Sunday, October 12, 2008

Safety net

A young sales clerk came up to me as I dug through a neatly-stacked pile of men's dress shirts at a downtown Seattle department store.

"I'm sorry," I said in embarrassment, "I don't mean to mess up your entire display."

"Don't worry," he said with a genuine smile, then added confidentially, "It isn't so bad to have a little job security."

I've been doing quite a bit of shopping since I've been back home. I've been looking forward to it for months. I brought a half-empty suitcase and jokingly called it my Economic Stimulus Package. Clothes are far cheaper in the US than in France and I have my favorite brands here, so I permit myself a once-a-year-or-less splurge. But since we've been on vacation the world economy has continued to slide to the brink, and I can't help but feel as if I'm feasting as the Titanic goes down.

A French colleague recently asked me what the crisis felt like to Americans and if it was as bad as had been reported in the French press. This was just after Lehman Brothers failed but before the 700 billion dollar bail-out plan brought headlines of "Wall Street versus Main Street" to the front page of every newspaper. I shrugged and said that I thought that it wasn't yet affecting the average American so much, but that it made me nervous.

Yet right now, here in Seattle, it feels different, more serious. I have no numbers, and not even that much anecdotal evidence, but I can feel the anxiety. It is in the questions friends ask when they see us, the deferring of plans, the uncertainty when folks try and extrapolate their lives into next year or the year after.

We won't be spared the coming recession in Europe. The same gloom and doom is talked about over coffee between colleagues in Paris and in New York. But in France, I don't have to worry about losing my job from one day to the next, or surviving without health coverage, or paying for my son's education.

I know just how lucky I am to have this safety net.

When I gathered up my finds and left the fitting room at Banana Republic, a cheerful, twenty-something employee asked me if I wanted to sign up for the store credit card. I declined and explained that I lived in France and that while every time I visited home I stocked up on clothes, I didn't shop there that often.

"You live in France, huh? It must be nice to live there... what with everything wrong with our country right now."

"Yes," I answered after a pause, "Yes, yes it is."

I thanked her and left, feeling grateful and sad and not daring to say anything else.

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