Will Bank for Food

We talk about Main Street versus Wall Street, and I've been covering a lot of Main Street reaction to this financial crisis. But Scott Cohn was on Wall Street Monday, the actual physical location, as the market dove like never before. Here is what he saw:

The first time I stood outside the New York Stock Exchange waiting for traders to emerge from a tough day at the office was Friday, October 13, 1989. CNBC had been on the air about six months, and a leveraged buyout of United Airlines had failed. The Dow dropped around 7% that day--about the same as today--in what came to be known as the "mini-crash." As a reporter new to the business beat back then, I was somewhat startled to see grown men (pretty much all men) leaving the exchange with a mixture of shock, fear and dejection in their eyes. The very foundation of capitalism seemed to have taken a hit.

This day in 2008--which we haven't named yet and may not ever--was much different, at least around the corner of Wall and Broad. For one thing, ever since they banned vehicle traffic around the exchange in 2001, the neighborhood seems less serious or something. It is filled with tourists and sightseers on foot, and they were out in droves on Monday as the market and the bailout were melting down. Many came to protest what they saw as a sweetheart deal for Wall Street, and with camera crews there from as far away as India to capture the scene, the protestors had a better chance than normal to get their points across. So the street scene kicked into high gear. Standing at the steps of Federal Hall across from the NYSE, a man preached the evils of Christianity and urged the crowd to embrace Islam. Nearby, an African-American man balanced a large, half-eaten wedge of watermelon on top of his hat, and was walking around singing and shouting slogans I couldn't quite make out. And then there were the picketers. Among the signs displayed for the cameras: "Capitalism is Dead," "No comramize (sic), no bailout," and my personal favorite, "Will bank for food."

I got a chuckle out of that last sign, until I heard the riff from the guy holding it: "I can't make the payments on my Lamborghini,' he said. "I might lose my penthouse." Turned out he was mocking the situation as some sort of manufactured crisis, not realizing, apparently, that it might also cost him his job (if he has one) before all is said and done.

As traders started to leave the exchange, I saw very little of the near panic on their faces that I remembered from 19 years ago. They seemed more businesslike, as if they had been here before. A couple of them remarked to me that this was a buying opportunity, and they may be right.

And as I watched it all unfold around me, I kept wondering if all of them--the traders, the protestors and the media--realized what had hit them...or what may be about to.

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