Haggling my way through the blues

I wish I could say that this holiday season has felt as cheerful as usual. But the emptiness in New York’s streets and stores both on December 24th and 26th merely amplified the depressing retail statistics. Eager sales assistants hawked their marked-down wares with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation. “I can hold any item for you at sixty per cent off for two weeks,” one woman told me.

Her sales-pitch pushed me out of her store empty-handed and frightened. If no one else was buying, why should I be the lone fool bucking the trend?

Manhattan-based friends who travelled abroad emailed that they too were miserable. “Sixty or seventy per cent of the boats are missing from St Barths,” one friend reported in from the Caribbean.

Another said she was having a “grim time” on the beach in Mexico. No matter how strongly the sun shone, or how much alcohol was poured into her poolside cocktail, she simply could not daydream herself into a typical vacation oblivion. A third phoned from his rented villa in the sun and said that one of his guests had just been laid off. How should the host react? Should he show how upset and shocked he was? Yes, I told him.

Now is not a time for dissembling with one’s friends. We all feel vulnerable and for once it’s OK to say so. “What’s your vice?” is a question we can all ask each other openly.

It’s OK to drink, smoke or dope (in moderation). Pot is appearing at the dinner table and no one blanches. In fact if you don’t seem like a victim of stress, then you’re the one to worry about. The rest of us are deeply committed to a very public panic attack.

I’m involved in a competition with a small group of friends, in which the winner will be whoever haggles the best with their utilities providers. One has set the bar by shaving off 20 per cent off their monthly phone bill so now I find myself renegotiating prices with all salespeople from the dry-cleaner, to the deli on the corner – and reporting in how I’m doing. (Terribly, for anyone who’s interested. Hard-nosed negotiation is not my strong suit).

At least it injects a bit of much-needed humor into a grim process. Who knew there was so much fun in recounting a conversation with the plumber or electrician? Now Christmas is over and we can stop feeling bad about feeling bad, perhaps the way to get through this recession is to joke about it. V

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