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Thursday, December 17, 2009

In the Shadow of Goldman Sachs, Wall Street Is Far from Recovery

Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Profits and bonuses are back on the Street, but the prosperity hasn't filtered down past the service economy.

On the October day after the Dow hit 10,000 for the first time in a year, wealthy socialites assembled on a chilly evening in New York for the Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Named for an uneducated fishmonger who played his working-class bona fides all the way to the 1928 Democratic nomination for president, the event has become a mainstay of the rich and influential. Speaking at the dinner in 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush famously quipped, “This is an impressive crowd: the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”

On 51st Street, around the corner from the glow of the Waldorf, Abdul Rashidi tore down his fruit stand. He wore a ski mask against the cold, and he was agitated as he loaded his fruit into boxes.

“I work eighteen hours a day,” Rashidi said. “Yesterday I make $70.”

“They don’t buy fruit from me," he said, gesturing at the hotel. “I think they have fruit inside."

The official unemployment rate is over 10 percent – a conservative estimate that excludes the long-term jobless and part-timers. The more accurate tally of the jobless adds up to roughly 17 percent, or 27 million Americans; in absolute terms roughly twice as many people as were unemployed in the Great Depression.

Wall Street is a tiny flotilla of upturn upon a sea of economic decline. The country is divided more than ever between rich and poor, with two-thirds of income growth since 2002 going to the top 1 percent of earners and income inequality at an all-time high. Most of America is reeling from decades, not just months, of wage stagnation and economic upheaval. But on Wall Street stocks are up and profits are back. The 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs will get an average of $700,000 in compensation in 2009, and salaries across much of the industry are back to pre-crash levels.

I wondered how the Wall Street recovery was affecting the working class who labor among the titans of the financial sector. I wanted to find out if others in the shadow of Goldman Sachs were benefiting from the bonanza. Was the prosperity trickling down even to the street directly below the executive suites?

I was in the financial district slogging through rain, my umbrella rendered useless by wind blowing off the East River. It was late and buildings were locked down. On a piece of paper I wrote in block letters, “I AM A JOURNALIST. CAN WE TALK?" and pressed it against a window to try to get the attention of an after-hours janitor. He looked around concerned, visibly considered it, then ignored me. He knew what I was beginning to understand: Wall Street doesn’t like reporters.

Over a period of days I talked to many workers, and when they opened up I heard the same story repeated. Some may be celebrating the end of the recession, but for most menial laborers in Wall Street's shadows the end is nowhere in sight. Stagnant wages and a rising cost of living was a reality for most Americans long before the financial crash, and from here the future looks grimly like the past.

Maria works on the building support staff of a major Wall Street firm, and asked that I not use her real name for fear of antagonizing her employer. I asked her how the economy was affecting her.

“It’s not working very well,” she said, laughing.

Maria emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean in the 1970s, raised sons and now lives alone in a government-subsidized studio apartment in Queens. Her $11 hourly wage will be unaffected by the Dow, bank profits or bonuses. This recovery wasn’t making its way into her purse.

But Wall Street was back in black ink and I found one street in the financial district, and one bar in particular, awash in the runoff. Capped at one end by the towering world headquarters of Goldman Sachs, Stone Street is lined with bars that advertise the leathery kitsch available for the price of a pint in “taverns" and "ale houses" across upscale America. Among the bars on Stone Street there is one whose heft swaddles more real estate than any other.

Ulysses calls itself a folk house, but it combines the pub mystique with postmodern flair. Pictures of James Joyce hang next to exposed brick walls. Waiters careen through crowded dark suits carrying $95 three-tier towers of lobster and oysters. The bar was nearly standing-room-only but I found a stool where I thought my solitary state might be more conspicuous, the better to strike up a conversation.

Julia Buccieri was laid off a year ago from the photo studio where she had worked since graduating from Pratt Institute in 2007. Now she is a bartender at Ulysses.

“As far as I’ve heard this place hasn’t really taken a hit,” she said. She called her clientele, “the suits, the spoiled finance world,” but didn’t have much else to say about them. “I don’t have much criticism because this place is really consistently busy. Which is nice.”

I asked if she knew any financial types present who might speak to a journalist. Buccieri asked two friends sitting at the other end of the bar. One of them was Michael Daily, who works with fixed-income securities at Deutsche Bank.

“If you want to find a guy that works on Wall Street, they tell all the girls, come to Ulysses,” said Daily. His black hair was swept back into curls above a dark pinstripe suit. He shook the ice in his Madras cocktail. “As an investor you gotta be opportunistic,” he said. “They’re just taking advantage of the situation.”

I asked Daily about government plans to curtail bonuses of some Wall Street executives. He offered that he was a Democrat, then expressed his disapproval. “They’re trying to appease the middle man, the common folk, you know?” he said. “When this all gets back to normal people will forget about this. People will be making a lot of money, you know, the good times will be back."

The good times. In all the conversations I had with people working in the underbelly of the financial district I never heard anyone lamenting the end of any good times. I thanked Daily for his frankness and left. Maria was ending her shift nearby, and I hoped to talk a little more.

We walked the quiet streets of the financial district after hours. “For me that’s my car,” Maria teased, pointing to her white tennis shoes. She sifted through her purse, pushing aside the plastic container that once held the leftover chicken, rice and beans she had brought for lunch that day, and pulled out a recent pay stub.

Working full-time, overtime when possible, Maria makes around $375 a week. She has no health insurance, save the primary care clinic the company provides its employees. "If I need to go to the hospital, something like that, it cost more money,” she said. “So I was thinking maybe to apply to Medicaid.”

Medicaid rejected her because she earns too much money.

Three years earlier she narrowly evaded destitution when her relationship with a live-in boyfriend went bad. She had applied in 1993 for government housing and 13 years later she was approved. She got her own place at $900 a month, half paid by the government. Maria plans to start cleaning houses more often to supplement her income.

“To survive,” she said. “How I’m gonna survive with this, you know that? Pay my bills, everything like that, so I don’t have to struggle. You can’t survive on this kind of money.”

Back at Ulysses it was near closing time. Hangers-on stalked the bar and coupled reputables had mostly left. Martina, a recent law school grad who refused to give her last name stirred a vodka and Sprite and asked why I was taking notes. Hoop earrings hung under her long blond hair. It was near closing time and her cheeks flushed red – she was drunk.

“Come on a Thursday or Friday night. The economy’s boooooming,” she said. “People waste money like no other. I don’t know if they know if there’s a recession or not.”

Martina escaped Communist Slovakia with her family when she was four years old. The family landed in Orange County, California, where she grew up. She was applying for two to three jobs a day, she said, at first as an attorney, then, adjusting her expectations to the job market, as a paralegal or a secretary.

Since taking the bar exam she spent her days sleeping in, watching TV in her $1,300-a-month apartment and recovering from the night before. She was living on leftover school loans and a $5,000 gift from her parents. She had just finished reading Common Sense, by Glenn Beck, which she reported enjoying immensely.

I had been sitting alone a long time when Martina approached me and the anonymous masses that crowd out loneliness had vanished. I was tired and felt out of place. When she said hello, it was a welcome diversion.

“You ever read Tucker Max?” she asked. I told her I had read a few of his famously debauched stories. She could write something herself, she said, with the late-night wanton behavior she had seen. She suggested we collaborate on a book, “and have sex or something in the meantime.”

It seemed strange that she would proposition me, a clearly out-of-place journalist scribbling in a notepad. I was not of the Wall Street ilk. I told Martina I had work to do.

There was something so prototypically American about Martina. She was a refugee from Communism, living on debt and living it up. She was unemployed, but a regular at a bar that is by no standard cheap. She was the picture of profligate living, but starting to feel the effects of the recession. Weeks later she took a job as a waitress.

It was past closing, though in-the-knows sat drinking at the bar and smoking illicit cigarettes. Walter Cano, a barback at Ulysses, leaned into his elbows, drank from a tall rum and coke and lit a Marlboro Red. A shift that began at 4:30 p.m. the day before was finally over.

“Man, fucking long day,” Cano said.

He counted the cash earned from 12 hours on the job. On a typical week he takes home around $1,200, mostly in tips – enough to afford a $1,000 per month one-bedroom apartment in a good Queens neighborhood and regularly send $500, sometimes $1,000, back to his parents in Argentina. He moved to the U.S. a decade ago, and for most of the last 10 years worked seven days a week at two jobs, often in back-to-back shifts. Now he works four days one week, five the next at Ulysses. I had finally found a regular worker benefiting from the recovery.

The wage stagnation and class bifurcation of the last 30 years have undermined the American dream Maria sought when she emigrated to the U.S. For American workers, the good times on Wall Street that Michael Daily is looking forward to have long been the tough times of living with a low-paying job or no job at all. A bar like Ulysses, where the wealth on Wall Street was making its way into the pockets of working people, looked to me like a refugee camp from an otherwise tumultuous and decaying economy.

I left the bar and walked to the subway through the financial district’s quiet canyons feeling tiny, alone, flanked by colossal towers. It was nearly sunrise. Walter Cano was in a cab on his way home from work. Soon the suits would fill the streets, and shortly thereafter Maria would wake up, clean her apartment and begin the subway trip back into Manhattan for work.

See more stories tagged with: inequality, wall street, finance, economic crisis, unemployment, financial sector

Nicks is a New York-based journalist and a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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