CLIFTON, N.J. - Friday night in northern New Jersey, circa April 2009, offers clues to prove any theory about the American economic meltdown, depending on what you want to believe. Just like so many places these days.
Craving optimism? Watch the tour bus emptying into the La Quinta lobby off Route 3, its occupants abuzz about their weekend sightseeing jaunt into Manhattan. Or see the hungry diners spilling out the door of Carino's Italian Grill in the Clifton Commons shopping center - a line of customers waiting to put their money into the consumer economy.
Want some economic angst? That's easy, too. Drive straight up Bloomfield Avenue into Glen Ridge, Montclair and Verona. Gaze at the empty Volvo and Jaguar dealerships and the deserted bank. Contemplate the thinned-out blocks of storefronts, defunct restaurants, abandoned shops and "For Lease" signs in one of the region's more affluent areas.
More doom on the horizon? Or will happy days soon be here again? Take your pick. The confusion is enough to play havoc on a person's mood - or an entire nation's. "Everybody is looking at it through their own personal lens," says Liza Dawson, a self-employed literary agent from Glen Ridge.
In hard economic times, Americans turn to numbers to see whether things are getting better. Gauging the mood of the republic is not as quantifiable. It is not measured but sampled. Yet the human factor can be crucial. An improving outlook can increase confidence and nudge prosperity along.
In recent days, just as we've seen tantalizing, oh-so-subtle hints the economic distress might be leveling off, a smattering of signs has emerged to suggest the national bad mood of recent months may be - and note we say, quite carefully, MAY be - bottoming out.
Last week, fresh retail sales figures, a key indicator of consumer spending and, thus, the American mood, suggested that while people are still holding their cash close to their chest, their sour stomach might be stabilizing a bit - getting "less worse," in effect.
Numbers from Gallup's Consumer Mood Index were up 6 points for the week ending April 5, the fourth consecutive week they rose. The index is now as high as it's been in over a year - buoyed, perhaps, by the upward-creeping stock market. And an AP-GfK poll showed the number of Americans who think the country is heading in the right direction more than doubled between October and February - to 40 percent.
Not that it's all good, mind you. Just, well, less worse.
Both AT&T and the increasingly beleaguered General Motors are trying to tap into - or is it regenerate? - the American optimism gene with new TV commercials that emphasize the positive talk. For every downturn, one ad says, there is an upturn. The other taps into the longtime American can-do spirit by saying that it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Then there's the guy in the White House who is trying to fix all this. "We're starting," President Barack Obama said Friday, "to see a glimmer of hope."
But do regular Americans see it the same way? Across geography and political lines, the clarion response was this: Who really knows?
Ask Kristin Smith, 34, a Dayton, Ohio, middle-school teacher watching the hometown Cincinnati Reds play the New York Mets one afternoon late last week. "It doesn't seem like it's getting better," she says. "You see it on the news, it sounds a little better, but I don't see it. ... I don't think we've reached bottom."
Ask Scott Jacobson, 57, a Phoenix management consultant who is involved in myriad projects to help others get through the meltdown. He says this: "You can either let it depress you or say 'OK, I cannot get depressed. I have to keep going.'" But he also says this: "I'm an optimist and I feel fairly gloomy."
Ask Randy Thomas, 55, a high-school teacher from Red Bank, N.J., visiting his daughter at West Virginia University. Everyone he knows is, he says, in "wait-and-see mode" for now. "It seems like recently there's been some uptick, at least in the stock market," he says, "but that can be so crazy it's hard to tell if that's the evidence that we're maybe starting on a recovery path."
Or ask Wayne Martin, 25, of Atlanta, who is bucking the trend: His new job pays $20,000 more than the previous one. Not that he doesn't have friends who are suffering. Says Martin: "We can only go up from here."
Not exactly a resounding chorus of optimism. But not quite the audacity of mope, either.
"When you're in the middle of it, what's going though your mind is, `How bad is it going to get and how long is it going to last?' ... And I think for a while we were kind of in that `earthquake' mode," says Jeffrey Bell, a managing partner at Gallatin Public Affairs, which specializes in helping clients in crisis develop communications strategies.
Now, though, "I think people do sense we may be close to the bottom or at the bottom," Bell says.
Americans, though, despise uncertainty. This nation has always dreamed big, but also has long shown a preference for tidy, digestible outcomes. Subtlety is squishy. For that kind of society, cloudy tomorrows are intolerable. And for many people, the worry about what might happen is as disorienting as the things that actually do.
Craig Marker, director of the Anxiety Treatment Center at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has seen an increasing number of clients who are fretting about matters economic, even if they're not directly affected. But many are coping, and Marker describes the response he's seeing as the "psychological immune system" kicking in.
In other words, mental antibodies are attacking the sense of economic vertigo.
"The initial worry came from thinking of the Depression, people out on the streets - `I don't want to lose everything I have,'" Marker says. "But the worst-case scenario didn't happen immediately. So we bounce back."
This is a time, too, when that national character trait, the one about Americans being the sort of folk who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is useful. President Herbert Hoover called it "rugged individualism," the notion that a country of immigrants who generally came here under less-than-optimal conditions is better equipped to handle itself when challenges emerge.
If it's true, great. If it isn't - well, then it's certainly a useful mythology for the age.
"We get very worried about it, but we do have this sense that we'll be fine," Marker says. "Maybe as a culture we have an additional component to that psychological immune system: We've pulled through many things before, and we'll pull through this."
In the end, mood is about as individual a trait as they come. Politics matter. Obama backers are more likely to believe in the coming days than do his detractors. Someone who just lost a job is not necessarily going to think things are about to get better. Citizens of places that the meltdown has spared have more fodder for optimism.
That's what seems to be happening for the customers of brothers Chris and Jim O'Meally, who opened a restaurant and wine bar last summer on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, Calif. At first, their customers were anxious about the economy. Now, talk has turned from jobs lost to what the future holds.
Roll up your sleeves. Get on with it. A psychological immune system, perhaps kicking in at last.
"At heart, we're all entrepreneurs and we all have schemes of how we're going to live differently and make a lot of money," says Dawson, the literary agent. "We've all been trained to believe no pain, no gain. I think this is forcing a lot of people to make decisions they wouldn't have made if they hadn't been forced to rethink things."
Mood feeds on itself. How many times have you heard that a smile is infectious? In 2009 America, that's not merely a greeting-card slogan. It might just be a plan, too.