The Man Who Invented Himself

Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish ci...
Image via Wikipedia

The Man Who Invented Himself

” I would say a war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay, and greater freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it, is his torture.”

Robert Capa, Slightly Out Of Focus

He was, in many ways, killed by his own personae.  As he impatiently waited for the tanks to create a defilade from the sniper fire that threatened the French patrol’s advance, he leaped across a shaded embankment separating the broken road and an adjacent field of rice paddies.  Two veteran combat journalists, Time-Life’s John Mecklin and Jim Lucas looked on with admiration and bemusement, only to rapidly duck their heads, as the sporadic Vietminh attack became a furious steel fist of mortars and machine gun fire.

The photojournalist, Andre Freidman, was a Hungarian Jew, who had immigrated to Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to Paris in 1934 after the National Socialists and Adolph Hitler seized power and began a virulent movement of national hegemony.

Friedman had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Pest, the working class district that was connected by a series of bridges to its more affluent sibling, Buda that stretched across the southern side of the Danube. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, left young Andres’ education to the unsupervised streets where he graduated with a reputation for alacrity, charm and daring.  In 1918, the Fascists had an iron grip on a Hungary still traumatized by the suffocating constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. Not unlike Germany a decade later, Budapest’s Jews, socialists and communists were being vilified for societies ills and Friedman understood that he must flee to find freedom and a release for his adrenaline fueled appetites.

In Berlin and in Paris, he lived on the streets, begging and doing odd jobs, eventually moving in with Eva Besnyo, a friend from Budapest. Desperate for money and intrigued by journalism, Andres secured a job at the promotional studio, Dephot, where he learned the art of photography.  It was here that he purchased his first Leica, an engineering marvel of a camera that allowed the photographer to shoot at rapid speeds and operate in various conditions of light.  With Leica in hand, the bohemian artist began to understand how his lens could surpass a writer’s pen in offering the viewer a poignant and personal view of a world always teetering between hope and a darker destiny.  A picture could tell a deeper story.

His irresistible charm and magnetism quickly made him friends and ultimately, led to an artistic troika with Polish photographer David Chim and the fashionable Henri Cartier Bresson.  Years later, these three photojournalists would be acknowledged for providing rich pictorial footprints of the doomed, fading daylight of France’s 3rd Republic.

In 1930’s Paris, it was a grand fete of bohemians and sybarites – with patrons routinely greeting an early dawn along the Champs D’Elysses, Boulevard San Germain, Montmartre and Montparnasse.  Andres had many affairs and was a favorite among socialites and models. However, one particular woman, an acerbic, elegant German refugee, named Gerda Pohorylles, became his infatuation, soul mate and some say, his co-inventor.

Realizing that his photos could gather more attention if he was something other than another faceless European refugee, Gerda and Andres created the personae -Robert Capa. Gerda explained to international and French magazine editors that Capa was a wealthy American who felt compelled to sell his work ” as is ” and often at rates double those of ordinary photographers.  Where ever conflict broke out, it seemed Andres and Gerda were there to film it and market his brilliant journalism to the major periodicals under the “nom d’ photographe”, Capa.

In his book, Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw describes the perfect arrangement, ” Capa loved Gerda, Gerda loved Andre, Andre loved Capa, and Capa loved Capa.”  He was hired and sent to Spain – a country with whom he felt deep affinity – covering the smoldering Spanish Civil War. It was here that he and Gerda would meet and carouse with international journalists – Hemmingway and John Dos Passos who were attached to brigades of foreign soldiers eager to assist the Republicans against the Nazi backed Fascist armies of Generalissimo Franco.

It was in Spain that some say Andre Friedman died and Robert Capa was born.  On a small hill town outside of Cordoba, Robert Capa became synonymous with combat photography when he snapped a photo of a Loyalist soldier repulsed backward after apparently being hit in the head with a bullet. The “Falling Soldier” remains to this day, a subject of intense debate among historians who question its authenticity. One thing is certain, it cemented the public persona of Robert Capa.

Despite his newfound celebrity, the war was having a profound effect on Capa.  As he witnessed the carnage and horror of modern war and fascism crushing the idealistic and ill-equipped Loyalists, Capa urged Gerda to marry him.  It seemed as if everything might disappear in a flash of shrapnel and blood.  His mortality weighed on him. Gerda dismissed his overtures, suggesting their need to live in the moment and fight for the protection of the Republic.

Capa had returned just days before to Paris when he heard the news that Gerda had been killed. She was crushed between two tanks as they were trying to protect civilians fleeing from bullets spitting from dive-bombing German Heinkel planes.

Capa was devastated and emerged from his fortnight of alcohol fueled depression with a wild eye and self destructive resolve to use his Leica as a grand weapon against the tyrannies of imperial powers. His assignment took him back to Spain where he documented the bitter fall of the Republic and the slate gray morality of an ideological war where both sides committed horrendous atrocities.  His predisposition to socialism was shattered during this time and turned to bitter disillusionment when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler – reinforcing a deeply cynical view that no government could be trusted.

Capa’s social exploits were the stuff of legends as he lived every second to its fullest – he drew people close, a generous supernova of consumption – gambling, womanizing, living as one person shared, ” with enough money to travel but not enough to settle down”. He was forever haunted by what he had seen as he photographed the portrait of war but never allowed his demons to reach through his veneer of devious charm. By now, he was recognized as the world’s greatest combat photographer. His celebrity and his penchant for front line assignments dropped him into high stakes company with the likes of Bogart, John Huston, George Stevens and John Steinbeck. He carried on a three-year affair with Ingrid Bergman while moving back and forth from the Italian and European fronts with beloved combat journalist Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper) and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

His most inspired act of courage was his decision to go forward with the first D Day wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach.  Crowded in an LST with young soldiers from Company A, 116th of the 29th Division, many of whom would die on the Beach head, Easy Red, Capa watched and snapped four rolls of 35mm film over 90 minutes as brave soldiers drown and were scythed down like dry wheat by scores of machine gun nests, mortars, 88’s, rocket launchers, rear line artillery, fortified bunkers and pillboxes. Every inch of Omaha was a coordinated killing field.

Capa remained on the sloping beach wiggling in and out of the water, dodging machine gunners until all the film was shot.  He scrambled aboard an outbound LSI that was filled with wounded to send his photos back to London.  In the chaotic haste to meet a deadline and use the Capa combat shots, the London based dark room developer, over cooked the film and melted all but eight frames – grainy photos that were later published in Life magazine and won even greater acclaim.

Capa would rediscover his passion for Judaism as he chronicled the emigration of Europe’s surviving Jews to Palestine, the birth of Israel and the Six Day War. He started Magnum – a consortia for photographers to coalesce and market their photographs – independent of the controlling imperialism of the major periodicals. Yet, it was clear to all that while Capa was the charming raconteur, he was no businessman.

He was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress as he moved between terror and self-indulgent nihilism. Capa chose not to cover the Korean War believing that one could not film a war that one did not have an emotional stake in.  He instead took an assignment to Japan to film the country for Ladies Home Journal.  The trip recharged him and motivated him to get back in the game – accepting a particularly dangerous assignment covering the French Colonial Wars with Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.

On Tuesday May 25, 1954, Capa was accompanying the 2nd Amphibious Group of the Foreign Legion in the Red River Delta.  His partners, Mecklin and Lucas watched him move out of sight to film a platoon advancing toward tree line small arms fire.

An explosion suddenly sucked in the humid afternoon air and spit out an angry, searing concussion “Le Photographe est mort” shouted a young soldier.  They found him clutching his camera in his left hand, as if to shield it from the blast.  His last words were perhaps the phrase he glibly uttered most often when confronted with the possibility of death, “es una cosa muy seria” (This is a very serious business).

Perhaps a fitting epitaph to the dashing contradiction that the writer John Hershey eloquently described as  “the man who invented himself.”

Film Noir Night At The BowTie Cinema

Film Noir Night at The Bowtie Cinema

 

It was a perfect night for foul play. A cold front hidden by a black slate cloak of persistent rain was moving stealthily up the Sound to settle over the New England countryside.  Fog and mist swirled, playing tricks on drivers as their dimly lit lights slowly cut narrow ridges through the pea soup of an inclement April night.

Outside the great bay window, the driveway street lamp glass shook, scattering broken light from a slap of 20-knot wind that swooped and rose across the tops of the hemlocks and hickories. It was a night of dark intent. 

I moved to the video library and selected the only logical entertainment for a spring evening that had lost its promise and descended into madness and mayhem.  Like a cordon bleu chef’s menu, this visual meal must be a Hitchcock and not just any thriller but Olivier and Fontaine in the 1939 classic “Rebecca”.  Supported by George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Joan Fontaine and sinister Judith Anderson, this classic motion picture transformed my den into a spiral staircase of deceit, broken promises and murder. 

I dimmed the lights, cocooning myself in a shaneel blanket as Leo, MGM’s ubiquitous lion, roared into motion the 60-year-old classic.  My daughter opened the den door, peering into the darkness.

” Whatcha watchin’, Dad?” 

I quickly perked up and enthusiastically described the film – which was my first mistake.  ” Does anyone die?” She asked with sociopathic indifference.  ” Well, yes, but that’s all part of the mystery.” “Sounds boring,” she said as she turned into the lit foyer moving off to find her Mac.

The boys were next to poke their heads into my cave upon hearing Joan Fontaine’s dramatic cry, “ don’t jump!” 

” Guys, I’m watching a mystery movie where a lady dies and no one knows why. Come in and watch it with me.” They slowly fell into the darkness.  My ten year old froze upon seeing the opening credits.

” Oh, wait. Is this black and white?  Forget it. Those movies are so boring…” They fled the room as if I was suddenly offering free root canals. With my spouse preoccupied, I was alone again – an old soul in a darkened screening room. The door opened again – one final time and hope sprang eternal.  The gentle patter of paws announced my inseparable canine shadow, Brody, who predictably settled at my feet – a musty tri-color blanket of unconditional love.

The film opened to Monaco’s Grand Massif as a solitary figure ponders suicide.

For a moment, we were peering across the sequined waters to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with Brody looking for French poodles and I looking for a tuxedo shop so I might discretely shadow Olivier on his dark journey.  The film concluded in a conflagration of epic proportions and I emerged from my pod of nostalgia exhausted and longing for the return of movies that used lighting, dialogue, innuendo and a star studded cast of supporting actors and actresses to help you forget about whatever troubles were swirling outside your windows.

Rebecca was filmed in 1939 during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Europe was embroiled in the first stages of the Phony War and the world was holding its breath.  It was a time of terrible uncertainty in America.  Radio, magazines and film were one’s primary lens to a combustible and foreign world.  To hold a cinema ticket was to purchase a pass to exotic locales where men and women led noble, exciting and desperate lives.

Since that time, the movie theatre has been repeatedly administered last rites as home entertainment, DVDs and the digital age conspired to change the medium of film.  However, the theatre and motion pictures survive and transcend the efforts of those who might condemn them to iPod screens the size of postage stamps. It would be, after all, a form of aesthetic sacrilege to attempt to watch Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or any other epic by Sir David Lean on an MP3 player.

 

My love of film started early and hit its peak in college, when I banded together with other celluloid loving film majors to drive an hour each weekend into Hollywood’s NuArt theatre to watch foreign films – – the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Truffaut’s “Blow Up” or De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”.  The silver screen was the best place to appreciate the entire canvas that these ground breaking directors and cinematographers utilized to tell their stories.  Just as Ansel Adams revealed the simple genius of black and white photography in Yosemite and The Range of Light, so the full power of black and white celluloid is only realized when presented in a cinema. 

I am convinced that the best movies lie, gathering dust, abandoned on the Gramophone Video Store shelves, victims of a parochial prejudice against the absence of color and graphic violence.

As I watch the consequences of the recession settle on our small town, I see people creatively trying to reconstruct simpler routines and lives. What if we turned could convince Bowtie Cinema to dedicate one theatre one evening a week to a double bill featuring the great films of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? Each Thursday, we could transform our town into a gilded family night at the movies.  Perhaps we start with Academy Award candidates from 1939: Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mister Chips and of course, Gone With The Wind.

How about a month featuring the films of Hitchcock – Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

If the kids want adventure, how about the original “The Four Feathers” with Ralph Richardson teamed up with   “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.  February and Valentine’s Day could be Bette Davis month with All About Eve and The Little Foxes followed by musicals like “West Side Story,” “Paint Your Wagon”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Top Hat” with Rogers and Astaire.

Who would not want a little film noir with a good Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell melodrama.  You won’t be the same after watching a pathetic Erich Von Stroheim and bugged eyed, insane Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: ” I am ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.” Give me Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat or Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

On All Hallows eve, we could show “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton.  For Thanksgiving, we feast on some fantasy with “ A Guy Named Joe”, and the little known “ Tales of Manhattan” about a custom made tuxedo with a curse. At Christmas, it’s Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” along with “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  New Years concludes with William Wyler’s seven Oscar masterpiece of veterans returning home from WWII in  “The Best Years of Our Lives?”

If we build it, they will come. I can see it all now – multiple generations from all over Fairfield County appearing once a week to fill a single theatre to see movies the way the director’s intended – on a big screen, alone yet together, bonded by a twitch of an eyebrow in Witness For The Prosecution, the utter abandonment of a blacklisted writer who writes the screenplay for a western called “High Noon”, or listening to the chaotic strings and the tilted mise en scene of post war Vienna in Orson Welles’ “The Third Man. 

I can’t get my kids to watch these old movies at home.  But just maybe, on a quiet weeknight, I could talk them into the last picture show at the Bowtie. For a single price of admission, I can treat them to a Jimmy Stewart double bill: leading off with “Harvey” and concluding with a civics lesson about a naïve first year Congressman almost destroyed by corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

There is hope.  I came home the other day and found my daughter and a friend watching a black and white movie.  Disguising my utter joy, I casually queried,” so what’s on, guys?”

 “Citizen Kane….”

I smiled as I watched the corrupt, lifeless hand of Charles Foster Kane drop his dime store snow globe and whisper, “Rosebud!” – a relic of lost innocence and like the golden age of cinema, an echo of a simpler and magical time.

History 101: The Golden Age of High Fidelity

Jerry Garcia in 1969
Image via Wikipedia

History 101: The Golden Age of High Fidelity

 “If the King loves music, it is well with the land. “ – Mencius, 300BC

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – before Apple’s IPod or Sony’s Walk Man, there was the high fidelity stereo system.  The amplifier, tuner, turntable, speakers and tape deck combined to intensify and dilate the pupils of an explosive era of rock and roll.  Music was recorded in sound studios in Hollywood and West Los Angeles with one hour of music condensed on to a two-sided 12” diameter vinyl disc called a long play record album or LP.  The LP was played at 33 revolutions per minute on a high fidelity stylus device known as a hi-fi turntable. 

The LP was packaged and sold in retail establishments called record stores.  It was not uncommon to spend the blistering mid-afternoon hours of an August summer inside a retail record establishment with names like Rhino Records or Musicland perusing pop, easy listening or rock albums.  Among the densely packed, alphabetically sorted albums, a hobbit like band of bearded musical savants worked –offering advice and counsel to the musical challenged.  These centurions of sound could not recall the last time they had bathed or eaten but they could recite the lyrics from a “never released recorded on a bootleg tape at Red Rocks” ballad by Jerry Garcia. They would speak reverently and with conviction about artists as if they had just returned from being backstage with them on their recent European tour – when in fact, they had not left their own city limits in years.

Each album had its own unique casing called a record cover. The record cover was an artistic expression for musicians – a canvas where one could graphically convey a picture or symbol of the lyrics and music that were embedded along the analog grooves of the LP.  LPs were created and marketed by the recording industry.  The music business was run by gold chained, silk shirted, hyperactive, restless legged visionaries infused with caffeine and cocaine. Everything was about promotion and record sales.  Albums went gold if they sold 500,000 units, platinum and multi-platinum if they sold 1M to 2M respectively and Diamond if they 10M copies.  

In the 1970’s, The Eagles “Greatest Hits”, “Led Zeppelin IV” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – all sold over 20M albums. World –wide, AC/DC’s 1980 “Back in Black” sold 45M copies and Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” sold an astounding 43M copies – presumably to a lot of drunken Russians.  It was a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  Hunter S Thompson, a writer who created his own method of participatory reporting, known as “ gonzo journalism” best described this era of mega music as “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side”. 

This was the golden age of rock stars and rock concerts.  It was a time for bands where the performers actually sang and played their own instruments.  In a time before Milli Vanilli or Brittany were caught lip synching music on stage, musicians wrote and performed their own songs.  To the 60s and 70s rock and roll enthusiast, it was a time for scrimping and saving to buy concert tickets, a coveted new album or perhaps a first stereo system that would legitimize you as a true audiophile. To teenagers tossed and turned in the Class V rapids of generational and social white water, music helped explain feelings and facts of life. Your LPs and a stereo system were essential accessories to understanding a world whose cultural plates were constantly shifting. Your music and the system that amplified it made a statement about whom you were.

As a teenager, your primary focus was the acquisition of your first stereo system.  Once acquired and assembled, suburban houses would transform into thumping, cocoons of adolescent isolation where the refrain, “ turn that racket down “ became as familiar a routine as eating and sleeping. 

The stereo system that brought these albums to life was a critical accessory to daily life.  Stereo junkies would spend hours in febrile lathers evaluating Pioneer, Kenwood, Infinity, Sony, Dolby, and Harmon Kardon components.  Acoustical kings and princes would lead you into rooms that were living shrines to their “Marantz 2330b receiver, Thorens TD-165 turntable, Frazier Model Seven speakers, and Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck”. In the most advanced bedrooms and college dormitories, the stereo configurations resembled NASA workstations.  A friend might not have one – but two amplifiers – including a 50lb monster Power amp that cranked out 250 watts per channel and could knock down a dog at fifty yards.

The Pioneer PL-530 turntable was as delicate as your Southern aunt Mildred with slim arms and a stylus that would nervously jump if your neighbor got out of bed too quickly next door. The SG Equalizer with its silver faceplate had 12 slider controls and promised a signal to noise ratio of 96 decibels.  I had no idea what that meant but it was a great line to drop on a date when you were trying to pass yourself off as a musical Mensa member. The amp’s sliders gave you the mistaken impression that you were a genius capable of bending sound waves – creating never heard before combinations of bass and treble. The Pioneer tuner boasted a 5-gang variable capacitor for tuning.  Again, no idea what that meant, but the stereo geek, excuse me –the audio consultant, could not stop drooling as he described the performance of the super tuner.  

Once purchased, an adolescent spent countless hours connecting more wires and entrails than a human intestinal tract.  The speakers would be positioned for maximum enfilading noise and in some cases, purposely directed toward a parent’s office wall to shake pictures that hung delicately on the adjacent room.  The system lights would illuminate and a record would be placed on the turntable and dropped where a stylus would descend and transform a suburban bedroom into Altamonte Pass with Mick Jagger egging on the crowd with only the Hell’s Angel “ security” guards missing to complete the picture. It was a golden age of high fidelity stereos – a time for physical and technological expression.  

Between 1990 and 2005, the world of the stereophile compressed.  Big was out and compact was in. LPs became CDs.  Empire State sized speakers reduced to ultra light, “low frequency with no audio distortion, high sensitivity modules” that were the size of a paperback book.  The stereo system became something to be hidden in plain sight.  The goal was to make one’s system invisible. This sinister “happening” was subtle and occurred over many years.  In my own home a systematic genocide was beginning focused on my modest trousseau of furniture, art and any possession that came to symbolize my life before marriage.

It was subtle at first – an Ansel Adams photograph with a cracked pane of glass went missing.  An off color, ragged beach towel vanished.  A pathos plant with a Guinness Book of World Record 40 foot long tendril was “ mistakenly” tossed out. And finally, my beloved stereo system was relocated to a darker, less frequented guest room.  The stereo had become an embarrassment – a large gaudy relic of a period of gigantic sound and consumption.  The speakers had become a physical “hazard” when my two-year-old toddler tried to climb on them. My wife did not realize that my highly emotional reaction was not fear for my child but the terror that she had punctured the delicate tweeter.

With the arrival of our “ home entertainment system” the stereo was consigned to the prison of our basement storage room completing my emasculation. The Harmon-Kardon components all looked at me as if to say, “ after all we have been through, and you’re just going to let her send us down to be defiled by spiders and mice?”  I looked away.

The Infinity speakers were disconnected and euthanized on a black, October morning. I looked up at my spouse hoping for an eleventh hour death sentence reprieve.  She just smiled that frozen “ my will be done” smile and instructed the installer to hide the new speakers on an upper bookshelf.  The technician installing the new system replaced my corpulent components with sleek foreign 300 watt per channel models who weighed less together than just one of my speakers and were the size of a box of matches.

To this day, my Harmon Kardon stereo and Infinity speakers wait restlessly in a basement purgatory.  I cannot part with them.   I sometimes secretly visit them.  We share stories and I remind them to be patient.  One of my kids will soon go off to college and “monster speaker” mania may come back in vogue. Then, they will be faithfully dusted off, reconnected to a tuner and amp, and pointed out a window to blare revolutionary lyrics and music while Frisbees fly and people gather. 

Perhaps the golden age of hi-fi may dawn again.

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

 

“So what can I do for you?”

 

“Well doctor, I have been having these really weird nightmares.  The images are pretty disturbing.  It’s gone way past the ‘waking up in high school math class just before my final exams in my underwear’ stuff.

 

“Well lie down and let’s discuss your most recent incubus.”

 

I plopped down on a leather chaise and began to describe my prior evening’s phantasms.  “I dreamed I was lost in a rundown part of New York City. It was cold – really cold – and I could see down by the East River some fires burning in trash cans in a makeshift camp. It looked like a Depression era Hooverville. I saw men shuffling and stomping their feet to keep warm while one man stoked the fire with small scraps of papers. As I got closer, I saw the bum was feeding the fire with hundred dollar bills and when he turned around, I saw it was my financial advisor.  He looked terrible. When he saw me, he shrugged saying, “I know I should have taken you out of equities and into cash but I figured we’d just ride this out.  Here, help me burn the rest of your money, will you?”  Well at this point, I got mad and tried to grab a handful of my retirement dollars but everyone became hostile saying they needed to burn my money to stay warm.  One guy that looked like Hank Greenberg threatened me with an AIG paper weight.  Can you imagine?  So, I ran toward the river and a guy yells, “Hey buddy, get in!” So I jumped into what looked like one of those New York Harbor sightseeing boats. That’s when things started to get really weird.

 

I plopped into an open seat and the three guys in front of me turned around. They were the CEOs of the Big 3 automakers – Mulally, Nardeau and Wagoner and for some reason, they were giving me a dirty look.  “You drive an Audi, don’t you?” hissed Wagoner.  I could not resist.  “You run a crappy company, don’t you?”  He reached out to grab me but his buddy restrained him.  “Come on, Rick, we don’t need any more negative press.”  Waggoner held two fingers up to his eyes and then pointed at me and mouthed,

“I’m watching you.”

 

To my left was Barney Frank wearing water wings and reading Pravda. The boat’s tour guide got on the PA system, “Welcome to post-apocalypse Wall Street, folks.  The water may get rough up ahead so please put on your life jackets.” Someone threw me a life jacket.  It would only fit a small child.  “That’s all you get,” someone snickered.  Barney Frank thought that was very funny and giggled his Elmer Fudd laugh.  “We’re all screwed,” mumbled the guy behind me.  It was Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe The Plumber.  He perked up when our eyes met, “Hey, you want to buy my new book?” 

 

The announcer spoke up, “If you look over there you will see High Yield Towers. As you can see, there is a fire on the top three floors.  Normally there is no more than a 3 percent default rate of junk bonds.  We expect that as many as 10 percent or over $150 billion of junk to default.”   I watched the fire burn.  No one was trying to extinguish it.  “Now this area coming up is dangerous.  Keep your hands and feet in the boat.” The water had started to swirl and pitch.  The boat was picking up momentum.  There were empty homes everywhere.  It was as if suburban America had been picked clean by aliens or some form of the Andromeda Strain. “We have 12 million homes with an average negative equity of $ 40,000.  Unless we find a way to buy out this negative equity, these homeowners will default, sending the market into a free fall.  

 

I looked at Joe and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  Joe was gone.  I was sitting next to Hank Paulson, lame duck Treasury Secretary.  He just stared ahead like a combat veteran and said, “You don’t know what sick is.”  The boat drifted under the soft light of an illuminated waterside boardwalk. We pulled up to a dock and Ben Bernanke jumped out to run to the bathroom.  “Alan Greenspan had a much bigger bladder than this guy,” Paulson said sardonically. I took the opportunity to also disembark.  I just wanted to wake up.  This was the worst nightmare I had experienced in years.  In the distance, I could still see my financial advisor and his derelict friends, illuminated by the scabrous dancing shadows of the burning money.  My phone rang.  I fumbled for it and dropped it on the ground.  A man wearing a white cowboy hat walked over ,picked it up and handed it to me.  “You dropped this, partner.” I looked up and I was staring into the serene face of Warren Buffett.  “ Thank you, Mr. …” 

 

“Just call me Stranger.”

 

“So Stranger, do you think we will ever recover?”

 

He though for a long time and sighed.  “Oh, we will come back, but not until we as a society learn to live within our means.  Americans want something for nothing.  We have gotten fat, lazy and insulated. We have produced a whole generation of kids who have never experienced hardship, workers who believe a job is an entitlement and mediocre CEOs who are incented to create the very bubbles that always burst. We were harvesting money out of a gold mine propped up by the rotting timbers of easy credit, toxic financial instruments, inept rating agencies and pathetic regulators. When the forces of the free market caused a cave in, we braced the affected area instead of correcting the engineering flaws or allowing nature to run its course. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. My guess is the Dow will drop to 7,000. Businesses will go under while unemployment rates, high-yield bonds and mortgage defaults will soar.  We will go through a deep recession which will shape us into a leaner, tougher nation capable of competing in the century ahead. But it won’t be fun and there will be casualties.  Ultimately, we will prevail as we are a great nation of innovators and creators.” He looked out toward the bum’s camp and started to hum.  “You hear that music, son?  It’s the lonely anthem of a country waking up to its worst financial hangover since 1931.  You seem like a nice guy.  There is a stock you can buy that should allow you to recover your lost savings.  It’s a great company that will surely rise like the Phoenix out of these ashes of failure.  Their stock exchange symbol is…’

 

I looked at the doctor and said, “And that is where I wake up every time. I am going nuts.”  He thought for a moment and left the room.  “Hold that thought,” he quipped as he raised a finger and stuck his head out the door to speak with his assistant. He turned back to me.

 

“Well, it’s clear you have a lot of anxiety. This is all symbolism – a manifestation of unrealized guilt over your failure to take action during the recent economic meltdown as well as your ambivalence toward the public figures who you feel are culpable for the mess and its remediation.  I would recommend the following: Do not pick up the business section, watch any stock market indices or listen to Jim Cramer for six months.  Consider firing your investment advisor as he should have protected your downside risk and failed. If anyone attempts to engage you or ask your opinion on the economy, just respond, ‘You could be right.’  Then go home and watch old Three Stooges reruns. Get plenty of exercise and do not eat pizza after 5 p.m.”  I thanked him and turned to leave.

 

“Oh and just one other thing, you must try to remember the name of the stock that Warren Buffet told you.  It will help your recovery.  Think…HARD!”

 

A secretary appeared.  “Doctor, your stockbroker is on line two!”

 

“Tell him to wait a moment, Anne.  Now think, Mr Turpin. What was the name of that stock?”