Wall Street far removed from reality for many

April 18, 2000|By Michael Olesker

IT AIN'T WALL Street in New York, it's just 36th Street in Hampden. The stock market has its myocardial infarction Friday, causing brilliant economists to announce the end of the world as we know it -- but, in some venues, a certain obliviousness prevails.

"The stock market?" Nancy Rock asks yesterday morning. She is a waitress at the famous Cafe Hon. Glancing out at rain falling from a grimy sky, she asks a guy if he can run down to the bank and get some change for the cash register.

"What do you need?" the guy asks.

"Five dollars in change, $20 in $1 bills," Rock says.

"Can you handle a dollar's worth of pennies?" the guy asks. Rock pinches her expression. "How about a dollar's worth of nickels?"

"That'll work," says Rock.

Thus do we witness high finance in that part of America for whom Wall Street, and the Dow Jones industrial average and the Nasdaq, are mainly distant rumblings from a culture not quite familiar.

On Friday, Wall Street racked up its biggest-ever point drop: the beginning of the end of the nation's longest-ever economic bliss, said some analysts, worried about inflation and interest rates and rushing to issue pronouncements in front of cable television cameras.

No, no, said other analysts, taking their turns in front of the same cameras. This is merely an adjustment, they said, a small, explainable heart attack that is treatable. The economy is still built on strong foundations, these brilliant thinkers declare.

At Cafe Hon, Rock pours a large cup of coffee yesterday and says once again, "Stock market?"

She's heard of it. She's no dummy. She's 35 years old and has a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University, for Pete's sake. It's just that, in certain elements of the American economy, even in our hot financial time, the dollar stretches only so far.

"I don't know anything about the stock market or investing," says Rock. "I'm just glad I don't have creditors calling me. You know, you get bills and think, 'I don't know where this came from, or what it was I bought.'

"I'm like most of the people I know. We don't have the money for investing. I've heard stories of people taking out second mortgages on their homes so they can invest. Me, I take my pay to the bank as soon as I get it."

At Cafe Hon, waitresses work on tips. Rock stands behind the Cafe Hon counter with another waitress, Amy Derry, 43.

"What do you take home a week?" Derry is asked.

"I know at least $200," she says with some pride. She doesn't quite work a 40-hour week. Rock, who's full time, says she makes "$400 a week, maybe $300. Somewhere in there. But I do well because I work weekends."

These are the voices of those who don't stand in front of the television cameras -- because they have nothing to say about high finance, not having been included in the game. That world, conducted in New York, which comes out of corporate dealings in high-rise offices, does not particularly reach the American places such as 36th Street in Hampden.

"My customers," says Rock, "don't talk about the stock market. Most of them are talking about the little Cuban boy. Or some other human-interest story. They were all talking about Joe Palczynski for a while. They got excited if they knew somebody who knew somebody involved in it.

"They're smart people. I work breakfast and lunch here. We get a lot of college professors in the morning, a lot of professional people for lunch. And people who just think this is the cutest little place. But I don't hear them talking about the stock market."

"And you don't have investments of your own?" Rock is asked.

"The stock market?" she says. "No, I don't have any investments. You?"

She directs this question to Derry, who's serving a customer a slice of cherry pie and shakes her head no.

"My grandmother plays the market," says Derry. "She's 93. Me, I didn't pay much attention when the market had that bad day last week, but my grandmother did. I guess she's smarter than me."

Nah, it's not about intelligence, it's about where the money reaches. The great boom of the past decade has put money into millions of pockets -- but it's also left millions behind, and created one of the greatest financial gaps between haves and have-nots in history.

When the market rose a hundred points yesterday morning, many breathed a little sigh of relief. Maybe Friday was merely a correction. Maybe bliss would return on Wall Street.

But in the American places like 36th Street, it's a distant world, far out of reach, which doesn't particularly connect with their own version of reality.

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