Last word As the economy sails groundward, David Samuels hits the Super Bowl with the titans of Wall Street.
Are you ready for some free fall?
As the economy sails groundward, David Samuels hits the Super Bowl with the titans of Wall Street. The lobby of the Fountainebleau Hotel is Ground Zero for Super Bowl weekend in Miami Beach. I've come for the game with a good friend who works in finance and a number of his banker pals. They are a fun bunch who scarf down high-end heart-attack food while placing highly-leveraged bets. "No one I talk to all day long has real names," my friend grouses. He looks across the crowded lobby and his face brightens as he hails a couple of his buddies, who are dressed in nautical-themed outfits. "Bean Bag! Caveman!" The boys are out and ready to party.
The Super Bowl is tomorrow, and every American male with a spark of get-up-and-go and some scratch in his wallet has flown in to Miami for the weekend to party with baseball All-Stars, retired football Hall-of-Famers, 10,000 hookers and half the remaining population of New Orleans, which like the rest of us is rooting for the Saints to win and erase the bad memory of Hurricane Katrina. Young black dudes in Kanye West aviator shades and crisp white tees sashay through the Fountainebleau lobby. Missing only Blackberrys on their hips to prove that they are paid-up members of the global con, they exchange glances with the honeys, who range from New Orleans blondes to some Pro Bowl lineman's fat sister decked out in a hot pink Gucci dress. Nearby, two trim, middle-aged white corporate stakeholders with laminated NFL passes strung protectively around their necks head out to party on a 137 foot yacht owned by some Korean guy.
The CAA party at the W Hotel, where we arrive after dinner, is the perfect menage of Hollywood, Wall Street and Miami Beach. Alex Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Derek Jeter are sprinkled among glamorous has-beens like the 1980s Raiders star Marcus Allen and movie types like Brett Ratner, the hard-partying director of Rush Hour, like extras in a real-life episode of Entourage. Hovering in the background are the junior talent agents, senior sports agents, and upscale bookies. Tom Cruise is rumored to be inside an exclusive club in a secret booth directing Scientology relief efforts in Haiti. The youngest member of our gang is from Los Angeles, and when the guys have nothing better to do they tease him for looking like the actor Michael Cera.
After another round of drinks, the conversation turns briefly to the markets. The general forecast among for the coming year is that the PIIGS - Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain - will have to be bailed out, and then California and other American states will swoon and the real estate market will go south. After that it is anyone's guess.The same way that the terror attacks on September 11 upset the global balance and kicked off eight years of state-sponsored war panic, the aftershocks of the current financial crisis are likely to be felt long after the initial event, and reshape our sense of ourselves in ways that seem temporary right now but may well turn out to be irrevocable.
Poolside at the Fountainbleau on Super Bowl Sunday is a vision of paradise made all but unendurable by rival sound systems that are trying to cancel each other out with amplified Miami club music, which is perhaps the worst music I have ever heard. The rich hipster in a The Who T-shirt sitting to my left is even more upset than I am. He brought his kid with him to the game, and now he has to listen to this noise at 10,000 decibels in the poolside cabana while the boys make bets about how many times in a row the guitarist Pete Townshend will do the windmill thing at halftime.
Eventually we pile into a luxury bus and head out to the highway, where traffic is stopped so that truly important citizens can follow state and city police escorts through the traffic while the rest of us wait for them to pass. In America, you don't have to be the President's brother or cousin to merit special treatment. Anyone with money can buy the local cops, along with the obeisance of fellow motorists; for a brief moment it must feel amazing. As we sit in traffic, bets are taken on who will get the high score on a new iPhone app called Urinal Test. I like these men. They behave like pigs because that is what the orderly functioning of the markets demands.
We park the bus and enter the cattle chute that leads to Sun Life Stadium. Just past the security checkpoint we see The Situation, the young Italian-American star of a reality television show called Jersey Shore. The Situation has established himself as America's greatest salesman by virtue of his catchphrase, "Do you love the Situation?", which he deploys while lifting up his T-shirt and exhibiting his perfect abs to love-struck women. If unemployment in America continues to get worse, a lot of men may wind up making a living this way.
Inside the stadium, bored fans are drinking away the pre-game, which lasts for hours. Before the national anthem, the rapper-turned-actress and daytime TV host Queen Latifah sings America the Beautiful - the Super Bowl's consolation prize for black divas who don't sing as well as Aretha Franklin. The country singer and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood gets dibs on the Star-Spangled Banner instead.
The last notes of Underwood's stirring performance hang in the scented evening air until they are torn and blasted into a million little pieces by four F-15 Eagle jet fighters from the Florida National Guard's 125th Fighter Wing, which fill the sky with their mighty roar as they fly low over the stadium. Afterburners flare, and the airplanes soar off, leaving behind four distinct puffs of dirty black smoke, a little taste of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Very few countries on earth would come out on top in a dogfight against the Florida National Guard - even though it represents a meagre fraction of the awesome firepower accumulated by the United States. The Saints win the coin toss, and the game begins.
American football is the athletic corollary of the military-industrial complex that came to dominate the country's imagination and its economic life after the Second World War. With its overhead cam shots and anonymous helmeted players, the sport of football as seen on television is both breathtaking to watch yet oddly abstract. The game itself is cut up into close-ups and aerial shots that banish the limits of normal human vision and turns the action into a narrative that can be structured and interpreted by a higher intelligence and then reversed on cue, not unlike the televised version of modern war. In person, the players seem only slightly too big for the field. Peyton Manning hits a big pass on his first play, and the Colts exit the first half up by three points, a lead that is hardly insurmountable but is probably safe enough in the hands of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
At halftime, The Who is introduced with footage of Lee Harvey Oswald, a symbol of disruptive energy rendered banal but no less mysterious. The band appears on top of what looks like a pile of smoking embers emblazoned with the NFL logo. "I don't need to fight/to prove I'm right," shouts Roger Daltry, the band's pretty boy lead singer, who wears a flowing silk scarf to keep his throat warm. Add a pair of dime store reading glasses and he would look like someone's crazy grandmother, leaping about the stage with Pete Townshend, who looks like dirty Uncle Mike in his white beard and black hat and can take over a stadium with a two or three flicks of his wrist. He strokes his guitar and every one of the 70,000 people in the darkened stadium feels something.
The second half starts with an onside kick - a calculated gamble by the Saints coach, Sean Payton, who hopes to surprise the Colts with a play that might give the Saints an extra possession in a tight game. The Saints recover the kick and score, and from that moment on, the Saints succeed at everything they try, while the Colts fail. Sports teams, like nations, are defined by their ability to adapt. The Colts are unable to deal with an unexpected set-back, and the Saints take courage and win the game.
Once the result is clear, my friend and I go outside the stadium, dart out into traffic and hail a cab that takes us to the airport in Fort Lauderdale where the private jets are grounded until the Feds open up the airspace. Talk turns to Wall Street salaries, and the boys have a laugh over the recently announced bonus of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who took one for the team this year. "So Larry only paid himself $9 million?" one of the boys chides. But Blankfein - who was paid a $68 million bonus in 2007 -will do just fine on his seven-digit payout. There are no x-ray machines or explosives detectors in the waiting area, just plates of fresh-baked cookies and free candy.
Our plane is cleared for takeoff nearly an hour ahead of schedule. There are lots of good things to say about flying home from the Super Bowl on a private jet. You don't have to take off your belt before you board the plane, and you can joke around with the stewardess. At the same time, there has been a perceptible shift in the balance of optimism and fear that keeps the American motor running. The skies are dark, and 25,000 feet below us some part of what holds the whole mechanism together has come loose. After all that happened in the last decade it is hard to know exactly how to restore the once-dominant sense that Americans are good people pursuing noble ends whose success is more or less guaranteed by providence. The Saints victory won't fill the hole left by Hurricane Katrina. Barack Obama's election might have done the trick, but a year later that bet looks increasingly like a loser. In the darkened plane the men talk of wives, children, mistresses, strip clubs and the pain and disappointment that are inherent in human desire. Things may turn around tomorrow, they say, without conviction. My advice is to plan for the worst.
David Samuels is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and a regular contributor to the New Yorker.