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The spinmeisters are playing the same record over and over, recovery, recovery, scratch, scratch, recovery’s in da house! The Associated Press trumpeted, “After two years of recession, Christmas 2010 will go down as the moment when Americans rediscovered how much they like to shop.” On December 28th, Yahoo Finance reassured us at 9AM, “The recovery is on track,” but an hour later, it featured a new headline, “Consumer Confidence Unexpectedly Falls in December.”
With its attendant social chaos, crime and despair, the country is sinking into an economic quicksand, yet Americans are injected daily with a massive dose of tranquilizing nonsense. Today’s top stories, “Elton John Becomes a Dad,” “Air Force Mascot Goes Missing at Game,” “10 Best Celebrity Hair Moments” and “Synchronized Walking Routine.”
The cheeky and cheery are occasionally contradicted by grimmer admissions, however. Even Voice of America, that Cold War relic and official mouthpiece of Washington, has this exchange:
[VOA]: "How does it feel from the beginning of the Christmas season from your point of view?
[Cashier]: "It’s not that good. It’s like so-so, you know."
[VOA]: "So business isn’t so great right now."
[Cashier]: "No I don’t think so. Because people don’t have the money to buy, there are lots of people who don’t have jobs."
[VOA]: "Is your job in danger?"
Weird, such candor from the VOA. Maybe their CIA check bounced? In any case, let’s meet some denizens of Philadelphia’s the Gallery, my local shopping center. Mrs. Fischel runs a meat and cheese shop. Business has steadily declined over several years now. To make matters worse, management has raised her rent, to make up for other merchants who have closed shops or who are behind in their payments. The third level of this mall is completely dead, and the second is barely hanging on. Just this week, Payless Shoes as well as G&G, Unica and Sunshine Blues, all clothing stores, have gone belly up.
Fischel’s son, a recent graduate of law school, has moved back home from Orange County. He has no job, only mushrooming debts from student loans and credit cards. He loved California and never expected to live in Philly again. It used to be that once you moved out, you stayed out. It was an American rite of passage. By 2006, however, two thirds of American college graduates were already returning to their parents. Now, the number is up to 85%.
Meet Mr. Ali, who runs a modest kiosk offering cheap purses, belts and watches made in China. He used to sell Gucci and Coach labels?not the bags, just the labels?which were tacked or sewn onto knockoffs by the customers themselves. Many of our poorest are infatuated with brand names. With a CK, say, slapped onto their person, they feel instantly higher class.
An immigrant from Pakistan, Ali’s first job was at a Seven Eleven, before he saved enough to buy a gas station. With his current business, it was no big deal to sell $1,500 daily. Now, he’s lucky to gross $500. Whenever this mall’s open, Ali’s in there. All he does is work. Even if there were 12 inches of snow on the ground, Ali would be there at 9AM, waiting for his first customer.
When he had saving, Ali made the fatal mistake of investing in Fannie Mae and Citigroup, among other supposedly blue chip stocks. Like millions of others worldwide, he lost his shirt. A hundred-and-forty-six thousand dollars gone. Ali sold his home and his new truck, hired a lawyer to consolidate his credit card debts. He now drives an unheated lemon. “In a couple of years, I’ll buy another house for my wife and children,” he insists even as his earning nosedives. He’s lost money the last two Christmases.
Meet Mr. Giuliani, who used to make $28 an hour as a computer repairman. He supplemented his day job by freelancing, charging $85 and up for each home visit. Replaced by technicians from India, Giuliani became a transit police officer. The goal of globalism has always been to outsource jobs and import labor. To maximize profits, bosses must minimize costs. At $15 an hour, Giuliani now patrols the Gallery to make sure teenagers don’t go berserk after they get off the trains.
Some of these kids like to pick fights with each other, shopkeepers or even security guards. With no jobs and little money, their idea of fun is to raise hell, inside this shopping mall or wherever. In March, a 73-year-old man and a 41-year-old woman were hospitalized after beatings by a gang of kids around 12-years-old. Playing a game called “catch and wreck,” they chanted “Fight! Fight!” and called Belinda Moore a “bald-headed bitch” as they pummeled her, knocked her to the ground, snatched her bag and stomped on her hat. Moore told the Philadelphia Daily News, "I don’t know if these kids hate society or hate life itself but I cannot believe they could do that to someone. Where is all that hatred coming from when you’re only 11 or 12?" Also in Philadelphia, an 18-year-old killed a 68-year-old woman with a frying pan, stole her truck, then blogged on MySpace two days later, “Bored as fuck! Meh and Mira bout 2 go touch city hall! put sum more money in mah mouth!”
Back to Giuliani: he inherited his house, so Giuliani doesn’t have to worry about a mortgage, but thanks to the housing bubble, his property tax has ballooned. For sentimental reasons, Giuliani doesn’t want to sell his childhood home, but he may have to. With ten rooms, the heating bill is enormous, and there won’t be too many buyers lining up.
The Gallery is a hub for commuter and subway trains. This design brings in more customers, sure, but the labyrinthine concourses also provide a haven for many homeless people. Dazed, they wander among shoppers, to be shooed away by guys like Giuliani. Dozing in wheelchairs, collapsing in corners or picking through trash cans, these resilient men and women seem oddly unaware that the recovery is in full swing, and that even dogs, according our cynical media, got expensive toys this holidays.
The collapse will not be televised. Ignored and alone, each of us will experience it singly. As blemish and accusation, you will be photoshopped from the American Dream group portrait. The lower you slip, the more invisible you will become. The disconnect between what’s real and what’s broadcast will become even more obscene by the day.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.