Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bankers on Permanent Holiday

This is a guest post from Justin, which explores some interesting possibilities for cultural responses to the changed economic conditions. You see, some people may decide that they are bankrupt before they actually run out of all options, and start acting accordingly. Others, I suppose, would wait around for Joe the Plumber to show up and repossess their toilet. But this short story is about the former category. You see, our physical survival is not yet under threat, but our economic survival certainly is. How should we react? To put it in Clintonesque terms, "It's the culture, stupid!"

Three-month update: What Justin wrote as provocative pseudo-fiction is now echoed faithfully as reporting in the mainstream press.

After the markets crashed there were so many more subway musicians: fifty-something men whose close-cropped hair had disappeared under fezzes or down the drains of their showers. Not only were there more of them, but the collective mood of these "buskers" had changed to suit the times. For every cheery trio of Mexicans on guitar and accordion, blitzing the commuters from Queens with their syncopated, sped-up waltzes, there appeared four of five lone keyboardists or tenor sax players, instruments liberated from rec room closets in Scarsdale, who provided the definitive soundtrack to this special moment in New York. No one will ever forget the guitarist at Astor Place who played "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" all day long. Or the guy with the Theremin at South Ferry.

They'd decided to give up — or forgo entirely — the demeaning hunt for potential sources of (diminished) income or jobs whose own expiration dates were approaching ever closer. The presence of each new musician in the subway was an invitation out of the house to the others: he exerted a camaradic pull, irresistible as a game of tennis, and contributed to a positive feedback loop predicated on the lure of performing. The insistent, daring therapy of it. The mental calculus must have gone something along the lines of: "After risking so much of others' and my own money unawares, why not? What is the big deal? At least I'd be aware of the stakes were I to take my tenor down onto the platform."

The danger of the platform! The horizontal, subterranean equivalent of a leap from 22 stories up rumbled by every seven or so minutes. Even more often during rush hour. Only the most erratic, the most demented of these new buskers dared position himself at the dangerous end of the platform, the one near the tunnel mouth from which the trains entered the station. These were the guys who didn't wear shades, whose eyes locked onto a magic ceramic tile across the tracks visible only to themselves. Not surprisingly, these men, some of whom were the best musicians, drew not quarters or dollar bills but rather a five-yard buffer zone of sideways glances. No one stood between them and the yellow line.

Perversity, of course, ran rampant. The word "business" meant something new, or, more accurately, something it hadn't meant in a long while. Nihilism was the new black. Smoking was back in, fuck the ban in the subway. In fact, to hell with all the old rules. Shaming, self- and otherwise, was an essential part of one's act: to wit, the subversion of the "must have bag," whereby a musician would replace the familiar instrument case "cash box" with his briefcase or corporate-branded messenger bag. (Someone from marketing...) Another fad involved wearing one's company softball team uniform. Indeed, so popular were these shirts that some of the more unrepentant capitalists were soon back to work, having identified a profitable niche market specializing in ironic Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers team jerseys.

One group of guerilla musicians would play for tips outside their former employer's office building. Like modern-day Pinkertons, the cops were called in to break up the fun. They loved that, the cops did, because they hated everyone. They had no sympathy for the musicians, who "deserved a taste of reality," and they despised the Fortune 500 assholes whose precious "peace" was being disturbed, twenty stories above, despite double-glazed windows that don't open, by a handful of their disgruntled ex-employees. To signify their loathing in the clearest possible manner, the cops would take their time arriving, waiting for a second and a third complaint call, and then use excessive force to bust up the festivities.

It was always embarrassing the first time one encountered a former office mate behind his Casio, what with him wearing black Levi's, a T-shirt, shades, and a beret. Worse still, the working were usually slow to recognize former colleagues out of their natural environment, which meant that one was occasionally startled by one's former manager — between songs or, more shockingly, even mid-song — barking out one's name. One would think these guys would be too embarrassed to do that, the colleague-as-remembered would never do that. But times had changed. The awkwardness of these encounters was magnified by the decision whether to leave money. After deciding not to pay once or twice, one was obliged to find a new way to Grand Central even if that meant having to take the Times Square Shuttle across town.

Billy Joel songs were huge. The upbeat ones played slow, the ballads played even slower. At the end of the day, you could count on hearing "Uptown Girl" at least once between Bowling Green and Grand Central. They played this one song straight, played it the way Billy did, hoping for the impossible as they smiled through salt-and-pepper goatees and sang to the female temps and secretaries of the Upper East Side. When one felt one's inner poet, one went with Springsteen, usually "Blinded by the Light."

Women who could afford to take cabs did; those forced by circumstances to ride the MTA learned to ride in groups, ideally with one of their few remaining male colleagues. But these men were too stressed — preoccupied as they were with the added burden of new responsibilities, proffered and accepted with the tacit consent (often betrayed) of a few months' insulation — to enjoy this new-found privilege. Indeed, many a working stiff regarded these busking ex-colleagues with jealousy. The still-working were invited to weigh the rapidly diminishing marginal benefits of a chosen career against the novelty and the certainty of musical self-employment. Like the steady outward spread of the crisis itself, a note of fatalism began to creep into these evaluations: Never mind the light at the end of the tunnel, when was the other shoe going to drop... on me?

Days the Dow rose were the worst. Not because some guy was making a killing — some guy was always cleaning up — but because it felt like losing. Whenever the three major indexes rose in unison, like obedient little children, one thought about all the missed opportunities that had accrued over the years. Before, one felt entitled to share in the giddiness, even if it put money in your pocket only indirectly. Now, one was rooting for big declines. Every day. Either way, the ups and downs of the market still correlated (albeit inversely) to one's own sense of being. Thanks to decades of conditioning, phenomena such as the phantom-limb adrenaline rush on Friday afternoons, persisted until one's biological clocks reset itself, until one became habituated to respond to a new set of stimuli.

The widely held practice of buying a yearly MetroNorth pass meant that the musicians became nearly permanent fixtures in the subway. They took an even earlier train into the city than they had when working on Wall Street. And they went home later, too. Much later. By Thanksgiving, a special camaraderie had sprung up among them, one that was far more profound than anything they had know in their offices. They became competitive about something other than money, and they loved themselves and one another for it. Instead of Harry's or the Campbell Apartment, they met "after work" at bars like the Turtle Bay or the Holiday Cocktail. Inevitably, they began to jam.

Wives stayed away, but the amazing thing were the old intra-office liaisons, the flames rekindled, defying both odds and propriety, after a chance encounter below ground. First there was the shock of a former lover spied behind a tenor sax followed by the disbelieving double-take, which was met with a wink and a quick riff in the key of b-flat, signaling "let's get horizontal." Women who met friends after work at the W, Savoy, or the Mercer Kitchen but were suddenly recommending the Turtle Bay Café happy hour so they could show off — the gall of it! — their new/old trophy.

Divorce lawyers were doing a brisk business, busier than they'd been at any point since the recession in the early '90s. Exes and children remained in Westchester and Greenwich, while the word went around that the musicians were congregating in Far Rockaway. It made sense, actually: an abundance of cheap vacant condos, quickly filled and now often shared. And the surfing. Instead of closing for the winter in November, the surf shop on 116th Street instead sold a record 63 boards! The atmosphere out there was like Coney Island without the rides, or Williamsburg before the gentrification: life was for the taking, for the young at heart. A sleepaway camp mentality prevailed. It became normal to see dozens of grown men in wetsuits paddling their boards out into the surf on weekday afternoons, "days off" from the new grind of playing for spare change. Conventional notions of time lost sway and were replaced by something the musicians called "post-apocalyptic endless summer." Indeed, these men were survivors, they'd taken the best shot from life, and now it was their turn to swing back.

Twelve hours of practice, daily, improved the musicians' playing — that plus the confidence of playing before an audience. Novice musicians invariably started with familiar material, then mastered it, grew bored, and then fought the boredom, deconstructing the piece from within the confines of the piece. In short, they became proper musicians. The smartest, most creative ones stopped showing off in obvious ways and instead realigned one's orientation to a piece, turning you askew to what you knew. This improvement, combined with the musicians' ubiquity, made the subway a much more fun place to be. The homeless, and artists, were no longer the only ones yo-yoing for days on end. The scene down at Union Square boomed with teen-age jazz freaks off the trains from Bridgeport, Port Washington, and New Brunswick would "dip in" to the city for a few days with their instruments.

The A Train to Far Rockaway on Friday nights was the hippest party in town. A live studio set with unwinding pros, informally swapping phrasings and new ideas, laying new base lines down to unsettle answers to questions long thought to have been resolved. By journey's end, one had arrived at a destination named Weekend. One moved from car to car on a sea of discarded brown paper bags that crunched softly underfoot like empty peanut shells, all volume and no substance. Each car contained its own ninety-minute "unplugged" jam, so this hopping back and forth between cars formed the organizing principle of the "Rockaway Beach Sound," which Sascha Frere-Jones described as "a nagging hangover baseline of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, the soul of Billy Joel, Jonathan Richman, and the Beach Boys — washed down with a long, sweet, straight-from-the-bottle shot of the Ramones." In short, it was irresistible. It was a sound that said, "Fuck you very much," to the idea of joint custody and every other weekend.


Lloyd Morcom said...

Great piece of writing Justin & Dmitri!

Anonymous said...

I'm an actual street musician, divorced with kids on the weekend, in San Francisco not New York, and from the tech business, not banking or finance.

I loved this story! Very well-written.

bryant said...

I can't even play a kazoo, but I was there...very evocative.

Anonymous said...

Great story, from someone who knows NYC and a few buskers well.

But who the hell is Justin and where can I find more of his writing?


Anonymous said...

Maybe Justin could write his next story about women stuck in the suburbs trying to raise kids on a crappy office job and little or no child support?

Anonymous said...

LOL! I wonder what the term "gentrification" will come to mean...

Anonymous said...

Peter Schiff Was Wrong

Please read. It seems there will be no hyperinflation, and that some, but not all, of Peter Schiff's calls are dead wrong.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Peter Schiff gets a gold star for predicting economic collapse, and 0 points for investment tips. Hyperinflation will happen, just not today. As far as collapse-proofing your investment portfolio, the whole trick is not having one to begin with. Collapse is very painful for those who happen to have (had) a lot of money.

Leon1234 said...

This is a great blog here. Thank you for sharing. That book looks real good, I am going to see if I can read it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, excellent writing. I came from this place and I could picture everything in my mind's eye.

So glad I got the heck out of NYC, three years ago. Layoff day was a good day... I was in the company of several pregnant ladies who had been let go at the same time as me. I had a six-month-old baby, when we all got together for lunch, we figured that Wall Street had decided to sacrifice anyone who was in our position and not really able to work late nights and weekends anymore.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Justin's story is not exactly fiction. Here's a news clipping:

NYT It’s the Economy, Girlfriend

The economic crisis came home to 27-year-old Megan Petrus early last year when her boyfriend of eight months, a derivatives trader for a major bank, proved to be more concerned about helping a laid-off colleague than comforting Ms. Petrus after her father had a heart attack. For Christine Cameron, the recession became real when the financial analyst she had been dating for about a year would get drunk and disappear while they were out together, then accuse her the next day of being the one who had absconded. Dawn Spinner Davis, 26, a beauty writer, said the downward-trending graphs began to make sense when the man she married on Nov. 1, a 28-year-old private wealth manager, stopped playing golf, once his passion. “One of his best friends told me that my job is now to keep him calm and keep him from dying at the age of 35,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s not what I signed up for.” They shared their sad stories the other night at an informal gathering of Dating a Banker Anonymous, a support group founded in November to help women cope with the inevitable relationship fallout from, say, the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the Dow’s shedding 777 points in a single day, as it did on Sept. 29.

Anonymous said...

"Or the guy with the Theremin at South Ferry."

Theremin requires electricity.

Theremin is appropriate accompaniment to voodoo economist speeches.

Alan Greenspan, voice.
Your Favorite President: Theremin

Nataraj Hauser said...

I'm in the Midwest, and have just taken a voluntary separation because it seemed a better option than remaining. As I read this I flashed on myself in a year, busking on our downtown shopping street wearing a t-shirt with Obama's image and the words, "Got change?" I'm still an optimist - it's my nature - but I see my company stock (401k, you know) at 75% off and can see myself reflected in this story regardless of my choices.

. said...

I met Banjo Scott on the streets of Brattleboro, Vermont last summer. He'd just picked up the instrument the day before and was teaching himself. I believe he had a background with guitars because he was off and running. I found him again some months later in a little square near Harvard, collecting spare change with brisk tunes. Somewhere in all of that I caged a ride on a yacht with investment bankers. Those guys are gonna be so surprised when they're elbow to elbow with him :-)

Anonymous said...

beautiful writing, city and people i love. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Aric Leavitt, with his homemade banjo in Studio City. Back to busking signifies the real return to normalcy.

cavamil said...

From the Boston Globe:

Headline: Taking a dream underground

Subject: the rise in subway busking. :) I saw the article and immediately thought of this post. In fact, I thought I was reading the story instead of an actual article.

Justin G. said...

Incidentally, Cavamil, it was the busker at the Downtown Crossing T stop who inspired this story.