Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The names of the characters in this book have been changed to protect their privacy.
Meeting My Soulmate
At the time of my first encounter with Fox, I had spent my life failing at relationships. It’s a common disorder, chronic relationship failure.
I’m surprised there isn’t a support group, a twelve step program, a Failed Relationships Anonymous. If I became a member I would find a few musicians from the group and form a band. We would develop a special repertoire: We would play carefully chosen love songs, such as“Killing Me Softly” and “I Put A Spell On You”. Then we could begin rehearsing “Love Is A Battlefield” “Since I Fell For You,” and, of course, “Crazy.”
We could call ourselves The Damned If You Do.
My relationship history is pretty boring. I spent a year with a woman, two years with another. My longest relationship lasted three years. I thought we were doing fine but I was out of touch with my partner’s feelings. She ran off with a Tibetan lama and became the mistress of his ashram. It happened very suddenly, or so it seemed to me. My friends told me they had seen it coming for months.
Thanks for the help, guys.
I was a relationship saboteur. When a woman started showing signs of attachment, I grew more distant. The more love she offered, the more distant I became. This dynamic is also a common affliction, especially in men. Where devoted love is concerned, men talk a good game, but are actually big scaredy cats.
I wanted to be in a lasting relationship, but the more love came my way, the more I curled up in my shell and hid. What was so scary about loving and being loved?
This knot of confusion about love earns a lot of income for therapists. Their relationships are at least as messed up as the rest of ours, if not more so. Their Phd’s and MFTs are licenses to practice alchemy. They turn OUR angst and numbness into THEIR gold.
Aside from the three “long” relationships in my life, I’ve had about twenty flings of less than a month. Each of my girlfriends said virtually the same thing as we broke up.
“You’re remote, I don’t know what’s going on inside of you. I need more from you than what I’m getting. You’re a nice guy; I really like you but if this is all you can give, I have to move on.”
I wasn’t such a nice guy. After I met Fox I began to accept this fact.
I had a wicked tongue. I “leaked”, as the shrinks like to say. That meant I said nasty things without knowing I was being nasty. I was a nice guy, right? I didn’t hit anyone; I didn’t shout or lurch unshaven from room to room holding a can of beer.
I needed the right woman. She would have to attach herself to me like a barnacle and never let go. I needed someone who had already decided she would hold onto me.
I was commitment-phobic and averse to responsibility. On the brief clock of life, I was already past fifty. It was time to put this childishness behind me! I decided to make a serious effort at meeting my partner.
I had to be thorough, make myself available. I would post and answer personals ads, do things to meet single women.
I started visiting websites. I had been told that the internet dating world is a freak show of fantasy and bad judgment. Fine! I’m a writer. I thrive on fantasy and bad judgment. Bring them on!
I subscribed to matchmaking sites and perused the ads, looking at the pictures and reading absurdly perfect descriptions of prospective partners. Where were the neurotics, the nut cases? They’re right here, I thought, hiding in plain sight.
This was the early nineties. The internet wasn’t so slick back then. The ads were brief and the photos took agonizing minutes to download.
Here’s a typical ad: Fit female professional, petite, 38. Loves reading, wine, fine dining, romantic walks on the beach. Looking for financially secure man with sense of humor.
My problem with these ads was the way people presented themselves as generic versions of human beings. The honest text of this ad would read “Female professional running out of eggs. Obsessed about weight. Keeping thin via fiendish treadmill workouts. Loves trashy novels. Gets sloshed during dinner. Looking for generous man or will soon commit suicide.”
My email box filled quickly. Having twenty or thirty letters a day was exciting. It was a rush! I was hoping to find my destined soul mate. I kept looking and reading, ad after ad, email upon email, and it was difficult to stop. I fantasized about finding that honest ad accompanied by a photo that would make my testosterone sit up and notice. Just one more, I kept thinking, just one more. Maybe that will be The One!
It became an addiction. Every day, I spent all my spare time at the computer. I looked at photos, exchanged emails, spoke on the phone. Once or twice a month I went on a coffee date, hoping there would be that magical ingredient, Chemistry. I met teachers, single moms, lawyers, nurses, psychologists, tarot readers and massage therapists.
Without exception, they were crazy. “Fit female professional” was a nail biter. She compulsively gnawed the ends of her fingers and spat the leavings onto the table.
She was an attorney. She kept talking through the nail biting, P-tuh. P-tuh. She spoke quickly and emphatically. While she gnawed her left hand, she waved her right hand in my face. This right hand was her way of telling me not to interrupt because her story was much more important than any of my stories. I was to shut up and listen attentively. It was okay. I didn’t have anything to say. Attorney stories are incredibly boring to non-attorneys.
I’m sure the ladies found me just as strange. The LEAST strange thing about me is that my favorite T-shirts are ninety five percent holes. They are just bits of thread barely connecting a few patches of fabric. I have only three left. I can’t sleep in anything but one of these three T-shirts. Sometimes I forget what I’m wearing and go outside to fetch the mail or talk to a neighbor. I get a strange look and I realize that I’m wearing a garment that resembles the lining of a hamster’s cage. That is the LEAST strange thing about me.
I think we would be better off if we stopped pretending to be well adjusted and wore our neuroses like outer garments, as plainly as blouses and jackets. Perhaps someone should invent a kind of portable holographic billboard, a way to display personality profiles. They could be called REALITYGRAMS ä. They would convey honest self-assessments. For example, when a man comes into proximity to an attractive female, he can switch on his REALITYGRAM™, which will say something like “ I am a needy narcissist with food addictions and a tendency towards cruel verbal ‘leakage’. I’m working on these issues in therapy. I dwell excessively on my childhood abuse. I blame my mother for everything that’s wrong with my life.”
The dark side of one’s-personality is up front, out on the table. The man I’ve just described, whoever he might be, could look for a woman with a hologram saying, “I am a compulsive nurturer. I can’t say ‘No’ to anyone. I’m submissive but full of repressed rage. I cycle between anorexia and bulimia. I’m attracted to men like my father. He could verbally cut a woman to shreds and seem as if he was doing her a favor.”
Instead of looking for Mister or Ms Perfect, we can look for a person with a tolerable set of neuroses and compulsions. A person we can live with. Think of all the time and trouble to be saved!
The internet dating world is a freak show of fantasy and bad judgment. That isn’t just a rumor. I had dates that were excruciating and bizarre. One night I went out with a psychiatrist who offered herself in marriage after about twenty minutes of light conversation. We had been driving around Golden Gate Park. I had parked my car in front of the Hall of Flowers and we were sitting there, chatting and inhaling the fragrant air.
“Do you want to marry me?” she asked, in all seriousness. “I need to know right now. Otherwise I’ll make different plans. You’ll never regret hooking up with me. I’ll support you in your work, connect you with publishers. Your life will be glorious. I’m a fantastic woman, sexually, intellectually. I cook gourmet food. I know volumes of poetry by heart. I can fence, I play chess….”
“Why,” I asked, “are you so eager to marry me?”
“You’re a brilliant man,” she said. “I’ve read your writing, heard your music. Your work will be loved centuries from now. I want to be part of that. An artist like you doesn’t come around every day.”
There was a little red light going off in that part of my brain that discriminates between decisions that are in my best interests and decisions that are not. Beep beep beep beep. The familiar Star Trek Computer Voice was saying, “Warning warning, attractive objects may be less attractive than they appear!” There was part of me that was flattered and tempted. She was a fine looking woman, with blue eyes, milky skin and a glossy black helmet of shoulder-length hair. She was a socialite psychiatrist who lived in a five thousand square foot house on Twin Peaks. I had gone to her house for coffee. It was incredible. The furnishings, the view! Then we drove in our separate cars to the bottom of the hill. She was going somewhere else after our little date. I picked her up on Haight Street and we took my car into Golden Gate Park.
I thought about being supported in luxury while I played music and wrote novels. I thought about that amazing house and its view of the glittering lights of the entire bay. I was exhausted by my artist’s poverty. I had struggled for decades just to stay alive and continue my work. I was worn down by the incessant tension of squeaking by on a pittance.
I was actually thinking about it! I was insane to even consider it! Let me remind you that, a few paragraphs back, I make the blanket assertion that we’re all crazy. Yes, I thought about marrying this woman. I just couldn’t fight my way through the temptation. For fifteen minutes I waffled around, equivocating. I could not bring myself to say a clear “No.”
My hesitation made her furious.
She grew strident. Her transformation from charming to vicious was instantaneous.
“Asshole!” she rasped. Her hair swung like a whip as she turned on me. “Do you have any idea what you’re passing up?” She grabbed her sweater at the waist and pulled it to her neck. Her eyes burned into mine. The nearby street lights revealed a perfect pair of medium sized breasts with taut little nipples. The muscles of her abdomen and torso were beautifully toned from regular workouts. I got the message. I didn’t know what to do with it.
I babbled. “What the fu…? I…um..shit….how would I...umm?” My mouth was full of the stones of reality. I didn’t know what to say. This woman was nuts! What wonderful irony!
“Take me back to my car, you fucking pussy,” she finally ordered. “I need a man who knows what he wants. You had your chance, you fat kyke.”
This is internet dating, I reminded myself. Don’t be surprised by anything, no matter how bizarre. Our world is like a locked psych-ward after the doors have been thrown open.
I drove out of the park and delivered my rejected wrathful shrink to her Mercedes on Haight Street.
This was a chaotic period in my life, a time when I frequently lost my bearings. On one occasion I accepted a dinner invitation to a woman’s home. She had posted an exquisite photograph online, that of a gorgeous blonde with a sweet and tender expression.
I would be meeting her son and a few close friends. It seemed innocent enough. It seemed safe.
I rang the doorbell of a ranch house in the North Bay. The door opened with an ominous squeak of the hinges. If I had been living in a cartoon, there would have been a sudden scream of tuneless brass from the orchestra. My hair would have stood on end. As the door opened my eyes would pop out on stalks and a second ghostly figure of myself would be seen separating from my body and running away in terror. The orchestra would follow my ghost-body with a tinny xylophone playing silly running sounds.
She wore a hair net. She cradled a bottle of bourbon in her armpit. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her lips and sent swirls of smoke drifting into watery eyes. The makeup that was daubed on her face looked as if applied by a chimpanzee. She leered at me, smiling the ways horses laugh, with the lips flapping like big wet paddles, showing her oversized square yellow teeth. The photo in her web ad showed a fresh-faced blue-eyed beauty with the looks of a magazine model. If I squinted and imagined her in a much younger life, I could recognize the svelte beauty. There are no rules on the internet outlawing the use of images from twenty or thirty years ago. I had been hoist on the petard of my own shallowness!
Rather than bailing out at the first opportunity, I politely persevered. I didn’t have the heart to reject the woman outright. I had been on dates that lasted five seconds. Both followed the same script. I strode into the coffee shop, recognized my date by her description. I sat down. My date stood up as if she was on the other end of a seesaw.
“Nope, not my type,” she said. She pivoted and walked away. That’s all. Twice! Had the date lasted five seconds? Ten? It depends when the clock started. When I walked ithrough the door? Or when I sat down?
These ladies were black belts in internet dating. They threw me to the mat, bam! I’m not like that. I could never be so ruthless.
There were a dozen or so people about the house. Something illicit was going on in a rear bedroom, where the door opened periodically to swallow people. When they emerged there was a glitter about their eyes, a skewed smile, a naughty wink. When I was invited, I declined. I hadn’t come to this place to get loaded on the buzz of the day.
I protected myself by spending time with the son of my hostess. He was eleven and had a set of drums. I had once been a professional drummer. I felt I had something to impart. I showed the boy how to play a few rudiments and easy swing rides on the cymbal. He wanted to play blasting heavy metal music and wasn’t very impressed. He demonstrated his playing by thrashing at the drums with uncoordinated rage. I took my turn again and started doing Gene Krupa licks. This was more to his liking. He could relate to the primitive tom-toms, to the boomboombity boom.
The boy had a sad resigned look on his face. His dad was absent; his mom was a decaying alcoholic, his home a location for drug parties. He was not having an easy childhood. He had a Marine Corps haircut, the kind that looks like an oval piece of carpet glued to the top of his head. He had pimples, a few missing teeth. I could see the thug he would be in four or five years.
I digress. The story of how I met Fox goes like this: Fox kept her laptop at her best friend’s house. In the course of my online meet ‘n’ greets, I had corresponded briefly with this best friend, and my name had gone into her Buddies List. There was a small problem, because it wasn’t her computer and it wasn’t her Buddies List.
Fox was a deeply reserved woman in the midst of an unspeakably abusive marriage.
The computer was with her best friend because Fox’s husband relentlessly spied on her. He scanned her computer, listened to her phone calls, brazenly read her mail. Her best friend’s place was the only refuge she knew. She had to embezzle her own money to buy a laptop. It stayed at the best friend’s house; it was her only private expression.
The next time she signed on to AOL, she saw my name on her Buddies List. “Who is this?” she asked her friend. “Have you been using my computer?”
“I’m sorry,” was the reply. “I couldn’t resist. I hate sharing a computer with Tom.” That was her son. “He’s always playing video games, I never get online.” She looked at my name on the Buddies List. “That’s just some guy I chatted with a few times.”
Fox was angry. She sent me an email and requested that her screen name be removed from my Buddies List, and she would remove mine from hers. I don’t really remember, truth be told, how the first email morphed into several more emails. Soon we were regular correspondents. Then we started talking on the phone. The conversations were strangely confessional. Sometimes Fox fled from her home in despair and called me from her car. She barely mentioned her marriage. She listened. She was a great listener and I could talk raindrops back into the clouds.
Then we arranged to meet.
It was impossible to anticipate how profoundly we would alter one another’s lives.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
An excerpt from AVOIDING THE POTHOLES: ROAD STORIES IN A CHANGING AMERICA
Highway 50 through Nevada is reputed to be the loneliest road in the USA. It has a rival, and its name is Highway 6. It takes a northeasterly diagonal the entire breadth of Nevada before vanishing into the wilds of The Great Basin in Utah. It is far more isolated than 50, a hard hot eerie stretch of rocky desert and bare crags. There is one Flying J truck stop a third of the way across the state. After that: nothing. The town of Ely (pronounced E –Lee) is the road’s first destination. It’s a crossroads town with signs pointing to Las Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake City. Highways 50, 6 and 93 enter and leave the town in a few confusing blocks.
After surviving our plunge down 89 with a broken steering column, we made it to Bishop, and, god knows why, we wanted to get onto 6 and put another fifty miles on the odometer before stopping for the night.
Rule number one about driving an RV. DON”T DRIVE AT NIGHT! It’s hard enough to control a bulky machine without playing with peripheral monsters at the side of the road, highway fatigue and caffeine nerves.
We pushed out of Bishop after stopping at a Super K-Mart, where Fox and I got separated and I couldn’t find her to save my life. I was reduced to calling her pet name, knowing that she would hear it more readily than a shouted “Fox, where are you?” So, I stood in the middle of an aisle full of hosiery and started crying plaintively, “Boo Boo! BoooooBoooo!” Everyone wascertain I was retarded. I was wondering myself if my previous life of risky activities hadn’t finally damaged my brain. From now on we carry cell phones or walkie talkies, I don’t ever want to go through this ordeal again. “Booooo boooooo!” Where the hell did she go? One second she was right THERE, looking at skin cream, and the next, she had vaporized into the merchandise, wandered off like an un-tethered toddler. This store occupies ten thousand acres and you can’t see more than twenty feet! I might never find her, or wander for two and a half years before fetching up at the customer service booth, begging the teenage girl in the silly uniform to speak into her microphone: Will Booboo come to the customer service counter, please?
At last, re-united by calling booboo until I got within sonic range of Fox, I was able to carry supplies out to Yertle, our beloved RV, in the darkening afternoon. Why did we continue driving? We were nuts. As I navigated the final stoplights of Bishop, a nearby driver began honking repeatedly and gesturing towards Yertle. I pulled over and discovered that I had been driving with the steps still sticking out of the camper. Keep a check list, RV rovers!
After fifty miles, we came to the tiny one-store town of Tonopah. Fortunately, the store was open. A very large young man, Native American, confirmed that there were no campgrounds before Ely. He said, however, that we could park in the school parking lot and spend the night. The school was just behind the store. “Lots of people get stuck out here,” he said. “It’s okay. Just try to be gone before school starts in the morning. Nobody will bother you. I’ll tell the sheriff when he drops by, tell him you’re back there. But if he sees you before I do, tell him Bear said it was okay.”
This kindness was touching. We began to realize that we had met kindness at every obstacle on this trip, and that kindness came in all sorts of disguises, in the most unlikely places.
In the morning there was snow on the tops of the mountains. Nevada is a washboard, an undulating series of mountains and valleys, and the roads cut straight across this ancient seabed. At the top of each peak, the view spreads down the road ahead, which goes in a straight line for miles and miles until it disappears into the next rise of the landscape. I had never expected Nevada to be so beautiful. There were huge clouds casting shadows upon the vast valley floors.
Tomorrow’s drive was supposed to be easy: a hundred sixty miles to Ely, where we would join up with our old friend, Highway Fifty. It was November; bright, clear, and warm in the valleys, crisp on the peaks.Yertle ran well, but I continued to be apprehensive. It’s one thing to drive a car. It breaks down, you call a tow truck. An RV is another matter: we were carrying our lives in the damn thing. The water tank held twenty gallons. We had food, propane. There was no shelter on Highway Six, no trees, no roadside stops.
If Yertle broke down, there was no telling how long we might be stranded. I imagined our quandary if something happened. Out here in the desert, way beyond cell phone service, we could be truly stuck. Therewas little traffic. Every hour or so, we’d pass a car, going the other way. Everyone, it seemed, was going the other way.
Gathering my nerve, I hit the accelerator, and the old Chevy 350 gurgled forth, up the highway, into the brightening day. My gas tank had been filled in Bishop. The truck seemed happy. Yertle was whispering, “don’t worry, I’ll get you to Arches, don’t worry.”
I can’t help but worry, Yertle, I responded mentally. It’s my nature to worry. I am the son of my father.
This was ‘lower’ Nevada, an uncompromising landscape. Sandstone blocks tipped by ancient floods and earthquakes littered the northern side of the road. On the south was nothing but miles and miles of scrub, tumbleweed, creosote bush. The stuff gave off a smell, a pleasant goldish earthen odor. We were skirting the northern fringe of Nellis Air Force Base, with its old atomic test sites. If they once tested atom bombs here, they must have considered this the ultimate in remoteness.
At fifty miles an hour, the noise from Yertle’s engine and various parts bouncing around made conversation or music impossible. There was nothing to do but drive, and look at the landscape, however monotonous or downright eerie. Occasionally a vulture would mark the sky like a comma on vast blue paper.
We pushed north and east, and everything seemed okay. Then, about fifty miles out of Tonopah, I heard a high whining sound from the engine. Yertle kept on going, so I said my prayers and continued to drive.
We had entered a wide valley. It looked like thirty miles to the next ridge, and I could see all thirty miles of road, slightly undulant, like a road-kill rattlesnake, until it disappeared between the breasts of the next rise in the primordial earthbody.
Then I was brought to alertness by a loud bang, and a nasty smell of burning rubber. Yertle was running, but I had to pull over. I was afraid to turn the engine off; afraid she’d never start again. I got out and pulled open the hood. Pieces of fan belt were shredded all over the motor compartment. I picked them out, saving the biggest piece for reference. Fan belt for what, I wondered? How I wish I understood cars, how I wish I were a competent mechanic! Then, as I inspected the various parts of the motor, I saw a thumb-sized hole, right through the metal rectangle of the I-don’t-know-what. Pieces of this metal were strewn about. It was as if we had been shot by a high caliber rifle. I knew, however, that it was a case of metal fatigue, that this porous, cheap material, this aluminum casing for some part of our vehicle’s innards, had met its deadline.
Yet, the engine was running fine.
What the hell, I thought. Let’s go until we can’t go any more.
We kept driving, praying for Ely. Seventy miles to go. Come on, Ely, come on. About half an hour later, I saw a convoy of vehicles in the distance. Two highway patrol cars were parked at the side of the road. The officers were waving us to stop.
I was glad to see a human being, a person of authority. To make that statement, “I was glad to see a person of authority”, is indicative of how scared I was. I don’t have anything against policemen. I have a significant resentment of all authority figures, always have and always will. I learned that there are times when one might be thrilled to see a person of authority, and this was one of those times.
We pulled out onto a wide margin. A mile down the road, a gigantic truck was hauling a gargantuan pipe, long as a freight car and wider than the entire road. I took a chance, and turned off the engine. I got out of Yertle and approached the officer.
“Sir”, I asked respectfully, “can you spare a moment to look at our truck? Something broke a while ago, and I don’t know what’s going on.”
The policeman was half my age. He was short and compact, and looked like someone who could tear three phone books in half with his bare hands. He glanced under the hood, while the monstrous pipe rolled slowly past our place beside the road.
“That’s your air conditioner belt,” he informed us. “And that hole, well that’s your air conditioner. Looks like the belt shredded and then popped the AC unit right through the guts. Good thing it wasn’t the fan belt, or you’d be stuck out here.”
Greatly relieved, I thanked our benefactor, started Yertle and proceeded down the ever-lonely road.
Things happen to people. Events are events, but our interpetation of these events overshadows the events themselves. For me, the most important thing is to react with imagination, to view life as a process of gaining understanding, regardless of whether good things or bad things happen.
I didn’t know what the hell was going on with this crazy trip. All I knew was that it was scaring the bejesus out of me. I asked Fox, several times, ‘Do you want to turn back?”
Fox is made of stronger stuff than I. “No,” she always said, “We’re supposed to go to Arches.”
God, I felt like a pussy. Men don’t enjoy feeling cowardly. It’s not a good man-feeling. It’s a feeling that lurks in some small fetid bathroom down in my soul, a bathroom with a naked bulb worked by a pull-string with a knot at the end, a bathroom with old squeaky faucets that give out brown water. It has a frosted window that’s jammed shut, with a paint job where the streaky white paintbrush overswept right onto the window and the painter didn’t give a shit to scrape it clean. That’s what my cowardice feels like, it feels like that cheap hotel bathroom and it’s not fun at all. I was going to have to brace up. That’s what the wise old samurai said to the Toshirure Mifune character in “The Seven Samurai”. It’s become an in-joke for Fox and me. “Brace up, Kikuchiyo”, we tell one another. “Brace up.”
And Yertle, in spite of her perfidy, kept reassuring me. “I’ll get you there,”
she whispered, “Stop worrying so much. I may be old but I’ve got plenty of miles left in me.”
she whispered, “Stop worrying so much. I may be old but I’ve got plenty of miles left in me.”
Never once did I wonder if I was completely nuts, talking to an RV. I was simply being swept along by events as they occurred. What else could I do?
The landscape began to rise, as we came into another range of the Humboldt-Toyabe Forest. I looked at the gas gauge and with a shock realized that we were down to a quarter tank. Where did the gas go?! The tank was filled in Bishop, only a hundred fifty miles down the road. I had badly overestimated the mileage of which Yertle was capable. That, and a headwind, had drunk our gas, and I had been so preoccupied, I failed to fill her up at the one and only truck stop between Tonopah and Ely. Now, I wondered if we were going to run out of fuel on some tricky mountain curve without a shoulder.
Fox was an active participant in all this, of course. By mutual agreement, I was and would always be the driver of our RV. On rare occasions I would give Fox the wheel, but it was a shaky proposition. Fox is given to seeing things, especially when the light is low. A rhino can pop out of the sagebrush and give chase. Osama Bin Laden sits in the back of a pickup truck, grinning smugly. Fox is n’t crazy, but she is psychic and sometimes has trouble separating vision from reality. Maybe it’s the Apache blood. The closer we got to the ancestral homelands, the weirder she became. But she was calm where I was not. She was stoic where I was terrified.
Compulsively, I watched the gas gauge, then chastised myself and equally compulsively avoided watching the gas gauge. I forced my eyes to bypass the little meter as it quivered, ever downward toward EMPTY. Why weren’t we carrying a gas can with five exrtra gallons. Rule Number Two of RV’ing. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA FUEL! The fuel consumption of the most innocent looking RV is a ravening dragon, an elephant sucking up fluids faster than they can be replenished. Motor homes LOVE fuel, the way kids love candy or the way addicts love dope. Gimme some gas! they breathe, panting with appetite. Gimme some gas!
Thirty miles to Ely. Okay, steal a look at the gauge. It’s hovering over the little line that says, EMERGENCY! hurry up and get a fill! I’m calculating. Let’s see, if we are getting ten miles to the gallon, and we have three gallons, we can just get to Ely. But if we’re getting eight per gallon, we’re totally fucked. That’s assuming there are three gallons. There might be five; or there might be two. Does the gauge read short when we’re going uphill? That’s possible, I suppose.
Naturally, the headwind grew more powerful and our route took to yet another interminable climb up into the Toyabe-Humboldt Forest. The road was Nevada-smooth, paid for by gambling taxes, well maintained. But here, on the undulant highway, there was no shoulder, just a line of white fence posts, blocking all exit from the road. Run out of gas here, around a blind curve, and some truck can come a’whamming along and crunch us like an old Pepsi can before the driver knows what’s happening.
I spent the next forty five minutes waiting for the engine to sputter and die. I watched the side of the road for potential escapes, and watched the rear view mirror for the following eighteen wheeler that spelled our doom, like the monster truck from that early Spielberg movie, “Duel”. The forest grew thicker, looking like a real forest. Now there were signs touting campgrounds and tourist sites, in the southern approach to Ely. They were little comfort to me. The gas gauge quivered and teased me as it sat on Empty. My heart was beating in every pore of my skin. Why so scared, I chided myself? Everybody runs out of gas at least a couple times in their lives. Yes, I responded, BUT NOT HERE! Not in Yertle, noble RV, not on a curvy road with no shoulder, where the last vehicle we saw was a FedEx truck, and it passed us going uphill in a no pass zone, like we were standing still. People drive crazy in Nevada on Highway Six. They think the roads are empty. Crazy.
We came to a crest of the mountain range, and I thought with relief, it’s downhill from here! We can coast, we won’t burn our precious bits of fuel climbing laboriously up every steep curve of the road. Alas! After going down for a bit, the road turned upward once again. The gauge was on EMPTY. I played games with it. If I looked at it from the side, it kinda looked like there was more gas in it. I leaned right, leaned left, but I wasn’t fooling myself. Yertle soldiered onward. I was running out of gas on a road with no shoulder, I had a shredded air conditioner belt and a fist-sized hole in the engine.
The roadside sign said, “Ely—12mi”. And there we were, at the real crest of the range. I put Yertle in neutral, took my foot off the gas, and coasted down and around the mountain curves. At last, the ominous white fencing beside the road vanished. A few houses appeared. Billboards advertised motels and gift shops, gambling casinos, banks and auto body garages. More houses.
Ely! My eyes were pealed for a gas station. I made a left onto Ely’s main drag and made a beeline for the first gas station I saw. Yertle coasted over the curb, I put her in drive, lined her up to the pump, and then….and then…..she gurgled and died, out of gas.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
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 at large is that society, represented by The Government, can print money. The newly printed money is really fake money, 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. My time as a bum was still really ongoing 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. People thrive on approval, it’s a normal human need. 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 still pretty much a bum, 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? How much would the minimum payments be, eight dollars a month?
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 is 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 for a dry cleaners, I worked as a flower delivery driver. I survived by the seat of my pants.
My monthly 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 Card 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 guitar picks, 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. And 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.
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. Hundreds 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 entrepeneurs spawn thousands of competitors? Imagine a radio commercial sounding like this (provide your own cheesy radio-announcer voice):
“Want to get rich on the internet? Make five thousand dollars a week from the privacy of your own home! All you have to do is buy our book, "How to Get Rich on the Internet by Writing How To Get Rich on the Internet Books!" Your own book, "How to Write How To Get Rich on the Internet Books" will soon be a hit and generating fantastic income. Your satisfied customers will be writing their own "How to Write How to Write How to Get Rich on the Internet" books and will in their turn be raking in the money. In Step Three, you will branch out into other "How To" book fields, such as "How To Publish Your Own How To Books On the Internet", "How to Soak the How To Book Instruction Market on the Internet", and "How to Invest Your Money Earned from Writing How to How to Books on the Internet". Then, in the final phase of our instructional program, you will learn how to write How To books on any subject at all, such as "How to Learn Russian in Ten Minutes", "How to Write How to Learn Russian In Ten Minutes," or "How to Write How to How to Learn Russian in Ten Minutes in Ten Minutes". The possibilities are infinite! Start raking in the cash now! All you have to do is pay us to learn how to do anything on the internet without knowing how! Visa, Mastercharge, Versatron, Intellidebt, AutoCarLien, Prodeduct Utilities Bill, all forms of payment accepted!
Call 1-800-Howtohow or go to www.howtohowdy.com”
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 motorome? 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 for 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 waste basket. 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 travel 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 freak me out. I know that a lot of people, new to poverty and crushing debt, are freaked out. 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 fore-runner 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 sank to the bottom tier of society. The work of begging is very difficult.
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.”
“So..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.
“Perfect!” She got the pun. “That’s what I’ll call it from now on. Thanks!
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 and 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 so –called intent 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 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 court room 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.