BOSTON. — SORRY TO BREAK this to America, but the Micro Mood Index is hovering around 5.
The MMI is my small-picture system for tracking the health of the economy. It operates on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ''Happy Days Are Here Again,'' and 1 being "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?''
Five is Mantovani playing both of them.
I go narrow and deep with this index. While experts follow the vast shifting sands of housing starts, leading economic indicators and the Federal Reserve, I talk to the guy at the wine store.
He's down. That's bad. The wine store guy is usually a champagne bubble of a man who can talk for 20 minutes about Australian grapes.
Now he's talking numbers. People aren't buying the way they used to. Hardly any reds are moving, and whites aren't doing much better. ''Something's going on,'' he says. ''I'm worried.''
Yo -- Alan Greenspan! He's worried. He talks to people. They get worried. The MMI drops 2 points. We've got a problem.
I think worry accounts for at least half of what makes a slump or recession or whatever we want to call this thing. A hair salon goes out of business next to a supermarket, and a queasy feeling settles over people passing by with grocery lists.
She couldn't make it in a nice suburb with lots of hair? How can this be? Maybe we better buy stew instead of steak.
Lurking in the mind's shadows are the tales of The Great Depression, told over and over again by parents, grandparents or, in many cases, ourselves. Cardboard in thin shoes. Newspapers lining thin coats. One skirt and one blouse to wear to school. No car.
Things could never get that bad again -- could they? That was a different America. We know better now.
And we also know there's a chill in the air that is not merely autumn.
''I've put my credit cards in a drawer,'' one woman says to another in the locker room at the health club. ''If I can't pay cash, I don't buy it.''
MMI dips to 7.
Last year the locker room was spending. The talk was of winter vacations, fur coats, houses and restaurants. I never heard anyone rejecting plastic.
Now, in and out of the locker room, plastic is the enemy, debt is a dead weight and interest is insane.
More signs of trouble up at the corner gas station. The owner is washing rear windows.
In the roaring '80s, almost nobody in the gas-station business picked up a squeegee. A customer felt like a real pain asking for so much as a bird plop to be removed from the glass.
Then toward the end of 1989, there was a slight uptick in windshield wiping. Now I'm getting the rear glass cleaned with a smile, and my car is a 12-year-old hatchback.
This can only mean one thing -- the gas station owner has been talking to the wine merchant. Also, he knows that at $1.45 a gallon for premium, he better do more than stand there listening to the hose gurgle.
MMI hits 6.
A recent trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles sent the index to 5. The computers crashed and wouldn't be up for hours, but that's not what shook the chart.
It was the guy who shouted, ''I hate this state and everybody running it. Vote the jerks out and pass CLT.'' (The Citizens for Limited Taxation tax-rollback plan.)
Not too long ago he might have believed that a call or letter to government would help fix the problem. He might have even voted to spend money to replace the computers.
Now he's counting dimes, brother. He's feeling trapped and tight and mean. He wants to grab the beast by the collar and lock it in the basement.
Do I hear 4?