For months, Americans have been subjected to a sort of economic water torture - a maddening drip of bad news about jobs, gas prices, sagging home values, creeping inflation, the slouching dollar and a stock market in bumpy descent.
Then came Bear Stearns. One of the five largest U.S. investment banks nearly collapsed in a single day before the government propped it up by backing emergency loans and a rival stepped in to buy it for a paltry $2 per share.
To the drumbeat of signs that seemed to foretell a recession, this added a nightmarish specter - an old-style run on the bank, customers clamoring to pull their cash, a Wall Street firm brought to its knees.
The combination has forced the economy to the forefront of the national conversation in a way it has not been since the 1990s, and for opposite reasons.
As economists and Wall Street types grope for historical perspective, Americans are nervously wondering about retirement savings, interest rates, jobs that had seemed safe.
They are surveying the economic landscape and asking: Just how bad is it?
And the scariest part of all? No one can say for sure.
Even before the crippling of Bear Stearns, the U.S. economy was acting as a slowly tightening vise - an interconnected web of factors combining to squeeze Americans from all sides.
Take Jaci Rae of Salinas, Calif. She runs a company that sells merchandise that is made with foam, which is based on petroleum, so record oil prices have taken a heavy toll.
On the other end, her clients are feeling the pinch, too. Sales to retail clients are an eighth of what they were a year ago. So Rae had to cut employees loose.
Now the company isn't buying products as far in advance. With gas prices running high, she waits for shipping companies to pick up products instead of having an employee drop them off. She is nickel-and-diming expenses at home, too. She eats in every night, has stopped going on road trips and dropped her satellite dish.
"I want to make sure I have enough money to feed my family," Rae says.
Signs of the pinch are showing up everywhere:
By the end of 2007, 36 percent of consumers' disposable income went to food, energy and medical care, a bigger chunk of income than at any time since records were first kept in 1960, according to Merrill Lynch.
People are treating themselves less often. The National Restaurant Association says 54 percent of restaurants reported declining traffic in January, and the government says eating at home increased last year for the first time since 2001.
Financial planners say that parents are calling for advice on how to deal with grown children who have moved back in with Mom and Dad after losing a job or just to save money.
Less trash is being set on the curbs in Mesa, where surging home foreclosures are leaving more houses empty. That means fewer homeowners paying the city $22.60 a month for pickup. And William Brown, the city's solid-waste management director, says people aren't throwing out as many appliances and bulk items, like furniture. They're sticking with what they have.