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When the Future Fades...

AFTER THE FALL: California Digs Out From the Great Slump. One in an occasional series

October 09, 1994|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Libby Pachares felt trapped. It was the middle of 1992, and she had been back to work only a few months. Still torn about having ended her maternity leave, she became infected by the anguish and self-doubt that spread over Los Angeles with the flames of the riots. Assumptions she held before the baby was born--that she would readily go back to work--wrestled with her need to nurture and protect her two children.

But she had to work. Pachares and husband Alec Nedelman had moved into a new home in Santa Monica the previous autumn. With the house came much more room for their family--and a mortgage payment nearly five times bigger than before. What didn't come were once-expected increases in their earnings. For the first time, Pachares felt the oppression of financial obligation that daily weighs down waitresses and factory workers, shoe sellers and bank tellers.

"That's the hardest part . . . when you feel trapped: that you have no choice, that things had better work out at the job, that you have to tolerate things--because you really need the job," she said.

The California recession was the leveling factor that put Pachares and Nedelman, both attorneys making six-figure salaries, on the emotional plane of insecurity and anxiety long populated by the working class. Through sleepless nights and long budget calculations, they and thousands of other Southern California professionals have ratcheted down their dreams to try, for the moment, to stay even.

The days of unchallenged high fees, unfettered growth and job security for doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants and other professionals vanished with the heady days and soaring incomes of the mid- and late 1980s. And even though the state is beginning to climb out of its economic hole, few expect to see those days again.

The sure route to the American dream--the path that made professionals the foundation of California's upper middle class--has become littered with obstacles unforeseen only a few years ago. Clients today are hard to come by and harder to keep, and advancement is uncertain. Earnings no longer climb automatically to the skies.

Some professionals, faced with such sweeping changes in their careers and prospects, have become dispirited and angry. Some have packed up and left California for parts of the country more quickly rebounding from the recession--or where the changes are occurring more slowly. Others have had little choice but to follow job opportunities out of state.

Many more California professionals, however, have adjusted by making personal and professional sacrifices.

In Pasadena, architect Michael E. Shea and his business partner put in an extra 10 hours a week, but they don't earn more money. Darrel Moss took back the headaches of managing the Van Nuys accounting firm where he's a principal. Sherman Oaks lawyer Janice Kamenir-Reznik and her husband took out loans when their firm couldn't pay their salaries. And 57-year-old Artine Kokshanian, an ear, nose and throat doctor practicing in Glendale, shortchanged his retirement account to meet everyday expenses.

Over the dinner table and at seminars, professionals share stories of colleagues who five years ago cranked the pace and price of their lives up to levels that matched their phenomenal incomes--and now are straining to pay the bills on a Palos Verdes lifestyle. Of those who could no longer afford private schools for their children and moved out of Los Angeles to higher-rated public school districts. Of friends whose self-esteem has plummeted, who have lost their businesses or are on what Shea calls the "bleeding edge."

A couple of years ago, Charles Agapiou was seeing a lot of desperate sellers at his Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership in West Los Angeles.

"A lot of people bought these cars as investments, then when the economy and the price of luxury cars went down, they were all bailing out," Agapiou said. "People faced cash shortages, and the only way to meet their obligations was to liquidate."

Even some professionals who weren't strapped for cash, he said, were reluctant to display their prosperity while so many others were losing their livelihoods. Some of them traded down to less ostentatious vehicles, "to show a lower profile to the public," he said.

The adjustments began in professionals' offices before seeping into their private lives.

At Choy Associates in Los Angeles, architect Barton Choy has been facing the stresses of the recession alone since his father died in 1991.

They had a diverse practice, but "each facet of the marketplace just dropped off," Choy said. "Residential was one of the first to go, then commercial slowed down and stopped, and (then came) institutional and government-funded projects."

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