Sunday, August 21, 2016
I hate this sense of polarization in the United States, this propaganda-driven idea that it’s US Versus THEM. I thought I might take a look at the groups, the US and the THEM and see if I can’t analyze the difference.
First of all, let me state that I am firmly one of the US. I wouldn’t let a THEM in my house nor allow my sister to marry or divorce one of THEM.
There are many lifestyles in this country and I think the US/THEM divide flows along lifestyle differences.
There are two kinds of people in this country. Hostess Twinkie People and Progresso Soup People.
I heard a snippet of a Sarah Palin speech yesterday and she is a Hostess Twinkie person. Her speech began with the question, “Dontcha wanna get back to the good ol’ America that we grew up with?”
This is the archetypal Hostess Twinkie question. It’s the soft white piece of cake on the outside. It has no meaning, no nutritive value and is uttered to appeal to the most childish type of person. Then Ms Palin said, “Doncha want to return to the America that respected values, like honest hard work? Values like believing in God and the family?” This is the payoff, the creamy center, made from shortening, corn syrup, fructose, sodium glycol and unspecified binding agents. It does not require teeth to be eaten. It does not require a mind to give pleasure to childish people. It just needs to be sweet and gooey.
The Progresso Soup people are looking for an honest lunch in a can. The packaging of Progresso Soup conveys a return to old-country quality and nutrition. If it was called “Progress Soup” it would sound cold and industrialized. The addition of the “O” transforms it to grandma’s home made blend of split peas, onions, celery, noodles and chunks of chicken. It became so successful that it forced Campbells to make better soups. You know, the soups that NFL players’ moms force them to eat.
I’m not saying that a Progresso Person won’t eat a Twinky or that a Twinky person won’t eat Progresso Soup.
The point I’m making is that there are a lot of people in this country with empty minds. They have no curiosity, and are too lazy to figure things out for themselves. They are content to be fed the intellectual equivalent of cake and candy. Due to their lazy childishness, these people are easy to manipulate. That’s what scares me. Twinkie people are being lied to. They are being told that Progresso Soup people are not real Americans, that they’re trying to undermine the constitution and destroy the values imbued in this country by the Founding Fathers.
They believe these lies because they want to, because it’s easier to believe a comforting lie than to search out a truth that might not go koochy koochy koo.
Twinkie People are slowly being turned into mobs who will chase Progresso Soup people down the street, force them to hide in attics, and, sooner or later, put them on trains going nowhere.
We will look a little odd when they make us wear Progresso Soup labels on our jackets. However, we will be squirting little doses of Ecstasy into the creamy centers of their Twinkies, so I expect the results to be worth the struggle.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
imagined us into existence.
That something was
very loving, very wild,
very explosively given to
extravagance and elegance,
profusion and color,
yet so gentle that It knew
exactly how much to breathe
into the fire of life
without burning us all to cinders.
Imagined into existence,
we are here, duty bound
to imagine ourselves back to
whose nature must take imagination
as the earth takes wind
for the circulation of its ideas.
I will imagine myself back into
the bosom of that Something
that made me
as a wind-wisp,
as a pink cloud from the most glory-stainedsunset, imaginable.
I have been knocking at this gate
my whole life,
knocking, knocking, so long
that my knuckles have worn
a hole through the wood,
and sometimes, if I stand
just right, I can see bits of light
coming from the other side.
I am afraid to put my eye
to the hole I have made by my knocking.
It is like looking
directly into the sun.
So I step back and keep knocking
making the entrance a little larger
with each knock,
with each prayer for understanding,
with each thirst
for what lies beyond the gate,
beyond this world.
I must wait respectfully
for the gatekeeper
to answer my summons,
though the temptation to batter
through the hole I have made is strong.
I would risk blindness,
in the world beyond the gate,
if I did not already hearthe footsteps of the gatekeeper.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
I was driving sixty miles an hour on Southbound 101 when the car abruptly died. It was my nightmare fantasy come true. My heretofore trusty '98 Jeep just stopped. The radio went off, all the gauges slid to zero and I realized that I was coasting to a halt in a busy freeway lane. I tried to restart the car. I had no lights, no nothing. I couldn't even put on the emergency blinkers.
I was terrified. Vehicles were hurtling towards me at sixty and seventy miles per hour and they had no clue that I was dead in the right lane. All it would take would be one dreamy driver to plow into me and I would be both cause and outcome of a multi-car possibly fatal accident. Should I get out and run for it? Should I wait here? I didn't know. It seemed more honorable to stay with the car, to go down with the ship.
A Highway Patrol car materialized behind me, its lights flashing. I was pleased, for the first time in my life, to see Law Enforcement flashing its lights at me. The officer walked briskly to my front window. He gestured to me to roll down the window.
Problem is, I can't roll down the window. The Jeep's driver's side window doesn't work. I had to pop open the door to hear the man's voice. Embarassing? And maybe illegal?
"Put it in Neutral, sir. I'm going to push you to the shoulder."
Thank god thank god the gear shift works. It works kind of funny, like there's only one gear. The lever slides up and down without stopping. Oh god I hope this Jeep is not stuck in gear. The CHP officer squares off behind me and bumps my fender with his big front pusher bar. The car moves! Oh!
There's another CHP car about two hundred yards upstream from us, slowing traffic by weaving across the freeway. I get to the shoulder and the officer appears again. He shouts at the closed widow. He thinks I'm a moron. "Have you got Triple A, sir?"
"I do. I do. I do." I feel like I'm getting married. "I do I do", I stutter, my nerves shattered, my forehead bathed in perspiration.
"Call 'em right now. What's wrong with your vehicle, sir?"
"I don't know, it's been running fine and then, suddenly, whammo! Dead. D-
"If this vehicle is still here in two hours it will be impounded. Do NOT exit the vehicle unless supervised by your tow driver. Stay in your vehicle! You're lucky I don't write you a ticket for reckless driving. I'm feeling benevolent today. Today's my lecture day. If this was tomorrow I'd write you up for twenty different violations." I'm listening to this through the open crack of my driver's side door and the opened rear window, and all the other open windows except the one next to me that doesn't open any more. I'm praying the policeman doesn't notice the passenger side front mirror, because it's taped on with duct tape and is not glass but a piece of reflective plastic whose images are distorted beyond recognition at any speed.
I call Triple A and wait for the tow truck. I get texts every few minutes relaying the progress of my rescuer. "Recovery Vehicle has departed current location at.etc. etc......ETA 45 min." When the tow truck arrives it conveys me to Bowens Automotive Repair, a garage that I picked at random off the internet. The mechanic does his tests and I absorb the diagnosis: My alternator is shot. The car needs a new alternator. Price tag: Five Hundred Dollars.
I have no choice. I call my partner to pick me up and drive me home in the other car.
The Other Car. The '96 White Chevy Blazer. It was once a luxury car. Leather seats. Key fob operated remote lock/unlock. We haven't driven it in four years because it doesn't start. I would presume its got a dead battery but I swapped another battery into the car and it still didn't start. So, maybe a blown starter motor? Bad solenoid, frayed ground wire, failure to make contact somewhere within the fiendish complexities of its electrical jungle.
The Jeep has always been our go-to car. I haven't had the money to repair the Blazer. But now I must buy a new battery. If there's something else wrong with the Blazer I'm wasting my money but I follow this handy rule: If the car doesn't start, and the battery doesn't charge, replace the battery. Maybe the swapped battery was dead, too.
The moment of battery replacement is fraught with tension. Will it, won't it...start? I connect the new battery, turn the key in the ignition and....hallelujah! It starts right away. Oh, what a relief.
I drive the Blazer to work the next day. We've been using the Blazer as a storage bin. Its rear is filled with linens, dishes, books, tools, all kinds of stuff loaded up to the line of sight in the rear view mirror. If we put any more stuff in there, I won't be able to see what's behind me.
I drive to work. I work. I prepare to drive home.
The driver's side tire is flat.
Shit! Where's the spare? Is it underneath all that storage?
No. It's under the chassis, riding beneath the rear wheels. The problem is that the tools for jacking and removing lug nuts is underneath the dishes, the linens, the books.
And there's a trick to getting the spare to come free, a trick that I don't know. I've been using a sledge hammer to whack at the wing nut that constrains the spare. I whack it and the nut turns but it's not un-threading. It's not coming free.
I begin to unload the stored goods in the cargo compartment. Maybe there's a special tool, something to help me understand the spare tire conundrum.
A motorist rolls up beside me in the parking lot. He's driving a Blazer.
"Are you stumped by the spare tire riddle?" he asks.
"Totally stumped." I admit, raising my shoulders. The back of my t-shirt and pants are black with asphalt and tar. I don't know this, yet. I can't see it.
The Good Samaritan emerges, opens his rear hatch and pulls a variety of jack stuff from a compartment.
"If you take this to a pro tire shop they won't know what to do either. It's the great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle." It turns out there's a hidden slot next to the license plate. When my new friend inserts a blade-style tool into the magic slot it turns a cog and the spare tire DESCENDS on a cable until it hits the ground and I slip it off the wing nut. There is no thread. There is just this clever but now-obscure arrangement.
Flat tire off; spare tire on. Drive to the tire place. Spend $120 to replace the spare. Okay, the car runs. As I drive, I see the one thing THAT I MOST DO NOT WANT TO SEE. The dreaded SERVICE ENGINE SOON light comes on.
I hate those lights! Hate em! They utterly destroy my peace of mind. They are the manifestation of worry on the Material Plane. As we all know, The Material Plane is dominated by concerns for automotive hygiene. If you don't got transpo, you don't got shit.
I try driving the Jeep. I'm too scared by the friggin' SERVICE ENGINE SOON light on the Blazer.
The Jeep takes me to work the following day. I detour through Novato and prepare to drive to Petaluma. I'm going "the back way" because north-bound 101 is a parking lot. It's always a parking lot from 3 to 7 P.M. five days a week. What is this insane life we live? Why do we spend four hours a day sitting in automobiles?
I'm heading for South Novato Boulevard when a giant cloud of steam erupts from under the hood. GIANT CLOUD OF STEAM! NOT GOOD. NOT GOOD.
I pull into the parking lot of the last shopping center before I embark on twenty miles of rural winding roads. I buy a jug of coolant and I fill the Jeep's reservoir with the gooey green stuff. I wait twenty minutes and I attempt the drive home. The Jeep runs, somewhat jerkily, and I spend the next forty minutes of back-road driving in a state of profound alarm.
I make it. I'm home.
I know a little bit about cars. That kind of volcanic eruption of steam can indicate a water pump has gone bad, or the thermostat has failed, or the radiator is toast. Or all of the above.
My neighbor, Mike, knows about cars. "I'll change your thermostat," he says cheerfully. Mike is attending AA meetings and has just got his thirty day chip. That's not an issue for me. It just adds to the air of tension: Mike struggling to stay away from drink. His wife has quit smoking and is on Day 27. My neighbors are deeper in poverty than we are. No wonder Mike eagerly volunteers to change my thermostat. Mike is all over the place helping people.
I purchase a thermostat. Mike replaces the old one in about ninety minutes. He doesn't want to charge me. I give him fifty dollars. The new thermostat works, the Jeep stays cool.
I didn't want to mention this before but it just happens that the Blazer's registration is due in a week and I know, for a fact, that SERVICE ENGINE SOON means that it will not pass the smog check.
Nonetheless, I feel safer driving the Blazer and I take it to work the next day.
As I'm coming home on North Petaluma Boulevard I hear a sound like a very large and joltingly loud motorcycle cruising up on my driver's side. Wow! That's loud! I look to my left and I see no motorcycle. There's no traffic at all. But the Blazer is crunching and flubbling. It sounds like a propellor blade being demolished by a potato masher. The Blazer is behaving as if it has the hiccups. No question: another tire is flat.
I get over on the shoulder to inspect the damage. Holy Shit! The tire is literally shredded, it's nothing but four inch strips of rubber hanging from a punctured black matrix of nameless stuff.
Call Triple A. Second time in three days. An hour later the big yellow truck pulls up. A toothless rail-thin old guy gets out, grinning happily, and tells me that my tires are sun-damaged. They've been sitting for too long and the heat has soaked the oils out of the rubber. They're all about to blow at any second. I need to instruct the tow truck man how to get the tricky spare out from under the Blazer. Once the tire is changed I drive straight to the tire place and get four more new tires. That is, after I've cued the guys at American Tire Co. about the Great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.
There are days when nothing goes right. When to touch a machine is to wreck it. Or when one makes an error due to a lapse of attention that causes a ten foot fall off someone's deck into a bed of blackberry bushes. I'm having one of those days. I put on the coffee. It's a stove-top espresso maker. I wait for the boil, wait and wait. I smell something burning. Uh oh! I take a pot holder and lift the coffee maker. Oh man! Oh man oh man! I forgot to put water in the bottom part of the Vigano stove top coffee maker. Now the rubber gasket has melted and scorched the threads and the coffee maker is a casualty of Morning Mind Mush. In spite of the damage, my partner is greatly reassured. My error is comforting to her. She thinks she's "losing it". Now she knows she's not the only one who's "losing it".
I must locate a smog shop, a Star Certified Service Center, one of those in cahoots with the smog-fighting money-sucking bureaucracy of the DMV. I pay for the smog test. The Blazer fails. How much, I ask, will it cost to fix it so that it passes the rigorous standards of our state's air-quality guardians?
The Blazer needs a tune-up, a forward oxygen sensor, a rearward oxygen sensor and a catalytic converter."That would be about nine hundred and fifty dollars," answers the mechanic, whose name, Kelvin, is stitched onto his dark blue jump suit. Kelvin's wife/receptionist is named Tran. They're Vietnamese.
How many times have I said "shit" or "fuck" in the last three days?
"Kelvin," I ask, "is there some kind of discount for the poor and the elderly?" I have been poor my whole life. The 'elderly' part occurred while I wasn't watching, about three years ago, when my left hip began to feel as if a strong man was applying pressure to it with a vice grip.
There is, in fact, a program for the poor and the elderly to pay $500 towards smog repair. I get the papers downloaded and send in the application. A week later the grant arrives. Five hundred of that nine hundred fifty dollars will be paid for. Hell yeah!
The smog repair takes two days. I wait eagerly for Kelvin's call. At last the phone rings. "You passed your smog test," says Kelvin. I'm so happy! I'm thrilled.
I had needed a victory, any victory, a small victory, whatever, I'll take it.
"But there is a problem, I'm afraid," says Kelvin, and my heart takes up residence at the ends of my toes. I can feel my pulse down there, bumpity bump, pulsing up through my toenails.
"A...uh...problem?" Fuck! Shit!
"I think your water pump is about gone."
"You think, you THINK. Is it gone or isn't it?"
"I don't know. There was a pool of coolant under your car when I came in this morning."
How much does he want to repair the water pump? Well, you see, one should also replace the thermostat when one replaces the water pump.
Four hundred seventy eight dollars.
Stop everything! HOLD THE PRESSES!
I'm not stupid. I check online and a water pump plus a thermostat costs about sixty bucks. My neighbor, my pal my buddy Mike will do any automotive task for fifty dollars, gladly. The work boosts his self esteem and it keeps him out of his RV and away from his jonesing wife.
The Material World is a challenging place. Our current model, this 21st century science fiction hip-hop deodorant-peddling appearance-worshiping stage set is peculiarly complex, is like a cross-word puzzle without a solution. No one wins in the Material World. All endings are bad endings. If I'm lucky I will die quickly and without indignity. If I'm lucky. Meanwhile, as I wait for the denouement of my life, I must endure and meet the challenges thrust into my face by the invisible spirits of Destiny.
Is the cup half full, partially full, partially empty, or totally empty? The Highway Patrol Cop did not write me up. The guy in the Blazer showed up as if dropped from Heaven. I got a five hundred dollar grant from the DMV. The battery in the Blazer started the car. The Jeep still runs.
The cup is the cup. Whatever's in it is what I've got. I may as well accept that fact. It's all those things, partially full, partially empty. Life is blessed and sublime and life can be unspeakably vile.While I'm at it, I should check my credit rating. I might want to purchase a recent model used car.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
I wrote this poem in 1972. I was a very young man. Today I entered into a prestigious poetry competition. The fee was nominal. Most of the big literary competitions are pay n' pray these days. I paid $99 last week to enter one of my novels in the Writer's Digest E-book Competition. So it goes. Everyone's a writer these days. I esteem this poem so highly that I chose it to represent my work in a major competition. I think it deserves a read, and then a re-read.
Everything is in a look.
Yet still, everything
is in looking away.
Unable to breathe suns from each other,
we turn to contemplate
and wash our hearts
with what warmth remains.
And again, that look,
rending the cosmos,
pours from the vat of creation
in our eyes.
The unspeakable love
dashes its silences to death,
against the perimeters of our exiles.
Yet, and there is always a yet,
to be born, to be resurrected
in a touch. The miracle is
that my skin was made to meet your skin,
that unknowable lightnings are our servants
to carry the burdens of love and loneliness.
Somehow my universe gathers energy
and spreads, with the vague arms of an amoeba
to some call on the horizon.
No matter that horizons always recede;
if you too were to will your stars and dust
towards the furthest reach,
perhaps we would meet on some plain
lit by the ecstasy of celestial collision.
And perhaps we must die
to know each other.
Look! I would fling off my skin
like a cloak,
to show you the sun that burns within.
But as it is, only my face,
and those desperate radiations that pass
through this terrible cloak
may reach you.
Know me! Know me!
Not by my escapes into smiles
but by my facelessness,
too full to shine,
too lonely to weep.
We are infinite
yet the mystery is always a deeper note
than we can hear.
Hearken to the remotest timbre,
it rises from our source
but hides its silence.
Listen to the mask of music,
behold the facade of stars,
yet be ready to fling them away
to peer into the depth beyond depth.
Love only wears faces to entice us
in our simplicity.
God dons the robe of the cosmos
that we may not plunge into her nakednessbefore we ourselves are naked love.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
We're just like the fish; we don't know what water is. But the element in which we swim, the element that is impossible for us to recognize, is stress.
You may think you know you're stressed. This isn't the kind of stress I'm talking about. We have become denizens of a culture that is actually a Torture Machine. It drives us insane by presenting demands so complex as to be impossible to achieve. Every day, it issues orders to our nervous systems. Turn your left blinker. Pay your insurance premium. Pick up your kids' school uniforms. Don't forget the doctor's appointment. Where'd you put the McFarland file? Where are the paper clips? Why is this milk sour? Now I have to return it to the store. Screw it; not worth my time, flush it down the sink. Are the dogs' vaccinations up to date?
Do I have the receipts for my tax audit?
Why am I always left with the feeling that I've forgotten to do a homework assignment? Who is this screaming at me, right next to my ear so that it hurts? The Occupy Wall Street people are scurvy hippies. Our government is letting corporations steal on a massive scale. My bank account only exists long enough for the auto-payments to hit, and it's gone and I've got nothing left to spend.
I think I'm going crazy. I don't have any sexual desire at all. The last time I felt truly alive was....when? Have I ever felt truly alive? I don't think so.
There's nothing to look forward to. My old age will merely be a time when insurance machines squeeze the remaining dollars from my estate, leaving my kids with nothing. Zero. The globe is warming up. It's true. The waters are creeping on shore, slowly. The future is a tsunami.
OUR SOCIETY IS A TORTURE MACHINE, so complex that it takes a genius to maneuver its daily routine. It tortures by its relentless pressure. We don't need Stalin or Hitler. We have modern life in Amerika. See that guy with the cardboard sign sitting at the parking lot exit? "Will work for food." He isn't a pathetic loser. He's you or me or someone we know who just cracked under the pressure and opted to sit in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone. He couldn't take the complexity any more. Now he's doing better. He has a shoe box where his money piles up. He's doing better than I am! Could I take sitting in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone? I don't think so. I'm not tough enough.
Life has always been complex, but not like this...Hunting, gathering, fighting off raiders, that was easy stuff compared to this. The modern Torture Machine can't be dodged. Your assignment is late! Punishment will be swift and merciless! Your interest will rise, your credit will be cut.
The injustice of it! I'm choking on injustice. I can't breathe! Give me a cigarette. Where are all these voices coming from? Let me turn off the radio. The off switch doesn't work. The voices are coming from my pocket. It's my Z-Phone. Its off switch doesn't work either. The argument continues, shouting everywhere, lies compound in blatant and shameless huckstering. Everything is a trick. Even the tricks we know to be tricks conceal more subtle tricks. Those Black Lives Matter types are going to burn down Los Angeles in a giant riot. Quick, we'd better launch a pre-emptive pogrom, mow them down before they find out where we've stashed the money.
The fish don't recognize the sea. Modern humans don't recognize the element that dominates our lives. I will coin a term for it: Phobagonovia. Phobe-ago-NOVE-ee-yah. It causes us to curl up inside our homes with the giant TV playing football games and scripted "reality" shows where people are abused by their in-laws. Phobagonovia. We are afraid of new experiences. The Torture Machine has implanted this condition in our nervous systems. We are afraid of relating to one another openly, of crying in front of strangers, of expressing feelings easily, of hugging or kissing spontaneously, lest we be inappropriate, our strait jacket is "Appropriate", we haven't a clue how to dance in a circle while deeply in love with members of a clan, to sing ancient songs, to sit around a fire feeling wonderful under the stars. That doesn't mean we want to go backwards. We want to invent new communities. We are dying of Phobagonovia. Our neck ties are cutting off our breath. Our high heels are warping our skeletons. The future is over. Rush Limbaugh will be reborn as a talking pig that can only sputter nonsense. The people of his remote village will laugh at him holding their sides with mirth. They will postpone the time to eat him. He's so strange that people come from villages far away to throw him pieces of rubbish. His time will come, at last.
When the chief takes the first bite, he will spit it out.
"We laughed too long," he will say. "This fat talking pig tastes like shit."
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Interesting experience, starting a novel. I've written 12,000 words so far. It's about a pair of police detectives who specialize in crimes against animals. They bust puppy mills, protect abused horses and farm animals. Poorly funded but committed to the work, this man and woman land in the middle of violent confrontation. That's (working title, only) "Breeding Hearts". I don't know where it's going or what will happen. I only know that if I write daily, a story will develop. I want this one to be finished in six months. roschbooks.com/work-in-progress-breeding-hearts/
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
One morning I woke up, did some simple addition and concluded that I was thirty seven thousand dollars in credit card debt. I still had six thousand to go on my car loan, so that made a debt load of forty three thousand dollars. How could this happen? I’m legally single and without dependents. I own no stocks, bonds, properties or other convertible assets. I am a man utterly without collateral. So, my question “how did this happen?” is a rhetorical utterance, because I know how it happened. I spent more than I earned. It’s that simple. If we see this happening on a larger scale, as an entire society goes bankrupt, the same basic laws apply. The only difference between me as an individual and our society is that society, represented by The Government, can print money. The newly printed money is really toy money, but it buys a smidgen of time because it’s backed up by history, prestige, momentum and the memory of immense wealth. It may be a few years before anyone notices that United States dollars look like little orange, blue and yellow pieces of paper about three inches long and two inches wide.
I got my first credit card when I was forty-five years old. I had managed to live outside the consumer cycle for all that time, by being either a hippie or a bum. I was a hippie bum when that envelope arrived in the mail, the one that said, “You have already been approved.” I thought it was a joke, I laughed. Who would give me a credit card?
I like being approved. I thrive on approval. This Visa Card provided me with a credit limit of two hundred dollars, at an interest rate of twenty three point nine nine percent. Of course, a credit card is not really about its interest rate. Credit cards are a barge full of tricky charges, most of which are confined to the small print. The two most lethal words in the English language, “Adjustable Rate,” are stated or implied somewhere in that print. There are annual fees, late fees, cash advance fees, all around Desperate Ignorance fees. You’re dumb, and you’re desperate, so we’ll charge you a fee.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was living in an in-law unit behind a house in San Geronimo Valley. The area is an enclave of hippies, new age healers, artists, crafts-people and bums hiding out.
I was excited about having two hundred dollars credit. My therapist approved. Having a credit card was a mark of responsibility; it meant I was turning into a mature adult, integrating myself into mainstream society. Provided, of course, that I kept up my payments. How much trouble could I get into, with a two hundred dollar limit?
I didn’t know, at the time, that paying minimum on a credit card means that any amount, no matter how trivial, will take your next ten incarnations to pay off, or about six hundred years. Fortunately, credit companies don’t track future incarnations. Instead, they sue debtor’s spouses or any relative available for the unpaid sum. Eventually, our corporate-controlled government will pass laws allowing credit banks to force you to work off your debt. You will pass your days working in a cubicle in South Dakota, making collection calls for the bank and living in dorms with twenty-four beds to a room. Lunch will be a choice between bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Spam or Macaroni and cheese are the menu for dinner. There WILL be movies every night, hell, we got plenty of movies. Disney will have the exclusive contract to provide Credit Default Camps with DVDs.
I racked up my two hundred dollar debt in one day. I bought a car. That was the kind of car I got in those days. I used a courtesy check from the card company (special interest rate of 29.9 percent) and bought an’82 Honda Civic. It turned out to be a good car. The starter was broken, so the car had to be hot-wired every time I wanted to drive. The gas tank had a crack halfway down its side. Anything over six gallons sent a flammable trickle of gasoline through this crack. I could never put more than five gallons in the tank. I had to be very careful about that. I got full disclosure from the seller about the vehicle’s problems. “Watch out how much gas you put in,” he told me. “Five gallons tops and keep track of what you got left in the tank when you fill. Best thing is to just get three and half. I had a friend with the same problem, and he blew himself up.”
I got great mileage from that little beige go-cart. Five gallons was a hundred twenty miles, easy. It was a bargain, it was a reliable vehicle.
I paid my monthly minimum on time, every month. In about six months, the card company notified me that my limit had been raised to five hundred dollars. Fantastic! I bought a set of tires for the car.
I was living as a free-lance anything: janitor, painter, carpet cleaner. I worked as a flower delivery driver. I survived by the seat of my pants.
My monthly card payments were fifteen dollars. Not a problem, I always put a check in the mail at the last possible minute. I was always on time.
The card company raised my limit to a thousand dollars. It felt good, it meant that Visa trusted me.
I wanted to become a professional photographer. I bought my first digital camera. The payments went up to about twenty eight dollars a month.
Then I got another envelope in the mail. This one was from MasterCharge. “You have already been approved!”
Nice! They were offering me twenty five hundred dollars credit at a rate of sixteen point four percent. It was a Gold Card. I wondered about these metallic cards. Gold, Silver, Platinum. I wondered if there were cards for people on different economic rungs. Cards with metals both common and uncommon. A Uranium Card for nuclear physicists, with radioactive interest rates and loan half-lives that take millions of years to pay off. An Iron Card for weight lifters. The rates just go up and down, up and down. Heavy Metal Cards, shaped like guitars, for rock and rollers. Lithium cards for manic-depressives, with rates that plunge and soar and plunge again.
I believe that credit banks operate with a fundamental yet covert philosophy. It’s called the We Don’t Give A Shit If You Pay Us Back Principle. By the time you have gone through the agonies of ballooning credit balances, of paying monthly minimums on seven different cards, of borrowing from one card to pay another, of paying late fees, overcharge fees, balance transfer fees and been suckered into “credit insurance” programs that protect you from being unable to pay your credit card bills, you have put so much money into the pockets of Citibank and Chase that even if you default, they’ve made a profit of twelve thousand percent, which more than offsets your default, when it comes.
In U.S. Dependencies like Guam, Saipan and Puerto Rico, Congress will enact loopholes in anti-usury laws, allowing Citibank to be what it really is: a loan shark. Rates of a hundred percent, payable next week or they send a goon to break your finger. What’s the “vig”, Louie?
Since I was unable to get credit, that is, low interest bank credit for a legitimate business loan, I used my cards to start my digital photography business. The problem was that my business took ten years to get going, and after five years I was paying almost six hundred dollars a month just to maintain the minimum payments on all those cards.
This was like taking six crisp one hundred dollar bills out of my wallet and setting a match to them. That money was gone, it would not reduce my debt, it would not purchase anything. It was gone. Wasted. At this point my repayment would take twenty six thousand years, or nine hundred future incarnations.
I was having a good spell in my business. I was enjoying some cash flow. I was always rescued by a last minute thing, a portrait session, a wedding, a house to paint, sale of a print or two. Somehow, I was able to keep up with these incredible payments. I made some large payments, bringing my balance down. That’s when the next round of offers came in: “You Have Already Been Approved!”
Wow. Capital One allowed me five thousand dollars in credit at a rate of eleven point nine percent. I took it! I needed a more sophisticated camera and some portrait lights.
Pretty soon I was running five credit cards and I lost track of my total debt. I guess I lost track on purpose, so that I could live in denial.
I was the ideal customer for credit card banks. I racked up a lot of credit yet made minimum payments, on time. There is no better earner for a bank than a consumer like me. They don’t want me to pay off my loan, heavens no! They want to gradually load me up on debt, drag me down into the depths of high interest compound rates and keep me there for the rest of my life.
The thrill began to wear off. For a while, I actually defined wealth as the amount of one’s credit. If I had a few hundred grand in credit, I was in pretty good shape, wasn’t I? Aren’t we defined by our debt? I saw my world as a kind of spending party. Need a new printer? Cool, I‘ve got credit. I’ll keep making the minimum payments. I always do.
I’ll admit it was fun. I had a great time. I am a compulsive person. I will always be a compulsive person. In this, I am not much different from the average American. We are all compulsive. We are made compulsive by the continual stimulus of commercial images of glamorous exciting products.
I never considered bankruptcy. I held the almighty Credit Rating in such awe that I would do nothing to besmirch it. Meanwhile, I became more and more miserable, as my anxieties focused on making the monthly minimum payments and seeing my income going into the fire. Get out the matches, dude, time to burn some more hundred-dollar bills. I began to feel as though I were carrying a mountain on my back. I knew that I would never get rid of this mountain, that the rest of my life would be spent holding up this Sisyphian mass as it grew larger and larger.
This wasn’t fun any more. My outlook changed in a single week. One day, I simply looked at my situation. Within another few days I was there; I was prepared to file for bankruptcy.
It occurred to me that the almighty Credit Rating is a hoax. People go in fear of losing points on their credit rating. People obsess on the difference between six fifty and seven hundred. The terror of losing points on one’s credit rating is a ubiquitous American terror. It rides invisibly on people’s shoulders like a pair of wooden stocks, like a medieval torture device. Companies thrive on milking people’s obsession with their credit score. Go to freecreditreport dot com and find out your score. You’ll learn that your free credit report isn’t free. It’s a lure to sell credit monitoring services. For a monthly fee a consumer can track his or her credit rating and get even more obsessive.
Every American can get a free credit report once a year. That’s the law. You won’t get it at freecreditreport dot com. You’ll just get more crazy.
Radio stations are flooded with commercials for get rich quick instructional CDs, books and videos. Every time I hear the word “free” on the radio I laugh and I visualize gullible wannabe entrepreneurs panting to exploit this amazing opportunity. I’ve always had a maxim regarding American marketing techniques. It’s simple: contempt sells. Marketers view the American consumer as a stupid, gullible and very hungry five year old child with a fist full of money that it would rather spend on toys than on necessities. This toddler justifies spending money on toys because it believes that at some point in the future it’ll somehow make a lot of money, and THEN it will pay for the necessities. Meanwhile it’s having too much fun. Don’t worry. It’ll figure out a scheme to get rich without working very hard.
Thousands of commercials promise the consumer an income of five to ten thousand dollars a month by investing in the stock market. Best of all, the CD is free! Or how about this? Make money using the internet! You don’t have to buy inventory, you don’t have to store inventory, all you have to do is sell stuff on Ebay that you don’t even have! Let your computer do your work for you. Earn money while you sleep! And best of all, the CD explaining how to pull off this miracle is FREE! Wow, (the radio voice says) now I can quit my day job, and pretty soon I’ll own two houses!
Hey, wait, what about Real Estate?! There’s a book telling me how to earn a fortune buying up foreclosed properties. The introductory CD is Free! The word free should be spelled eff arr dollar sign dollar sign. FR$$.
The people making money on these programs are the people selling the book or CD. If the program worked so well, why would these entrepreneurs spawn thousands of competitors?
Let me admit that, initially, my new philosophy, my ‘credit score is a hoax’ pose was a bit of bravado. I was still scared. What if one of us got sick? What if I wanted a new car? What if Fox and I decide to upgrade to a better motorhome? What if what if what if?
I’ll relieve you of the suspense right now. My bankruptcy was a complete success. The first thing that happened was that car dealers showered me with offers. It’s the standard procedure after a bankruptcy. There are business entities whose most lucrative product is helping bankrupts re-establish their credit. Car dealers are foremost among these entities. All kinds of people wanted to help me re-establish my credit. Offers poured in. The first few months, the offers were terrible. The credit cards were loaded with sign-up fees and yearly fees, and the interest rates would shame any loan shark. I got those “You have already been approved” deals all the time. After a few months the offers settled down, became more like the offers I got before I went bankrupt. I accepted one card: no sign up fee, no yearly fee, interest at eleven percent. I keep that one credit card, and I stay below two thousand dollars in total debt. I make large monthly payments when my balance gets too high. Every offer that comes along goes into the wastebasket. I have one credit card. Two thousand dollar limit. Period.
Wait a minute, wait a minute! I have to confess something. I wrote that last paragraph before gas prices hit the roof. It’s getting tougher to function and make ends meet. I sort of broke my rule. I haven’t exceeded my limit. I did, however, take on another credit card. That card is sitting in my wallet like a radioactive pellet, just waiting to leak through and contaminate my world. It scares the hell out of me, while at the same time it comforts me. Its purpose is to backdrop serious emergencies. I haven’t used it. I don’t want to use it. I pray that nothing happens to force me to use it. I just pray and pray.
My attitudes have changed. I don’t spend money just to have something I want, like a new printer. My camera gear is getting old. That’s the way it will have to be. I can’t afford the latest, neatest gear.
What I’m saying is that it’s almost impossible to escape the world of credit cards. They keep coming back like the Terminator’s metal arm.
Have I mentioned that I feel like I’m really getting screwed? Have I just come out and said it in so many words?
I feel choked with anger. I am so frustrated that I need a pitcher of margaritas or a bottle of Vicodin. (I am, of course, exaggerating dramatically for effect here. I’m not an alkie or a dope fiend, no no no.) There are a hundred rip offs dipping into my pocket every day. There are dozens of virtually undetectable drains on my income. This isn’t a free country! It’s a very expensive country.
In the last decade I have found myself trapped by invincible shackles. I have hit the wall of middle age. I have just enough medical and chronic pain conditions to place me at the very center of the health insurance vortex. I have no choice but to be a consumer. I am now the victim of medical blackmail. Insurance and drugs are so expensive; they dominate every aspect of my life. Why? How can one blood pressure pill cost four dollars? It costs pennies to make. We all know that. The Big Pharm companies scream “Research and Development! Marketing! How can we invent those orphan drugs that will help a few thousand people and conspicuously demonstrate our compassion? Our expenses are staggering!”
There there, Big Pharm, don’t cry. Poor Pfizer, you’ve worked so hard to ensure that our aging males can have erections. Don’t sulk in a corner, Glaxo. We know how much you love us. Your efforts have controlled our cholesterol, have saved our lives time and again! Your executives deserve those boats and planes, they’ve earned those vacations at hotels in Dubai that look like flying saucers and cost four thousand dollars a night. They deserve the call girls and the Bugati sports cars, the Rolex watches and the gated estates overlooking the beach at St. Moritz. They’ve worked hard for our benefit.
I often fantasize about what I could do if I didn’t spend half my income every year on health insurance and prescription co-payments. I wouldn’t be living in constant anxiety. I might be able to save enough money to have another RV journey and have some fun. I might be able to get my car fixed. I could repair that weird flub flub sound it makes in the right front wheel. I could afford my dog’s dental work, the removal of those extra teeth that are going to become a nightmare in three or four years.
I’m old enough to remember a time when health care wasn’t everyone’s ball and chain. I remember when a factory worker could support a family and mom could stay home and pay some attention to the kids. I remember when people didn’t endure sour stomachs and panic attacks thinking about their credit card debt. I remember when my dad made enough money from his small business to provide a decent middle class standard of living for his family. I’m old enough to remember the way things shifted so suddenly in the late seventies and early eighties. No one had ever heard of HMOs. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere. Our big industries, like steel and auto manufacture were under assault by the Japanese.
De-regulate everything! We have to compete with a free hand!
I’m not an economist or a political scientist, I don’t understand how our society was co-opted and undermined by an inferno of greed. I only know that a corrupt and devious corporate cruelty has turned middle class people into paupers and terrified debtors.
Dammit, I’m angry!
To further amplify my vulnerability, I have taken yet another credit card. I spent up to the limit on the last one after my car broke down. I needed brakes, a catalytic converter and a new clutch.
My debt has climbed to about three thousand dollars, and I’m paying about a hundred dollars a month. I can live with that. The debt stopped climbing a year ago. I’ve kept pace with my payments; I occasionally pay the bill down by a few dollars. This is familiar territory me. I understand the game, and the futile squirming that I must suffer to keep afloat because I’m not much of a money person. I’m an artist-person, woe is me. I am aware that more millions of people are now living the same way. The economy has gotten bad and there are many new recruits to the kind of life I’ve always lived. I have a certain amount of psychological armor against this insecurity. It doesn’t bother me so much. I know that a lot of people, new to poverty and crushing debt, are quaking with anxiety and dread. I’m sad about those people.
A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot. I was approached by a well dressed woman. “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance. “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”
I didn’t force her to end her pitch. She was begging. I held up my hand and said, “Sure, no problem, I have a couple bucks worth of change. I’ve been through hard times myself.”
She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears. She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection. She looked like a soccer mom with two kids. This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar. Looks can deceive. She might be the forerunner of a new type of beggar, the housewife-Oxycontin scammer. I don’t care. If she needs money for drugs, let her buy drugs. I’d prefer that she find treatment but if she’s willing to beg drug money in a Safeway parking lot that means she’s NOT willing to be a hooker, not yet.
Some stop-light panhandlers have a dog. Some sit in wheelchairs. There are busy intersections claimed as territory by beggars. Their signs are variations of the same message. “Anything will help.” If the person is able-bodied the sign might say “Will work for food.” I hold no animus towards them. They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations. I could tell that the well-dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to this kind of activity. The look on her face was shattering. She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas. She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that. I saw her move on to the next person and the next. They recoiled, they refused. She kept on, walking gently up to people with an “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am ”. I don’t care if she spent the money for booze or drugs. I never care about that. Begging is a profession that has always been with the human community. I’ve begged and panhandled. I lived at the bottom tier of society for years. I know how difficult is the work of begging.
Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food. It was five-ish, getting dark. A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks. Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
“Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand. “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.
“How many hours a day do you do this?”
“All day. I’ve been here since eight this morning. My feet are killing me. I’m done in an hour. Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”
“What are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”
She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet. The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face. She didn’t look like an addict. She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in the grip of circumstances beyond her control. She’s divorced. Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support. She’s three months behind on the rent. Laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm. Unemployment benefits are running out. Can’t find a job anywhere. She’s desperate and she wants her kids to have the things they’ve always had. Karate lessons. A music teacher. Little by little she’s lost the ability to provide, and must make some hard choices.
So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.
“About one person in ten is nice.” she replied. “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here. ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person. Shame on you!’ Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty. I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings. They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself. Excuse my language. And you know what? I stand up for myself. I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”
She paused as some unpleasant image washed across her mind.
“Some of the men,” she said, “some of the men, are…you know…they think I’m a hooker. They say the most disgusting things. I’ve got a radar for that type now, it works pretty well…what would you call that, ‘Jerk-dar?’”
“Maybe ‘ass-illoscope’” I quipped, not sure she would get the pun, if she knew the term ‘Oscilloscope’.
“Perfect!” She got the pun. “What about ‘asshole-ascope’.”
“Better, even better!” I affirmed. “There you go!”
Her eyes shifted. A woman carrying groceries was loading her car just down the row. She needed to get back to work.
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I have to make every minute count.”
“Go on,” I said, “Go back to work.”
She had to push herself away from the car. She was bone tired. She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective. Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being.
With each passing week I expect to see more of these parking lot beggars.
Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.
This has everything to do with the move of Fox and me from house to motor home. We were not forced to move out of the house. True, It got too expensive. We saw our resources diminishing and a future where our age was going up as our income was going down. We saw an economy edging towards bankruptcy and we wanted OUT as quickly as possible, we wanted a way to reduce our earthly footprint.
We WANTED to live in a motor home! After the trip in Yertle, the epic voyage to Arches National Park, the idea became more and more appealing. We didn’t know whether or not it would work out. It was a tremendous risk.
Declaring bankruptcy was also a tremendous risk. What if “they” came and took away our motor home? It was half in my name and half in Fox’s. What if “they” took my camera, my computer, my car? I didn’t know they wouldn’t. I asked several lawyer friends of mine, and they assured me that such things would not happen. I had no real assets. My possessions were exempt. I would be fine.
In spite of these reassurances, Fox and I spent a nervous couple of months.
In 2005 there was a major change in the laws regarding bankruptcy. These changes tended to favor the card companies. A bill was passed called The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. I love that: Consumer Protection Act. The ostensible purpose of this act was to prevent people from racking up a lot of debt with the intention of going bankrupt after spending oodles of the bank’s money. How is this protecting consumers? Give me a break. How many people do you know that are exploiting credit card companies with the intention of defaulting? One, two, a hundred? How many have you heard about? Is it so common that an act of congress is required to protect us from these unscrupulous spenders? The real motive behind this Act is that the banks foresee a flood of bankruptcies looming in the near future. They want to be ready for this tsunami of debt, they want to get their rich butts to higher ground so that when the bankruptcies mount into the millions, they will be safe and capable of forcing debtors into losing the pants they wear, the shoes they walk in. I can see it now, America. People walking around in blankets.
I hired a good lawyer. She was a little hobbit of a woman who wore thick glasses and neat business suits. I had the feeling that in court she was a cyclone, that her antagonists quaked in terror when she opened her briefcase. She charged one fee, two thousand dollars, in advance. She always let me know what was happening, she communicated with me regularly, instructed me in what to do and what not to do.
One of the stipulations of the new law is that debtors must pass two courses in money management and credit awareness. To this effect, a host of companies have arisen to cater to the expanding market of bankruptcy cases. The whole shebang is done online, and it costs about three hundred dollars. The debtor must first pass a credit counseling course. The material in this course is not difficult. The test is a multiple-choice quiz with some pretty silly questions.
The questions go like this: “What is the correct way to use credit cards?”
Answer One: To buy cool things like cell phones, shoes and car accessories.
Answer Two: To finance trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.
Answer Three: To be used as an occasional aid to pay emergency expenses when cash is short.
Question: What is the best way to manage one’s credit account?
Answer One: Put off paying to the last minute.
Answer Two: Build up a lot of debt and make minimum payments.
Answer Three: Pay off debt as it arises, maintaining the lowest possible balance.
These courses are designed for the average American genius. It’s a case of having questions reveal more than the answers. What kind of people find these questions challenging? My god, are we in trouble, here in America? Is this what we’ve become? Consumer morons?
I am the American economy in microcosm. I was encouraged, no, I was seduced, into borrowing beyond my means. Who am I? I am poor! I don’t feel poor, I live a great life, but on paper, I am poor. Why would banks lend me money? Yes, I am responsible for my debt. My greed is at fault. No question.
I was a frustrated man with no money being treated to the most sophisticated sales technique on the planet. Borrow this money! We’re offering it to you, it’s easy, just apply online and we’ll have your credit approved in five minutes.
Got it almost paid off? Here, we’ll lend you some more. We approve of you! You’re a good person! We like you! Here’s five grand. You can pay it off any time you want, just make sure you meet your minimum and we’ll get along great. No one will call you, no letters will arrive. Gee, you know what? Our records show that you have five credit cards, and owe a total of twenty thousand dollars. That makes you a good credit risk! You wouldn’t have all these cards and owe all this money unless banks trusted you. Here, another ten grand in credit. Fine! Pay us back when you can!
The credit counseling companies who advertise so heavily on radio and television are flourishing. They will help you pay down your debt! In fact, there are reputable companies and disreputable companies. The business is predicated on the simple fact that many credit banks are willing to let you pay off forty percent of your loan at a reduced monthly rate. This is a fact. Almost all of your card debt can be drastically reduced. The counseling agency is there to do the paperwork, run interference for you, comfort you in your distress. That’s what the honest companies do. The dishonest ones will have you send your payments directly to them. They will take your money and do nothing. They will not pay your creditors. They will reassure you that all these harassing phone calls that have begun are normal. Wait a couple of months and they’ll die down. Don’t worry, sir, the man with the generic foreign accent on the phone says, don’t worry this is the normal procedure. We have negotiated your credit to ten percent of what it was. We are paying your creditors, and in eighteen months you will be free of debt! Isn’t that wonderful?
I called one of these crooks. He wanted to start the program right away. “I can sign you up right now, you can stop worrying about the letters and the phone calls.”
“How does it work?” I ask.
“It’s simple, “ he replies, “you just make one monthly payment to our office and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“That sounds easy enough,” I say.
“Great, then you’re ready to start,” responds the man.
“Don’t you need my application, some paperwork?” I question.
“Oh no, that’s not necessary, just give me your phone number, social security number and address and we’ll get started on the paperwork right away.”
“Uhhh…I think I’ll wait on that.” I hung up very quickly. I felt as if I had avoided a rattlesnake bite.
I never got any letters or phone calls. I made every monthly minimum payment until my lawyer filed the papers. Within three months, all my creditors had been notified, and there was no point in calling me or harassing me.
I took, and passed, the two courses, via the internet. I filled out a lot of paperwork. I waited some months while my lawyer did whatever it was that she did.
Then my hearing date was scheduled. I was going to walk into a room where it was possible that representatives of all my creditors would confront me with my irresponsible behavior, accuse me of being a crook, question me about purchases I had made three months before I filed for bankruptcy. Why did you buy this lens in August? When did you decide you were going to file for Chapter Eleven? Did you know you were going to file when you bought this lens? How many assets did you transfer in the year before you filed? What are you concealing from us?
Waiting outside the courtroom I was nervous. My lawyer toddled up, looking harmlessly fierce, like a rabbit with giant fangs. “Just answer the questions,” she advised. “Don’t add anything, don’t talk too much. It’ll be fine.”
The doors opened and I entered the hearing room. Five or six other cases were on the docket, so I sat in a folding chair with my fellow bankrupts, while three trustees sat behind a semi-circular dais. A tape recorder was turned on.
The trustees didn’t look like monsters. They looked kind of nice.
My case was first on the docket. The blonde trustee swore me in. Then she asked me two questions.
“Do you understand the implications of your filing Chapter Eleven?”
“Yes, I do, ma’am.”
“Have you been truthful with the trustee in your documentation?”
“Yes I have, ma’am.”
“Thank you very much, you will be notified of your bankruptcy within sixty days.”
That was it. I walked out of the courtroom a free man. It was a very happy day in my life. I could return to my cozy motor home and tell Fox that it was over. Nobody was going to take anything away from us. Except my forty three thousand dollars in debt.
America is, after all, a wonderful country. The system needs a little tweaking, but it is a wonderful country.