Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MLKJ Day, Exxon station, Hamilton, NJ

With Tuesday teed up to be the worst day in the markets since 9/11, with the whole world spooked, I had on this Martin Luther King Jr Day one of those experiences which gives one faith in America, or, rather the pluralistic America we were brought up to believe in.

After dropping off a bunch of kids' stuff at a thrift store in Hamilton, NJ where I was attended to by a Mexican guy in a slick black leather jacket and bright white cotton gloves (shades of Thriller-era Michael Jackson), I went to fill up the car at an Exxon station. While there, it occurred to me that they might have shaving cream in the convenience store there, which would save me a stop and really justify the convenience part of the name. So I go in there and look around but I'm not seeing it and the the guy behind the register calls out to me: "What's going on there?" And then he points me to the shaving cream, up near the register (probably because the blades next to it are the most expensive thing in the store, display inch for display inch).

As I was completing my purchase, I hear the door behind me open the guy at the register looks up and cries out – “JD!” sounding for all the world like a frat boy pretending to be a rapper. JD swaggers back behind the counter and the two share a chest bump hug, and then start talking to each other happily in Urdu or Tamil or Farsi or whatever they spoke, probably not Hindi because as I looked up to my left I noticed a picture of the store’s proprietor lounging in something fez-like and a vest more Islamic than not, next to a picture of a mosque.

Once back outside, I saw that my car had pumped full but the hose was still in my tank and my credit card was just sitting there in the slot. Another attendant walked over from the other set of pumps and then, when he saw me getting back into my car with my transaction still dangling, he RAN over, got the receipt, put the hose away, and dashed round to give me my card.

And so, after the MLKJ day, I think that I saw something of King’s legacy was reflected at that convenience store. An strong and vibrant immigrant community half a world away from its home. A mercantile ethos that values the account of some strange, beat-up car enough to hustle to keep it.

Heading into a day of great uncertainty on Wall St, this was instructive. 75 bps may have staved off disaster for now but who knows for how long. After a period when America was effectively the developing world’s preferred place to outsource investment acumen (via dollar pegs and sovereign investments in our govt debt), we don’t look like the savviest investors now. America is going to need to figure out what of value it has to offer to the world. They’re not going to come buy Detroit’s crappy cars, the new Malibu or no. Hollywood can only make so many movies. The one thing of lasting value we have is a friendly climate for newcomers, which fosters IP. So long as we remember to have it.

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