"Whom the gods destroy, they first subsidize."
George Roche, former member of Hillsdale College
Accepting an invitation from a friend, Friday afternoon found The Mister and me at the guarded portals to the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan's financial district. What better way to take your mind off an economy poised at the edge of the diving board above an olympic-sized pool of depression than the free tour of an institution dedicated to all things money, and especially gold. The recent news of the Made-Off Bandit piqued our curiosity even more. Bernie Madoff, it was reported (ad nauseam) in the media, was "hiding in plain sight," skulking around the upper east side under the "baseball cap of shame."
When we arrived at the entrance to the imposing, if restrained, Italian Renaissance-styled building on Liberty Street I silently congratulated myself, under the studied disinterest of two burly cops, that I had thought to ditch items in my bag like the autobiography of Angela Davis and "The New Abolitionist" newsletter I took from a recent meeting of CEDP (Campaign to End the Death Penalty) before setting out. We put down our bags rattling with dangerous change, loaded cell phones and the long forgotten and now toxically inedible hard candy that should have been confiscated onto the X-ray machine and stepped through a metal detector.
A quick glance through the offered leaflet informed us that when the bank was built, though the period favored structures of unvarying color, a polychromatic stone façade was employed for a building with virtually no decorative embellishment. And unmatched stones meant steep discounts. They could get it for you wholesale, even then.
The lofty interior of the building crisscrossed above us in soaring arches. Fortress-like walls bore the ironwork—some 22 tons of the stuff—of an overly ambitious artisan named Samuel Yellin that made me think of a sanitized version of Piranesi's prison etchings. Ornate flora spiked along the top of the tellers' windows where citizens queued to buy U.S. Securities; clearly the functional aspect of the artisan's handiwork and a disarmingly more charming precursor to the contemporary criminal deterrent of ragged coils of razor wire.
Immediately I was drawn to the seemingly incongruous display of a contemporary pastel-hued vase called "Winter landscape" by Barbara Bonnie Deutsch. Given the setting the accompanying quote was even more confounding: "There are two types of people in the world: the artists and the appreciator. Every artist needs an appreciator and every appreciator has need for an artist."
We waited for the tour to begin and poked respectfully around glass cases of currency on exhibit, mindful of the bored security guard. Out of his range of vision and still ignorant of the fact that the building is lousy with security cameras, like cheeky children we literally poked our fingers into a hologram of a gold bar.
As captivated as I can be by currency (read sarcasm here) I did find the much earlier forms of money quite interesting: salt bound in bamboo; strings of cowrie shells; "hoe" money (I won't go there) and tiny axes. There were the white wampum beads of the Iroquois Indians (and yes, of course I thought of the original fire sale of Manhattan) and woodblock prints on mulberry paper of the Ming Dynasty. Our guide, a thickly-accented Brazilian woman with a gentle demeanor pointed out the "star" of the exhibit and I wondered aloud to The Mister why the American gold coin under glass was called a "Doboo Eegew." I was rewarded with his scornfully whispered retort: "That's a Double Eagle, you wally."
The real attraction of the tour, and probably what was on everyone's mind as we gazed glassy-eyed at multitudinous currencies and activated videos on Crises Management, was the gold vault. We were escorted 80 feet below street level (50 feet below sea level) and stepped out of the elevator onto solid bedrock. For some reason I can't explain, the bedrock beneath my feet really excited me. It's something a New Yorker hears referred to often (and recalls comfortingly when earthquakes make the evening news) and just as I, as a student, had heard often of Stonehenge, it's not the same until you are right there. Bedrock. It's mystical man.
In the vault, each tourist in our little group, to a person, managed to sidle up to the display of gold bars behind an open-work metal grate and poke a pinky fingernail through to touch the gold as our guide continued her talk. We saw the magnesium clog the workers, called "gold stackers," wore to protect their feet from errant gold bars. We did not see the room where security guards practiced target shooting.
I looked beyond the metal gate to a storage room holding tons and tons of gold and thought: Oh, yeah, the artist and the appreciator. The artist needs. The appreciator has need for. Here—clearly—lurked the means of the appreciators.
When our guide explained the response of the vault's security system in the event of something, like, say a natural disaster or a terrorist attack like 9/11, and—after asking if any one of us was claustrophobic—the rotating cylinder that could contain us in under 28 seconds began moving and the collective pulse of the group quickened. A total shutdown? Steel bars slamming through the tunnel entrance? Airtight? Watertight? Like a cork in a bottle? 72 hours of available air? Okay, you think, that's three days in which to be rescued until she adds that the air supply would be for one person. Eyes flick nervously around the tiny room. Massive walls of steel-reinforced structural concrete imprisoned us. Who could I take on? Who could take me? Obviously The Mister would have to be spared so, let's see that's 36 hours. If there was a nuclear blast did it matter that this vault could withstand the blast? What would we find above ground? Would my cat Sidney make it? And that clock on the wall, stuck at 3:45 (and it was just after two) and jokingly explained to us that it told the exact time twice a day? Why wasn't that working? Great. How bloody ironic to be surrounded by over 70 billion dollars worth of gold and...am I mad?
The mood was lightened considerably when the vault reopened (full disclosure: it never actually closed completely) and our guide announced that because her family members visiting from Brazil were on the tour with us, she was able to extract a favor from the guards and we would get to hold a bar of gold in our hands. I was the first to get my paws around it. It glowed like a block of neon cheddar and was strangely much heavier than I expected its 28 pounds to feel. (I also wondered about the coincidence of the 28-second shut down time. Was it possible a code so insanely simple as the number 28 was the key to all this? That it was assumed the connection would never be made? Like making your pet's name the password to your computer? Who'd guess that!) The weight was explained, having something to do with gold's density, which I honestly still do not understand. Our guide also shared with us the undocumented myth of the origin of gold's weight: that gold set down on the earth would eventually sink back into the earth because it was never meant to be excavated and would bring destruction. Got a point there.
That said, I watched as an armed guard accompanied the gold brick past a huge scale, which could accurately weigh something as light as a half a grain of rice. The gold was returned to its humble storage bin. I wondered which of the foreign nations that owned most of the gold down there owned that particular brick we had just blithely passed around and did King Whatsisname know we were handling it? Apparently few have ever asked to examine their gold. Maybe the "No Insurance Policy" for foreigners wouldn't be so acceptable if he did know.
We left chatting amiably about wildly inaccurate films like Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Italian Job which coincidentally we had just seen and never once questioned the illogic of those zippy little Mini Coopers unburdened by the actual weight of the gold they were carrying (see previous blog entry "Marriage in the Middle..."). Passing a closed set of wood-paneled doors we spied a sign that declared: "Quiet Please. Meeting in Progress." It took little to imagine the jittery suits seated at the expansive conference room table, wringing their hands and wondering how a nice guy like Bernie could get all his shit past them. Food smells emanated from behind those doors. Maybe they were just having lunch. Above ground again we were rewarded with little cellophane packets of shredded dollars.
Leaving the building with nary a glance from the cops posted there, bundled up once again against the bitter chill of a wet winter afternoon, I thought with all that gold below, surely they should be putting us through the metal detector on the way out. Now, what could we do to take our minds off taking our minds off the economy? Our out-of-touch Congress voted themselves a raise, proving they could effect change and put down their differences. The Mister and I decided to give ourselves a raise and headed off to Trader Joe's Wine Shop.
The next day we returned to Wall Street with The Mister's childhood friend, Ted, as bears seem to be running with the bulls these days.