Here in the Great Unwinding

George Orwell challenged us to understand what happens directly in front of our noses, and in the case of the big meltdown, it only makes sense to step out the front door, particularly if one lives in New York’s Upper East Side. After all, if any clues to the spiritual, moral, or cultural problems of the time are present, they ought to be near by. Plus, the dog must be walked.

So out the door and down the stoop and West toward Central Park on 71st Street and right into the thick of it – The Great Unwinding of assets and leverage.

Third Avenue is busy, as usual on a weekday afternoon, but it is hard to tell if these men and women are special examples of greed and excess. No wears their portfolio like a jacket, and one can’t know exactly who used to work pulling the fulcrums of leverage at a bank downtown, who blew up and who got away with millions. The captains of paperwork all look the same as they always have, dressed almost to the last like English gentlemen out looking for quail, wearing forest green waxed Barbour coats and thick rust-colored corduroy pants, that sort of thing.

On their heads, typically, ball caps with coded symbols of wealth, the triangular yacht club burgees, or the call sign “ACK,” signifying the Nantucket airport, or maybe a few unbuttoned buttons on the cuff of a custom sports coat. But these days they have all begun to look like Bernie Madoff, and one constantly feels one has spotted the great crook, and not really a quail hunter. For a walker out for a stroll, the collapse plays like a soundtrack in your head, coloring everything. The tinted windows on a $300,000 Maybach idling by a fire hydrant now seem to hide shame instead of glamor. After all, at a time like this, it's hard to guess who in their right mind would really want to be seen in the back of a car like that.

Past Third, and the lovely four-story townhouse where the actor Sean Connery and his neighbor have been suing each other for six years. What to say of a culture which could support two armies of lawyers locked in constant battle over renovations? Possibly it is not a healthy one, or, conversely, was formerly of such robust health that there was time and money to be spent on nonsense like that. Two or three more doors down and there’s the little townhouse from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a love letter to decadence, but you can’t be too grumpy about that.

But up to Park Avenue and it gets darker, spirit-wise. On street level past Lexington, there are doctors, doctors, doctors, door after door with brass plates advertising this and that M.D.. They are not really doctors, though, but plastic surgeons. They have been feverishly rebuilding the locals. One sees their handiwork on passing faces, too many looking too much like the mask of Agamemnon, pancake-flat faces with fixed, spooky smiles, preternaturally widened eyes. These are a new brand of ghoul, with offshore bank accounts.

And there at the corner of 71st and Park hulks 740 Park Avenue, a building so expensive Michael Gross actually took the time to write a whole book about how expensive it was, and who could afford to live there. It happens to look exactly like Uncle Scrooge’s vault in the old comics, that square fortress where McDuck used to bathe in his coins. There is not a giant dollar sign on the façade, as on McDuck’s vault, but there ought to be. Inside is the multi-million dollar apartment of J. Ezra Merkin, who ran a fund called Ascot Partners. Ah, Ascot Partners, who could not trust a fund with a fancy name like Ascot Partners? After all, who would wear an ascot but a man of integrity, or an English gentleman out on his estate looking for quail? But the Ascot money is gone now, like so much of it these days, sucked up by the Madoff scandal, and with it Merkin’s reputation.

In there, too, lives the woman who wrote a book about her obsession with plastic surgery. She is married to a hedge fund guy, of course. And also the apartment of Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire, who lives in John D. Rockefeller’s old home. Schwarzman is soon to have the New York Public Library named after him. That cost him $100 million. His living room, Gross reports, is lined with books, the books having been ordered by the yard from the Strand, the used book store downtown. From this, one can suppose that he is either not a big reader, or he really will read anything.

Next, down the loveliest block of all, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. It’s dead quiet, as always. Not too many people can afford to live there, which keeps the mob away. Also, many of the people who can afford it, well, they’re in jail, or facing major legal problems, and other things the doormen and maids must snicker about, if the Stockholm syndrome hasn’t turned them sympathetic.

Here is Jeffrey Epstein’s place, supposedly the largest private home in Manhattan. Epstein may continue to enjoy that distinction while he cools off in jail in Florida, on sex-related charges. Something to do with minors. Across from him is the mansion formerly housing the Salander O’Reilly Gallery. Salander stole millions from his clients… a Caravaggio might have been involved. I don't know. You could Google it.

And last, just before crossing Fifth Avenue, the Frick, silent behind its walls, a self-built monument to one of the mightiest robber barons of the nineteenth century, Henry Clay Frick. He was among the hated figures of his time – his Pinkertons killed workers, his dam flooded a village. He built the villa for himself, filled it with Europe’s treasures. We’ve gone four blocks and one thing is clear: In matters of excess and corruption, our time runs with them all. One thinks of Hieronymus Bosch, and one feels that the miracle was not that he lived in such a time of perversion, hypocrisy and depravity, but that he came to earth to paint it in such style. We could use another Bosch right now, although he probably could not afford a studio here. And stranger still how much we love it all anyway, for we are so eager to live right amid every evidence of our weakness, mistaking warnings for great achievements, imagining always that we are the first.

— Bryant Urstadt