Denial is pervasive these days. As an ex-pat in New York last week, I could not help but notice the ominous wind which blew into town and the strange, grey weather and permanent fog which hung over the city. A taxi driver let me out at one end of Wall Street as the storm winds blew through the city. I actually got lost trying to find Goldman Sachs, which I finally recognized because of the long line of black cars and chaffeurs waiting in front of it to pick up executives at the end of the business day. Except this was no ordinary business day. Outside the reality was palpable, but once inside the warm bright interior of Goldman Sachs, denial reigned once again.
Denial was overtly present during a three hour dinner at an expensive sushi restaurant in Gotham last Saturday night. Somehow the place felt shabby, the people less chic, and I thought, "What are we doing here spending too much money we should be putting to better use?" Bankers threw stock prices into the conversation between the never-ending dishes of sashimi, and cucumber martinis. The entire week had been filled with one headline after another, announcing gloom and the end of the greed-filled years of swaps, flips, tranches of things which once held some kind of concrete value.
Just as the raw fish had been thinly and expensively sliced into many many tiny pieces, so has the US financial world turned something into next to nothing. As we fed ourselves, the lack of satisfaction reminded us we were still hungry. Those minute "tranches" of something which had once resembled a fish, were simply not supplying enough real food to supply our bodies with any kind of contentment. I wanted a steak, a pizza, anything, to fill me up. And at the end of the meal, I wanted my money back.
The final blow came when three of the single women at the table somehow disappeared right before the bill came. So we were all left paying the tab for those who fled from the table, having enjoyed the meal. The metaphors for this "last supper" (there was no way in hell I was going to do that again!) gnawed at me all night, while my empty stomach reminded me I would have to dish out more cash, this time, making sure I actually ate real food. The bankers fighting over the bill and the women trying to calm things down, my friend and I somehow outside of the conversation, wanting to just pay and leave: all made for an uncomfortable reminder of the very reality most of us had been trying to avoid by choosing such a ridiculous place to have dinner in the first place.
All I wanted was to forget the meal had happened, go home, pack and fly back to Europe where I live. As luck would have it, the hurricane which hit the East Coast of Canada delayed my flight at JFK so long that I missed my connection to Paris. I would have to spend another night, and more money, just to go home again. I was stuck in DC on Sunday night as Wall Street tried to finalize a plan to save the economy from free-fall. There was no running away from the reality of the situation, no possibility of denial. It was everywhere, all around me...
I had followed the conversation from Wall Street to Capitol Hill and physically was stuck in DC when the announcement came from Paulson about how he was single-handedly going to save us. Somehow it reminded me of when he had been at Goldman Sachs, and we had given him our money with no oversight and no punishment for creating this mess in the first place. Somehow, even though now he was leading the US Treasury, it still felt like Goldman Sachs was going to be the winner. AIG, with all of its Goldman Sachs' linked deals would also be saved. Lehman would be sacrificed. Many others too. But not the ones who always seemed a bit above it all. They weren't above it all, they may have figured out a few things early, but if we could look at the books, we would see they are in just as precarious a situation as everyone else. Except their guy runs the Treasury. And now he virtually runs the entire US economy.
What was learned from this experience? That next time I will choose the restaurant, and not hand over all of the decision-making power to someone else. I will order my own meal, not let the waiter decide for me. No one who does not pay their fair share can attend. And paying the bill will be a low stress, polite experience. And I will only pay what I owe, nothing more. I will not pay a "fee" for those who skip out on the check. Or better yet, I will stay home, make a great dinner, have a cute guy bring over a fantastic bottle of wine, and have some less expensive, infinitely more satisfying, really human fun. (And he won't be a banker!)