Equinox gym, dozens of giant plasma televisions flashed different versions of the news. Most of the screens were a jumble of tickers and graphs and numbers and grim newsmen. One of them ran footage of the two presidential candidates – suddenly irrelevant – and the television’s closed captions flashed the phrase “Main Street and Wall Street” over and over during the two men’s sound bytes.

It was all these men could do: make an imaginary connection between the two mythological American avenues, neither of which exist in the way they mean them to.

Before this day, I had never been to Wall Street. And having seen it, in most ways, it is an unremarkable place. It is a narrow, crooked alleyway that runs only a few blocks. On one end, Wall Street is trapped under the FDR freeway structure, growing out of the gray and dead East river. It runs a few jagged blocks, past some unassuming facades and dead ends at Broadway, at the foot of the Trinity Wall Street Church. Right in the middle, almost tucked away on a side street, is the columnar cathedral of wealth: the New York Stock Exchange.

I don’t know where Main Street is, but this is Wall Street. A lot of people smoking cigarettes and typing furiously on Blackberries: the heart of the American economy.

In 1920, Sinclair Lewis wrote a book called Main Street that became an instant bestseller. It was a criticism of small town America, chronicling the life of an educated, independent spirited woman from “the city” who is forced to compromise her life and ideals in the fictional Midwestern town of Gopher Prairie.

Gopher Prairie was based on Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minn., about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. Earlier this month, I spent several days with a friend of mine in the north side neighborhood of St Paul. Now, St. Paul is a much larger city than Sauk Centre, but the north side has the feel of a small town, isolated from downtown and populated by working families.

My first day there, my friend gave me a driving tour of the neighborhood. He lives off of Rice Street (the north side’s main street) and as we drove, he pointed out the homes on his block that have been recently foreclosed. It was more than half of his block and even worse on some other streets.

Rice Street looks like many of the business districts I’ve seen this year in towns like Newburg, N.Y. and Racine, Wis.: empty storefronts, a strip mall with a Subway sandwich shop and a liquor store with bars on all the windows. There are few lonely taverns, of course, and an old tire shop that’s rarely open. I visited one of the taverns and spent a couple of hours in silence, watching Dirty Harry on TV with a few old men who stared into their glasses and fumbled with napkins.

My friend moved to the neighborhood a few years ago because he wanted to own a home and that’s where he could afford to buy one. Now he lives on a nearly empty street across from a cemetery. It is hard to imagine the residents of the north side climbing out of this sad slump for years.

Wall Street, on the other hand, had changed rather dramatically by Wednesday evening, when I went back to have a meal in a pub called the Killarney Rose. On my way there, I passed the AIG building, where the street was completely blocked by deliverymen on bicycles, dozens of them waiting for assistants to come down and sign for dinner. It was already 7:00 p.m. and nobody was going to be home for supper. One young man in a suit walked up the street, heading home. His tie was cut off, jaggedly, as if someone had taken scissors to it. I asked him what happened and he laughed. “Aw, it was that kind of day and I’m the new guy. I’ll be back!”

Tellingly, the Killarney Rose was nearly empty. I took a seat at the bar. On one side of me sat two middle-aged guys in rolled-up sleeves and ties, drinking beers in relative silence and watching the Yankees on TV. After a few minutes, a song came on the jukebox and one of them started to tell a story. “Good song. Alice in Chains.” A few seconds passed. “I remember I used to have an old Buick Regal, only had AM radio. I heard this song every day.”

His friend laughed. “Well, now you’ve got a driver and satellite radio.”

On the other side of me sat two young men in the same Wall Street after-work uniform, well into a night of drinking and Yankees baseball. They took turns joking about A-Rod’s performance at the end of a dismal season. One of them, it turned out, was recently engaged and that gave them plenty to joke about. “The market’ll be fine, man. I’ve got bigger problems: I’m getting married! That’s for life!”

By Thursday morning, it was obvious that during the long night, optimism had been beaten into all the poor souls on Wall Street. Heads were high, jackets pressed and every conversation on the street ended with hand slaps.

New York has recently become like Las Vegas in the 1990s: a city obsessed less with its history than the act of destroying and rebuilding. The holy shrine of Yankee Stadium will host its last game on Sunday. Shea Stadium is in its last year. And just north of Wall Street, a gaping hole in the ground is set to become a new World Trade Center. Several of the people I talked to on Thursday were confident that the market would rebound and were excited about being a part of it.

Around lunchtime, I called my mom in California to say hi. I told her about the eerie optimism on Wall Street and she said, “Well, that’s not the case out here. We’re scared and we have no idea what we’re going to do.”