Despite what our President thinks, it’s pretty clear to me that the United States is in a recession. Now, yes, I could follow the official indicators and come to that conclusion (retail sales and consumer sentiment, anyone?) but the fact is after forty years of life as a certified practicing materialist in New York City and Los Angeles, I’ve developed the Helaine Olen official recession indicator, which is an idiosyncratic but fairly accurate take on life as it is lived amongst the upper middle classes. My indicator has not failed me during several economic downturns and, needless to say, almost all signals are flashing yellow or red. To whit:
Sign #1: Ease of getting an appointment with overpriced hair stylists and other beauty consultants. The proof? In November, I literally had to beg for a last-minute appointment with the amazing Sharon Dorram, who also takes on … well, I don’t like to name-drop so I won’t. When I had a similar emergency at the end of January, no such force was needed. Moreover, there was barely a client on the premises when I showed up. A likely contributor: the day of my appointment, the stock market dropped around 300 points.
On a similar note, the snooty personal buyer at Saks — the one who tried very hard to turn down my pathetic business in November — called in January to check up on me and see how I was doing. Since this was the same woman who had raced me through an appointment, loudly sighing and informing me that women who wanted to spend under $5,000 were not really worth her time, I took great pleasure in not returning her call.
Sign #2 At my younger son’s co-op nursery school, my husband and I are in charge of the Scholastic book orders. In January, they fell off a cliff. Scholastic Books are usually the easiest thing to guilt-trip upper middle class parents into buying, so I took this as a very bad sign.
Sign #3 Small stores are beginning to close, especially ones that sell what could be politely termed unnecessary stuff. These are often my favorite shops so this hits me hard. The past few months has seen retail carnage here in the Hudson Valley. Of particular note: the sob inducing closing of the late Marshall’s Cheese of Dobbs Ferry. But many of my many former neighborhoods are suffering too. In Park Slope, I hear Romp, the purveyor of excessively expensive wooden toys that parents love and kids hate, has closed its security gate for the last time.
Sign #4 I’m winning EBay auctions with minimum bids. This almost never happens. Well, it’s now happening so often I’ve put a moratorium on EBay purchases for everything except absolute necessities.
Sign #5. Commuter trains into NYC are packed. This is an intriguing indicator. When a recession really picks up, the numbers of folks on the train will fall, because people won’t need to go into the city. But in the early stages, folks are just concerned with saving money. And, yes, it is much cheaper to take the train than drive and pay for weekday parking in midtown.
So there you have it. A few notes: Restaurants reservations are also a great recession indicator but since I now have two children, I don’t get out enough to really comment intelligently on this one. I would have liked to have seen what was up at the Barney’s Warehouse Sale (lots of cashmere sweaters in small sizes is always a bad sign) but between work committments and my own financial constraints, I decided to skip it.
And I do have one contradicting fact to report: People are still taking expensive and unnecessary vacations. I’m one of the few people I know who did not leave New York for at least part of the February school break. It will be interesting to see how things develop over the summer.
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