Quick -- you're a journalist who needs to describe the culture of our imploding Wall Street to a largely lay audience. What are you going to do? Reach back to the '80s of course!
There's Tom Wolfe and "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Everyone read that, right? Or at least saw the movie. Kurt Andersen and Spy magazine. "American Psycho." Gordon Gekko. "Liar's Poker." And don't forget to throw in a Porsche.
All of these '80s touchstones managed to find their way into a Sept. 21 story in The New York Times about the dashed dreams of "young financiers." (Even its headline, "Dim Lights, Big City," played on '80s nostalgia.) The piece bemoans the death-of-Wall-Street-and-therefore-New-York-as-we-know-it, which has become a staple of downturn journalism, from the 1990 recession to the more recent tech bust. To give its doomsday thesis some gravitas, the Times raises Andersen: "Wall Street's highfliers helped rebrand the city in the eyes of the world, Mr. Andersen said, from a tired postindustrial necropolis to a sleek 21st-century financial dynamo. And that is the city today. Or it was."
Was? Is New York over already? Apparently. The Times rolls out Wolfe, who declared Greenwich, Conn., "the new Wall Street" because of its hedge fund density.
"I hate to use the phrase 'masters of the universe,' but they're not in investment banking anymore, they're in hedge funds," Wolfe said. It's an idea he revisited a few days later in The New York Observer: "There's nothing as second-rate as investment banks. Every smart and ambitious young man -- and forget young women because they don't play any role in this -- wants to be in a hedge fund. And I'd be surprised if the hedge funds implode, they're just smarter." That's an interesting observation from someone who less than two years ago, in a piece for Portfolio magazine, characterized the hedge fund crowd as status-seeking vulgarians with vile manners and bad taste. But we digress.
Wolfe wasn't the only one stripping bankers of their alleged status last week. There was also Holly Peterson, whose claim to fame, other than being Pete Peterson's daughter, is that she wrote "The Manny," a novel about a dreamy male nanny on the Upper East Side. She showed up on ABC News' "20/20" on Sept. 19 to declare, "The gilded age is over."
Her evidence: When Peterson goes to her normally female-infested "fancy" gym at 9:30 a.m., there are men (!) there. "And I said to myself, 'Layoff, layoff, layoff, layoff, layoff,' " she tells viewers. But it's worse than that: "Five years ago, if you were an investment banker, that meant big bucks and automatic entry," she explains. "And today it is a dirty word."
Well, maybe they can become mannies. Or open a B&B. Or bake cookies. Which brings us to that other staple of downturn stories: Wall Streeters finding happiness pursuing less lucrative but more "rewarding" careers. The Times on Sept. 24 told us about Jessi Walter "a 27-year-old Harvard grad who used to research credit products at Bear" but is "now running children's baking classes through a company called Cupcake Kids." One banker in the piece turned to religion; another went to work for New York City's school system.
The story was a rare, if strange, attempt to humanize bankers (at least those like Walter) and garner sympathy for the Street's hoi polloi. "Not everybody on Wall Street is a millionaire, and as the turmoil in the markets spreads, it is as much a pandemic of the everyman as it is of the Hamptons set," it begins. "For every Porsche-driving trader, two to three people at these companies answer the phones, keep the computers running and shine the floors."
Apparently, these "everymen" like the high life as much as their bosses do. The first one we meet tells of being so "mesmerized" by "a juicy steak dinner on the corporate account and a Town Car to drive him home" that he quit college to join Bear's tech support staff. Now his job will end on Oct. 31. "I couldn't understand: How come me?" he asks. "I was just this average Joe, but I became captivated by Wall Street."
Maybe he should try Greenwich
Follow Yvette Kantrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MediaManeuvers