View From the Credit Hole

To charge is human.

To pay is out of the question.

In a dream I have quite often lately, I am at the bottom of a deep, dark pit, looking up. A man is looking down at me. I call to him: “There is no way out.”

“That’s true.”the man answers, “but I’m afraid we can’t let you stay down there, either.”

I understand the dream. The pit is debt, and the man is a credit-card company. In real life. I am in that pit. looking up. Decent human beings ought not to live in pits. How did it happen to me?

The financial nurturing of early Americans, even those around the age of forty as I now am. did not include exposure to credit cards. I avoided them puritanically even into married life. But when I was approaching thirty, and had two small children. I was employed by Life magazine, which assigned a lot of traveling. I was advised by my employers that an American Express card was a valuable document—not alone for use as a charge plate, but also as evidence of my substance as a person. And so I applied for and received a green plastic American Express card. It was sufficient for me. I dutifully paid the charges every month.

Then came the insidious golden age of 1970 (so long ago!), when the banks began distributing unsolicited largesse in the form of BankAmericard and Master Charge. I, like thousands or millions of others, was invited to accept the cards, and use them if ever there was need. Mine remained tucked away unused for months. I never acknowledged receiving the unwanted gadgets, and meant to throw them away.

Then one day our vacuum cleaner exploded. Master Charge was brought forth from a desk drawer to substitute for the $45 I did not have on hand to pay for a new machine.

The strangling credit net in which I am now and perhaps forever enmeshed–the figure eventually reached $16,450, and threatens not to descend–began its inexorable spread on that day. I am at the present time in bondage to an impressive array of banks, oil companies, department stores, computers. collection agencies, lawyers, clerks, and typists. My servitude is involuntary, my emancipation dependent upon riches beyond my reach. I am at the mercy of these slaveholders who, as any large group, include gentle princes as well as mean tyrants, sympathetic listeners as well as deal brutes, malleable humans as well as immovable machines.

My tale is a common one to this extent: having discovered the apparently bottomless bag of credit, I dug deeper and deeper into it, subscribing to whole herds of card companies (I had become a free-lance writer, and a pocketful of cards was extremely helpful in so speculative a business). Then I oversubscribed and overspent.

The companies have standard procedures for recovering funds from ordinary debtors. But I am not usual. Mv luck was that I developed my indebtedness to the most golden height just when I stopped earning money. That is to say, my freelance business was in doldrums, and I couldn’t pay anybody anything. Nor did the common collection methods apply, as I had no approachable employer or predictable income. We rent our house and own but two worthless old cars.

As my credit balances blossomed and my payments withered, there evolved among all the companies and me a complicated system of communication, a major national network of messages, entreaties, warnings, computerized forms, self-addressed stamped envelopes; my mail quadrupled. We all took to the phones. “Are you aware . . .” they would say to me. “I cannot pay just now.”I would reply. “When?" “I don’t know.”I would say.

I had no money, and could prove it. No amount of snooping around my records, friends, or commercial droppings would turn up the barest hint of hidden reserves.

And anyway, nobody rued my poverty more than I did. Caveats that my credit rating might be destroyed were anachronistic; the wino is unmoved by pronouncements on the danger of drink. And short of resurrecting a debtor’s prison for me, there was little that creditors could do. In fact, as I occasionally pointed out to them, an artist such as myself can produce his finest work when free from mundane worry, so their best shot at their money would be to leave me alone to earn it.

As the months wore on, one by one the companies notified me that credit privileges had been revoked, and that I was to “mutilate and return" the cards. I ignored these aggressive commands, which seemed capricious given the fact that the very same mail deliveries brought me invitations to buy portable radios, silverware, or medical insurance with the very same credit cards.

I did, however, cease their usage, an action hastened by events at a camera store when I presented my BankAmericard to pay for some equipment with which I hoped mv son might embark upon a more enduringly solvent career than mine.

The clerk telephoned BankAmericard, then addressed me shyly: “We have to destroy this card. It must be embarrassing for you, so we’ll do it later.”

“I’m not embarrassed.”I said. “Cut it right now, so I can see.”

The blushing clerk produced some scissors and. attended by a knot of smiling onlookers, sliced my BankAmericard in two. In a daring flash of paternal ego. I then recklessly paid for the equipment in rare cash currency an act I could not now repeat.

For all my honest obduracy. I was being forced to recognize that I would soon be without the means to secure any goods and services-food among them. In a truth unknown to the ranks of solicitors, I was becoming quite depressed over my fiscal impotence.

The summer deepened into winter, with the U. S. Mail and Bell Telephone beating an incessant tattoo upon the theme of debt and mutilation. I despised opening envelopes with windows in them, dared not return calls when messages contained a number ending in 00.

Ironically, it was neither work nor money that my wife and I those days needed most. We needed a vacation. Continuing the paradox, while I could not get the first two, we could have the third.

Among the contradictions provided from the mailman‘s bag was this: while old creditors threatened legal action, yet another one begged me to subscribe. And so it was that after years of ignoring this one s pleas, I suddenly accepted and soon received a handsome new Carte Blanche card. Within two days I used that card to prepay an entire ski week in the West, including plane fare, car rental, lodging, and lift tickets.

By the time we returned from the snows of the Rockies. Carte Blanche had, belatedly, joined the others in withdrawing card privileges and requesting mutilation.

But I was freshened and sassy. One lovely sprina day. while a robin screeched of possessions outside my window. I received a call from a woman identifying herself as American Express, Miami, Florida.

After the usual preliminaries, I said, “You made a mistake withdrawing my card. For although everybody will one day be paid in full, those who have withdrawn their business shall be last, and those who stick by me. first.”

If you re talking about Master Charge,” she said, “even though they may not demand payment as quickly as we do, they charge a much higher interest on . . .”

“They’re last too.”

“Sir?”

“You re all last. I said. “First is open, currently.”

After a quizzical pause, she said. “We’re computerized here, and computers can’t make exceptions. I’m not trying to abuse you.”

“Pity,” I said. “But i seek no exception. I just don’t have a dime.”

“Send in your card immediately,” she said.

“Send somebody to get it.”I said.

I cannot defend such biting repartee–several of the companies, American Express included, had been quite decent far longer than I would have expected. But I felt that I was showing signs of re-

covering mental health, which was crucial if I was to survive long enough to pay these damnably valid bills.

Carte Blanche was one of those with mighty patience. A woman calling from their offices in Los Angeles asked me if my situation was improving any (“We re trying to keep your account from going to the legal department, you understand”) and I said that, alas, it was not.

“Would you be interested in receiving a loan?” she asked.

I was delightfully flabbergasted, in the detached manner of one for whom comedic theater is being performed. She explained that the AVCO company. which owns Carte Blanche, sometimes arranges loans for the purpose of paying up delinquent charges.

Continuing with the farce. I asked. “It I get the loan, and so repay the debt, will I get my card back?”

“I believe so.” she said.

For some days she pursued the loan, but in the end. AVCO even turned her down.

BankAmerieard, while similarly sympathetic, was more confused. One day I received a brand new set of charges. Inasmuch as my card some months before had been, before my very eyes, hacked up,

I assumed there was a mistake. “Oh, the) re correct charges, all right,” a BankAmerieard voice told me. “Your card was destroyed in February, but these charges occurred way back in September. Most of them have gone through Bankers Trust— they’re terribly far behind.”

“And if I were that far behind in payments?”

“You’d be delinquent.”

“And lose my card?”

“Surely.”

American Express, being either more organized or more ambitious, was the first to advance its action. I began receiving letters from an outfit called “All State Credit" (an ironic name) of Kansas City, Missouri.

The stationery—which included the promotional line “The National Credit Card Pick-Op Service,” suggesting kinship with perhaps a rug-cleaning firm-contained the message: “We are now in the process of taking final action in recovering the property of our client,” which they claimed, without substantiation, was American Express.

At the bottom of each letter was a handy “affidavit.” by which my signature, “under penalty of perjury,” would attest that my card had been either: “returned to company; lost; destroyed; other (explain).”

Of course I signed no affidavits from this unverified surrogate. In time the All State bunch retired, and the matter passed on to the Coventry Collection Agency, with which I fell more comfortable in business, since their letterhead clearly announced: “Subsidiary of American Express Company.” They didn’t ask for my card, just the money I owed, which I considered reasonable.

Why, one might ask, hadn’t I at least returned the credit cards, since I couldn’t use them anyway without committing fraud? Because I had never forgotten my first lesson: the cards were evidence of substance, whether or not you charged anything. The years since had reaffirmed that dozens of times, They are valuable forms of identification and symbols of trustworthiness. In strange towns, you may rent cars without deposits, check into hotels without paying in advance, and pay by personal check, if you can show the clerk some credit cards.

That is why it was important for me to have a walletful of invalid but otherwise legitimate credit cards when I not long ago went to Alaska on a magazine assignment. My wallet, sad to say, was immediately stolen in a bar in faraway Fairbanks. Although moderately distressed at the loss, I was also amused at the imagined irony of the crook, upon using my cards, being arrested, not for theft, but on suspicion of actually being me no less a larceny, with those cards.

I must mention that I still owned one last usable card—TWA Getaway. For some reason now obseured in history, but perhaps related to a subconscious recognition of a possible last resort–to get away, in fact—we had kept our TWA payments meticulously up to date.

Upon theft of my wallet, I quickly alerted TWA and was assured that the stolen TWA card would be stopped and a different one issued. They mentioned that my card was about to expire anyway, so I was due for a renewal.

By now, I was almost totally benumbed over the entire world of card-credit, with its indecipherable ins and outs, its interminable barrage of dire news, its timeless river of unreality.

I received in the mail, one hot summer day, a new TWA Getaway card, just like the stolen one. which I pocketed unquestioningly. The next day I received another card, with a different number. I cared nothing for this latest mystery, and filed the second card away in a drawer.

I had taken to looking for a steady job. It was brutally hot one noontime when I emerged from a sleek Fifth Avenue office building with my latest deferral from employment. I needed, like any down-and-outer who can least afford it, a drink. I had no money, but did have my TWA card, which is honored at bars and restaurants in some of the finest hotels. I chose the Hilton.

I drank for a while, into a state of careless euphoria, and presented my card for payment. Minutes later a gentleman in a tuxedo discreetly summoned me to the rear, to the kitchen. “Your card.” he said, in a tone apologetic and deferential yet firm, “is not good.”

He brought me, stunned and stuttering denials, to a small table on which was an open white pamphlet whose pages were crammed with lists of tins numbers, and handed me a magnifying glass. “Your card’s on the stop list. I am most sorry to say, but you may see it for yourself.”

The numbers shimmied under the glass, but one stood firm and expanded, mine. I said. “That’s impossible.” My mind spun and jangled from the tinkle of a thousand quick attempts at reconciliation of the truth with that stark number. It could not be done.

I felt faint. “I don’t even have any money to pay ...”

“Don’t worry,” he said, his voice still soft. “Mistakes can happen. We will send you a bill, if you can just show us a signature and address.”

Dumbstruck by his kindness–near tears, in fact—

I ripped out my wallet, my new wallet. “Here, here’s my address and signature, you can see it’s me, license, registration, all here, all brand new, because . . .”

Yes! Because they had all been newly replaced, after the old ones, including my TWA card, had been stolen. “That’s it!” I cried. “My card was stolen in Alaska, Congratulations!”

He looked at me with the gentle, oblivious tolerance of a recovery-room nurse monitoring the postoperative babbling of a drugged patient.

“Congratulations on spotting the stolen card. You see. my card was stolen just at the time it had expired, and they had already mailed me a renewal with the same number as the stolen one.” Suddenly my mind was sharp as Sherlock’s. “So then they sent one with a different number to replace that, the one that had been stolen. And I mistakenly put the renewal into my pocket instead of the replacement, and so I was actually using a stolen card. And TWA spotted it, which they are supposed to do, and ...”

The man waved his hand and smiled. “You can have another drink, if you like. We’ll bill you for everything.”

How better could the value of an invalid credit card be established? Try walking into the Hilton some time and saying “Bill me.” It would be unthinkable.

But what is thinkable, and who is thinking? In financial matters. I have always deferred to bankers, shopkeepers, and economists. I have never presumed to understand anything about finance, and have never been able to comprehend the broad questions of inflation or recession or credit. People pay me what they want, and charge me what they want. When I am offered credit. I take it. since I assume that a far keener intelligence than mine has sifted the data and decided that credit should be conveyed. The nation, it is said, runs on credit.

At the same time, I have always been viscerally opposed to the dominance of big companies that seem to strip from ordinary people their individuality and independence. Up to now I have been able to do no more than whine about it; all companies are bigger than I am.

But suddenly I am struck with a new sense of potency. The companies, I learn, are in trouble because of me. We are in a recession. Nobody has any money. That is the key. On the radio the other day, an economist made a gloomy assessment. The nation was in deep trouble, he said, because of the overextension of credit by the companies. The companies, he said, were in deep trouble because millions of people could not pay up. The moneylenders themselves had oversubscribed.

Justice might be at hand.

Though my indebtedness was no longer expanding. neither was it contracting dramatically. It had leveled off at about the $15,000 mark. I was by now faced with threats of lawsuits by a few of my creditors, and I asked my lawyer what I should do. “Don’t sign anything,” he said. “Refer them to me. They might be willing to settle for a fraction of the debt. It costs them money to go after you. You ask why so many seem so patient. I’ll tell you: they’re hoping for something, anything. It behooves them to wait.”

So the companies have trapped themselves. Very well. I cannot help them. I have problems of my own. Christmas is one. We managed the prior Christmas because we had received two new credit cards from Bloomingdale’s department store. A year later, Bloomingdale’s was promising a lawsuit to collect $500. Clearly, they were out as a gift source for the latest yule. How would we manage?

We managed in the following manner: we waited. One day in the mail there arrived two pretty blue cards from the elite Bergdorf Goodman department store. A week later there came two more from Macy’s. They wanted our Christmas business. We gave it to them.

If our nation runs on credit, it is in the patriotic interest to use it. As the radio economist had said, perhaps the greatest danger to the country was that credit might abruptly cease. Everybody has too much invested to pull back now.

Surely there will be a day of reckoning. But I will take things a step at a time. I did not design the system, nor suggest it, nor approve it; nor do I understand it. The companies must apply their grander wisdom to solve the problem. And whatever they decide will be fine by me. □