“The very worst was ‘meat paper,’ loans made to dupes for purchasing a freezerful of meat. Collecting on meat paper left a dismal taste.”
The letter that would decide my fate finally arrived at my parents’ house, where I had been staying immediately after I graduated from college. The job that I coveted, teaching English to seventh graders at the elite St. Bernard’s off Central Park in Manhattan, awaited me. I took the letter to the backyard, sat down, looked out at the late August cornfield and opened the letter. Rejection. My shoulders slumped, my head slumped, I slumped. My mother could see it from the window and came to console me. Thus would begin a strange adventure in human nature, as I now needed to enter the workplace of big men through whatever door I could find.
“Boop boop, you’re good for more. At Beneficial, you’re good for more.” I’d heard this ditty countless times growing up, never imagining that some day I would go forth as a fearless representative of this consumer finance giant. I answered the ad and interviewed, putting forward my best college-man self. Before long, I was being inducted into the world of low finance. Reading the corporate creed in preparation for my entrance examination, I became familiar with the benign logic of why finance companies existed: these brave institutions were willing to take on a higher level of risk and provide loans to the sort of person who was only sneered at by the banks. I mean, who can love a bank? But a finance company will lend to everyman. Of course, they must be compensated for their risk, with rates posted at the highest level allowable under the usury laws, the high twenties and low thirties.
In my written test, I waxed eloquent as I justified Beneficial’s business purposes with rhetoric even loftier than they had conjured up. It even garnered some notice from the big wigs, but that would be the last time my writing skills would come into play, because my job was to lessen the impact of their aggressive lending practices. I was a loan collector, the man whose job it was to keep the local office’s delinquency rate below the magic number each month.
Our office was located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the central town in the Cumberland Valley, which is the continuation of the Shenandoah Valley. In 1863, Robert E. Lee marched some 70,000 Confederate soldiers up the Shenandoah into Maryland and Pennsylvania and camped out on the outskirts of Chambersburg, before deciding to turn southward, cross the South Mountain and meet the Union at the decisive battle of Gettysburg.
When the last few days of each month arrived, I would retrace Lee’s steps and head for the communities in the South Mountain, the northern reaches of Appalachia, because that’s where the hardest delinquency lay, where Beneficial’s reach extended beyond its grasp. As Lee had said to Longstreet, “The enemy is there and there we shall meet him.”
For each account, I had a card which told the story of the loan—often only a few thousand dollars in total, a few timely payments at the outset, straying into the erratic, dwindling into nothingness, accompanied with a long list of unanswered phone calls and broken promises, culminating in my arrival at the doorstep. Often as not, I pulled up an obscure route or dirt lane to a trailer. A truck, a dog, a big gun rack were common features.
In the beginning, I was so scared. I recalled my brother’s first foray into representing corporate America at everyman’s doorstep, selling encyclopedias. He went to his first customer, started into his prepared spiel, abruptly stopped, declaring “You don’t want these fucking things,” and quit right then and there. Would I be made of stronger stuff?
The scare I had as I waited at the threshold was nothing compared to the scare I would receive when I found out how good a loan collector I was. I became a master of chase and collect. I learned to love the chase: finding someone’s new address, arriving at their home when they did not expect it, beguiling them with a palaver of palsiness and reasonability, and coaxing a payment out of them by appealing to their sense of responsibility, which few could resist. Only the most hardened would be boldly irresponsible to the collector’s face. It was not willful irresponsibility that made the loan go bad, but rather poverty, laziness and fear. By standing tough on the moral high ground, I racked up a damn fine record. I was Beneficial’s Marshall Dillon.
The people I collected from had often fallen into ruts as deep as those cut into the back roads they lived on. In the winter, I came upon a frozen cat lying just feet from the doorway of a trailer, whose occupant refused to answer the door. I was severely bitten by the dog of a man whose wife had left him. He felt very sorry and showed me to the bathroom where I could dress my wound. I was overcome by the stench of a good month’s worth of dirty clothes filling the entire bathroom. I left the wound untended. He offered me frozen venison in lieu of payment, and I went soft and took it, even though I’d just been bitten by his dog and it could not go on Beneficial’s books.
Sometimes, I was collecting debts that Beneficial had bought from others at a steep discount, low grade paper, as we called it, from a jewelry or small appliance store that had gone out of business, or the very worst, “meat paper,” loans made to dupes for purchasing a freezerful of meat. Collecting on meat paper left a dismal taste.
I held my pride for about six months, hoping perhaps that my good record would get me a big job at the head office, but no such luck. They wanted me to rise through the ranks. Cracks began to open up in my fortress of respectability. My boss discovered the new workplace of a guy who had evaded us for months, letting his house go to hell after his wife left him and never appearing at home. I raced to the job site, only to find he had left. Dejected, I headed for the local convenience store for a coffee. On the way in, my quarry walked right by me. I had never actually seen him before, but I just sensed it. I called his name and he ran for the car and sped off. I jumped in my car and began a high-speed chase. As he disappeared in the distance, a little thought arose, “What am I doing?”
Soon after, I headed all the way down to Hagerstown, Maryland, where Lee’s long train of wounded passed through after being so badly slaughtered. It was near here that he narrowly avoided having his entire army obliterated. I came to collect on some measly meat paper or the like, only to find that my account had taken her life.
But finally, it was not despondency but rather absurdity that would deal the death blow to my collection career. This time I was at the northernmost extension of my territory, venturing onto a tributary leading off of a tertiary road, beyond where even my manager thought it prudent to go. I sat in my car, proud that I had found the obscure address, but still needing to screw up my courage because this guy had made very few payments, to anyone I would guess. His trailer lay at the bottom of a hill, which extended for about twenty-five yards and was sheathed in thick ice. I stepped onto his property and promptly began to slide, picking up tremendous momentum. Finally I slammed hard into the side of his trailer and bounced off right into the path of his door as he opened it. Without missing a beat, I said, “John, we just have to get a payment on this loan. Even five dollars would make a difference.”
Before too long I started work as an editor at a machine design magazine in Boston. St. Bernard’s invited me to take a look again the next year. The elite students were climbing the draperies, oblivious to their privilege. They offered me what I had so coveted and I turned it down. I’ve rarely looked back.