Thursday, August 6, 2009

SHREDS OF EVIDENCE/getting my just reserves

Twenty years ago, as a gift on my 13th Birthday, my Grandma Stanke gave me 5 one dollar bills, folded to look like a pressed and pleated shirt. She was a lifelong crafter, and had been a teenager during the great depression. She and my Grandfather lived a very frugal life and truly understood the value of saving both money as well as things. Her quilting mantra was "never waste an inch", meaning clothes never wore out, they simply became other things. When plastic bags were first invented to keep WonderBread fresh and wholesome, she used to twist them into ropes and turn them into throw-rugs. Today we have enough extra bags that we could make a nice "cozy" for the moon. I don't see that happening.
Somehow my gift ended up going into a drawer at my parents' house, and when my Mom found it last year, she gave it to me again. A few weeks later, finding myself out of money and needing to eat, I had to reluctantly remove 3 of the bills. I justified the act by refolding 2 more later and replacing the collar with a "ten". Grandma would be proud.
Whenever I think about money, I wonder why we allow it to control us. Our ongoing collective acceptance of its power has made us a pathetic mess of a species, unable to comprehend getting anything done that we can't afford to do. Individuals, organizations, and even governments themselves have become invalids, crippled by their reliance on a system that makes no sense. Imagine chickens, checking their pockets to see if they've got enough cash to dig for worms: ridiculous.

Yesterday, driven by a sudden impulse, I left my apartment in Brooklyn and headed for the Heart of our current economy.

In order to get to the subway, I need to walk over a bridge into Queens. One lone skyscraper, built by CitiGroup before their stock dropped to below a dollar a share, stands waiting for others to follow, but they haven't and probably never will. Shucks.

Across the East River it's a different story. Midtown Manhattan: where lots of skyscrapers have been built, starting with the Empire State Building. It was constructed during the initial onset of the Great Depression and was never filled. Today it's more vacant than ever.

Looking downriver, the distant Financial district is barely visible through the Summer haze. This is my destination. Below me, people continuously pay for access to the wealthiest island in the world. Faster than a clock can tick, the tolls roll in, 24 hours a day.

Arriving at the center of the financial power structure is strikingly similar to arriving anywhere else in NYC, yet somehow here, within a few square blocks, there is a concentration of wealth unrivaled in most countries. You'd think the air should smell like billions of dollars, but instead it's a combination of falafel and exhaust with occasional pungent stabs of sewage.

Nearby lie the bodies of some of the first people to harness globally the power of money, their weathered gravestones a testament to their wealth when living. Hard workers? Good people? Likely. Tyrants and thieves? Maybe. Dirt? Definitely.

Just beyond the 300 year old perimeter sits the biggest crypt of them all, complete with windows. Rest in peace, old friend, American Stock Exchange. You are survived by many.

A few blocks away, I stumbled upon the Bank of China, ironically occupying the former Chamber of Commerce building. I guess when you've got actual money you can buy whatever you like. At this rate maybe someday Congress will be a giant buffet. I think good stocks to buy might be in companies that produce fortune cookies and chopsticks, but I'm not a financial advisor, just an artist. I'd probably get lo-mein, but I prefer Thai.

Kitty-corner lies my destination: the fortress that is the Federal Reserve. The sign states that over one-quarter of the world's gold reserves lie in a vault 5 stories beneath the bank, the largest single stockpile from our former system for assessing value to currency: the Gold Standard.
In 1913 came the Federal Reserve Act, and money became legal for all debts, no longer exchangeable for gold. In 1922, like the freeking Medicis 500 years prior, the builders of this giant safe wanted to boldly announce that a new type of rule had come to the land. Here a magical, money making machine would be located, that could, without gears, motors or fuel, perpetually output dollars from thin air. It was an awe-inspiring thing, and its operation could only be trusted to an elite few. The only catch was that it had to be paid back, with interest, forever. Our Government, needing money, signed up. No credit? Bad Credit? No problem. Income tax was created, and the taxpayers were put forth as collateral. Whoohoo! Apparently, however, thousands of billions of dollars isn't enough to maintain the historic plaque. Ductape residue frames its battered face.
Security also appears to be ragged, and at the restricted access point, a lone guard leans alert against the building, tinkering with his blackberry while I snap a zoom photo from across the street. I guess now that most money is digital, it's less tempting to steal in person, or maybe he's thwarting some would-be cyber thieves.
This is an institution of magnificent power. Not only can they create money, they can also destroy it, hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As an artist who chops up coins, I can't help but feel a slight comraderie. This is my kind of operation: shredded money is packaged and distributed at the tax payers expense to people who take the guided tour. Nobody profits. No cameras allowed. The shreds they can't distribute this way are sent to landfills or burned.
After circling the building a few times, I make my move. I approach two guards at the public entrance and ask where I can get shredded money. A gift shop maybe? I came at a bad time, they say. No tours. No gift shop. One of the guards says she'll be right back and disappears into the building. The other says he can't help me and tells me to stand aside. Daunted and a bit nervous, I walk to the end of the block and scan for stores that look like they might sell what I'm looking for. Suddenly I hear someone yelling from down the block. The guards are calling me back. She asks where I'm from and I say Brooklyn. "That's from one Brooklyner to another." She says, handing me the prize.

Funny, I have plenty of dollars that are older than 18 months... I guess the funding for destroying money has started to dry up as well.
Taking a cue from my Grandma, I will make useful things, never wasting a inch. be continued...

in loving memory, Almira Horn-Stanke, 1918-2009

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