Wall Street and the (Stair)Masters of the Universe

I walked past a job fair yesterday.  Usually, I find them quaint: young, fresh faced, newly graduated and full of hope candidates line up, looking excited at the prospect of their first job, their grown-up life.

This group of people, however, looked neither young, nor fresh-faced, nor hopeful.  I saw middle-aged men in expensive looking business suits who looked shell-shocked, as if they couldn’t understand where they were.  I saw 30-something wheeler-dealer types, who until the last few weeks had probably thought themselves invincible. There more people lined up for that job fair than I’d ever seen.  The line snaked down Sixth Avenue, across 19th Street, and around the corner of 18th Street almost halfway to 7th Avenue.  For the first time, I saw the ramifications of the current financial crisis up close.  These people weren’t starting out excited down the path to success, they were desperately clinging to what they already had, and were afraid to lose.

To most people, the financial crisis is happening in some mysterious place called Wall Street.  Evidently, the rest of America is “Main Street” and only this one street — the epicenter of the crisis, the “ground zero” of the financial downfall, is to blame.  To New Yorkers, Wall Street isn’t some figurative place, some metaphor for greed.  It’s just another street, with offices, and shops and a few not-very-good restaurants. It’s just another part of the City we call home.

The other day, I went down to Wall Street. While I was there, I couldn’t help but look for signs of the evil arch-enemy of Main Street politicians keep talking about.  I was hoping to see the callous, ultra-rich, a-moral, self-serving “Masters of the Universe” Tom Wolfe wrote about back in the eighties–the women wearing shoulder pads that made them look as tough as line-backers, the men smoking cigars that cost more than some people made in a week.  Instead, I saw  exhaustion.  Tired senior executives, harried young businessmen, “runners” heading home too tired to remove their tell-tale jackets.  I also saw the same thing I see everywhere in New York: people getting ready to go out for the evening, working mothers on their cell-phones telling their babysitters they were running late.  It wasn’t a disaster area, but those Masters of the Universe – – they were no where in sight.

Then, as I reached Pearl Street, I saw something.  Not the kind of Master I had expected, but a Master nonetheless.  There, on the sidewalk, it’s cord and plug snaking out behind it, just as the line of job seekers had snaked around nineteenth street, was a Stairmaster looking as if it were waiting to be used, waiting for a second chance. And suddenly, I had as apt a metaphor for what’s been happening in the financial sector as any I’d heard.

Because we’ve all — not just the Wall Streeters — but all of us, have been on that Stairmaster for the past several years, in one way or another.  Climbing, climbing, climbing, without paying attention to the fact that all this spending, all this excess, hasn’t really gotten us anywhere. Or at least not anywhere we want to be. The only place all this mindless, endless, climbing has gotten us is in debt, over-extended, highly leveraged, deeply worried or totally screwed. No wonder someone dumped their stairway to nowhere into the gutter.

Oddly, Stairmasters figure in another great US tragedy that had its epicenter only a few blocks north of Wall Street: the September 11th attacks.  Every time I drive down the Westside Highway past the gaping hole that was once the World Trade Center I notice the two building directly across the street from the site.  In one of these buildings there’s a wall of windows a filled with the faces of tourists, struggling to imagine what happened to what once was there.   Or to understand how nothing came to be there – how all these years later there is still nothing there.  In the next building, along another wall of windows looking directly into the site, is a line of Stairmasters.  Every time I drive downtown I see these two windows. And every time, the tourist window is crammed with faces, but the other window is empty; the Stairmasters unused.

I imagine that using a Stairmaster while looking at the place where thousands of people walked down as many as eighty flights of stairs to escape a terrorist attack might feel- well, uncomfortable.  I imagine that tending to one’s own personal exercise regime while looking at the place where so many suffered such personal loss, might be unsettling. I imagine anyone climbing, climbing, climbing, couldn’t help but think of all of those firefighters who climbed up, while everyone else climbed down, and who lost their lives by so doing. I wonder if, a few years from now, people will be standing where those Stairmasters are now, looking out the window at what was once the financial center of the world, contemplating the gaping hole in our economy, wondering how we got there.

Odd, that an exercise machine should loom so large (at least for me) in two of the biggest crises in modern American history.  (Though I hope it’s too early to put the current credit crisis in this category – perhaps we’ll pull through somehow.) And while there is no comparison as to the scope of these tragedies on a human level, I see some similarities.  Both the September 11th attacks and the current financial collapse caused fear and panic.  Both have made us have to confront how little of the world we really control.  Both have made us wonder if we will leave our children a war-filled, financially unstable legacy. Both left us digging out — one literally, and one figuratively.  One tragically, nonsensically – one, perhaps, deservedly – with financial institutions fueled and felled by greed, and Americans’ desire for more, better, faster, bigger. Most important is not their similarities, but this distinction between the two: one of these crises ended people’s lives; the other, only  some people’s lives as they know it.

That Stairmaster on the street, the one with the cord that looked like it was searching for a second chance…let’s hope it doesn’t get one.  Because when we do start climbing out, I don’t want it to be a frenzied climb to nowhere, but a well-considered journey to security and safety.  I want those people on the job-fair line to climb as high as they’d like – but to be cognizant of the climbing.  To know where they are going and to understand that it takes hard work and dedication to get there. I want them — all of us — to realize that when you get something for nothing…you end up with just that, nothing. We don’t need to be Masters of the Universe.  Instead, we should aim to be Masters hard-work, fairness, opportunity, and of our own destiny. A destiny not shaped by an endless rush to an unattainable height, but to a real place of security and hope.

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