| American Sucker |
By David Denby
Genre: Non Fiction
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Quarterly Report, January 1, 2000 Cumulative Net Gain/Loss 0
SOMETIME in early January 2000, I became aware that I was jabbering.
I was on the phone, in my little study at home on West End Avenue, in Manhattan, and speaking as breathlessly as a cattle auctioneer in full cry. Jumping over verbal fences, mashing participials, dropping qualifiers ...I was talking to an old friend about movies, and I said something like this: Movie people think platforming works only with quality-word-of-mouth and slow-building three-four-million-a-week pictures in which buzz rolls into multiple viewings like The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love...I had trouble saying one thing at a time. I had to say two things, or three, tucking statistics into my words as I talked, and I seemed to be grouping ideas or pieces of information rhythmically, by association, rather than by cause and effect. As I hung up, I wondered, Who is this nut, gathering and expelling information in charged little clumps, like a Web site spilling bytes?
Babbling-brook behavior is common among journalists, and also, perhaps, among ambitious New Yorkers, who like to imagine that they are moving on a fast track leading somewhere - to the best table in heaven, perhaps. In part, the habit may be regional and occupational. Certainly the tempo of Al Gore's discourse, a procession of potted palms thudding across a wide desert, drove me crazy in that election year. But, then, it seemed to drive everyone crazy, even people from the South and the West, so region may have very little to do with it after all. And journalists, now that I think about it, talk at all speeds. At my magazine, The New Yorker, no one wastes words, but no one assails his listener like a jackhammer, either. It isn't dignified. Soon after the phone conversation with my friend, I thought back over the previous few months. I remembered ranting on and on at a party. No one interrupted, but no one commented, either. They were waiting for the storm to pass. Cowed, they sighed and rolled their eyes as if I were trying to impress them, when from my point of view, I was just trying to get it all in. What was causing the rush?
By the beginning of 2000, my life had changed in a number of extraordinarily important ways, but most of it was still in place.
As I saw it, my job, as always, was to build a family, build a career, observe, observe, learn a few things, write them down, and get them into good enough shape to publish in a magazine or a book. I was a married, middle-class professional, a critic and journalist-an Upper West Sider, and therefore one of God's sober creatures, a householder and provider living among Manhattan's brown and gray buildings. The Upper West Side was the land of responsibility, a family neighborhood, hardworking, increasingly prosperous-and pleasureless, some would say. There were parks, there were dogs, there were many places to buy broccoli and diapers, to get suits pressed and prescriptions filled.
But there were few elegant people (even the wealthy dressed like assistant professors), few art galleries or clubs, no wicked entertainments to speak of. You could walk for blocks without finding so much as a neighborhood bar.
My wife and I had added two boys to the swarm of children laughing and shoving on Broadway and shooting basketballs at the netless rims in Riverside Park. They were skinny boys, both of them. We fed them virtuously with fresh vegetables and fruit purchased at the long produce counters of the great Fairway Market, at Broadway and 74th. At breakfast, I plowed through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and at night I watched the news (the stentorian Tom Brokaw, holding aloft the national virtue) and political chat shows (Chris Matthews interrupting God as He explained His policies on the third day of creation). I made my living writing for The New Yorker (and earlier for New York magazine). I went to Woody Allen movies and sometimes (as a type) appeared in them. I had been reviewing movies in one place or another since 1969. At the beginning of the nineties, when it became obvious to anyone with eyes to see that American movies, under conglomerate control, were not going anyplace wonderful, I wrote Great Books, in which a middle-aged man-me-slapped himself out of unhappiness by returning to his undergraduate college (Columbia) and rereading some of the Western literary and political-theory classics. Defending the books against the ideological manhandling they were being subjected to from left and right, I had made a few enemies to be proud of with that book, and a few friends, too, also to be proud of.
Thus the armature of routine, the thick-barked trunk of family love and work for a man of fifty-six. But in the months before I heard myself chattering, my daily habits had changed: I had become obsessed with piling up money, obsessed with the stock market, and I spent hours most weekdays watching CNBC. The men and women of financial reporting, my new friends, went on the air every trading day at five in the morning.
They remained on the air all day, mopping up after the market closed at 4:00 P.M. with various recaps, surveys, predictions, and so on, continuing until eight, at which point the hard-blowing Matthews and the somber Brian Williams took over with the less important criminal, political, and constitutional entertainments of the day. Like several hundred thousand other Americans, I had become addicted to the reporters on CNBC, our joshing chroniclers of the national hopes. They were with us.
On New Year's Day of 2000, the market was closed, and I relinquished CNBC and went to a party. A terrific group had gathered together, teachers, lawyers, journalists, editors, novelists, smart people, and nice, too -good people -and I ate smoked salmon and drank mimosas and spoke too rapidly to a great many of them. I wanted to talk about the market, and they wanted to talk about politics, journalism, and children, and after a while, I thought, Pleasure! What a waste of time! Every other weekday morning, I would take my post in the kitchen, looking at the little TV perched on the granite counter. A half hour, I told myself. Forty-five minutes, that's all! The kitchen was not a comfortable place to watch TV. But then, ignoring the cat, Daphne, who rubbed against my shins and nipped at my ankles, I would sit there for two or three hours, fascinated by the stock tickers running at the bottom of the image, by the declining thirty-year- bond yield and the shocking new Producers Price Index Number. Everything that happens in the market is related to every other thing; it is a gigantic puzzle whose parts move as unceasingly as the tentacles of an underwater creature. It was all new to me-the Consumer Confidence Index! Wow!-and I was amazed. Even though I knew that some of what they said was hooey, I sat patiently through interviews with strategists from the big brokerage houses, with CEOs and money managers, with gurus and savants of various sorts who spread their blankets and displayed their urns and gourds and gave their opinions of shifting currents in the bazaar. It was a rattle of semi-worthless but spellbinding words. I loved it.
Speaking over the din of a brokerage trading floor, many of the CNBC reporters and their guests raced like corsairs. They had very little airtime in which to say complicated things. But more than that, they were driven by the tempo of the market itself, the pulsing, darting flow of money around the globe, all of it intensified, as the CNBC anchors broke for commercials, by that rhythmic clickety-clack of electronic noise needled by a snare drum . . . dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-DIG-a-dig-a. . . Were all the beats the same? Or were there, as I imagined, little emphases which turned the pulse into the music of money? Speed was inside my head, and I couldn't get it out.
At that moment, in early 2000, you were sure that if you could just grab hold of the flying coattails of the New Economy investments, you could get rich very quickly. The newspapers and CNBC were filled with stories of twenty-four-year-old millionaires, start-up companies going through the roof, initial public offerings outlandishly doubling and tripling their price on their first day of trading. And the market! In the previous year, 1999, the Nasdaq composite index went up 85.6 percent; it went up by more than 39 percent the year before. And, as the market soared, you could feel it. You would have to be insensible not to feel it. All around, in the suddenly resplendent corporate pomp of once-dreary San Jose in Silicon Valley; in the crisp linen and sparkle of a downtown Manhattan restaurant at lunchtime; in the fatted pages of new and brazenly successful Internet magazines like the Industry Standard-in all these places and many more, you could sense the thrilling, oxygen-rich happiness of wealth being created overnight.
My urgency was driven by hunger. Making money seemed a function of quickness, and in the market, more than anywhere else, you experienced time as the instant dead past. The market underlines the mystery and terror of time: It never stops. As I sat there in the kitchen watching CNBC, there was only the next instant, and the next, rushing toward you, and I kept trying to catch up. In Times Square, across the street from The New Yorker's office, the news headlines and stock results from Dow Jones - "the zipper"-flashed around the corners of the old Times tower. My eyes would travel with a group of words until they hit the corner and disappeared. That was time, always moving on:
No one could pull the words back. Either read them or lose the information forever. The zipper made me slightly ill, and there were much more powerful zippers around. Using the Internet as a speed lane, an ideally informed person would never sleep at all but would trade the markets and chase news and rumors through the links twenty-four hours a day. What bliss! What a nightmare! The market, it turns out, is the quintessence of instability in the Information Age, the perfect paradigm of life as ceaseless change. That is why it is so mesmerizing, so defeating, and, again, so mesmerizing.
I needed to make money, serious money, that year. Not for the usual reasons that prosperous people want to have more cash. I did not want to buy a villa in Tuscany or a BMW 540i or the Lynx $7,692 gas grill with dual smoker drawers. What in the world could you do with such a resplendent cooking apparatus? Barbecue gold-leafed weenies on it? In all, I was quite sure that I was not the patsy-victim of the standard smug liberal critique -the American who does not know that money can't buy happiness.
No, I didn't want to buy anything in particular. I wanted the money so I could hold on to something very important to me. For I had already lost something of incomparable value - not a possession, but the center of my life-and I was in danger of losing a great deal else.
At the beginning of 1999, a year earlier, my wife, Cathleen Schine, announced that she no longer wanted to be married to me. She had to leave, she had to get away for a new life, for she had mysteriously changed in her affections. Not just in her affections.
She had changed in her being, and she was no longer whole, she was broken, and I was not the one to fix what was wrong.
The announcement was not altogether a surprise. She had been slipping away for a few years, withdrawing into quiet or studied indifference. I couldn't get her to talk about it, she was holding it inside. She didn't mean to hurt me, I now think, but sitting in bed at night reading or speaking on the phone, she was unreachable -and then sleepy and irritable. I stood there like a rejected petitioner, chewing on my innards but unwilling to fight.
"I have to go to sleep now." "But I want to talk."
Talk was the center; we used to talk over everything, endlessly. But in those bad years a polite silence had descended on the marriage, darkened on my side with foreboding and on hers with unhappiness. She was increasingly depressed. Dark circles appeared under her eyes, she became immobile-the bed was her home, her fortress. And then she wanted to get away. "If you really loved me, you would want me to be happy," she said on the day in 1999 when she first said she wanted to leave, a sentence that no lover ever wants to hear. She was sitting in bed, miserable. I was pacing around the bedroom, in a sweat.
"I love you," she said. "But I can't live with you anymore." For a full year after her announcement, I tried to keep the marriage together. We continued to live in the same apartment with the two boys, Max, who turned sixteen in June of 1999, and Thomas, who turned twelve the same month. But she was elsewhere, as remote as a beauty queen on a float drifting down the street to the cheers of other crowds farther and farther away.
I didn't break down, or stop working. A shipshape magazine like The New Yorker doesn't let its writers fall into the sea. Good words must be written, and I wrote some of them. But there was a gathering heaviness in my chest and a feeling of forlornness, as if the roof had come flying off my head. Over that year of 1999, it came off piece by piece, as in a slow-motion movie of a storm, first the corners flapping and rising, and then the shingles lifting, a few at a time, then a few more, and then the whole thing violently tearing away in a gale. I was in love with my wife, novelist Cathleen Schine, and proud of the marriage, too, which seemed to me an astounding yet permanent fact in the world, like some comet that kept flying forever. It had lasted for eighteen years, and I couldn't believe it was over. I couldn't take it in; I was sure there had to be some mistake, some error, something we had forgotten, some place in the past we could go back to-a niche, a landing where we could reassemble and start again.
At night, I paced around the room while she sat sorrowfully in bed. Some pleasure that we still shared, some experience! A moment in the country, a piece of music, an adventure with the kids. We could repeat that moment, rediscover that quality, and remember what we had lost. But she could no longer join me there.
For almost two decades, I had felt that no thought of mine was complete until I had conveyed it to her. A new movie-I was full of news about movies, since I reviewed them for a living. The cost of fish at Citarella, another of the local markets on Broadway. Darwin sitting on the giant tortoise's back in the Galápagos Islands, rapping his stick on the shell to get the beast to move-we had loved that image and had gone to the Galá together. What I gave to her and she to me in those two decades is now beyond my understanding and use, like the fingers of an arm that no longer has any feeling.
We hung on for the year, and then she went off at the beginning of 2000, a dreary greeting of the new millennium, and despite my every effort, the marriage had ended. We spoke every day, we were amiable and affectionate, we raised children together.
I was in a rage, but I suppressed it. Of what use was anger? I was determined not to become one of those embittered men encountered at work, at a party -men a little too articulate about "women." There was one fellow I knew who carried the legal papers for his divorce around with him. He was arguing the case himself. The papers swung from his neck, an albatross posing as a necessary cause.
We arranged the practical details. And quickly discovered, as does everyone else, that there is no right way of splitting up when you have children. There are only less bad ways. The boys remained at home, in our seven-room apartment on West End Avenue, and we took turns staying with them. We shuttled ourselves, rather than the children, in and out. When I was at home with them, Cathy stayed in a rented studio apartment uptown that overlooked the Hudson; and when she was with them, I stayed in a one-bedroom place overlooking a schoolyard, two blocks away from the big apartment. We both had views. It was a ruinously expensive way to proceed-we were paying for three pieces of real estate in Manhattan at once-but it lessened the wear and tear on the boys. Once a week, we crisscrossed, gathering for dinner on West End Avenue. Max would cook a steak on the stovetop grill, and the kitchen would fill with smoke. We chewed up a good dinner, and no one got angry, no one wept. Still, it was over, and when I looked at my view from the little apartment, watching the neighborhood kids tossing a basketball at a rim without a net, a claw grasped my chest and throat and stayed there until, hours later, I tranquilized myself to sleep.
And then there was talk of selling the big apartment. A grave matter, selling a piece of real estate in Manhattan. We were told the place had become valuable; it had reached a giddy boom-times market value of $1.4 million, a lot more than what we paid for it in 1986. This was serious money, and by the coldest calculation, it made good sense to sell the place, retire the mortgage, pay the taxes, and then split the proceeds and start over, each buying a smaller place. But I couldn't do it, and my mind went blank whenever the subject came up. I couldn't see my life beyond the apartment, and over and over I said dumb things to myself like "I've lost my wife and I'm not going to lose my house." The closets were stuffed with my dead father's suits. My mother's fancy silverware lay (unused) in a cabinet. It was the place in which we had written books and articles and raised the boys and entertained friends and held family parties. The bookcases were fronted with family pictures -you couldn't reach for a novel without knocking one of the pictures to the floor. It was a writer's apartment, dowdy, comfortable, packed with photographs and CDs and magazines stacked in corners-it was home, and I wouldn't let her deprive me of it.
I conceived a simple plan. The market was booming. We had some serious resources, and I would throw those assets into the right things and make money quickly. I would try to make $1 million in the market in that year of 2000 -yes, $1 million - and then I would buy her out. We had agreed that when we divorced, we would split everything down the middle, and I would give her half the value of the apartment, and it would be mine.
A million dollars! Coming from a journalist on a salary, this thought would have seemed utterly absurd only five or six years earlier. But in 2000 it would not have seemed absurd to the ladies and gents having lunch in fashionable downtown restaurants. It would not have seemed absurd in Silicon Valley, and particularly not on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, where many of the venture-capital companies that had funded the tech revolution were housed, and the most fantastic fortunes, instantly assembled, were commonplace. The figure itself, I knew, had no particular meaning -would I not have been thrilled to make $700,000? - but I seized on it because it was the essential round number, the symbol of economic liberty in the common American dream of glory. Whatever else I needed, I needed money - a man facing divorce needs money -and I saw that having lost the greatest thing in my life, I was about to lose another thing, and then, no doubt, another; a loss of substance, a loss of estate, a loss of status, well-being, and peace. Our social life had shredded; our place in the world as a couple, which I had enjoyed more than I had known, was now ended. Extra money wouldn't bring my wife back, but it would help stem the tide of losses. And though it couldn't buy happiness, it could certainly buy pleasure; it could alleviate shabbiness and discomfort and provide, in their place, the consolations of order and quiet, the balm that soothes the welts rising on the surface of the middle-aged ego.
For a period back there in the summer of 1999, six months or so after Cathy's announcement, but some months before I decided to charge into the stock market, they were all gone. Cathy was in Italy; Tommy, our younger son, was at a camp in the Adirondacks; and Max was working and playing in the Caribbean, lucky boy. I did my work, but I had little desire to go out with anyone or even to leave the apartment. I was disgusted and pulse-less, and after doing it three or four times, I could no longer face the women I saw for dinner, friendly and sympathetic all of them and more than willing to listen. You had been left, you had been stranded, the roof had come off-it's not much of a pitch. You had been betrayed. Such a sweet, consoling idea, betrayal! It fills the cup of rage right to the lip. Except that what happened to me was not betrayal, exactly, but my wife's escape into a new life. Keep your head clear! I shouted at myself. Otherwise you are lost. Anyway, what I felt, after the first tumults, was not rage but grief.
For the most part, I stayed home in the apartment that I loved. And instead of going out, I entered in that summer of 1999 a dark and empty tunnel, an enclosure illuminated along the walls by a flash of naked men and women. I had discovered porn on the Internet. In the solitude of night, and in my little study at home, where mighty volumes of Plato, St. Augustine, Hegel, Montaigne, Nietzsche-hardly my regular reading but a recent obsession-loomed over the desk, the kneeling young women awkwardly turned their eyes to the camera. They often had long and beautiful hair that they must have laboriously cared for; they looked for approval not from their partners but from the camera, which I thought was the true object of their desire.
They wanted to be seen. And the men, ugly and strong, sullen, tattooed some of them, thick-membered, concentrating on their erection and their orgasm, lest they lose either -they were amateurs, not models, exercising the democratic art form of exhi-bitionism, with me as their willing audience. They all wanted to be seen, but I didn't want to be seen.
"The worst thing that can be said of pornography," Gore Vidal wrote in 1966, "is that it leads not to 'anti-social' acts but to the reading of more pornography." I'm not sure that that's the worst thing that can be said of pornography. But I know what Vidal means: Obsession leads not to satisfaction but to more obsession.
Pornography is addictive. And Vidal wrote that sentence long before the development of the Internet, which so easily feeds the desire for more that it seems to mock appetite itself. You enter a porn site, try to back out, and get sent not to the previous screen but spilled sideways to another erotic site. Asian Frenzy? Latino Studs? Oh, why not? At least take a look.Even when you get out, mocking e-mails arrive, by the hundreds. The notes were confidential, blunt, chummy. Hello, Fellow Pervs, Kinksters, and Lifestylers ...More goodies for you this week. Several new free sex stories are on-line (including part 7 of the My Wife Stella series). Stella! A man who was married to her, or said he was, shared her with anonymous millions. Did it save his marriage? I had no desire to "chat"; I wanted only to gaze. After a while, as I spilled from site to site, I felt not that I was controlling and discovering porn on the 'Net but that it was discovering me. It was seeking me out, reading me, and it found out things about me that I didn't know. I continued to review movies, I had dinner with friends, took care of the boys when it was my turn. I fed the cat, read the Times and the Journal, but I felt, at times, as if I were breaking into fragments. I had this appetite and that one, but what held them together?
The Internet is always spoken of as a medium of connection, but it is also a medium of isolation that surfs the user and breaks him into separate waves going nowhere. There was the movie hunger, and the lust hunger, and the early stirrings of the money hunger. But where was the core, reconciling and joining the many elements together? In the tomes above the computer? My book about the classics was devoted to Columbia's version of the "core curriculum." That's why the big boys were up there, in the shelves above the monitor. What would they have said? Plato, observing a man staring at shadows in a cave, would not have been in the least surprised. But Hegel, I imagined, would have been dismayed by the passivity of erotic contemplation, just as he was dismayed by the passivity of religious contemplation, and Nietzsche, I was sure, would have been disgusted by the absence of vigorous, joyful activity -fighting, dancing, revelry, lovemaking - even though Nietzsche, poor crazy bastard, was as terrified of women as any man who ever lived.
I would look up and down West End Avenue, waiting for some fresh breeze to come along and rescue me-it was there somewhere, coming down the block. When I was home with the boys, they provided the breeze. Max, his handsome brown eyes cast down, then flashing at me, ablaze, liked to argue and storm around the apartment. We would go at each other for an hour, two hours, and we became closer, in the manner of disapproving father and rebelling son, by arguing about his behavior; then we would fall into each other's arms and forgive each other. He was a sweet kid, and smart, too, and saw things that other people didn't see. The younger one, Tommy, flopped into the living room, all elbows and knees, gangly, red-haired, hilarious. He was a paleface, rapidly growing tall. A pale, laughing beanstalk. The boys and The New Yorker kept me going, but still, I had to get out of my cave or I would have moldered there. And in the fall of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, I did. It was the stock market that pulled me out. And that's when the chattering began.
Investment has been one of the sacred goods of recent American life, and throughout the nineties I practiced it cautiously and with modest success. By degrees I became an investor capable of living with slightly larger amounts of risk, and then, at the end of the nineties, I became excited beyond measure by speculation and by immoderate risk. In the fall of 1999, I realized we would increase our assets that year (on paper, anyway) more from capital gains than from salaries and royalties. An extraordinary realization. At that point, I began shifting some of our liquid assets into mutual funds geared toward technology. By early 2000, as my wife was about to ship out and I decided to go for broke, I stepped up the pace, placing a good 80 percent of our liquid assets in funds geared toward the Nasdaq exchange, and I began looking for individual tech stocks to invest in. I did it with Cathy's permission, for we were still married and it was her money, too, and I did it without fear, in a rush of exhilaration. Take hold of the tech boom.Take hold and ride it hard! There is a pile to be made, an apartment to be saved -not to mention a nest egg to be enlarged. In the midst of my excitement, however, I was a little shocked. Not scared, but shocked.A writer with no business experience, a person wary of booms, circumspect by nature, had risked falling among the crumpled tulips and rotting railroad ties of a dozen schemes gone bust. But I asked myself the same question that many Americans were asking: Was risk something I could any longer afford to avoid? The usual grim historical lesson, the cautionary cycle of greed, euphoria, panic, and collapse-did it have any necessary power over me? Or was it not, in fact, a clich? that should be ignored?
For the economic boom was real; the boom was strong as a tree with many new branches. And the bull market had been continuing with only momentary pauses since 1982-a crash in 1987, followed by a rapid recovery; a dead year in 1994; a scare in the wake of problems in Russia and Asia in October 1998, and then up and away again. The downsizing and restructuring of American corporations had set off a strong period of growth back there in the early eighties. Go, Jack, go! Recently, the Clinton-Rubin economic policies had reduced the deficit and kept markets open through free-trade agreements; globalization was helping the boom. And since the end of 1994, the bull had forged ahead with particular strength, the S&P 500 index going up more than 20 percent a year.
The change was not just financial, it was cultural. Liberals like me had watched with surprise as their residual distaste for capitalism slipped away, turning to grudging tolerance, and then, by degrees, to outright admiration. Some of the tech entrepreneurs and CEOs, men like Bill Gates, Andrew Grove (Intel), and Henry Nicholas (Broadcom), created products and new markets, employed thousands of people. I couldn't pretend I didn't admire them. I quickly add that capitalism's organization of culture, especially the movies, my art form, often drove me and every other movie lover I knew to despair. If capitalism was "creative destruction," in Joseph Schumpeter's famous phrase, destruction, in the age of conglomerate control, had the upper hand in movies. Still, anyone with sense now knew that our economic system was far better than any other. It was certainly making some of us prosperous.
In early 2000, I found myself in an odd predicament. I was obsessed, but I was ignorant. I understood only the most rudimentary things about the stock market; I knew nothing of the new communications technologies. I was pitching my resources, my faith, my future-and my family's future-into a booming market, and I had never met any investment people beyond my broker or an occasional banker. I knew none of the Internet workers in New York; I didn't know a company head or a single entrepreneur in the New Economy. I needed to meet some of them, to see the men and women. I wanted to read some economic history and some literature-that is, the literature of greed -as I shifted the pieces of my little pile around from one place to another.
Excerpted from American Sucker , by David Denby . Copyright (c) 2004 by David Denby . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top