Maurice Jr. is a little hyper; Maurice is a little agitated. He's rustling behind you, the insistent thump-thump-thump of his head against the glass, and you try to forget about him.
But Maurice is hard to ignore. He's a two-foot-long, sandy brown Australian bearded dragon and he's in this big glass tank directly behind your head. His eyes don't blink and he's got this New York edge thing going.
His owner is another piece of work. He's drinking coffee black and is vibrating with possibilities in his SoHo loft, talking about programming people's lives and leaving a cultural testament for the age of computer consciousness. A bit chunky, he's wearing loose-fit jeans and phosphorescent green running shoes, and chomps a Monte Cristo No. 4 stogie.
He's Josh Harris, the 34-year-old president and founder of Pseudo Programs. Net worth: $60 million.
Harris made millions from his last big Web thing, and he exudes the sweet phat smell of success that has every 18th person in Manhattan conjuring stock-fueled dreams now. And if Pseudo's stock goes public next fall as planned, if Pseudo's Internet TV turns out to be the next hot pick on Wall Street's wheel of fortune . . .
Then Harris--known to friends as Lovvy the performance artist--and every nostril-pierced hip-hop poet, actor, astrologer, cross-dresser and techie in Pseudo's loft building on the corner of Broadway and Houston Street stand to become richer than God.
Then it's time for Lovvy, Part 2. Time for the Web magnate to throw climate-controlled, video-wacked art feasts in that gadzillion-dollar loft of his and become the Lorenzo de' Medici of the downtown art scene. And then . . .
"I'm going after Ted and Rupert. I can play this game and they're not laughing. They're just better funded. For now."
New York's got that golden roar. A second Gilded Age has lifted the wealthy and the entrepreneurial, the lucky and the upper middle class of this nation on a tsunami of wealth. "Everyone's Getting Rich!" exclaims Money, the boom-time bible. MIT computer professors defect to Microsoft for rock star money; college kids dream of IPOs; and the stock-fueled rich move light-years ahead of the 55 percent of Americans who own not a piece of stock.
Whose savings rate is now negative. Whose wages are inching forward at the slowest clip since 1982. Whose net worth isn't.
When the Dow dough kicks, New York City gets real strange.
A "family-style" two-bedroom apartment on a quiet block in Greenwich Village goes for $700,000; a pleasant prewar three-bedroom on the Upper East Side goes for $1.7 million, and you better ante up 100 percent in dollars to prove you're flush. Not to mention the de rigueur social connections; the toniest co-ops, the 50 or so snoot palaces that require a net worth of $50 million for new applicants, demand reference letters from Fortune 500 CEOs and the chairmen of major charities.
"A middle-class apartment in Manhattan?" Barbara S. Fox, a high-end East Side real estate agent, briefly considers the absurdity. "They need to stay in place or move to the suburbs."
The right restaurants charge $25 for soup and $39 for pizza with raw tuna and wasabi. The timepiece of the moment, a stainless-steel SUV of a wristwatch called the Rolex Daytona, fetches $3,000 and there's a six-month waiting list. And Southampton parties with the mock Tuscan villages and Learjets just can't be done for much less than $800,000 a pop.
Swaths of Manhattan are brand-name headaches. West Broadway is Rodeo Drive. Fifty-seventh Street is a HardRockCafeSonyBeLike- MikeNiketopia. And Times Square, that old dowager of perversion, has become a made-over suburban mom: a Disney walk on the mild side for the preteen set.
Charles Ardai, 28, got mugged in Times Square in the 1980s, a baby-faced romantic lost amid the gap-toothed pimps and whores. Now Ardai, who majored in English poetry, dresses in collarless black shirts and commands a 23rd-floor CEO's office overlooking Times Square; in a few months his Internet company, Juno.com, will go public and he'll likely be worth multiples of millions of dollars.
"The only reminder of the old Times Square are the phone booths." Ardai peers down at a neon whorl of corporate names and recalls a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley: "All that's left are the legs of Ozymandias."
But no time for nostalgia. This is Winner Take All. Meaningful is sweet, but smart is measured in stock options. Everything reeks of cash: Wall Street gave out $2 billion in bonuses in 1990; 1998 bonuses topped $11.3 billion.
And the real deal isn't the exchange floor. It's down Broad Street at the day-trading sweatshops, the rooms with banks of computers and twentysomethings, old Chinese ladies, Hasidic Jews and T-shirted jocks, elbow-to-elbow in a 150-stock-trades-a-day fever, the low-ceilinged room scented with perspiration and testosterone and anxiety.
New York's old-money culture still dominates, oh yeah. The old real estate families are drowning in boom-time cash, and they control political giving and entry to the big charity boards, along with the bankers and old-money WASPs. The prewar obelisks along Park and Fifth avenues are reserves of old money.
But Wall Street and real estate aren't the hottest things anymore. That 1980s narrative, the Developer as Icon, is done.
Bobby De Niro and his string of restaurants and Harvey Weinstein and Miramax and the wizards of Silicon Alley are the new templars of dollar hip. Stockbrokers run up real estate prices on Fifth Avenue; Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Willis, Tommy Mottola, Carly Simon and Madonna do the same on Central Park West. Willem Dafoe does performance art reading T.S. Eliot in a Pseudo studio underwritten by investment bankers whose clerks day-trade stocks on their portable computers.
"No one wants to work their way up through an investment bank anymore," says Craig M. Hatkoff, a venture capitalist. "The time frame for success is no longer 18 years; it's 18 months.
"This is a gold rush."
Still . . .
The question lingers like a toothache in conversations with the newly rich, and the envious many who yearn to join them: How long will it last?
It accounts for the restlessness edging to hysteria in New York, the sense that too many suburban geniuses are getting too rich chasing too much easy money. The New York Times recently listed 11 Internet companies about to go public; just two turned a profit last year.
Someday this Bull stops running, the Bear snarls, and New York's cool and chancy shadows close in on El Dorado.
"We went through a freakout last fall when the market dropped," Hatkoff recalls, "but the Wizard of Oz, Mr. Greenspan, blinked three times and it was over."
He laughs at himself, at his class in this city at this time.
"Let's be honest. This has delusion written all over it."
So the Gilded Age Redux anthropological tour begins Uptown and moves down . . .
One Word: Plastics
The plastic surgeon's Park Avenue sitting room at 77th Street is a Buckingham Palace outtake. Antique chairs and Age of Enlightenment maps. A little gem of a private bathroom with a framed aerial photo of Rolling Rock, the doctor's Greenwich, Conn., compound. Then you descend sea-blue stairs to a private operating room.
Cosmetic central. A $1 million lair with seamless gleaming tiles and special ventilation. Where Darrick Antell, MD, DDS, PC, FACS, does the nip and tuck and lipo-suck on the bizarrely wealthy.
"They don't see it as an indulgence, they see it as a necessity," explains the doctor, freshly returned from Antigua. "Extra skin makes them feel dirty."
Sometimes, though, his clientele wants a bit more skin. Bonus breasts. More than a few Manhattan stockbrokers are dipping into their ever-growing bonuses and bringing the wife into the shop for an augmentation. Antell's big-bosom business is up 200 percent in the past year. The growth in men's eye-bag and neck-wattle liposuctions keeps pace.
Because Antell's patients are the types "whose names are on buildings," most choose a discreet post-op side door to a limousine and thence to the Surrey, the Mark, or the Carlyle. Hotels that know everything and reveal nothing. Where patients have private nurses and eat five-star meals with ice packs on their whatevers.
Then they return to Fifth Avenue, London, Dubai.
Antell never advertises; status is his salesman. "People of a certain socioeconomic background want the same vacations, the same schools, the same clubs," he says. "So when they're lying on the beach in the Caribbean, they might want to say, 'Oh yes, I had my liposuction by Dr. Antell.' "
His prices? $15,000 for a face lift, $8,000 for an eyelid tuck, $8,000 for a breast job. Does he take insurance?
A faint chuckle tickles that buttery voice.
"Chanel perfume and Armani suits aren't covered by insurance. Just think of us as giving you a luxury suit."
Tip-tap, tip-tap, tip-tap, every Monday morning impossibly manicured women--each hair in place and faces as perfectly painted and constructed as a Venetian mask--do the East 60s, Madison Avenue stroll.
The serious ones, the invariably thin women draped in the $150,000 diamond and platinum snowflake necklaces, the $6,020 Chanel wool knit suits and the $980 Lodia shoes, never carry shopping bags.
"Fifteen of our women drop $25,000 to $35,000 per week and we deliver it to their apartments," says a sales gallant at Cerruti, the latest ultra-chic Italian boutique to drop gilded anchor on Madison Avenue. "If you carry a shopping bag, you're not real."
Boys aren't that different. Even the older guys with the little potbellies order 15 Cerrutis and 10 Armanis and mix-and-match. "Five years ago they thought about it," says the salesman. "Today it's point and buy."
Wealthy Manhattan men adore fat metal watches the size of free weights that bristle with gadgets and keep time in three zones. It complements the upscale auto look, uptown or down.
Idling at the curb on Madison Avenue is a tan 42-year-old guy with a cell phone surgically attached, driving a sow of a sport utility vehicle. It's got 10-way power adjustable-leather-heated-memory front seats and bars that curl around the headlights like butch battering rams.
What are you scared of?
The pudgy dude in the charcoal Armani suit sits at the wheel of his Lincoln Expedition. His wife's inside Emporio Armani. He seems a bit startled.
You live in the wealthiest Zip code in the galaxy, the reporter says by way of explanation. But you drive a Sherman tank. Is something making you nervous?
Eyes narrow. He dials 911 as the tinted window slides up.
During those bummer days of the early '90s when stocks and real estate lost their helium, a rich guy could be excused if he was too stressed to, y'know . . . but not anymore. Mistresses are back.
Two blondes walk into Cerruti minutes apart, dauntingly attractive women even if the percentage of natural hair, jaw line and breast is a question mark. But the staff recognizes un problema.
One of the blondes is Mrs. Stockbroker, and the other is his mistress.
A salesman places a discreet call. The husband isn't perturbed. He has, he notes, two well-endowed credit lines. Please serve the ladies a glass of champagne (the boutique has a vintage collection for customers) and make them very happy.
Oh yes, he adds. Please ensure that the ladies never meet.
The Long View
So what to make of this money-engorged age?
The reporter poses the question to the financier in an oak-paneled room on the 60-something floor of an office tower, a soaring panorama of New York stretching north beyond the picture windows: East and West Side canyons, the polished jade of Central Park, the phalanxes of Harlem apartments. In the distance the Hudson Palisades and the blue hazy rise of the Catskill foothills.
It's the grand platform on which New York's discreet men of capital ever labor. Our financier, a well-known liberal Democrat of early middle age who requests anonymity so that he might be "more helpful," sighs. He never once peers out the window.
His social world extends just 30 blocks from East Side co-op to midtown office; he's thoughtful and well read and questions of the new wealth roil him, a tad.
"It's the same as the 1980s, only worse; consumption is higher because the money is greater," he says. "It's unsettling and it can't possibly be reality. The old order is getting turned inside out."
The financier has a client, a cable television magnate, who worked for years to become richer and richer. Now the magnate sits in the slow lane with his $200 million or so, watching Internet millionaires achieve warp speed in mere months.
He feels so inadequate.
"It drives him crazy, actually," says the financier.
But what of those who are not even at the feast? This is a city that has the greatest gap between rich and poor in the nation, 2.2 million people living in poverty--up from 1.9 million in 1993--and crumbling public schools and libraries. It's a city where the New York Stock Exchange, that vast engine of American capitalism, demands $800 million worth of tax and real estate breaks from New York City; and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that scourge of the welfare underclass, readily accedes.
Once upon a time, liberal capitalists like the investment banker financier Felix Rohatyn spoke up and wrote passionately about such issues. Even if this made them enemies of concord at an East Side dinner table or two.
That time is so quaintly distant now.
"Income inequality is not as large a problem as it was," replies the financier. "The wealthy are being more discreet, so the poor don't realize how much higher the economy has lifted those at the top."
In the 1980s, he notes, the wealthy flaunted their plumage on magazine covers and in gossip columns. Donald Trump-Henry Kravis-Ivan Boesky: a platinum-plated troika of conspicuous consumption. But time has tempered the wealthy; they recognize the protective coloration that prudence provides.
Our financier curls back in his chair and steeples his fingers; he speaks softly of the class imperative.
"People have learned the danger of consuming so publicly. That raises questions of rich and poor, and class warfare."
But perhaps a bit of grotesque spending a la Trump is for the better, as it puts the rude question of winners and losers on the table for all to tussle with?
The financier is shaking his head, a bit weary of this subject now.
"None of that is good. None of it at all."
The View From Jersey
A 10-room apartment in the Beresford, a Central Park West art deco building, goes for $100,000 in 1975. Sells for $2 million in 1985. Sells for $3.2 million in 1988. Sells for $6.5 million last year. It's on the market again, at $7.5 million.
Do you live in Manhattan?
"Who, me?" Antonio Pellegrini, a limousine driver with a weary aspect, scrutinizes the reporter's face, looking for a joke.
"No," he says.
So where . . .
West New York, he says, over a pizza parlor. It's a working-class city, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, and light-years away.
Pellegrini drives a black limousine with a polished chrome grille, one of 10 limos lined up like the horse-drawn coaches of old outside the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Where a cup of tea costs $3.
His face is soft and lightly creased, his thinning hair carefully combed back across a pink-tinged scalp. He's got a wife and a 12-year-old son and he works 15, 16 hours a day for $5.90 an hour.
He drives customers to the hot spots: the Plaza, FAO Schwarz, Le Cirque, Lord & Taylor.
No, most of them don't tip.
He's worked as a restaurant manager; that paid better. But he broke his leg and got laid off. Health insurance? Now that's a joke. Stock? C'mon.
He could find another job that pays a little more, but he doesn't have a car and he can take the limo home some nights. "It's very tough," he says. "No retirement. You can pay for the health plan, but I can't afford it."
He smiles and shakes your hand. A chill wind is blowing, time to climb inside his car. He's not asking you to cry for him. He took his chance on the American dream; then a trapdoor opened up.
The Party Girl
One of the best mega-party planners in New York--and therefore in the known universe--leans forward in her chair in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue, where we're sipping coffee and munching on French pastries, and confides her secret.
"You do the parties because it's, totally, so much fun." Her eyes flare with a frisson of excitement. "I try to make it really, really decadent."
With all due respect to our liberal financier's view of the discreet charms of the ruling class . . . at the Hamptons faux chateaux, it takes a village to throw a party:
You hire Polly Onet--Polly the Party Girl, her friends call her--and she hires a set designer (the top guy grossed $50 million last year) and a florist, a tent man to raise the Venetian palace, a caterer and a fireworks specialist. And maybe a swim team to dress like mermaids with clamshells over their breasts. And singer Jennifer Holliday or Dave Matthews . . . and a Lear or a Gulfstream jet to pick them up. Then you need an expert deejay if attention flags. And a clubby corner with leather recliners and $50-a-pop single-malt whiskey, and Havana cigars for the men.
Pretty soon, you're near a million dollars for the night.
For really special occasions, a wedding, say, her clients like to get a little fanciful. So one rents a 580-acre castle in Ireland and flies the flowers in from the Netherlands and the ribs from Memphis. Another holds the nuptials near Charlottesville, and flies in each guest on a private jet. (One of Onet's least favorite moments: when guests hondle for a particular class of Lear or Gulfstream.)
Yet for all that, you still have to deal with the stodginess of new-money culture. Onet's a friendly thirtysomething from Oyster Bay; her daddy was a stockbroker in the days of steak and whiskey sours.
"His crowd would leave parties at 3 a.m. falling over drunk and having a great time," she says. "No one worried about getting up to jog the next morning."
But the boomer rich not only want to own the world, they want to live forever, too. So Onet can have 23 drag queens blowing kisses and five-story climbing walls decked out like the Swiss Alps and a name-brand diva belting it out and she turns around . . . and . . . there . . . they . . . go, a clump of boomers slipping out by 11 p.m. Mom's got the business call at 8 a.m., Dad's got the power tennis date, and the nanny is taking the kids paragliding . . .
"The new money spends much more but has less fun," Onet says. "I put mermaids in the pool and the host kept worrying that one of them would drown and sue him."
So what to do? Get more decadent, that's what.
"Drag queens, gigolos to dance with the ladies, incredible flowers and tents and music. Fortunately, I consider myself to have amazing taste aesthetically."
Don't Think Twice
Josh Harris, the man who would capture culture for Internet TV, lopes along, chomping on a cigar and talking art, money and computer consciousness. Threads the hurl and burl of lower Broadway, past alleys that smell of old dishwater, through the honking cacophony that's be-here-now for downtown artists and techno-wizards.
It's SoHo-East Village: countercultural ground zero for 40 years now. Beat and Boho heaven. A Jackson Pollocked, punk-pierced, Mud Clubbed psychedelia. Bob Dylan, fresh from Minnesota, whacking that guitar and sneering: "Money doesn't talk, it swears."
Forget that struggling, starving-artist stuff. Everyone's trying to get the gilt now.
"We've got a weird conglomeration of Zens going in this city," Harris says, weaving through a herd of cabs and trucks as he crosses Broadway. "Culture and the money is all around; the game is to pick the right people at the right time and systematically take the online world into the real."
You can grouse about techno-babble, but here's the truth: Uptown money and downtown culture are congealing at cyber-speed. Investment bankers may shift in their seats when Harris goes into his boot-it-up culture patter. And most Web start-ups don't turn a dime of profit.
But what money man can resist the siren song of the next hot Web IPO?
"At the end of the day, bankers are very adaptable when money is involved," Harris notes. "They can't figure me out but they keep on meeting."
Harris is tailored for the gilded Zeitgeist. The marketing of his life, company and content are seamless. He's got the business track record, the lizard in the tank--with an optional diamond necklace--and a belief in the coming age of computer consciousness.
And an outsider persona. He passes much of his childhood in Africa; Dad is in the meatpacking business in Addis Ababa. Eventually, the family moves back to Los Angeles and he drifts through high school and college in Southern California, smoking sinsemilla and surfing. His analytic epiphany comes when he notices that all the pretty girls are in three sororities; so he founds the college's first fraternity.
"The girls need a fraternity to party with," he says. "I mean, how hard's that decision?"
Harris wanders east, to New York. He steps into the Web stream in 1984, Columbus in geek world. He draws the measure of virtual reality and founds Jupiter, an Internet research firm. Eventually he brings in executives to run the company and to work him out of a job.
But he keeps the financial interest. Smooth move; he makes a very fat bundle of Net money.
In the 1990s, he founds Pseudo, with a business plan that owes more to P.T. Barnum than to Wharton business school.
Harris buys three floors in an old loft and opens it to every video artist, techno rocker, Nuyorican poetic hip-hopper who can party and do art. He's got tongue-pierced artists and anorexic models, and NYPD cops posing with cyberbabes till the blood-red sun comes up.
Some nights Harris sheds his fedora and walks around wearing an old TV on his head.
It's wild, it's downtown and it's . . .
Harris the Virtual Entrepreneur is cherry-picking culture. How better to make a name and meet every downtown poet and artist worth knowing than by throwing neo-Warholian debauches?
Then--bang!--he stops partying and hires those artists and designers, and grabs a CEO from National Geographic Interactive. Unlike a lot of Internet companies, with their vacuous chat sites and glorified shopping bazaars, he's got real content mixed in: poetry, hip-hop, fantasy sports commentary, live television and sex advice. His three loft floors with the graffiti and plastic see-through walls house nearly as much staff as U.S. News & World Report.
Harris keeps it afloat with his own money, and more than $15 million coaxed from the people he calls "the angels"--a k a venture capitalists.
Harris's headquarters is as down at the heels as a taxi dispatcher's office in Long Island City. He tends to give away too much money to too many struggling artists. And he lives in the back of a loft with an artist friend.
"I respect money, believe me. It's a benchmark and it will allow me to dominate the fine art market," he says. "But money can get in the way of relationships. It's that nouveau riche thing. You're always wondering, is this about money or isn't it?
Harris is a complicated guy with a sense of the absurd that sits on his shoulder and chatters like a parrot. But he's not shucking off his shoes and giving money away.
He has Rasta carpenters building him a conceptual San Simeon for the wired age. Electricians have installed $145,000 worth of wiring. He plans a 30-person steam bath, wall-size video screens and a goldfish pond in a bathroom.
And he's got this plan to become the next Murdoch, the next Steve Case . . . if it all falls right.
"You sit and think--Jesus, if this works, it could make a ton of money for everyone," he says. "There are a significant number of people in this building who will be significantly wealthy."
But what happens to the starving artists when Lorenzo de' Medici and the economy and the Zeitgeist conspire to make them fantastically rich before they've painted the Sistine Chapel? It's the contradiction of the age, writ small in the Pseudo loft.
Harris's worker bees love kicking good Web content--the socially conscious hip-hop and live drama on your computer. But you talk to Galinsky the spoken-word artist who's scraped to do his art and support a wife and child, and Luscious who went to film school, and the psychic with her forehead pierced and everyone has a gilded age jones for when the stock shares become real.
When they liquefy.
"I love my work, LOVE it," says 22-year-old Luscious, who plans to decamp for Hollywood if her stock ship comes in. She leans forward with that confidential look and a very wide smile.
"And if we play it right, we're all going to be really, really rich."
And what happens to Medici? Harris already has no time for his performance art. No time to think about a family either. And "the most depressing moments of my life came after I liquefied and became a millionaire for the first time."
Harris knows the big Web companies are on the move . . . the Big Three TV networks are breaking their dinosaur shells . . . and there's the precariously superheated economy . . .
"I can't raise money and do Lovvy at the same time--the mix isn't right," he says. "The iron law of New York is don't screw around with money. This isn't a normal life. The window's closing. . . .
"If I'm going to make the wealth happen, the time is now!"
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Dow is up, unemployment's down. Millionaires sprout like dandelions and the rest of us wonder why we're not wealthy, too. Excess is everywhere: One Manhattan bar charges more than $300 for a snifter of rare single-malt Scotch. The neighbors are spending the bonus on a first mansion. Over the next few months, Style will take occasional looks at this new Gilded Age we live in and how it is changing culture, society and the size of our sport utility vehicles.
CAPTION: THE ART OF BEING A VIRTUAL ENTREPRENEUR
Performance artist and Internet mogul Josh Harris, shown with his lizard, is worth $60 million at the moment. His Manhattan loft houses his online entertainment company. "I respect money, believe me. It's a benchmark and it will allow me to dominate the fine art market," he says.
CAPTION: "The new money spends much more but has less fun," says Polly Onet. The parties she plans can run $1 million, but the guests still slip out at 11 p.m.
CAPTION: "They don't see it as an indulgence, they see it as a necessity," says status-symbol cosmetic surgeon Darrick Antell.