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Taking a Bite Out of the Economy  
New York’s two-hot-dog special is proof we’re in a recession. A weekly Web-exclusive column on the news by Gersh Kuntzman  

    April 23 —  There’s been a lot of discussion recently about whether the economy is officially in a “recession,” “depression” or “just a little despondent,” but I know as a fact that we quietly slipped into recession the other day.  

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  I FIGURED IT OUT over a hot dog.
        Actually, I figured it out over two hot dogs and a 14-ounce drink at Gray’s Papaya, a beloved tubesteak palace here in New York. For more than a decade—a decade that has witnessed the single largest economic expansion in our nation’s history, by the way—Gray’s Papaya has been selling those two delicious dogs and a 14-ounce drink (except for pineapple juice, that budget-buster) for a mere $1.95.
        The two-dog deal was called “The Recession Special”—even though the 1990s were the opposite of a recession (whatever that’s called).
        But last week, frank-o-philes citywide were stunned to hear the news: “The Recession Special,” which had stood for more than a decade as a monument to the best economy since Dewey defeated Truman, would now cost $2.45. That’s an increase of...a lot (don’t ask me to do percentages; I failed physics).
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       And that, my friends, is how you know a recession is underway. Sure, other reporters have their own economic indicators—The New York Times, for example, recently wrote that fat cats on Wall Street are cutting back by ordering $400 bottles of wine rather than $1,000 bottles—but my leading indicator has always been “The Recession Special” at Gray’s Papaya.
        Exactly two years ago, amid an imperceptible downturn in the market, a Gray’s Papaya manager confided in me that “The Recession Special” was about to be marked up to $2.25. I published it in The New York Post and half of the city sold their entire portfolios. Alan Greenspan began a year-long series of interest-rate hikes. The market recovered. “The Recession Special”—and, indeed, the economy—was saved.
        But this time, Gray’s Papaya isn’t bluffing. The price increase went into effect last week. Historians will someday look back on our era and, after first making fun of Academy Award dance numbers, will remember this as the beginning of the end.
        Arthur Badders, a 49-year-old laborer from Yonkers, New York, is no historian, but he knows a economic downturn when he tastes one. Badders was at the W. 8th Street branch of Gray’s Papaya the other day, champing down two dogs and a drink as usual. But this time, something was biting him back.
        “For all these years, I saw “The Recession Special” and thought it was funny because there was no recession,” Badders said, dripping mustard all over the place (sorry, but he was). “Now I know there’s going to be a recession.”
        Badders was acting on instinct, but there’s actually a lot of genuine economics behind his fear. Do the math (no really, get out a calculator, because my numbers may not be right): If Badders eats three Recession Specials a week—and, looking at him, I think I’m being compassionately conservative with that estimate—that’s $1.50 a week he can no longer invest in his 401(k). That might not sound like much, but by the time he’s ready to retire, those lost quarters will add up to nearly $8.6 million that he won’t have for his golden years. (That’s how retirement funds work, right?)
        Gray’s Papaya owner Nicholas Gray denied that his chain of three little hot dog stands had any role in precipitating the now-certain economic downturn.
        “We’re in mourning over here,” Gray said. “The last thing we wanted to do was raise the price just when times were getting tough, but my costs have gone up and I have to pass that along to the consumer.”
        In other words, a recession!
       “Businesses always raise prices when they anticipate a recession,” said customer Louis Beard of Brooklyn as he enjoyed his hot dogs in a much more tidy fashion than Badders. “But all those price increases only make the recession worse.”

       Anthony Otis’s stomach knows that first-hand. Two years ago, when Gray raised the price of his single hot dog from 50 to 75 cents, I ran into Otis as he begrudgingly cut back from four hot dogs a day to three because he couldn’t afford the extra 25 cents.
        I knew then that the economy was in a freefall. If Otis had to tighten his belt by foregoing one dog a day, we were headed for trouble.
        Well, as any hot dog eater in New York will tell you, we got there last week. It’s a recession, folks, and that ain’t so special.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House, April 2001). Visit him at http://www.gersh.tv/
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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