Friday, December 12, 2008

Snapshots of the recession in New York

What follows are observations over two days:
---Costco is packed. This company seems to be building market share in this recessionary environment. It's the best of the big boxes.
---Gonzo's, a burrito shop that is a favorite, is being hit by a run of take-out orders as I walk in. Joe, the owner, tells me things are ok but the dinner trade is dead in this place near the courthouse. His other Gonzo's, the flagship so to speak, is actually doing even better than usual. While in a working class neighborhood that loves the place, this shop is located no more than two miles from Garden City, a wealthy suburban enclave. Joe tells me that the trade from there has picked up substantially in the last two months as some GC'ers are foregoing the tablecloth places now and spending more with him. Joe may close the slow restaurant, or relocate it, if things don't pick up, but he's encouraged by his first born.
---At the gym I was on the elliptical treadmill next to two mid-thirties folk whose chat was breaking my mood, chat about the family, the young kids, the usual. The woman then said casually to the man "so are you are you taking a day off from work today?". "No, I was fired Tuesday." replied the man, "you know, financial services." Then followed one of those falsely upbeat it'll work out conversations. This didn't sound like a situation that was remotely anticipated.
---I called a high-end mail order food company at night to make a gift order. It's somewhat of an extravagant move but the food is always appreciated and delivered promptly. Almost every Christmas I make this call and more often than not there's a wait to reach a human being on the line and then some choices of less expensive items are always sold out. This year, no problem, real person immediately, all choices available, plus a first, free shipping that I did not even request.
---Now this story is a strange one that may have nothing to do with anything but it's worth telling. Thursday morning I went into Manhattan early. Walking up Seventh Ave. I realized that I was hungry and began keeping an eye out for some low key place to eat. The Hard Rock Cafe on 43rd had a flashing sign on its marquee saying "Buffet Breakfast Everyday". That sounded appealing but I passed by assuming that it would have some big midtown tourist price, then reconsidered, turned back and went in to check it out. Walking through the store and down some stairs, a young man answered my question with the phrase "It's free." "Free!" I said and he responded "free, lanala(last a long)". OK, fine?, so I was given a ticket and entered a large dining room that was perhaps three quarters full, helped myself to a complete breakfast buffet, sat down and then found out that the purpose of my ticket was raffle participation. I did not win anything. There were no sales come-ons, no one spoke to me, and my newspaper and I were fine. When leaving I said thank you to the hostess at the door and then was handed a bundle of stuff---a rolled large blanket and a t-shirt inside of which were perfume samples, a stress ball, and a spatula. The spatula said Land O Lakes. I get it, or do I. Out on the street I pointed a few reasonably put together but obviously not so prosperous older folks in the direction of the Hard Rock, whose free breakfast would no longer be a secret.
---Later, 10am opening time at the Museum of Modern Art the lines for tickets quickly filled, at least 80% tourists from other countries. New York is still a destination.
---The Madison Avenue Hermes store is the source of the filler for my wife's petit modele annuelle, a yearly Christmas expectation, or errand. It was raining and I arrived at their beautiful store soaked, in my jeans, baseball cap, and not so new jacket. What followed is 100% proof that the economy has changed. I was waited on immediately. When the saleperson did not find what I wanted right away a manager came over and helped as well, pleasantly chatting and asking if I wanted to be on their mailing list. Just a few years ago, properly business suited, it would inevitably be at least a 20 minute wait for service with the awkward feeling that I was invisible.
---A late lunch at the 23rd street Mangia was another shock. This popular casual Northern Italian self serve eatery is always packed and getting a seat is sometimes uncertain. It was at most one quarter full, and the take out business was slow as well. It's certainly much more expensive than McDonalds but the price is not much more than that of a decent diner for what is generally exceptional food. This was different.
---At Penn Station, with a few minutes to spare before catching my train, I too participated in the recession. At the Haagan Daz stand I asked for a cup of ice cream for the ride. "Small, medium, or large" was the question. "Small", I said, "but how much is that?" "$3.45" was the reply. I paused and spontaneously passed, wondering what a medium would have been, $5.00?


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