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  1. Wealth
September 25, 2008

Bonfires of New York

By Spear's

I am now at the centre, if not of the universe, then of the Zeitgeist: midtown Manhattan.

I am now at the centre, if not of the universe, then certainly of the Zeitgeist: midtown Manhattan. I could tell as soon as I arrived at my apartment Monday. The barricades and heavy police presence surrounding my neighbourhood could mean only one thing: the Bushies are in town for the greatest circus in geopolitics – the annual opening of the UN General Assembly.

While Condi Rice and Sarah Palin meet and dazzle an array of heads of state and humanitarians with their alternating ruthlessness and femininity, Bush and Ahmadinejad both addressed the assembly, making sure to boycott each other for the television cameras. Many cameras, though, have been busy trailing that other Amazon of the political scene: Carla Bruni Sarkozy. She and her hubby have been jogging around these streets every morning.

But all around the Waldorf Astoria, “where it’s all goin’ on,” are the towering reminders of that other issue on the week’s agenda: the banking meltdown and subsequent bailout debate. I thought it was odd that I found a taxi so easily outside my Park Avenue building at 5:30 Monday afternoon. Then, as I slammed the door shut and looked through the window, it dawned on me: the faces leaving HSBC, JP Morgan Chase and Citicorp were unusually glum.

No more were they bounding out into waiting limos or running down the street brutally beating others off each yellow cab. No, now they are a thin trickle, each one shuffling along, silent and lonely, heading for the nearest bus stop or subway station. “Has business been slow in this neighbourhood the past few days?” I asked the cabbie. “Yeah!” he chuckled.

And no wonder: the $700 billion bailout that so buoyed the markets only a few days ago, is now the subject of a populist revolution here. “Hell no!” is the rallying cry from taxpayers, balking at handing Secretary Paulson such a well-funded chequebook without restraints or stipulations. Let the greedy starve is the sentiment on the streets. Why should those who made so much at the expense of so many for so long now be bailed out again, they ask. Many want to see them hang.

Instead, they have to make do with another spectacle of hanging just a few blocks in the opposite direction as the Waldorf Astoria from me. Over Central Park’s Wollman Rink is illusionist David Blaine doing his best imitation of a sleeping bat: he is hanging upside down for 60 hours.

He’s a strange “illusionist,” David Blaine, postmodern in his approach: he is the anti-Harry Houdini. Whereas Houdini’s stunts were all about escaping, Blaine’s are all about staying in, about enduring – without breathing for 7 minutes, without food for 44 days, under water for 7 days, standing on a pillar for 35 hours.

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It’s hard for me not to see an allegory here. As people struggle to stay in their homes, and banks in business, everyone seems to be dangling from a thread, financially and emotionally. Main Street, though, looks set to take its revenge on Wall Street, turning the thread into a hangman’s noose. If even one big executive of a bailed out institution gets to keep his bonus or golden parachute, then David Blaine might have some company, for they may yet be hung out to dry: tarred and feathered, their bodies displayed like Dracula’s trophy war dead. Now what could those clowns at the other circus in town, the UN, do about that? 

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