PHILADELPHIA -- Standing in the center of his gleaming new store here, with its $300 stainless steel fondue sets and fast-selling Alessi teapots, Brandon Wilcox has prosperity pasted all over his face.
His store, Match, which opened only six weeks ago in the mall at the old Bellevue Hotel, has been a hit from the start. Wilcox has not felt the fiscal crisis that threatens to bankrupt the city by January.
"If this is a catastrophe, then get me some more," said Wilcox.
His store offers the city's most comprehensive selection of Filofax accessories and Italian lamps among other specialty items. "Business is great," he said, "the city is booming and police are on the streets at night. What's the fuss?"
Well into its fourth month of living on a cliff, Philadelphia has become at least two cities: a staggering government with the worst municipal credit rating in the United States; and an economy, that despite the recession that has hit the area, continues to provide a decent place to do business.
"The city's economy is fairly robust," said Bill Hankowski, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Committee, the city's economic development agency. "We doubled our commercial space in the past decade and we are not seeing a corporate exodus." Several major companies, including Cigna, Conrail, Bell Atlantic and IBM have just signed major leases for regional or world headquarters.
Suburban commuters who work in Philadelphia remain eager to shop at its fancy stores and eat in its fancy restaurants.
For city officials, on the other hand, Philadelphia is a fiscal Beirut, living one day to the next, wondering whether to lay off thousands of workers or reduce the pay of every city employee by an equal amount.
The city's attempts to sell bonds have been rejected by local, national and foreign banks, and last week the city's police and firefighter unions sued the the city when they were told that their pension funds would be used to purchase some city bonds.
City officials have considered selling everything from parking garages to parking meters, from Veterans Stadium to extra police cars. Essential municipal provisions are disappearing fast. Last week lawyers in the city solicitor's office were forced to take notes on the backs of envelopes.
At the police academy, rookies were encouraged -- strictly on a voluntary basis of course -- to bring rolls of toilet paper from home. It has been three years since a city government phone directory has been printed.
"We sent an order up for a new one last year," said an official in the department of procurement who asked that her name not be used. "We thought we had a chance. They just cancelled it a month ago."
"This crisis is real," said Hyman Grossman, a managing director at Standard & Poor's Corp. and a leading municipal bond expert. "It has been years of lurching one way and then the next with no policy, no commitments. They need a plan."
But first they need some money. City leaders have endured weeks of humiliating failures in their attempts to sell $300 million worth of short-term bonds to carry the city over until real estate and business tax revenues come due next spring.
The city nearly always borrows money that way. But this year, with more than a $250 million deficit, a credit rating that ranks below junk bonds, and declining city revenues, there have been no takers.
"It's bunker time," said City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel, who has been a frequent critic of the Goode administration. "We need this package and I think we will probably get it. But it's very tricky."
Mayor W. Wilson Goode (D) and his chief financial adviser have largely ceased making public statements on the subject, citing the sensitive nature of the latest round of bond negotiations.
If they do not salvage a $300 million bond package by the end of the week, city employees will receive a letter around Christmas telling them to prepare for reduced paychecks by the end of the month. If things don't improve after that, there could be no payroll at all by the end of January.
Like many of the past proposals, the current deal seems on the verge of success. It requires pension funds -- state teachers' and city employees' pension funds -- to purchase some of the bonds. The state government has offered funds to help the city, in exchange for control over the money. And it offers high interest rates to skittish bankers.
"I think we are extremely close to putting something together," Saidel's deputy, David Volpe, said yesterday. "Certainly within the next week or so we will have reached an agreement."
But many people here are wondering just how long the city can survive cutting and pasting solutions. Many of the city's long-term problems -- increased homelessness, flight of tax-paying residents to nearby suburbs, and the rapidly rising cost of health care for the indigent -- are not likely to disappear soon.
The city, which for years had a rock-solid working class, has seen it slowly disappear. Nearly two thirds of the budget comes from a municipal income tax but more than 30 percent of the residents now live below the federal poverty level. A similar percentage are senior citizens who are exempt from the municipal income tax.
In addition, the state faces its own growing deficit and rural and Republican lawmakers are unlikely to ride to the rescue of Pennsylvania's biggest urban headache.
"People from Philadelphia have always lived with that image of the city as a strange town," said former city councilman George R. Burrell Jr. (D), who recently resigned from the council so that he could run for mayor next year when Goode leaves office. "We have always loved being from this city, the jokes didn't really matter. Right now, for the first time I can remember, people are just a little embarrassed about this town."