Wearing Black in New York

The upside of this financial crisis was that my friend was able to join me shoe shopping last Thursday at Harry’s Shoes on 83rd and Broadway.  He still had his severance package in hand from that morning’s trip to his firm’s “16th floor,” a blue folder that those kind people in human resources suggested he put in a white envelope to be more (you know) discreet.

I really wasn’t expecting New York to be quite so bad.  We read about it in the news here in China, but just aren’t feeling the financial crisis quite that hard.  China’s GDP is still growing a “worrying” 6 to 8%, people estimate — multiples of the pace of the developed world even during the good years. 

But as soon as I landed in New York last week, even before I crossed the tunnel from Newark airport into Manhattan, it became clear this crisis was as bad as the papers were saying, if not worse: my cab driver told me that I was just his second ride during his 12 hour shift, when he used to average 5 rides a day;  he thinks this will last so long that he’s considering moving back to Turkey after 5 years here in the States.  Later my parents took me to a good restaurant which normally required reservations;  it was so empty they let the three of us sit at a booth normally reserved for 8 on a Friday night.  When I met up with friends in a bar last Thursday for a brief “what are you up to” drink, the stats were depressing — a full quarter of my friends had been laid off in the past few months, and another quarter were worrying about their jobs or working extra jobs for colleagues of theirs that were laid off.

I went home that night feeling like Scarlett O’Hara picking her way through the bodies laid out near the hospital in Atlanta, grateful that I could at least return to the still surviving economy of China.  It felt that night that New York had fundamentally changed.  Even after 9/11, New York had a fighting spirit to it, a rallying passion.  Last Thursday, though, walking between the vacant office towers of midtown, it felt like New Yorkers were getting ready to abandon the city, and take its soul with them.

The next day, I walked through Columbus Circle.  The subway station is a mess:  construction marked out by blue plywood boards, walling in passages and blocking exits.  Up on the street, yellow cabs jolted over potholed pavement that had been poured quickly in patches during the black night — overused roads that never have enough of a break to heal fully.  No one else noticed the constricting plywood walls or the mutilated streets, though.  New Yorkers just deal with it, and move on anyway.  Watching them pick their way through the hazards of this urban jungle, I realized they would get through this too.

E.B. White wrote “Here is New York” in 1949 to describe this very same city that swept me through its tunnels and spit me out onto its streets last week.  He noted, “Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin: they sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they meet confusion and congestion with patience and grit — a sort of perpetual muddling through.”

When I left New York last weekend, the sky was blue and spring was in the air.  I left dreaming of lazy flocks of unemployed bankers and lawyers, with a falling reservoir of savings and a rising surplus of time, soaking up the free things with which New York summers drench its citizens:  free movies at Bryant Park, cherry blossom festivals in Brooklyn, Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater, Philharmonic in the park, swing dancing at Lincoln Center, free concerts everywhere.  They will gather amongst errant frisbees and oversized dogs, and spend the time they wished they had when the churning economy was rushing them along.  They will spend more time with each other, now, and ask themselves what it was that they imagined their life and world would look like before all this, before they became corporate assets that travel up and down in elevators each day.  And from the supernova dust of this financial crisis, new constellations will form that I can’t imagine yet.  But they will.

And while they rebuild the economy through this solemn time, they will wear black. Not because they are mourning the passage of something wonderful, that moment in time when life was good and hard and easy.  They’ll wear black because they are New Yorkers, who have always worn black, and have been ready — always ready — to muddle through.