Read Now, Pay Later

W. F. MIKSCH is a free-lance writer living in Newtown,Connecticut. He was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and attended Moravian College.

I don’t think my creditors realize it, but their habit of stuffing all sorts of reading matter into my monthly statement envelopes is only contributing to the delinquency of a debtor — of this debtor, anyway. I can’t write checks and read at the same time.

It is with the best of intentions that I sit down with pen and checkbook to settle my account with the light company. But upon opening their envelope, the first thing that hops out is an inviting six-page, two-color house organ entitled Connecticut Now and Then, and my attention is captured at once by a sentence halfway down a page which says, “Not so well known is that Nathan Hale was apparently betrayed by his own cousin whose sympathies lay with the British cause.”

Well! Putting aside pen and checkbook, I get to thinking about my own cousins and wondering what the Hale family reunions must have been like, and before I know it, it is Sunday. There is no point in writing a check on Sunday because checks bearing Sunday datemarks are not legal and may bounce. (I know this is said to be an old wives’ tale, but it is one I prefer to believe.)

On Monday, leaving the light bill still untouched in its envelope (if it really is in there at all), I get on with my reading. There is a good deal more about Nathan Hale, plus a recipe for honey fruit-salad dressing, a progress report on the light company’s atomic-power program, and the surprising news that “popcorn will pop better if you sprinkle it with a little warm water before putting it into the popper.”(I am not ungrateful for such information; I’m just trying to explain why I don’t get around to paying my bills on time.)

Since I’ve never taken a course in speed reading, the weeks slip by, and presently along comes another envelope from the light company. This time I get to glance at the bill, and they obviously are put out with me over my tardiness, yet not so put out that they have withheld the latest free copy of Connecticut Now and Then. It is an even better issue than the last, but before I can finish reading it the lights go out.

I have singled out the light company, but it is the same with most of my creditors. Each seems to try to soften the blow of its invoice by padding it with plenty of good reading entertainment. I particularly like Telephone News (“Published monthly for customers of The Southern New England Telephone Co.”). Last month its “For the Puzzlers” column posed this one: “If a box of anagram letters contains 8 G’s, 9 M’s and 30 each of A, N, R, how many ways are there to pick out and arrange the letters to make the word Anagram?” I am still picking out and arranging. If you know the answer, don’t bother trying to call me. My phone is disconnected.

The Calling Card (“a friendly visit in print” from my life insurance company) keeps me regularly posted on such a variety of subjects as giant squid (largest on record measured fifty-seven feet), bicycle safety (“Warn of your approach — day and night”), and Polaris submarines (vegetables can be grown aboard; carrots do not do well down there, however). If I skim through it, skipping words here and there, I often am able to finish it and pay my premium before the thirty-day grace period expires.

Statements from the Diners’ Club and those few department stores which still trust me come in envelopes packed so thick with printed matter that I frequently file them — unopened — in a shoebox labeled “Reading for a Rainy Day.” Sometimes, when I finally do get around to paying, I grow so confused by the profusion of paper slips that I return all the wrong things, instead of the check and bill stub which my creditor is expecting.

As with many business practices, I am not sure what motivates this one. Is all this free library service designed to put me in a prodigal frame of mind, conducive to check writing? Then they cannot know how readily I am sidetracked by something to read. Are they trying to present a friendlier image? It is practically impossible to revise my image of a creditor as the Man With the Whip. Or has it nothing at all to do with me? Are they simply driven by some thrift compulsion to fill envelopes right up to the weight limit on the postage meter? Could they be expressing a subconscious desire to be in the communications business rather than in that of collections?

Whatever it is, they must realize that my chronic arrears are due more to my being a slow reader than a slow payer. If they are willing to wait for their money, then I shall go on enjoying every word they send me, along with all the pretty pictures. Otherwise, I shall have to find some new, less literate creditors.