In my early 20’s, fired by the experiences of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and my mother, I embraced financial austerity, taking a path that would produce unforeseen difficulties years later when I would try to get a credit card.
At that impressionable age, I read about Dostoevsky’s financial travails: the steep interest rates, the tight deadlines, the fear of debtors prison, harassment by creditors, and the friendship ruined when a loan from Turgenev went unrepaid. Closer to home, I couldn’t help but notice that our family was becoming burdened by the interest on our charge account at J.C. Penney, where Mom seemingly bought as much yardage as she sold to customers.
I wanted to be a serious literary writer and-encouraged by Jack Kerouac-travel the world, too. Freedom, I decided, couldn’t be purchased with credit cards. Heaven forbid I’d have to take up genre writing to pay off American Express.
Decades later, though, when six continents on my world map were sprinkled with pins and my closet was heaped with unpublishable manuscripts, I had a change of heart, but by then, credit would not be given where credit was due.
Why couldn’t I get a credit card when I finally wanted one? Did I vacation in Cannes for a sun-drenched month when I could afford only a weekend in a log cabin in Crestline? Was my closet awash with Armani suits and silk ties? Hardly. My bank wouldn’t give me-its own loyal customer-a credit card because I had never owed a cent. No debt, no credit history, no credit card.
But hadn’t I ever made a payment for a car or a student loan? Nope.
As a baby boomer growing up in Southern California, I embraced the dictum that it’s best not to be a borrower or a lender. If I wanted to buy some Milk Duds or a Hardy Boys book, I emptied the greasy coins from my Hopalong Cassidy piggy bank and bought what I could afford … without asking Dad for an advance on my 25-cent allowance.
When it came time to apply to college, I never for a flickering second thought of yoking a student loan to my future. Instead, I picked a Cal State within an hour of the family home and toiled for the Southern Pacific Railroad during summers to pay fees and bus fares. In school, Dostoevsky’s example reconfirmed everything I had already learned about debt. So, when unsolicited credit cards-bearing my embossed name-arrived at the family home, I immediately cut them into shards with Mom’s pinking shears.
After college, I traveled the world on a Spartan budget, worked at various jobs, and wrote unpublishable novels. To keep my freedom, I lived simply, rented apartments, saved frugally, and avoided debt. When I bought a used Volkswagen, it was with cash. Seventeen years later, I bought my second car-a Mazda RX-7-with a money order. I’ve skirted financial ruin a few times, and once, after two years of vagabondage and unremunerative fiction writing, I was destined to sleep in my dented Super Beetle until I won $2,000 on “Scrabble,” the television show.
I hate debt … and what it has done to friends sagging under enormous monthly payments. Virtually every bill that lands in my mail slot is answered with a payment within 24 hours. Just ask the Edison Company (which persists in calling me “Morman” Day).
Several years ago, though, I decided my life would be a bit easier if I had a credit card, so I could use the phone to order tickets for cultural events … like the Oingo Boingo concert at Irvine Meadows. I filled out an application at my branch of Security Pacific Bank, which had recently absorbed Gibraltar Savings, where I had kept my money for a decade, until it sank into red ink.
Much to my astonishment, Security Pacific nixed my application, even though I possessed about $10,000 in savings, a solid public relations job, and a shiny sports car. The reason for refusal: insufficient or no credit history. The letter was signed by J.K. North, lending officer. I called J.K.’s number and was given no sympathy by his/her surrogate, so I shrugged and decided to forget about it. Friends who knew of my thrifty nature consoled me by saying that credit cards are granted to those who will abuse credit, not use it.
It wasn’t easy enduring haughty teenagers who-their wallets thick with their own plastic-refused to give me a rental card at Blockbuster Video until I lined up a cosigner. When I was forced to tell businesspeople that I had neither Visa nor American Express, their eyes often narrowed in a way that suggested they thought I was a shady character with a past concealed by the federal witness-protec1tion program.
Through all sorts of indignities, I stiffened my upper lip. Every April, though, my brow furrows when I file my Internal Revenue Service forms because-with no mortgage interest to deduct-I am forced to pay higher taxes than homeowners with equal salaries. In fact, I have to pay taxes on my bank interest, and in years of soaring inflation, I’ve lost money by saving money. Then, to add to my angst, my taxes have been used to bail out imprudent financial institutions.
A few years ago, I figured I better get some credit, so that someday I could buy a one-room condo in the hills of Mission Viejo, maybe even with a view of the artificial lake … and I could claim the mortgage interest on my tax forms. I was ready to try again for a card when a Robinsons-May clerk slipped me a credit application along with the box containing my new pair of $65 shoes.
Within a week, I was turned down in a letter signed by Terry Smith. I dialed Terry’s number and was told that Terry is a “corporate name,” a nom de plume for the faceless bureaucracy. In other words, a fictional person-someone like Becky Thatcher or Ivanhoe-was refusing to give me a card with a $500 line of credit.
Now I was getting upset. By then, Security Pacific-which had collapsed under the weight of bad loans-had been absorbed by Bank of America. I went to the modular building housing the local branch and handed in my paperwork for a BankAmericard.
My letter of rejection was signed yet again by J.K. North, who-I figured-must have some polished survival skills. I decided to ask J.K. exactly how much money I needed to have in my account to get a credit card. But a phone rep coolly informed me that J.K. North was a “correspondence name.” She told me to put my questions in writing. End of conversation.
I restudied my 4-year-old rejection from Security Pacific and noted that J.K.’s “signature” was stamped on the letter. No doubt in the name of cost containment, Bank of America had chosen not to wear out its inkpad and had left a blank space above the printed name.
Within minutes, I dispatched a letter to Bank of America, questioning its decision to “bank on America” but not on me. Back came a list of determining factors: length of present employment (nine months earlier I had landed a better-paying job after three years at another hospital), age of credit file, and credit-bureau inquiries.
One day, while I was pondering my next move, I received another letter from Bank of America. My statement. In my checking account, I had $2,577. And in my Cash Maximizer account, I had $51,885.
Eventually, Bank of America took pity on the likes of me and introduced secured credit cards. I put $1,000 in a special account and was sent a credit card with a $1,000 limit. Since then, I have duly paid off my debt each month, lest I reward the system with a single kopek in interest. Finally, I received a congratulatory letter from R. Coleman, unit manager, informing me that Bank of America was going to “graduate” me-at age 50-to a standard card.
I decided to phone R. Coleman to thank him/her for the vote of confidence, but it was a Saturday afternoon and a recorded message suggested I call back on a weekday. I’m determined to track down R. Coleman because I want him/her to visit me here in bankrupt Orange County. We can have a nice discussion about America’s national debt while we sip gourmet coffee and nibble on blueberry scones. The deepest pleasure, of course, will come at the end of our conversation … when I pay the bill with my credit card and then pocket the receipt for tax purposes.
Now, of course, I want vengeance. For one, I won’t be using my card at the department store that rejected my credit application. Rather than buy another pair of imitation leather shoes at Robinsons-May, I’ll carve sandals out of a discarded tire and lace them up with twine.
Of course, I can always follow the example of a long line of authors who have found that writing is the best revenge.