When we'd first come up with the idea, the timing had seemed perfect. She'd never been west of the Mississippi and we hadn't taken a real vacation in three years. Besides, I had to go for work anyway -- to help organize a wine-and-private-jets festival my magazine was hosting the weekend before in Napa Valley, and to supervise our Christmas "Gift Guide" photo shoot featuring such stocking stuffers as a $100,000 motorcycle and a private submarine in the shape of a dolphin. "I don't know, maybe we shouldn't go," she said over the phone. "If one or both of us loses our jobs, we'll wish we still had the money."
She'd caught me as I stood on 35th Street in New York sipping a latte in front of my office at Private Air. The day before, Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy. Earlier that afternoon, the Fed had announced it was taking an 80 percent stake in the insurance giant American International Group (AIG), and the Prime Reserve money market fund had "broken the buck," falling below a $1 a share for the first time in history.
"Why, honey?" I asked. "Oh, no, it'll be fine, you'll see. You have to remember who my magazine's readers are. If anyone is immune to what's going on, it's people who fly their private jets to Napa for the weekend."
Well, someone is not getting nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics, now is he?
Two weeks later, when we returned home from vacation, I was notified my salary was being cut by 15 percent. A month and half after that, I received another 50 percent cut, and in early February, the company shuttered its doors altogether. In November, my wife's magazine also announced layoffs. Knock on wood, her job was spared, but in the months ahead, roughly half of all the editors, writers, copy-editors, designers and salespeople we knew lost theirs as one glossy publication after another folded. Men's Vogue. O at Home. Blender. Domino. Country Home. Cottage Living. In the luxury retail and advertising sector, the related field that was supposed to "immunize" my job, the toll, if anything, was even gnarlier. The Four Seasons Great Exuma, Jets.com, The Yellowstone Club, Cessna, Hawker-Beechcraft, and dozens of other private jet manufacturers, five-star resorts, private residence clubs, Bentley and Maybach dealerships and p.r. firms either slashed their payrolls or were gone entirely by spring.
And so here we are. Two weeks ago, my wife and I had another of those conversations. We were reviewing the handful of most promising leads I'd been pursuing for securing steady, decently paying employment. "I hate to say it," she said, "but what happens when these don't work out? Then what?" I consider it progress of a sort that this time I didn't try to assure her we had nothing to worry about.
It's not that I've given up. To the contrary, I recently applied for a job that attracted more than 100 applicants. When the CEO informed me that the company had decided to select from among the several dozen candidates willing to work for half of what I was used to making, I emailed him back and said I'd drop my price to stay in the running. For another job, I've been drawing up a business plan and lining up independent contractors, all in the hopes of convincing the employer to expand in the direction that would justify my position. It's just that I've become much more realistic about our situation. The combination of greed, leverage and myopia that ignited last fall, exploding $14 trillion in household wealth, has blown a hole in this country of such epic proportions, I dare say most of us are only now beginning to fathom its depth and scope. As two middle-aged people in a dying industry in an over-mortgaged house in an over-taxed suburb 12 miles from the financial district, my wife and I can look out over the lip of the blast-zone. Maybe we've been irradiated and don't even know it yet or maybe not. Either way, it's fairly clear the neighborhood isn't what it used to be.
Last night, I went into our iPhoto files and found the snapshots from our California trip. The day Congress rejected the initial financial rescue plan and the Dow plunged 778 points was the day we cruised down the PC-1 from Monteray. By afternoon, the reports on the radio fading in and out through the pines suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank would keep plugging away, and we stopped for a late lunch at the cliff-top restaurant at Big Sur. The sun had burned off the fog, and munching on our organic grass-fed cheeseburgers, taking in what is arguably the most awe-inspiring view this country has, we couldn't help but feel our spirits lift.
Before heading back to the car, I asked a German tourist take our picture. As I look at the photo now of the smiling couple squinting in the sun, with the blue Pacific crashing below, I want to tell them .... what exactly? Stay right there? Go back? Come home this instant? Jump? Nothing I can think of makes sense or would have made much of a difference. For it was already too late.