"We're usually busier than this," our waiter assures us, as he presents a purée of split peas and fresh snap peas, with a few pieces of lobster secreted at the bottom of the bowl.
"Spectacular!" Jon exclaims. This from a Midwesterner whose highest praise for food is generally "Yummy."
We feel as though we are somewhere very far from Manhattan—the dining room of a traditional resort, Saratoga maybe, in the off-season. There is no music playing. There are no people to watch. We don't know quite what to do with ourselves.
Later we drift off to the Greatest Bar on Earth, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. On Saturday nights, there's a $5 cover charge, which we pay to a woman sitting at the Continental Airlines counter near the elevators. Unlike Bayard's, TGBonE is packed. A swing band called Dem Brooklyn Bums is the center of attention. On the dance floor, a beefy longhaired man keeps tossing his sylphlike partner over his head or flipping her between his legs; they know what they're doing. Other couples are just doing a cheap variation on the polka.
The scene here is weirdly pleasant. No one is working at being hip. There are no velvet ropes or VIP areas. It's as if a floor of one of the world's tallest buildings had been converted into a friendly, boisterous roadhouse somewhere in Texas. I add it to my list of places to have a drink at sunset.
On Monday morning I set out on a power tour of the neighborhood, beginning with breakfast at the Fraunces Tavern Restaurant, the 1719 landmark where George Washington chowed down. While the museum upstairs is a magnet for tourists, the dining room is full of men in suits from 7 until 9:30 a.m., when the market opens. It's the perfect spot to bring my friend Daisann, who has lately moved from buying antique vases on E-Bay to buying stocks on E-Trade. She is, like so many people these days, obsessed with the stock market.
The tavern's $14.95 prix fixe breakfast doesn't get you much more than $4.95 would at a local diner, and the food is solidly mediocre. But the setting is splendid. Either no one has bothered to fix the place up in a very long time or the decorator is a genius at faking seediness. We sit in green leatherette wing chairs that have been patched many times over, with cushions so flaccid I feel I need a booster seat. On a nearby window ledge is a bust of a man with a self-satisfied smile who might be Julius Caesar, but I prefer to think of him as a hotshot from Goldman, Sachs. Above the mantel is the portrait of Washington that hung in every classroom of my elementary school. What the tavern does provide is a rare sense of coziness, untempered by difficult concepts such as quality or style.
It's a short walk from the restaurant to the New York Stock Exchange. In the visitors' gallery overlooking the trading floor Daisann and I stand, noses against the glass, transfixed by the sight of hundreds of men in primary-colored jackets, scurrying like ants on an anthill. Every trading-floor kiosk is now outfitted with computer screens, perhaps to make the NYSE seem as technologically savvy as NASDAQ, where technology stocks are traded electronically. But the layering of cybergadgets atop booths better suited for candy-apple vendors at a state fair reminds me of the movie Brazil, in which computers were tethered to manual typewriters.
Daisann, meanwhile, is fixated on the ticker, fretting about her AOL shares ("The little arrow is red and pointing down," she announces glumly). I decide that we'd be much happier at the New York Mercantile Exchange, where commodities such as crude oil, natural gas, gold, and silver are traded. As far as I know, Daisann owns no natural gas wells and her gold interests are confined to a few pieces of jewelry.
While every tourist in the Financial District makes a beeline for the NYSE, few of them find their way to the New York Mercantile Exchange's new headquarters near the Hudson River. It's their loss. On the lively NYMEX trading floor, men in garish jackets that suggest Elvis in Vegas stand in tiered circles and scream at one another. You can hear them—almost feel them—through the glass. They signal with a flurry of hand gestures; they scribble transactions on scraps of paper and fling them to a clerk sitting calmly in the center of the trading pit, the eye of the storm. The process looks positively medieval.
That afternoon we join a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Florentine-style fortress that houses more than a quarter of the world's monetary gold reserves (worth approximately $11 billion). Naturally, everyone on the tour is here to see the vaults, 80 feet below street level, where some 9,000 tons of gold is stored. But what people don't understand, our guide tells us, is that the real business of the Fed today has little to do with gold.
"This is what monetary policy is all about," he says, pointing through a big window at a fluorescent-lit room on the ninth floor, filled with men and women staring dully at computer screens. "Trillions," our guide says. "Trillions of dollars move through those computers each week."
What money is "all about" these days, in other words, has more to do with computer screens than with gold. That's one reason the Financial District emptied out in the first place: the business of moving money around had become an abstract, "virtual" undertaking, even before on-line trading turned the floor into a charming anachronism.
My power tour ends with a visit to the just-opened Holiday Inn, four blocks north of Wall—the first new hotel to open in the neighborhood since 1991. Every guest room has a high-speed T-1 link to the Internet, plus a fiber-optic connection to a full-service business center, on call 24 hours a day. Atop each desk is a dictionary, thesaurus, stapler, paper clips, pocket calculator, erasers.
"Workaholics will have a wonderful time here," boasts sales and marketing director Mark O'Day. When and if the stock exchange extends the trading day until midnight (a plan actually being discussed), O'Day expects that a lot of brokers will be looking for a place to take a lunch-hour nap. The Holiday Inn will be happy to oblige.
It occurs to me that, while the Regent Wall Street and restaurants such as Bayard's want to steep customers in some mythic Wall Street past, today's version is better represented by the Holiday Inn: total connectivity combined with sleep deprivation.