Down times, empty suburban storefronts

First published in Newsday.

Atop sports bleachers and inside minivans across Long Island, gloom about the economy is never very far from mind. The current generation of middle-class householders is used to the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle, but none of us is prepared for a second "down" right now -- the terrifying, rumored double dip.

Recently, as I rode with some other parents along Route 110 from Huntington through the busy Melville corridor to Farmingdale, the conversation turned to how many empty buildings we were passing. One man recalled visiting a now-vacant office center to close on the purchase of his house. A favorite wedding reception hall had been demolished. The Checkers drive-through was suddenly out of business -- open one day, and stripped of its signs the next. Even the dollar store -- maddeningly misnamed "Things Over $1" -- has closed.

How does a dollar store fail during a recession, when everyone's looking for a bargain? The unspoken fear is that perhaps this time, it's something worse.

The Week magazine recently concluded that we aren't in an ordinary economic cycle, but that Americans are in the process of paying off mountains of debt. We had grown used to living on credit, and we are now regretting having covered ourselves with piles of bills just as the economy was about to stumble. For an economy that was 70 percent propelled by consumer spending, tight home budgets are incapacitating.

Others say that the emerging economy -- outsourced and technology-dependent -- is unfavorable to the middle class. It can only benefit those at the top. While economists pull apart the numbers to make sense of it all, the middle class is endeavoring to persevere.

Many are forming new philosophies about kids and college, for example. Two years at a community college add up to a potentially employable graduate with an associate's degree. Meanwhile those same two years at a four-year institution equal, perhaps, nothing more than a college dropout with loans to repay.

One acquaintance told his high school senior that if she wanted to go to a private university, she would have to pay the difference between that tuition and SUNY's. There is praise for the child who chooses the practical -- accounting or engineering -- and a roll of the eye for liberal arts majors.

Nobody says directly that money is tight, but that thought is always lurking. Without asking if we needed it, my daughter's orthodontist offered us a financing plan. While we were school shopping, the clerk at Macy's warned that the jeans we were considering cost a whopping $89.

These small kindnesses are a balm in difficult times -- especially because the opposite coarseness so often confronts us, too. School clubs demanding payment for expensive class trips. The classmate whose outfits display Abercrombie & Fitch logos. The burgher purchasing a case of good red wine, and tipping the clerk to carry it to his Cadillac Escalade SUV.

There used to be far more class trips, designer clothes and Escalades. Or, so it seemed. The new polite is to talk cheap. Where to find the best thrift stores, and bargains at the gas pump. Good buys in used cars. Off-price movie tickets.

Because even if we aren't having financial troubles, we know many who are. The new adult horror story is the acquaintance who hopped the Long Island Rail Road to attend nine job interviews with a potential employer -- only to have the company eliminate the opening in light of more bad economic news. A divorce lawyer remarked that he used to divide up assets; now he parcels out marital debt.

Long Islanders can be resilient. But we'd like to know, how much longer?