The Aesthete

The Money Pit

DOWN ON WALL STREET, THE CASH MACHINE CONTINUES TO HUM ALONG OMINOUSLY

by Sarah Nicole Prickett photography Alex John Beck

Wall Street is not a metaphor. It was once a wall. In the 1620s, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam built an earthen barricade to stop irate local tribesmen — the O.G. #Occupy movement  —  from raiding their colony. Two decades later, with the “help” of African slaves, the Dutch West India Company got rid of the dirt and renamed it “De Waal Straat.” By century’s end, the Brits were running the show, New Amsterdam was New York and Wall Street was a marketplace. In 1789, it was the site of the first presidential inauguration, and the moment when state divorced church and ran away with big business. 

Now Wall Street is the real heart of America, and has been since 1913. That was the year J.P. Morgan built, at 23 Wall Street, “The Corner,” also known as the “House of Morgan” and described by historian John Brooks as the financial world's “precise center, geographical as well as metaphorical.” That was also the year of the Federal Reserve Act and of the first income taxation, ergo, the first income records.

"It feels very dark and purposeful down here, and very empty. It feels emptier the busier it is."

Since 1913, those records have never, not even in the Great Depression, revealed an inequality as high or as vast as we have today. That inequality — the gap between the biggest salaries and the smallest wages — is higher in New York than in any other state. That's mostly because of Manhattan. Because of Wall Street.

Because there is still a wall — stronger because you can't see it.

Many of the men (and the women; there are not enough women) I know who work in finance often refer to themselves as “slaves,” in an ironic, suffering-is-relative way. I've never met a Wall Street type who'll cop to logging less than 10 hours a day. Maybe none of these people are lying. But if you walk through the Financial District before 8 a.m., when it's still misty and Gotham-y, you notice far more the commuters and construction workers and coffee cart-pushers and janitors than the suits. There's a real mix, a grim Dickensian hustle going on. Then there are the tourists, who show up astonishingly early — for what? The 17 new World Trade Centers? It's a construction site. It's still going to be there at noon.

By 9 a.m., though, Wall Street is blanketed in black and navy wool. Men and women are going to work in what is still one of the biggest business districts in America, despite a post-9/11 exodus of financial firms — like Citigroup — to midtown. They go to Goldman Sachs, to Deutsche Bank, to the New York Stock Exchange. They pass beggars beneath that colossal American flag. I imagine that many of them work at the same places, yet mostly they walk alone. People who like people don't go into finance, do they? On this point and this point only, I can relate.

It feels very dark and purposeful down here, and very empty. It feels emptier the busier it is. The streets sink lower, the skyscrapers rise taller, and everything recalls Upton Sinclair's Montague at the end of The Moneychangers: “I'm afraid of the grip of this world upon me.” 

Well, so am I, and yet — what a small world.

"The days of bankers fat enough to float are over."

The idea of Wall Street has come unmoored from the street itself, much like its great sums of money came unmoored from values, causing the 2008 crash. I know that many places are also ideas. Still, almost no place I've been feels as shrinking, relative to its idea-ness, to its grip.

And these dudes who run things are so ordinary. Down here, especially, I expect people to look like corporations — but no, they're not nearly so big. They're not even big spenders. There are sartorial exceptions, like a pinstriped gent using a Veuve Clicquot umbrella as a cane or the odd man with a Milanese twist to his scarf. But as a rule, banksters like money too much to look like they have it.

(I should talk, though. To interview these 9-to-9ers, I dressed in: Black “boyfriend” jeans; my actual boyfriend's New York Jets T-shirt, ripped to shreds in a bar fight; a leather jacket I stole from my former intern, who'd bought it vintage in San Francisco; black Rokin shoes; a lot of eyeliner. The midcentury masculinity of Wall Street inspires ill-styled rebellions, and most of the suits looked at me with a mix of suspicion and lust, as though I might steal their wallet while sucking their dicks.)

That's why the cliché of “fat cat bankers” is a bad one. First, it's slanderous to cats. Second, the denizens of Wall Street are much slimmer-cut than the suits they wear. Gym bags are as common as attachés. Starbucks orders never come with whip. The bathrooms at J.P. Morgan are wallpapered with shirtless photos of Paul Ryan. (Kidding. God, if I am ever in the bathrooms at J.P. Morgan, send a coroner and a CSI team.) 

Also, the richest person I've ever met, a day-trading prodigy who's probably younger than me, runs long distances like the country runs deficits. He probably out-ran Hurricane Sandy. 

The days of bankers fat enough to float are over.

But if the Frankenstorm showed us anything, it's that they won't need to float. Banks still, literally, have all the power. Who can forget the sight of Goldman Sachs singularly lit up in the city's blacked-out heart? For once, Wall Street looked as strong as it is. Like a still-shot of capitalism's future. 

I suppose if you are living in that future, you're the first to forget it. At 5 p.m., five days after Sandy, in the champagne light particular to skyscraperland, the storm and its effects had vanished whole. You would not guess Wall Street had been a river. You would not guess its foundations had flooded. You wouldn't guess the markets had been closed for two days, the longest weather-related shutdown in over a century. 

The Dow Jones was up, said a real estate man at Starbucks.

He had really missed his workouts.