An Oracle Sends Me South

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AS I TRAVEL AROUND the Bronx lately I notice that the borough seems more shopworn than usual?like an old suit on a poor man. I went up to visit a friend I call the Oracle to ask if he thought that the borough was in an economic depression. The Oracle is a lifetime Bronx resident and began working on Wall Street as the Ford presidency was winding down. He knows the stock market, but he will not speak on the record or have his name used.

"You coming up here asking about the economy is like a heart surgeon looking at someone's hands?it's the wrong place," he replied. "You want to know why things are tight in the Bronx? Hell, things are tight all over. Go to the heart of the question. Go down to Wall Street if you want to see what's wrong. The whole city and maybe the country is riding on that one district, and that scares me."

So I took the Oracle's advice and one afternoon last week I walked down lower Broadway. Passing a cross street where down the block the WTC once stood. No one is looking at that memory and shaking their heads anymore. New Yorkers pass by in a hurry, wanting to move on. But move on to what? You can feel the city's depression down here; it's a haunted area. Only tourists stop to linger now. I pass by the statue of the bronze bull and see a group of Japanese tourists smiling as one of them takes a photo. After six losing days on Wall Street they seem to be the only people smiling down here.

Outside of 26 Broadway I stop to chat with a broker who gives his name as Bill. He lights a cigarette with disgust and says, "This morning was a rough one, and after this I'm going back in for more of the same." A gaggle of Wall Street workers walks by wearing the summer uniform of this burg?chinos and open-collared short-sleeve shirts. Bill looks at them with a flinty eye and says, "Sheep going to slaughter."

Bill goes back into 26 Broadway, and I wander down to Beaver St. I pass clerks wearing jackets with their company logos on the front pocket, like family crests. I ask one young man named Brian how the market's doing. He doesn't even stop; he just yells, "Sucks." On the corner of Broad St. I see a cop with a nameplate of Lt. Dean Laumbach keeping cars and delivery vans off the block where the NYSE building is. I'm not familiar with the uniform: a short-sleeve khaki shirt, olive pants, gold shield and a 9 mm in his belt.

"We are private security for the Stock Exchange," he explains, "and as you are a writer that is the only question I can answer. Have a nice day."

Outside the NYSE brokers and clerks lean against metal barriers taking a break. An early lunch crowd sits on the steps of Federal Hall. Everyone looks like they're waiting for something to happen. The sense of dread is palpable. Everyone knows something bad is coming, the only question is how bad?and how long.

Fox News' Christopher Jones, smaller in person than he appears on tv, passes by me with a cameraman in tow. A wild-haired middle-aged white woman wearing a peasant dress and a Yankees cap hands me a flier. What negativity and fear do: Numbers Chapter 13 Verse 25 through Chapter 12 (All).!!! INVEST IN AMERICA WITHOUT FEAR!

I walk back to Beaver St. and notice a small black man with deformed limbs sitting in a wheelchair. He holds a blue coffee cup in his gnarled hand and politely thanks anyone who gives him money. His name is Jonathan Meecham. He's 33 and lives on Staten Island with his parents. He explains that he has been deformed since birth due to thalidomide, the prescription drug once given to pregnant women to relieve morning sickness. Use of the drug led to thousands of children being born with deformed limbs.

For a man given a tough break from birth, Meecham has a cheery attitude. He spends his days near Wall Street collecting alms, and counts among his friends scores of brokers and traders who treat him like the district's mascot. He claims to know what's going on with the stock market; given the nonsense coming out of most CEOs these days, Meecham is as good a source as any.

"I ain't going to lie, but things are bad down here. Real bad. It's been bad since Sept. 11, but it's getting worse. Especially since last week. No one even wants to stop. Out here I'm part of the pulse of Wall Street. I sit here day after day and see everything. What happens down here directly affects how much I make out here, and these days that isn't too much."

Meecham tells me how he was down here on 9/11 and sustained a leg injury. He shows me how it's still bandaged up. "You can feel the depression down here. You can taste it?it's in the air. No one wants to be down here. Everyone wants out. People who I barely know will stop and talk with me about some deep and dark inner thoughts they're having. Everyone is broke. No one has money. This cup is lighter than it's ever been."

Meecham adjusts his Yankees cap and gets a better grip on his cup with his deformed hand. He smiles as he tells me he's a Republican.

"Yes, I am a Republican, but I got to be honest with you. President George W. Bush coming down here giving a speech on corporate corruption is like the blind leading the blind, especially given his track record with the Texas Rangers and that other company he had those shady dealings with. It's better that Greenspan is going to give a talk. That might help?can't hurt." (Greenspan did give his Wall Street lecture that day, but the market didn't respond and Wall Street had its seventh consecutive down day.)

"Look," Meecham goes on, "I might be out here with just a cup, but I do have a Fidelity Investment account that's lost more than 50 percent the last year or so. It's so bad no one cares anymore. Everyone wants to get out of the market."

He pauses to thank a man who drops a dollar in his blue paper cup.

"Now this stock market is like a bad poker game. You keep getting bad hands and have no luck, but since you're down already you don't want to get out. And when you need credit, Wall Street?like a pit boss?is happy to extend credit. The pit bosses working down here smile and say, 'Don't worry about it.' But let me tell you, everyone is worried. Look at their faces. Their world is crumbling. It's sad."

Meecham tells me how he knows two brokers who committed suicide in the last few months. "And the alcoholism down here is really bad. I take a bus to the ferry and I get here by 7 a.m. That liquor store four doors down opens up and the brokers are going in by the dozen. I've been down here a while and never seen it like this."

I ask him his prediction on where this market will bottom out.

"This economy is caught in the worst part of a hurricane. You don't know whether to dive or duck. The guys at the top have destroyed consumer confidence and no one wants to touch stocks. This market is an empty grave. Everyone is too scared to say that. But by mid-2003 the market will level off. The bottom will come this October. The Fed will put in an economic pacemaker from Greenspan, and that will be a big help. By June 2003?and no later than August?the market will recover, and she'll rebound but not go crazy. It will go up 100 points a week like it should."

Meecham looks west, where the WTC once stood. "But God forbid New York has another terrorist attack," he adds. "Then this market is done for the next five years."


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