Joe was halfway out the dealership door before I had even yanked the emergency brake on my car. His quick first-step was rewarded. As far as I could tell, I was the first one on the lot. It was five minutes past 9 o'clock on a chilly Christmas Eve morning. For once in my life I had done the sensible thing, leaving my parents house in upper Bucks county under the cover of darkness, determined to arrive at the mall the moment the doors opened so I could finish my shopping before the inevitable onslaught of fellow procrastinators choked the parking lots and checkout aisles. Really, it was not much of a chore. I do not sleep well when I am at home, mostly because my feet hang off the edge of the twin bed to which I am relegated whenever I spend the night at the empty nest. The night is spent tossing and turning, which is not all that unusual except that the twin bed in question rests on a wheeled bed frame, which rests on a hard wood floor, which means I spend more time piloting the bed back to its original position than I do in REM sleep. Sometimes, I give up and move to the couch, which does not have many ergonomic advantages aside from the fact that it is anchored to the ground. Sometimes, I give up and hop in my car and drive back to my king-sized bed in Philadelphia, the two-hour round trip well worth the five or six hours of actual sleep it enables me to steal before the next day's festivities.
Christmas is an interesting experience when you are three houses removed from the one in which you grew up. I envy my friends who each December pack up their cars and head back to the homes where they were raised. Their feet might hang over their beds, but their beds are actually theirs, not some leftover twin shoved into a home office two hours from where they were raised. I imagine this contributes to a more restful night of sleep.
This year, I gave up on sleep around 3 a.m., climbing into my car in the cold suburban night and heading to Wawa for a cup of coffee and a Gatorade. Upon returning, I sat down at my laptop and put together a gameplan: Best Buy at 7 a.m., the Montgomeryville Mall a half hour later, and finally a stop by a car dealership in Conshohocken where I had hopes of finally trading in the canary yellow piece of crap I had been driving since I was 23.
By the time I slammed my car door shut, Joe was ambling to meet me halfway, his right hand extended as a colleague who had been wandering the lot approached from behind a few seconds to late. The colleague, an older gentleman with gray hair and a ruddy complexion, cast a spiteful smile that I caught out of the corner of my eye as I introduced myself to Joe.
"What's so funny?" I asked the colleague, who shook his head and let us be.
Joe brushed it off.
"I don't know," Joe said, motioning with his head to the departing colleague. "Everyone thinks he's a little crazy, anyway."
Joe has the look of a guy who has been in the car business a little too long, the creases on his worn face like fault lines meandering through the desert crust. I told Joe what I was looking for and he pointed me in the right direction. Less than a hour later, we were sitting at his cramped work station inside the dealership boucning numbers back and forth. Joe could tell I already knew a fair price for the car, and he obliged me with a quote that slightly surpassed my expectations.
"It's not like it used to be," he said later. "Back then, even the accountants couldn't figure out the actual price of a car. It was like a murder mystery trying to figure it out. Now, with the Internet, everybody knows."
Months of research and discussions with various dealerships had re-inforced what I had already assumed: It's a good time to buy a car. Hell, it's a good time to buy anything, provided you can afford to do so. When I bought the canary car, the housing bubble was still swelling and credit was still available who anybody who could spell their name correctly on an application. The world was full of young dip-shits like myself with non-existent credit profiles and no idea just how difficult things were about to get for the American economy. I forget the exact rate at which I financed the Canary, but on the range of percentage points it was much closer to Credit Card than Year-end Dealer Incentive.
As I mentioned before, Joe looked to have been in the car business long enough to have seen the years of plenty, and appearances were not deceiving. As the finance people were drawing up the paperwork, we sat at his desk and talked about his various stops along the way.
"You should have seen it on Sept. 11th," he said. "I sold a car to a lady early that morning and then we watched on TV. She was the last person in the dealership for two weeks."
"Two weeks?" I said.
"Two weeks," he said.
"Nobody even came into the store?"
"Not a single person. For two weeks. It was like the entire nation was in shock. Nobody knew what was going to happen, whether we were going to go to war, whether we were going to get hit again, what was in store. Everybody just shut down."
The ground floor of the economy is a fascinating thing. The first people who realize things are headed south are the ones who are in charge of moving inventory. Things rebounded for a short time, but Joe had to know that dark days were coming, that far too much credit was going out to far too many people who lived their lives on the edge of ends meet. None of us knew the extent of what it all meant, of the precarious nature of political capital gained via fear. Two unfunded wars, stimulus checks, tax breaks, the big-picture ramifications did not matter to any of us, because deep down inside all of us were unsure whether there would even end up being a big picture. For the first time in a lot of our lives, our concern for our individual safety overshadowed any of the potential consequences of our country's actions. A good day was any day that did not end with hundreds of our countrymen leaping to their deaths out of burning high rises. Our entire national pathos had shifted to a sort of fatalistic optimism. Hell, as long as we aren't getting hit again, it can't be all bad, can it?
Self-preservation is a powerful instinct, and you cannot convince me that it did not play a role in the economic tumult that would eventually sweep our country. The world landscape was changing so quickly that few of us saw any sense in considering the long-term ramifications of our actions. And so we borrowed, and we lent, and we looked for the quick buck at the risk of leaving our asses exposed.
"I tell you man, there is one guy I'm glad they got," Joe said. "It took awhile. But when they finally got him, I was so happy. I remember that day, watching baseball, the crowd chanting."
Joe and I sat at his desk, staring at the clutter of papers spread out in front of us, nodding in silence. The night they finally got him, there was some hand-wringing about the spontaneous outbursts of glee that occurred around the nation. Blood-lust, some people said. But that wasn't it. At least I hope it wasn't. I hope that the majority of the country felt like Joe and I felt, like we were finally becoming American again, a country that achieves the missions it embarks upon, regardless of the toll that it takes. That night, a lot of us realized that it had been nearly a decade since we had felt some sense of normalcy, some sense of life as it was before the planes hit the towers and the shit hit the fan. For at least one night, that normalcy had returned. After 10 years, we were free to release the emotion and angst that had built inside of our psyches as we waited and waited and waited for some concrete foot to fall, as we yearned for this War on Abstraction to yield some sort of tangible result.
More than any other Christmas we have experienced over the past decade, we are able to sit back and reflect on where our society, American society, needs to head in the coming years. Osama bin Laden is dead. One of our two unfunded wars is over, the vast majority of troops having returned home to spend the holiday season with their families and friends and countrymen. The question, now, is what happens next?
A week from now, the new year will arrive and the trees and lights and candles will be packed away, and we will hopefully turn our attention back toward a societal progression that in many ways has felt on hold for the previous decade. Unfortunately, the sense of unity and the hope for a new beginning did not last long after that May night when a definitive fight against terror was actually won. As we sit with our families today and contemplate all that is good about our lives, my hope is that we can all spend some time reflecting on what all of us need to do to improve a society that continues to fracture. The Dow has risen steadily since Christmas of '08, from 9,000 to 10,000 to 11,000 to just over 12,000, which is good news for the small minority that benefits most from such improvements. But unemployment remains around 9 percent, its trend downward lagging far behind the soaring profitability of the corporations who supposedly create the jobs for the rest of us.
If we all pay some serious thought and prayer to our current situation, I think we will realize that our country has always thrived when the majority of us play an integral role in its profitability. We are the United States of America, and we are at our best when we are United. Instead of dwelling on the ideologies and policies where we disagree, our focus needs to turn to the common ground that all of us share. What good is individual profit if it leads to a society that is so stratified it can no longer stand? If you believe in prayer, pray for our leaders, pray that they might realize that the penthouse can only stand because of the foundation on which it rests. If you believe in action, act in a way that inspires the type of ephiphany that all of us need to experience: that we benefit when our neighbor benefits, even if his benefit lessens our benefit. Lincoln warned us of the end-result of a house that is divided. Donne warned us of the perils of turning ourselves into islands.
Decades from now, when the winners sit down to write their histories of this pivotal time in our nation's history, I believe that they will look at Sept. 12, 2001 to Dec. 31, 2011 as the Decade of Uncertainty. I hope that the next 10 years will prove to be the Decade of New Optimism. We cannot afford another decade like the one whose tail lights are disappearing into the Iraqi dust. Pray, hope, act so that the uniters will prevail. Five years from now, I will own the Optima that now sits in my driveway. I hope the vast majority of us will be able to say the same.