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In the Shadow of Goldman Sachs, Wall Street Is Far from Recovery

Profits and bonuses are back on the Street, but the prosperity hasn't filtered down past the service economy.

On the October day after the Dow hit 10,000 for the first time in a year, wealthy socialites assembled on a chilly evening in New York for the Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Named for an uneducated fishmonger who played his working-class bona fides all the way to the 1928 Democratic nomination for president, the event has become a mainstay of the rich and influential. Speaking at the dinner in 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush famously quipped, “This is an impressive crowd: the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”

On 51st Street, around the corner from the glow of the Waldorf, Abdul Rashidi tore down his fruit stand. He wore a ski mask against the cold, and he was agitated as he loaded his fruit into boxes.

“I work eighteen hours a day,” Rashidi said. “Yesterday I make $70.”

“They don’t buy fruit from me," he said, gesturing at the hotel. “I think they have fruit inside."

The official unemployment rate is over 10 percent – a conservative estimate that excludes the long-term jobless and part-timers. The more accurate tally of the jobless adds up to roughly 17 percent, or 27 million Americans; in absolute terms roughly twice as many people as were unemployed in the Great Depression.

Wall Street is a tiny flotilla of upturn upon a sea of economic decline. The country is divided more than ever between rich and poor, with two-thirds of income growth since 2002 going to the top 1 percent of earners and income inequality at an all-time high. Most of America is reeling from decades, not just months, of wage stagnation and economic upheaval. But on Wall Street stocks are up and profits are back. The 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs will get an average of $700,000 in compensation in 2009, and salaries across much of the industry are back to pre-crash levels.

I wondered how the Wall Street recovery was affecting the working class who labor among the titans of the financial sector. I wanted to find out if others in the shadow of Goldman Sachs were benefiting from the bonanza. Was the prosperity trickling down even to the street directly below the executive suites?

I was in the financial district slogging through rain, my umbrella rendered useless by wind blowing off the East River. It was late and buildings were locked down. On a piece of paper I wrote in block letters, “I AM A JOURNALIST. CAN WE TALK?" and pressed it against a window to try to get the attention of an after-hours janitor. He looked around concerned, visibly considered it, then ignored me. He knew what I was beginning to understand: Wall Street doesn’t like reporters.

Over a period of days I talked to many workers, and when they opened up I heard the same story repeated. Some may be celebrating the end of the recession, but for most menial laborers in Wall Street's shadows the end is nowhere in sight. Stagnant wages and a rising cost of living was a reality for most Americans long before the financial crash, and from here the future looks grimly like the past.

Maria works on the building support staff of a major Wall Street firm, and asked that I not use her real name for fear of antagonizing her employer. I asked her how the economy was affecting her.

“It’s not working very well,” she said, laughing.

Maria emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean in the 1970s, raised sons and now lives alone in a government-subsidized studio apartment in Queens. Her $11 hourly wage will be unaffected by the Dow, bank profits or bonuses. This recovery wasn’t making its way into her purse.