Saturday, August 25, 2007

Cash in the Attic

When I was small I believed in ghosts. I had seen ghosts. My old house was filled with them. In the attic they slept—white sheety things covering old secrets. At night when we were supposed to be sleeping they drifted around, creaking and whooshing. They weren’t necessarily scary, they just reminded that things you did-- things you had abandoned, didn’t necessarily just go away, they just lay waiting in your attic.

American mortgage lenders have been caught more or less with their pants down. A crisis which has been brewed by greed and a super-sized real estate market. A segment of our economy grotesquely ballooned into a distorted image of Uncle Sam now threatens to collapse its ugly self onto our bad dream. Wall Street this week behaved as though this were not the case, although the more ghost-fearing among us were certainly listening. I was actually wondering if I shouldn’t buy stock in mattress-manufacturers. These could become the only reliable banks.

And who should accept the blame for this? The aggressive mortgage lenders, promising us our dream castle for a fairy-tale down payment and a manageable monthly payment? The banks, bestowing money like no tomorrow? The credit card companies who happily issue more and more cards for us to order furnishings and Jacuzzis and pools to go with our mansions and new clothing to wear when we entertain our neighbors? The government-- the ones who spend and decide and speak in theoretical sums with abbreviated zeros? The same government that demonstrates how the number on our bank statements has nothing to do with spending, that available capital has no ceiling?

I’d like to know why the newly inflated price of a gallon of milk has put a wrinkle in my household budget, why I am living with a leaky ceiling and no dishwasher, stretching my meager honest income further and further every week, cutting a luxury here and there, with a bit of emergency cash in the bank and no debt. Because I read Aesop’s fables with unusual attention in grade school? Because I barely passed physics in high school and remember for every action there is a corresponding reaction? Because I believe in ghosts?

Here’s one thing I believe. I don’t lack sympathy for poor people, although I have a certain skepticism when it comes to the rich. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the one that bails out these people who decided they wanted to live in a house with a spiral staircase and a skylight and a tennis court. And their real-estate agents who took that infommercial course and made $100,000 a month sitting on their sofa, flipping real-estate to poor schmucks who wanted to impress their family, their neighbors, themselves. These people lived like fatcats for several years while I didn’t. These people charged up Prada and True Religion and Hermes to go with their fancy houses and new lifestyles and simply declared bankruptcy. So now what? They are going to be forgiven? Ghosts everywhere are stirring.

If you are up at 4 AM every night like I am, you will eventually come across this charming British show called Cash in the Attic. Where people decide they want something beyond their means—not things like the Queen’s diamond brooch, but like a trip to Australia to visit their dying brother….new cabinets for their kitchen—a modernized bathroom. An antique expert comes to their house and looks through all their possessions and heirlooms and the flea-market stuff they’ve collected and comes up with enough merchandise to bring to a local auction house where inevitably and tediously they come up with the necessary cash. Pound by pound. It’s charming…and it usually has a happy ending. In fact, I have a secret crush on the host. He has the most adorable dimples and genuine laugh…okay, he might be gay, but I love the guy-- the way he enjoys these people, the way he becomes intimate and yet doesn’t invade.

Let’s bring him to America and let him find some cash in these people’s attics—the ones with the collapsing sub-prime mortgages who will have to auction not just their attic but their house and their children and still won’t come up with the money. But hey, it may make for some entertaining reality television and it might, as opposed to My Super Sweet Sixteen and all the rest of the toxic media messages here, give America a lesson in self-reliance and consequences and personal economics we seem to have forgotten.

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