NEW YORK -- You could think of it as the era of the Lincoln Town Car. The ultimate car-service vehicles, they turned the crowded canyons of Wall Street into somber parking lots for nearly a decade. Impregnable black chariots with cellular phones and Tensor lights, they spent the '80s shuttling 28-year-old millionaires from their offices to their breathtaking East Side apartments.
After a herculean day on the job, the frisky young bankers would often stop at the temples of consumption, the clubs like Nells or MK, or restaurants where they might dine on something blackened or lightly grilled in a basil-cilantro vinaigrette. The cars would always wait. They were paid to wait.
"Believe me, that scene's over," said Gene Lorenzo, president of Minute Men Car Service, one of the largest fleets in the city. "Nobody will pay for that anymore. The companies all have rules now. You can only use the cars after 8 p.m. or if you are going to a meeting out of Manhattan. People seem like they no longer need to work late at night. And there are fewer meetings."
When Tom Wolfe wrote "The Bonfire of the Vanities" he meant to chronicle the spectacular collapse of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader. But his book, and the movie that has now been made from it, might as well be about the lost city of Atlantis, so completely has the world it describes been washed away.
The signs are everywhere in this city. On the sad faces of bored waiters staring at the street. In the almost total lack of big mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, the economic Disneyland that stoked the boom. Health clubs are having their worst year in a decade. Suspenders, the rosary beads of the merchant banker, are on sale all the time, everywhere.
Of course the super-rich will always be with us, rushing from one Park Avenue event to another in their stretch limos and Pauline Trigere gowns. But the 1987 stock market collapse, the loss of nearly 100,000 jobs in the New York region this year alone and a palpable sense of fear have dropped the curtain on the Roaring '80s with a frightening thud.
Suddenly you can get a cab. Any time to any place. Walk out of Bloomingdale's on a late afternoon in the middle of the busiest shopping week of the year and there they sit. A line of taxis in the middle of the day.
"It's death out here," said Jaime Lopez, a cabdriver waiting patiently the other day in front of the store for someone to seek his services. "I have been doing this since 1962 and you don't go around empty the week before Christmas."
You also don't see sales. But these days a stroll up Madison Avenue might make some people think they are in the Paramus Mall. "No reasonable offer refused," was the sign in the window of one trendy Italian clothing store. "Try us," pleaded another. A walk through Bergdorf Goodman, where during Christmases past frustrated men would vie
to grab the biggest handfuls of Adrienne Vittadini sweaters and silk camisoles, is like a trip to a wax museum. On every floor there are several perfectly dressed sales clerks and a few visitors gaping at the $1,000 cashmere frocks.
"What can I tell you?" said a sales clerk who asked to be identified only by Louis, his first name, as he marched from the $300 leather photo albums to shearling coats that cost several times as much. "We are in a bunker here."
But it's not just the shopping season that has been decimated. Dry cleaners are in trouble. So are many of the fabulously erudite wine shops that arose during the past decade's quest for the ultimate cabernet.
Restaurants that one would have had to call months in advance to beg for dinner reservations, like Lutece or Chanterelle, now accommodate their patrons within days -- sometimes the same day. The Quilted Giraffe, one of the city's finest and most expensive culinary establishments, now prints its menu in two languages. Nope, French is not the other one.
"It was all so embarrassingly outrageous," said Sam Rosalsky, general manager of Long Island's popular new restaurant Coyote Grill. Rosalsky's bona fides include several of the hottest New York restaurants of the '80s, such as the Gotham Bar and Grill, which he opened in 1985, and Arizona 206. "There were so many people outspending their own culinary sophistication.
"We all ended up charging far more than we might otherwise because that was what the market could bear," he said. "There was this group attack psychology about the whole dining experience. People would besiege a restaurant, bar or club for about a year, and then, like a swarm of bees, they would vanish."
Rosalsky said that in addition to many failed restaurants, one important legacy of the '80s is that consumers are better educated now about what they want to eat. The level of expectation is still high when most people eat out in New York.
"Maybe they were obsessed for a while with eating cute little well-designed quails that didn't really feed a person," he said. "But now many of those same people want a decent meal at a decent price."
Everybody wants quality for less these days. That's why the Gap's business is soaring, Absolut vodka is disappearing, and nobody in this city can sell an apartment.
"I feel like the world collapsed out from under me," said Heidi Berger, a real estate agent with the Feathered Nest, which made a big living for a long time on investment bankers.
"Those guys would walk in here and I already had planned what I was going to do with my commission," she said. "They were gold, solid gold. Show them anything expensive and they would buy it, rent it, whatever. I haven't seen one like that in more than a year. They died, didn't they, like the dinosaurs?"
So nobody questions that greed and consumption and smug self-satisfaction have gone out of fashion. We all know that less is more. Ian Schrager, who with Steve Rubell started Studio 54 in another era -- an era when too much was not enough -- now has a successful hotel here, the Paramount, that flourishes by charging reasonable rates for its rooms. Suddenly, mashed potatoes and meatloaf are in vogue.
But are all these huge shifts changes of heart or corrections in the stock market? What would happen if all of a sudden companies were again gobbling each other up like Petrossian caviar?
"I would be incredibly embarrassed at this point in my life to hop out of a stretch limo in front of any restaurant," said Jay McInerney, whose best-selling 1984 novel "Bright Lights, Big City" has often been cited as the signature book on the evils of yuppie excess. "But let's face it. Changes like this seldom come about as a result of a sudden flash of divine decency. Usually you have to lose the house and the Mercedes before you become a socialist."