A couple weekends ago on our usual stretch-a-buck date night, my wife and I watched a freebie movie on cable. Alas, it wasn't porn, but that seasonal chestnut Christmas in Connecticut. A screwball comedy classic released during the last days of the war in 1945, the film stars Barbara Stanwyk as a young single magazine writer living a lie.
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From her tiny Manhattan apartment, Stanwyk's character writes a column about her make-believe life in Connecticut, complete with a fieldstone manor, loving husband and a newborn. Complications arise when the publication's owner, who's as much in the dark as her readers, invites a wounded serviceman to her place to experience what a "real home" is like during the holidays. Stanwyk's increasingly far-fetched attempts to keep the charade going, even as she falls in love with her dashing guest of honor, provides the hilarity and just goes to show: Maintaining appearances in Connecticut is a decades-old tradition that holds up remarkably well.
Greenwich, the town at the heart of the Connecticut dreamscape immortalized by the movie, and more recently home to one of the greatest concentrations of financial-industry wealth the country has ever seen, has long been a community that seemed insulated from the economic travails of ordinary Americans. In recent months, though, the facade has begun to peel off. Several weeks ago, the town government, straining under plunging property tax revenues and budget shortfalls, announced that it would have to cut back on its holiday lights display. When it issued an appeal for residents to help pony up the $15,000 shortfall, it received $500.
Earlier in the year, reports surfaced of the dramatic price breaks being offered by homeowners desperate to unload some of the area's multi-million-dollar homes. One 21,897-square-foot-house on 40 acres of land (owned by the estate of Leona Helmsley) saw a discount of $50 million, which some speculated may have been the largest price drop in the history of real estate. But there have also been less gaudy signs. The public schools have been scrambling to deal with an upsurge in enrollment from families no longer able to afford private school, and on the town's tony shopping avenue an unprecedented handful of vacant storefronts speak to the fact that even in Connecticut belts are being tightened and circumstances reduced. "People don't like to talk about it," says Bill, a longtime resident (he asked I not share his last name), "but you can go down almost any street and find people who are struggling."
Bill, 54, has lived in Greenwich for most of his life. An advertising sales executive I've worked with over the years, he was the publisher for one of the many media companies the went belly up in 2008 and '09. After a tough month or two spent sending out resumes last spring, Bill formed his own independent rep firm. Several months later, he's signed up a handful of publishers as clients and has pieced together a base salary that would be a comfortable income in most parts of the country, but in Greenwich -- with its 280 percent higher cost of living than the average American Zip Code -- essentially covers his bills, child support payments, an occasional dinner out at the Bruce Park Grill and not much else.
And a lot of his neighbors are in a similar sleigh. Bill talks of one friend who was laid off from a big job in corporate finance earlier this year who subsequently found employment in a lesser paying part of the sector. Bill estimates that the friend makes a base of $150,000 a year. The man's wife probably brings in another $90,000. "But you have to understand, that's probably a tenth of what he was making before. They've got three kids in private school, club membership, four cars. Their mortgage alone is probably $25,000 a month. I talked to him the other day and he said. 'We're dying. I don't what we're going to do. We're just not making it here.' I have another friend in real estate, the same thing. The problem is, most of these guys were used to making most of their money on the back end. Now, with the exception of Goldman, Morgan, and the handful of other big places you read about, there is no back-end."
For some reason I always assumed that Bill had more to fall back on than most of the rest of us caught up in the media meltdown. I knew he lived in Greenwich, after all, and owned a house with his longtime girlfriend. Part of it, too, is the humor and grace with which he's approached the craziness and chaos of the past year. Whenever things seemed at their bleakest in New Jersey, I'd ring up Bill, and he'd say something droll and wise to help me appreciate the screwball in my noir. Then recently I was talking to a mutual friend who mentioned that Bill had made a not inconsiderable personal investment his company, money he'll now never see. The person I talked to wasn't sure how much, but he thought it might be in the low six figures. When I caught up with Bill last week, I asked him if we had that right.
"Dude, try low to mid." To fill the silence on the phone, I made a joke that at least he still had his seven-figure block of Google (Goog) to see him through his dotitude. When he laughed a little too heartily, I asked what portion of his savings the investment had represented. "Oh, 'bout two-thirds."
I was stunned. I have to say, though, the modest, brick-by-brick approach to rebuilding his career and all the jocular asides and supportive phone calls of the past year suddenly seemed even more impressive in a way. "Hey, what else am I going to do?" he said. I was reminded of a comment Bill made to me a couple of years ago. At the time, we were working together on a project for yet another struggling media company. Budgets were being cut and everyone involved was continually being asked to do more with less. One young marketing specialist on Bill's staff had returned from a particularly harried promotional event in California and threatened to quit right before we were about to send her on the road again. Bill, as is his style, had taken her out for a consoling drink, and now it looked as if she might stay on to fight another day. I remarked to Bill that you really needed to have a thick skin to work in such an environment. He turned to me and said, "Like a rhino, dude. Like a rhino."
Those looking for hopeful signs about the recovery this Christmas season would do well to look past the recent 0.2% downtick in unemployment to the rhinoceros-like resilience on display in all facets of the economy in all sorts of communities these days. Even behind the well-groomed hedges and holly-draped stoops of Connecticut.
White Collar Reset: Christmas in Connecticut, Scrambling for Cash