Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Call for Potatoes and Onions: Or, Will Henry Paulson bring us flowers?

Times are tough and, I'm pretty sure, they're getting tougher.

The economy is not expanding, housing prices are at an all-time low, people are getting laid off, and even thrift shops are low on inventory.

The Station Shop, a little store across from the train station, sold notebooks, greeting cards, magazines, newspapers, posterboard and candy, for more than fifty years. This summer, it shut its doors for good. Down the street, our favorite local gas station also closed down.

I graduated from college in 1986, when Reagan was President, and Wall Street was booming. I was immediately hired by an investment bank---not because I was partcularly qualified (I wasn't) but because I was a good talker and wore maroon pantyhose with a navy blue suit. The firm that hired me needed bodies to crunch numbers. I was offered a small fortune to sit in a small office, make spread sheets on Lotus and order sushi a la carte with my coworkers for dinner. We were overworked twentysomethings with no dependents, so we worked until midnight and took car service home. We made too much money. I spent mine on rent and Ferragamo shoes.

I didn't last long in that job, and eventually ended up writing about business, instead of practicing it.

The second week of my job at a weekly business magazine, the stock market plunged. It was October 19th, 1987, and everyone was in a panic, but eventually, business rebounded. No one I knew was fired. I kept my job and wrote on.

I think things are different this time around, and I feel it everywhere I go.

I live in a small town that is largely married to Wall Street, literally and figuratively. Most of the men, and some of the women, get on the train in the morning and head into Penn Station, or they drive to Jersey City and take the ferry downtown.

The clothing and shoe stores in town are posting huge "60% off" signs.

The people I know who were looking to move to a bigger house are staying put.

My friend and I walked our dogs into town this morning to go to Starbucks, and my friend said, "The town looks dead."

We happily sipped our lattes but it was still depressing.

I know these things go in cycles.

My grandparents married the year of the first stock market crash---December 1929. My grandfather spent most of his career teaching math at Stuyvesant High School and was treasurer of the Teachers' Union. Many members of the Teachers' Union were Socialists, and in the 50's, my grandfather was called to testify before Senator McCarthy. He managed to avoid testifying but took early retirement in 1957. He started a newsletter that followed the stockmarket, became a stockbroker and started investing his teacher friends' pensions. Grandpa landed on his feet when he was in his fifties.

My grandmother had different setbacks. She was the seventh of nine children and when she was nine, her father took the two older boys to Chicago and left the family. My great grandmother was left to raise seven children alone. My grandmother learned to reuse tinfoil and not to ask for new clothes. When she won a scholarship to Swarthmore, her mother said there was no money for books and sent her to secretarial school instead. Grandma snuck off to teachers' college at night.

I hope I can adapt too.

The lush, fat, living-large times are over, at least where I live, and it's unlikely that a new President and Vice President, no matter their feelings about Creationism, birth control, global warming, offshore drilling, pay equity for women, plagiarism, outspoken ministers, teenage pregnancy, nursing in the Oval Office, Israel, Iraq, lipstick or pigs can quickly revive Wall Street or our collective fortunes.

I like everything I've ever read about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and wish he would run for President.

We've all got mortgages to pay and children to feed so we're cutting back, cooking more, going out less.

My good friend just returned the lingerie her husband gave her for Mother's Day. She bought a pair of shoes instead.

Last week, I got my hair cut in New Jersey, after decades of getting it cut in New York. (Even in college, when my parents were getting divorced and I was pretty much broke, I would come home and get my hair cut at Kenneth, hoping to catch a glimpes of Jackie Onassis.) My mother, who has been a proponent of getting haircuts in New Jersey since we moved here nine years ago, looked at me.

"I got my hair cut in New Jersey," I said proudly. "Color too."

My mother examined me carefully. She loves New Jersey and thinks I'm a bit of a spendthrift, so I figured this local, cost-saving move would make her extremely happy.

I could tell by her face that my haircut had been no bargain.

"I'm going back to New York next time."

Mom nodded her head sadly.

That night, I took a cue from our housekeeper, who has been quietly nudging me to cook the peppers that have been growing in our garden. "They're good with sausage and onions," Maria said. So instead of defrosting flank steak ($8.99 per pound), I sliced up turkey sausage ($3.99 per pound) and made sausage, peppers, onions and pasta for dinner. It was fast and it was cheap.

Today, I met two good friends for lunch at the mall. We all used to work at high powered careers in the city and stopped working to raise our children in the suburbs. None of our lives have been particularly harsh. We drive our kids around in SUV's, play tennis and golf, employ babysitters, mail out hundreds of holiday cards, volunteer at our kids' schools, raise money for charity, send our kids to camp, plan vacations, buy art.

One friend had just returned two sweaters she had bought in August. She waved her receipt at us."The salesgirl asked me what was wrong with them and I said, "They're too expensive." This same friend is thinking of leaving our pediatrician---who does not take insurance---and going to a pediatrician who does. Our other friend was celebrating a milestone anniversary, and though she had been hoping for diamond studs, she glowed as she pointed to the new pearls nestled in her ears.

Both friends proudly showed off their new purses---and bragged that they cost less than half their old ones. I showed off my bag---it had been sitting in the back of my closet for two years and I'd decided to recycle it. I admired my friend with the pearl earrings' textured bag, which looked a lot like the textured Tod bags that feature an aristocratic-looking Gwyneth Paltrow in their new ad campaign, and retail for more than $1,000. "I never even bought Tod's," my friend said ruefully. "Now I'm all about J. Crew."

Tonight, I made my kids scrambled eggs with shredded mozarella cheese for dinner. I almost skipped the mozarella cheese---but decided there are limits to how cheap I can be when it comes to feeding my children. I served the leftover sausage and peppers as a side dish.

When my husband came home, he told me I looked pretty. As I went to make him a fresh plate of scrambled eggs, his hand brushed my butt. At least a compliment and whatever comes next doesn't cost us anything.

Last spring, my sister-in-law and I played, "Let's see what's in your closet." She gave me a pair of earrings she never wore, I gave her a pair of loafers I was tired of.

I am thinking of shamelessly emailing her and asking for my loafers back.

Then there are the cutbacks I am not so proud of.

Almost four years ago, I turned 40. It wasn't so bad. As a concession to my age, I started wearing foundation, and invested in some belts, because my low-rise pants weren't high enough and no one wants to see a 40-year old woman's thong peek out of her jeans. I thought about coloring my hair and decided against it, and accepted the fact that my long arms and fingers were probably my nicest features. Then I turned 42. Grey hairs started sprouting near my ears, a long wrinkle deepened on my forehead. You couldn't call the lines around my mouth "laugh" lines anymore.

They were just long lines and long lines are't funny.

I started going into New York to get my face shot up with Botox and Restylane.

This went on for a couple of years. If you looked at me carefully, I did look a smidge better. To paraphrase Nora Ephron, I looked a few weeks younger than I might have otherwise.

But that was then. Now I am nine months overdue for a visit to the dermatologist.

I'd like to tell you that I look the same, that the whole Botox-Restylane-filler phenomenon is a publicity stunt designed to raise funds for clever dermatologists; that none of that filler stuff makes you look better; that outer beauty is all in your head.

That would be a lie.

I look old and I look tired and I miss my Botox.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband had to see our dermatologist for real---he had a rash. He said, "Do you think I can get an appointment for this week?" Our dermatologist had previously been almost impossible to book.

"I bet she's not very busy anymore," I said.

My husband got an appointment the next morning.

Of course, we are still consuming and contributing to the economy. How can we not? My older son is 12-years old and growing, so I had to spend a small fortune this month buying him new pants, shirts and sneakers. He is starting to go to bar and bat mitzvahs, and though my neighbor generously gave us the blue bar mitzvah suit that her 14-year old had grown out of, the pants were too short, so we had to invest in a new blue blazer, a pair of fancy pants, brown suede shoes and a couple of shirts that require ironing. My son plays ice hockey and needs new shinguards. His skates have to be sharpened regularly. His hockey bag has a gaping hole in it that duct tape can't repair, and I'm going to have to wave the white flag and pony up money for a new bag. This season, both my kids are taking up roller hockey---so last Saturday, I spent $200 on roller blades. Since we were at Dick's Sporting Goods, we ended up buying new basketballs and hockey pucks too. I'm pretty sure my 12-year old will need a new ski jacket this season but at least my almost-8-year old can wear the old one. My younger son, meanwhile, takes acting classes and sings with a band; both kids study piano. All the instructors who help our kids mine their so-called "artistic gifts" expect to be paid.

Last year, my kids had private reading lessons, handwriting lessons, hockey lessons and speech therapy. This year, we just see the speech therapist.

My car, which my husband backed into a pillar last winter, has a dent in the bumper that I have been meaning to get fixed. Now I will learn to love my dent because I know my dent loves me.

We usually ski in March and last year we spent Christmas sailing in the Caribbean. This Christmas, we may visit my husband's cousins. They live in Miami and just had a baby. As for skiing out West in March, the backyard of our house has a nice hill, so we may be skiing down that, in a Westerly direction.

The other day, my younger son brought home a book order form. In the past, I have encouraged---begged---my kids to buy paperback books so they would be excited about reading. I asked my younger son if he wanted to look at the order form. He said no, and I felt relief; I started thinking about all the unread books on my kids' bookshelves. The next day, he came home and said his class had gone to the school library but he hadn't taken anything out. "I didn't see anything I liked," he said, "but I did see some videos. Can you buy me a VCR?"

"No," I said. "Go back and borrow some books next week." And I threw the paperback order form in the garbage.

This afternoon, he announced he was bored. I thought about telling him to go practice the piano but that seemed like cruel and unusual punishment on a hot, sunny September afternoon. He has been using a hoola-hoop in gym and said he wanted one at home so he could practice on the driveway. This seemed like a reasonable request. I thought about driving into town to our local toy store to get him one, but then I realized there was no way we were going to walk out of a store filled with toys and just purchase a $3 hoola hoop. I sent him outside to shoot hoops.

Rather than go into New York to see a show this weekend, my husband and I are going to see our younger son's acting teacher "Miss Lily" appear in "Blackbird" in Rahway ( Tickets are $27 each.

We are shopping more frequently at Shoprite, and less at King's and Whole Foods.

I still cook, almost every night, so we haven't had to cut back on take-out or restaurant food. (That was the best thing about moving to New Jersey---there is so little takeout to choose from I am forced to make dinner.)

Which brings me to the cost of ingredients.

Flank steak, which used to be a weekly staple, will be a biweekly treat. Tonight, we will have brisket ($4.99 per pound) and go to Temple, rather than go out for dinner and a movie.
Tomorrow, I will pull the leaves off our basil plants, make a big bowl of pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays. We will eat more lasagne, less salmon.

I am taking a closer look at recipes that call for potatoes and onions.

When my sister-in-law said she wanted to break with tradition and take over hosting the break fast after Yom Kippur, I said, "You go, girl."

If this new-found frugality sounds ridiculous to you, mea culpa.

One of my good friends went to Princeton, and I remember leafing through her yearbook and reading a poem that said, "Plant your own garden instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers."

I'm trying to do a little of both. When my younger son and I walked home from school today, I saw that our housekeeper had left a huge bouquet of tiny white daisies on the chair on our driveway. I knew she had plucked them from her garden; I carried them inside. Maria took them from me and started arranging them in the green-and-white vases that once belonged to my husband's grandmother.

The daisies were gorgeous, white and bursting out of their the vases. Maria took the vases and put them on the sideboard in front of a mirror in the dining room. The mirror doubled their magnificence---but Maria was, as usual, modest and self-critical about her own generosity. "There are so many, too many, I brought too much!" Maria said, as she pushed the flowers around. "I will take some out."

I looked at the flowers. They were dazzling and because of the mirror, their brightness filled up the room. "No," I said. "Leave them alone. They're beautiful."

Their abundance was an illusion, but I loved it.


  1. I think we need to all cut back. We have gone through too many years of too much stuff. I no longer have a housekeeper, I don't drive into L.A. to shop and I don't waste. Everything gets reused, recycled or consumed.

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