PODIUM

A man’s card is not his castle

Barrie Hale September 20 1982
PODIUM

A man’s card is not his castle

Barrie Hale September 20 1982

A man’s card is not his castle

PODIUM

Barrie Hale

It was in the midafternoon of his life that B. caught his first clear view of the castle. A letter had arrived, and when he opened it B. discovered that some unknown authority in the arcane world of banking had seen fit to bestow upon him his first charge card, unsolicited by him. Even though this occurred some 15 years ago, B. insists that he can recall the moment vividly: “It was a time of great struggle. My dear wife and I had been paying off debts since university, and our two lovely children had added the usual extra load to our burdens. Yet when we felt the slick smoothness of that magic card and read the accompanying literature, it was as if we had been inducted into the elite, as if some Reaganesque vision of ‘that shining house, high on a hill’ were within our grasp.” Like others of his ilk from that long-dead decade, AD 1950’60, B. believed, at his first sight of the castle, that one day it would be his.

B. had been brought up to be a responsible person, one who paid his debts and so on, and after the onset of financial plasticity he handled the affliction with prudence. But as the ineluctable pathology of plastic took hold, B. found himself increasingly content merely to carry his account from month to month on minimum payments. There was, however, still something in B. that resisted, some part of him that remained the family banker, the payer of debts: he and his spouse took on extra work, and one day B. took deep pleasure in noting that their debts had been all but eliminated. “It was a tough fight, kid, but we made it,” B. said to his spouse that night, in their large, comfortable apartment full of new things.

This brief period of remission ended abruptly with the inception of the most actively virulent, manic phase, which B. still affects to call “magic time.” The banking authority sent B. “a very nice letter telling me what a good customer I was and doubling my credit limit. It was magic. I had a credit rating. I could do no wrong.” Symptomatic of the phase, other potential creditors sought B. out, and he responded eagerly; his expectations rose as ebulliently as his credit line, and he filled out charge-card applications in restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations—in short, wherever they were at hand, and they were everywhere. Soon B. had 10 cards, a dozen, but he

knew people, he says, who had even more.

During the decade just past, B.’s city enjoyed a boom period which brought many new and quickly fashionable restaurants, bars and cabarets to town, and B. and his friends entertained each other in most of them. Bartenders and maître d’s called B. by name, and at home his vast new color TV screen was alive with vital, apple-cheeked folk who daily advised him of new ways to exploit his charge card. B. and his friends ate on plastic, drank on plastic, travelled, dressed and decorated on plastic.

Some, B. included, became homeowners during this period, and some, B. included, underwent divorces and dislocation and settled once again into urban tenancy, where they showered their plastic on people, places and things. At the same time, B. and his friends enjoyed a boom in their careers, although

One creditor sat poised over his bank account, ready to savage any small amount B. might chance to leave there

B. recalls that he had begun to be wary of a way of life that he has recently, in a rare moment of clarity, characterized as the “work-hard, play-hard, dropdead syndrome.”

Nonetheless, by now B. had accustomed himself to making only minimum monthly payments to carry his burgeoning financial load and its buoyant interest rates. On occasion B. would exceed one or another credit line by an amount that elicited a less than sanguine response from one of the word processers with which he now communicated. Each time this happened B. made a galvanic effort and brought his indebtedness under the line, and each time he did this he was rewarded by a “thank you” on his monthly computer printout and yet another escalation of his privileged indenture.

B.’s debt structure was by now vast and complex, yet he continued along the road that had been set beneath his feet, sustained by his increasing store of things and an unshakable faith that somehow the castle was still within reach, just around some as yet unper-

ceived twist in the path; later, he would come to see that he had entered the tertiary phase of the affliction, akin in time to the early autumn of 1929 and in kind to that shrieking pause between the 17th and 18th and final double whisky given to Dylan Thomas shortly before he died.

The crash, crunch or terminal phase insinuated itself so spectrally into B.’s life that he barely noticed it at first. The boom slowed, then slid into reverse, in B.’s town, in the country beyond and in B.’s profession. The apple-cheeked folk disappeared from the TV screen, replaced by sepulchral economists. The month arrived when B. was forced to renege on even minimum payments to some creditors, and he could not satisfy them the next month, or the next. The word processers and their masters began to behave “like rats in heat,” in B.’s bitter words. One creditor sat poised over his bank account, ready to savage any small amount B. might chance to leave there; others called at all hours of the day to damn him as a deadbeat; still others sent “agents” to his door to confiscate one plastic wafer or another; and some threatened B. with litigation, raising the spectre of garnisheed wages and fees (“We’ll find it somewhere,” a shrikelike collector piped in his ear one evening) or attachment of his property for sale at a sheriff’s auction.

Finally, B., who had been living in eerie limbo from one borrowed $20 bill to the next, began to sell some of his “property,” the things he had accumulated along the way. The apparition of dire court judgments, against which he had no defence but his naïve susceptibility to the blandishments of bankers—that is, no defence at all — began to recede.

Today, B. has but one charge card, which he uses sparingly, if at all, and may be found by the roadside during the evening rush hour seeking directions from the passers-by, some of whom are worse off than he is, even further from possession of the castle than when they first began the quest. A cautiously favorable prognosis is hence indicated— as long as B. continues to resist nostalgic memories of his pretension to membership in the middle class, which, he must understand, are only insubstantial memories after all.

Barrie Hale is a freelance writer living in Toronto.