It's a strange sort of crisis, this economic meltdown. Sages like Frank Rich of the New York Times are howling that "the abyss is widening" and calling it "an all-hands-on-deck emergency that's as trying as war." (My Aunt Beatrice, who lived through the Blitz in London, might have disagreed.) We've felt it, alright; my freelance work has slowed a lot, and Spouse casts a wary eye on threatened cutbacks to the nonprofit sector. As for spending, we can't give up most of the stuff recommended for "belt-tightening" because we gave it up 20 years ago, but we have mostly given up buying beer. This makes me sad, since I used to like to say that I had "champagne taste on a beer budget." It wasn't true—I actually like good beer better than most champagne—and now we are on whatever is less than a beer budget. A seltzer-water budget.
Yet the financial institutions with which the CrazyStable co-exists in a state of semi-feudal symbiosis seem weirdly distant from the fiscal bloodshed reported in each day's news. Yes, our "Wa-Mu" credit card has sent us a note declaring that it is now a Chase creature, which will deny me the pleasure of humming "Wah-Mooo" to the tune of Garrison Keillor's "Wahoo" while I pay off a few molecules of our balance each month. (However, the local Commerce Bank has made up for it by changing its name to the mysterious TD Bank, allowing us to say, in grating Tweety-baby talk, "Tee dee bank? Ooh, I tee dee bank, it wight ober dere!")
But otherwise, our encounters with our Insect Overlords, new or old, are remarkably unchanged. Citibank still sends out the same monthly statements, with no acknowledgement of anything amiss. Wouldn't you expect some sort of chagrined little insert? Maybe a "Monopoly" banker cartoon figure with a red face, and a note starting, "Whoops! We bet you've been hearing about our troubles lately, and we couldn't be more embarrassed! But now that the government has given us lots (heck, billions!) of your tax dollars, we'd just like you to know how grateful we are..."
In person, too, the Citifolks seem blissfully insulated from the Zeitgeist. Over the weekend, I stopped at a teller's window to change $30 worth of wrapped coins into bills. Before I was done, the sweet-faced teller had offered me (1) a personal loan and (2) a home equity loan. I believe what I'd asked was whether she could knock a few points off my credit-card APR. I wound up howling through the Lexan partition, to her puzzled amusement, "NO, dear. We want LESS debt, not MORE debt! But thank you for being willing to spread around that bailout money!" Every month, Citi extends their largesse, sending us "checks" to write ourselves even deeper into the pit. They even include perky suggestions for how to "treat ourselves" by spending them.
And then there is our "Notice of Property Value" from the City of New York. You'll be surprised to learn (I sure was) that the market value of the CrazyStable, in all its half-renovated glory, has gone up this year, by $56,000! Our million-dot-something-dollar house is, hilariously, now a million-dot-something-even-more. Trust me, the only thing about the house itself to have changed is that the shabby chic got a year shabbier. So the first thing I thought was, aha! We are being preposterously over-assessed to fill Bloomberg's coffers. However, our actual "taxable value," on which the tax bill is based, actually lags behind the assessment...because the city won't crank up the house's official value by more than 6 percent a year. (Presumably we've been "appreciating" along at a far brisker pace than 6 percent, not that it matters to the squirrels who live inside the walls.) I don't know why this bubble-proofing factor is in there, but I'm grateful. Really, Mayor Mike, grateful!, and I am sorry I made fun of you for being bitten by a groundhog yesterday.
Hey, maybe we should have taken that nice bank teller up on the offer! It's snowing out right now, a dark and dismal February snow. Why, with that home-equity loan, we could be on the way to JFK and Barbados! Tee dee bank? Wahoo, WaMu! No...no. Instead, we will embrace the Owl of Fiscal Sobriety. All three images here are from the tripped-out Hieronymus Bosch and his surreal landscapes of beauty, pain and absurdity. I suggest we declare him the Official Artist of the Recession.