AN AMERICAN VIEW

Bloomingdale’s man in Moscow

Give Gorbachev five years, and the GUM store in Moscow will be selling monogrammed bikini underwear

FRED BRUNING December 26 1988
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Bloomingdale’s man in Moscow

Give Gorbachev five years, and the GUM store in Moscow will be selling monogrammed bikini underwear

FRED BRUNING December 26 1988

Bloomingdale’s man in Moscow

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Give Gorbachev five years, and the GUM store in Moscow will be selling monogrammed bikini underwear

FRED BRUNING

Before calamity in the Soviet Union demanded that he leave town, Mikhail Gorbachev swept through lower Manhattan for a gander at the World Trade Centre and Wall Street. It was an inspiring episode because the brokers cheered for good old Gorby, sensing, one supposes, that here was a man who, presented with the opportunity, would lay down his rubles on soybean futures and silver options, who would buy long and sell short with the best of them, who, beneath the layers of culture and pretence was just trying to make a buck like everybody else.

When, at another point, Gorbachev stopped in front of Bloomingdale’s to greet admirers, the case seemed closed. By dallying outside one of New York’s great commercial bazaars, the general secretary of the Communist party had shown his Amerikanski sympathies as surely as if he had petitioned for asylum. Give the man another five years to consolidate his forces and the GUM store in Moscow will be selling monogrammed bikini underwear and Movado watches.

Only a couple of days before Gorbachev’s visit, thousands of New Yorkers had reaffirmed their own commitment to capitalism by participating in a state-run Lotto game promising a jackpot of $54 million—a concept that might have staggered even the liberated mind of the general secretary. So far as is known, nothing like a $54-million lottery exists in the Soviet Union, where the problem may not be in pulling together so much cash but in finding a way to spend the proceeds.

As we are well aware, the Soviets are outstanding when it comes to designing tanks and submarines and the sort of durable goods necessary for the prosecution of World War III but not so hot when it comes to stocking the shelves with a decent line of blue jeans. Therefore, Soviet consumers, not many of whom can afford their own MiG interceptors or SS-20

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

rocket launchers, are deprived of the chance to hone the skills essential to the modern marketplace.

Here, the United States demonstrates its superiority most clearly. Simply put, our people know how to exhaust their incomes. They have practised tirelessly and mastered the art at an early age. They have spent and spent and spent their money on bubble-gum cards and little candies that explode in their mouths and high-performance skateboards. Upon achieving adulthood, they have surrendered hardearned cash for tape recordings of water lapping on the shore and for light-up licence-plate frames. In the money comes and out it goes, slap-bang, just like that. A little short? Pull that plastic, keep the economy rolling. Meanwhile, out of sight, our great manufacturing dynamo hums and shudders—a stupendous machine capable of delivering all we want and need, and, in fact, a good deal more.

Surely, all this dawned on Gorbachev as he leafed through our newspapers. In the United States, Christmas ads are nothing less than hallelujahs to the vigor of our production foreman and the ingenuity of our marketing executives. Luggage, jewelry, pearl pendants, money clips, golf clubs with built-in compasses,

aviator clothing, corkscrews that go for half a week’s pay—the list is endless, the delights numerous enough to make one giddy. How funny that Nikita Khrushchev once said that the Soviet Union would bury us. Let the Communists tell us now who owns the cellular phones, the compact-disc players, the Nintendo tapes, the electric toothbrushes sold as “home plaque removal instruments.” Who has Macy’s, Bergdorfs and Bloomie’s? Correct, dear Nikita, correct.

Not surprisingly, then, something like a $54million lottery is, for the people of the United States, no mere diversion but a celebration of life, selfhood and national purpose. The bumper stickers that say “Born to shop,” and the more metaphysical postcards that declare “I shop therefore lam,” may seem lighthearted whirls at self-analysis, but it is argued here that the sentiments go to the centre of our souls. Nowhere is the American citizen more at peace than on the cash register line. Never do our citizens signify their oneness more convincingly than when they complete a credit purchase and remove the carbons so as to prevent another American from embarking upon a spending spree of his own.

Previous to the latest Lotto drawing in New York, eager crowds formed phenomenal queues outside stationery stores and corner delis where chattering, computer-linked devices struggled to keep pace with the bets. Officials determined that the odds of winning were precisely 1 in 12,913,583, but as the deadline approached, New Yorkers were unfolding their dollars at the rate of 26,500 a minute. Having bought 20 tickets, a woman revealed her hopes for the future. “I’d quit my job but I’d hire my boss to be my investment banker.” Said another contestant: “A mink coat would be nice. A Rolls-Royce would be nice.” Mink coat, Rolls-Royce, chalet in the Poconos, ski trips to Aspen, stereo sound in the bathroom, swimming pool with imitation waterfall—the choices would be infinite. Not in a lifetime of spending could the Lotto winner sample every pleasure, not in two lifetimes.

As it turned out, the $54-million New York Lotto prize quickly lost much of its glamor. Somehow, the oddly octonary series of winning numbers—1, 8, 13, 18, 28 and 48—had been divined by the holders of no less than 12 tickets so that each successful entry realized only $170,000 annually for 20 years, after taxes, not the $2 million that would have pertained in the case of a single payoff.

Now, $170,000 is a nice bit of change to have around the house and most likely will free recipients from worries about the washer going on the fritz or the clutch yielding to the inevitable. But the jackpot is not life-transforming, you understand, not the kind of bankroll that would allow a person to get into the sort of serious, world-class spending that Americans train for so diligently. Why, with only $170,000 at his disposal, even a ticket holder in the Soviet Union might be able to cope. If Americans expect to maintain their edge, they’ll have to up the ante. What we need is a billion-dollar lottery and players bold enough to accept the consequences of victory.