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12/08/08 7:55AM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) With news that America has been officially in recession for the last year, Commentator Philip Baruth feels somehow as though he’s moving back to the very early 90’s, when the last serious down-turn began to ease, and he was lucky enough to land a job at the University of Vermont.

(BARUTH) Back in the early 90’s, when America went through its last severe recession, I was living in a concrete Southern California town called Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa was a buffer zone between the upscale beachfront communities and grittier, largely Hispanic communities further inland. And, as the buffer, Costa Mesa’s fortunes went up or down pretty quickly, depending on the overall shape of the economy.

One night I was headed to a party at a friend’s house, and I stopped my 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle at a red light. There were strip malls on either side of the street - this was California, after all - and I glanced over at the one on my left. If I remember right, there was a tax preparation service and a tanning salon, but I’m sure that at the end of the mall nearest my car there was a frozen yogurt store.

It was a little after 11 o’clock, and I noticed that the lights were on in the yogurt shop, which was odd: it closed at nine, and usually everything in that particular mall was dark by now. The front walls of all the stores were glass, and I could see someone moving around inside. I would later tell the police that that someone looked like a guy, Caucasian, in jeans and a white t-shirt, around 250 pounds.

And then, while I watched, the man inside ran up to the front door and pushed against it hard. Finding no way out, he picked up a tall chrome stool, turned upside down on the counter for the night, and he smashed the glass door into a hundred million pieces. The shards splashed out of the frame and onto the sidewalk. And then the alarm was shrieking, but the guy was gone, loping off into the darkness.

The street light I’d been waiting on turned green just then, and I considered flooring it and getting out of Dodge as quickly as possible - but I’d witnessed the whole crime, and the thief was gone, so I pulled into the lot to wait for the police.

Almost immediately, though, two young woman poked their heads out of the shattered front door, and looked around warily.

It turned out that one of the women was the manager of the store. She and her girlfriend had been driving by and seen the lights on, and she’d assumed she’d left the lights on earlier that night. And when the burglar heard the two of them opening the rear door, he’d left the quickest way he could. The register was smashed open, but there was no loss: all the money had been deposited at the local bank hours before the robbery.

In short, the criminal was clearly a desperate first-timer, and he remains my strongest memory of that recession, the one that eventually swept Bill Clinton into the White House, promising to grow the economy.

I was hired the next year by the University of Vermont, and I moved to Burlington just as the economic crunch was easing and the 90’s boom beginning.

But now, fifteen years later, we’re headed back in time: the University has announced "an unprecedented shortfall" of 22 million dollars, and the prospect of freezes and layoffs to close it. No one knows, of course, how bad this current economy will get, or what any of us will need to do in response. But I worry more, and so do my friends: we all have families now, and a lot more to lose.

To top it all off, I sold the Super Beetle when I moved to Vermont, so it seems that getting out of Dodge quickly is no longer an option.
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