There was a fire at the Hyatt Regency in Kiev recently. It was a Sunday night, March 8, 2009. And the reaction in the lobby was like the reaction of many of us in this the Second Great Depression. It was surreal. People were in denial. They could sense the overpowering smell of burning plastic, which meant that the fire somewhere nearby was very, very hot and was devouring multiple rooms but because no one could see the flames or smoke, there was this very certain state of denial.
Now, let me say, before I go any further in this illustration, that the Hyatt Regency in the center of Kiev, is a great hotel, probably the best in the Ukraine. It is walking distance from St. Sophia’s. And Kiev has become a great city. Yes, the political state of the country is in turmoil. The people don’t like any of their politicians. The roads and infrastructure are crumbling. But, like second hand smoke, they have picked up just enough prosperity from nearby Russia to see some real progress. There have been improvements in this city in the last two years.
I was speaking for a convention of networkers in Zaporozhye and rather than fly out early the next day, had talked my hosts into getting me back to Kiev, where I could sleep late and fly home rested to Washington, D.C. But this meant a long, nighttime drive across highways with pot holes to Dnipropetrovs’k and a flight to Kiev.
My translator and host were with me when we drove up to the Hyatt. And we all noticed that a fire truck, a 1950’s vintage fire truck, had pulled up to the hotel in front of us. But we weren’t worried. The firemen were casually walking into the lobby, stringing out their flaccid fire hoses behind them.
The expansive lobby was busy. The luxurious couches were filled with people in animated conversation, or solitary readers waiting for their friends, or someone enjoying a piece of cake at a nearby coffee bar.
We headed straight for the front desk which was alive with attractive young ladies and young men, bustling from one computer monitor to the next. And behind them, through a glass wall, was a busy office, that didn’t seem to know that it was late evening. It too was filled with activity and glowing monitors.
I guess I detected the first signs of fear in the eyes of the desk clerks. Their smiles and automated reactions to our questions could not mask their nervousness. We handed over my passport and negotiated the room. They handed back a key.
And then I turned to look back at the front doors, just to check on the firemen, who were moving with no apparent urgency, and I spotted three maids, in their black and white uniforms, standing together, as close to the front door and the freezing night as they could get. They had clearly seen something that no one else in the building had seen. They had fear all over their faces and their bodies. Their hands fidgeted and they were frantically whispering to each other.
A smiling bellman interrupted me to ask for my bags. He explained with a jocular voice that the elevators were down because of the fire alarm and I was on the eighth floor, so we would wait a few minutes before going up if that was all right.
I noticed that the three glass elevators were shut down, standing on the lobby floor, with some sort of tenting over them. Apparently, the automated – in case of fire – routine had kicked in.
At the same time I saw young men in black suits passing through the expansive lobby, politely leaning over and speaking to people. And the people would immediately rise and start moving for the front doors, picking up others on their way, so that the little streams from all over the lobby floor were moving into a river that was heading out into the freezing, cold night into the giant square in front of the hotel.
But it was the maids that got to me. They had seen something. They had probably actually seen the flames and maybe even fought them a little by turning on the showers or trying to use the hoses on the floor. They clearly thought they knew something that the rest of us didn’t. And it wasn’t good. They rushed to the front desk, consulted with someone and then literally ran, I mean ran, as fast as they could go, in unison, three maids in black and white. But rather than run out the front door with the public they ran down a hallway to the side of the front desk. Maybe another way out? Maybe picking up their purses or street clothes?
By the time I was outside in the cold and my hosts had found me in the crowd, I had some time to think all of this through. There was no reason for me to stay at the Hyatt that night. If the fire was hot enough to make plastic drip, then it would take some time to cool down. And I didn’t want to stay up late nor did I want to sleep with one eye open.
My wife and I had been in a hotel fire in Segre, France. We had awakened in the middle of the night to a stampede of panicked feet running out of their rooms. We had casually walked out into the night ourselves. But the next day we had visited the ruins of the fire and realized how close we had been to death and how easy a fire can start. In Segre, someone who had laid a damp T – shirt over a lamp shade to dry out. It was from Segre that I had learned the smell of melted, burning plastic, the result of dripping televisions.
I thought of Segre and realized that the maids in Kiev had not only moved near the front doors, they had moved away from the tiered, balcony landing above the checkout desk. If the fire got bad, that would collapse.
My translator and my host had apparently come to the same conclusions. They had my passport and when they found me outside we all got back into the car and drove across town to another hotel. The wonderful Vazdvizhenskij, in the artists’ section. It was a great place, when I awoke the next day I thought I was in Greece.
But as we drove from the Hyatt that night, we strained to see fire or smoke and saw none. Kiev’s beautiful landmark hotel was fine.
This whole experience struck me as a metaphor for the world global crisis.
1.) Conspiracy theorists. There are those who will insist that it isn’t real. Did you actually see any smoke or fire? The hotel owners set it all up to scam the insurance company. The global economic crisis is being faked to raid the treasury.
But this is a bit preposterous to anyone who has actually been a part of a conspiracy, however small. How do you get the maids and staff and firemen all to rehearse and cooperate? No matter how much money you pay them? Some people just do not have it in their nature to keep quiet. It is hard for two people to keep a secret, let alone dozens and, in the case of the global economic crisis, ten of thousands. No, sorry, the global economic crisis is not fake, the unemployment statistics are probably accurate and all the other economic indicators too.
2.) It’s not that bad. We will get you into your room in a few minutes. And the economy will rebound in a few months.
This comes from an ignorance of history. Nothing is solved that easily. A fire and an economic meltdown, take some time to bring under control. This is nothing like 1982 or 1987. When foreclosures rise to this level and unemployment as well, it means more foreclosures and more unemployment, less spending on consumer goods. And the excessive printing of money means that prices of necessities, like food, will eventually go up even while prices of homes and other investments will remain temporarily deflated. 3.) It won’t affect me. The fire is not near my room. Whatever may be happening in the global crisis, my income is secure. Maybe so, maybe not. An economic crisis, like a fire, cannot be fully anticipated or controlled. No one knows just how it will blow. It is wise to be prepared.
4.) This is the end? The Hyatt Regency will burn to the ground. The Global Crisis means the end of civilization as we know it.
Actually, the Hotel was intact the next day. And most of the people who checked in on Monday had no idea about the excitement the night before. The affected areas of the Hotel were already sealed off and repairs had begun. No, this is not the end of the world. Life and commerce will eventually regain its footing. And most will recover from the Global economic crisis but not all of us. And not everything will be exactly as it was before. The last Great Depression brought us fascism and communism, revolution and great changes. There may be some surprises still ahead this time too.