The first time I went to a Debtors Anonymous meeting, they passed a bag for dues. Dues! At Debtors Anonymous. A bagful of loose bills in my grasp. Did they send around a fifth of scotch at AA? It was all I could do not to reach in and fish out my rent. I was two months behind. Was I really expected to put my stash of quarters and dimes, culled from a jar of loose change – my only active bank account – into a stranger’s purse?
I passed the bag along.
This act of refusal seemed especially furtive and small, given the place. We were in a church basement. All around me, the indebted were perched in folding metal chairs, defeated but eager to “share.” They were aggressively bereft. Their pious abjection! Their terrible lives, doled out in three-minute bursts. What if I were not the most desperate guy in the room? Could I stand that? I saw at once that I had based my self-esteem on the faith that I had lost more than anyone else. That was my secret pride.
And now, for my sin, I was in church. The room was heavy with the atmosphere of grim confession paired with pleading self-affirmation, interrupted by appeals to the Higher Power. It was part love-in, part revival meeting.
Yet the faithful seemed to know something I did not. They were talking in code, and I was trying hard to get what they meant.
“This is a disease of vagueness and denial,” somebody said.
“I’ve been in chaos all week,” said another.
There followed a chorus of assenting grunts, like Satan’s host of rebel angels coming clean about themselves, cast down not to a dark opprobrious den of shame but to a church basement hung with last month’s Christmas decorations – paper snowflakes, trumpeting shepherds, tinfoil stars. They went on naming their transgressions, in the language of the place:
“I’m an anorexic spender.”
“I’ve been isolating.”
“I’m a deprivation addict,” a woman said. Then she started to cry. “Does anyone have a tissue? I just need a corner.”
Then suddenly a guy was “qualifying” – giving a careful recounting of his path to solvency. Sitting in the lotus position, with his palms open on his bent knees, he had fifteen minutes to speak, but he took thirty. Clearly not a deprivation addict.
“I’m a debtor and a gambler with a history of substance abuse and a sex addiction and a difficult relationship to food,” he said. “Sex is a substance. So are the Mets. The fuckingMets.”
Then he said the words “my abundance” and cried without speaking for three minutes and twenty-seven seconds. I clocked it. I hate to watch men cry. They always expect a reward. But we were in the West Village, and the room was packed with straight women and gay guys with important haircuts. Everyone was profoundly moved. There was a “spiritual timekeeper,” a woman who was supposed to signal when the man’s share was through, but I could tell from the expression on her face that she was going to let him go on and on.
I wanted a cigarette. I had started smoking again, and I was spending whatever money I begged, borrowed, or rescued from the depths of my couch on a pack-and-a-half a day, bought a pack at a time. Sure, I could smoke more cheaply, take a day trip to Long Island and pay forty-eight bucks for a carton. Even figuring round trip train fare to Oyster Bay, that was still better than shelling out thirteen bucks a pack to the guys at my corner deli. But I wasn’t smoking, I was stopping after this one. Every cigarette was my last. In any case, I never had forty-eight dollars all at once. So I was smoking provisionally, taking it one day at a time.
Finally, the guy stopped crying and started to talk. He had a dreadful life. Poverty, abuse, alcoholic parents, homelessness, drugs, demeaning sex, lousy jobs. Yet by the time he finished his story, he was solvent and ready for love, like the end of a Jane Austen novel. I didn’t join in the supportive applause. His resurrection felt staged.
He dried his eyes, and we were asked to write. No wonder we were treating debt as a narrative device: I had stumbled into a twelve-step Writers Group. The place was jammed with novelists, their unsold manuscripts swelling their hard drives. Sheets of paper were handed around, printed with writing prompts. We had twenty minutes to answer the following questions:
“Are you ready to let God remove your defects?”
God? Is extracting my defects? Will there be Novocain?
The next question said:
“What does it mean to be ready?
I didn’t have a pen. Could I ask to borrow somebody’s pen at Debtors Anonymous?
“Why aren’t you ready?”
Why were these questions so hostile? I thought about asking the crying guy to hold me. Ready? I don’t think I’ve ever been ready. I wasn’t ready to earn money, and I wasn’t ready to spend it. I certainly wasn’t ready to keep it. I wasn’t ready to get things, and I wasn’t ready to have them taken away. Who decided I was ready for the credit card sent to me by American Express in 1988? It came unbidden, pre-approved, with a $1,000 line of credit. I had just finished grad school. Credit card companies like nothing more than MFAs and PhDs in English Literature. They love the Humanities. If you were inclined to spend wisely and plan for the future, you would not be getting a degree in Creative Writing. American Express meets an English major, they see two words: penaltiesand interest.
Yet when their card came in the mail, I thought I had gotten a man from the Lord. I was twenty-eight, an out of work white guy with two useless degrees, a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction. My credit card was Prospero’s wand. Americans don’t get rich or feel free unless they have slaves, but I found another way: American Express.
Then the bills came. Who had money for that? I paid them on time for a while, and then increasingly late. Soon I was getting dunning notices, and final warnings, and pink slips with black block letters. And because I was sending all my money to American Express, I couldn’t pay the IRS, and the difference between the government and a collection agency is minor but distinct: The government can freeze your bank account. Which is why I don’t have one. So what? You can’t lose what’s already gone. Am I a deprivation addict? When I’m left with nothing, I recognize myself. Abundance would crush me.
I was $50,000 in debt, and that was my life. It’s what I did. I owed things. I tried to file bankruptcy, but there was a fee. A fee for a bankrupt! “If I could pay for this, I wouldn’t be here,” I told the man behind the Lucite window. We were in one of those big 19thcentury buildings where they keep the terrible agencies that audit your taxes and revoke your driver’s license and refuse to lend you money on your retirement fund. I knew he wouldn’t help me. Still, you get two choices in life, suicide and hope, and I was sure I would kill myself wrong and end up not dead but maimed, with bad insurance. So I picked hope, and watched the man through the window.
At last he spoke. “I can’t do nothing for you,” he said, a smile of bureaucratic glee spreading across his face. Then he pushed two forms through the slot at the base of his window. I have measured out my life in government forms. Forms to declare and forms to refute, forms to document and forms to deny, forms to justify and stipulate and itemize and plead. “I already got plenty of forms,” I told him, and he snuffled and wiped his nose and said, “Well, now you got two more.”
I took his forms home and threw them in a drawer stuffed with bills. Not exactly bills. They were beyond bills. They were not even any longer patient reminders to pay bills. Warnings and disconnect notices, they were orders to put up and to appear, to represent myself in Small Claims Court, to respond to final statements. Everything was past due, it was always already too late.
Why aren’t I ready? I’m just a debtor, that’s all. I don’t have a reason. In any case, reasons don’t help. Neither does blame, which is too bad, because I’m half Catholic. The other half is Episcopalian, and I learned two things, growing up: Everything is your fault, and no one can help you.
What I had instead of reasons were boldfaced warnings from the IRS, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and the Parking Violations Bureau. Con Edison took away my light on a regular basis. How many nights have I spent alone in the dark, which is not a metaphor, without a phone because I also owed money to Verizon? In the black of night I couldn’t read the books I bought compulsively at Barnes and Noble with lousy checks. The books I didn’t read for which I hadn’t paid covered the walls of my apartment like the lining of a uterus.
I slept in a dark womb hiding from a law firm in Bayside, Queens. It was the local strong-arm of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, to whom I had been reported by Columbia University, from which I hadn’t officially graduated years before because I still owed them $3,000.
Why didn’t I pay Con Ed on time? I had the money. For a minute. I promised myself not to spend it. I lied. I spent everything. I wasted it all, not even on a weekend drunk like Ray Milland pawning his typewriter for a Gin Rickey in crisp black-white-white New York under the Third Avenue el. I didn’t have a typewriter to sell, or an el to stumble under, but I had the Strand Bookstore, where I sold my books. I bought them full price in August and sold them for one quarter their cost in November.
No one is meaner than the guys who buy your books back at the Strand. They know exactly what filthy habits you have welcomed into your life, what acts in cubbyholes and dark corners you cannot even afford except by selling on Friday morning the volumes of existential philosophy you purchased Monday afternoon.
I owed money to co-workers and ex-boyfriends and dead friends and my shrink. My shrink! I went to his office every week for ten years and for five of them I didn’t pay. We sat together in his sunny room in his beautiful leather chairs discussing why I couldn’t afford to be there, and then I left without paying.
I fled therapy and moved to Texas, which is what twelve-step programs call “doing a geographic.” That’s how America was settled: Thousands of white people in pointy hats got in big boats in order to run out on the Parking Violations Bureau, and their reward was Connecticut.
I had a teaching job in Texas that lasted five months, but I agreed to continue therapy on the phone, because: I can’t let go! I don’t break up with people, I just turn out one day to be living in Houston, and then my phone gets disconnected. Who can reach me? Not my fault! It’s possible my therapist was my oldest living friend, excluding my brother and my parents who I hope aren’t reading this, and one ex-boyfriend whom I dumped twice in ten years and whom I still owe $1200. I owe my shrink $5000. I stopped calling both of them. I stopped calling everyone.
They were all creditors. I owed something to everybody, money or love or an explanation or an email message. My family, my friends, my longtime service providers, the IRS, Mr. Locke from American Express who called me every day, twice a day, more faithfully than any lover. “This is Mr. Locke,” he said, my morning wake-up call. His voice was thunderously low. “Hi, Mr. Locke,” I said. “Mr. Locke,” I said, “do you realize you’re my most successful long-term relationship?”
The group leader at Debtors Anonymous told us to put down our pens. I wasn’t done. I needed more paper. Nonetheless, it was time to read, out loud, what we wrote.
The woman beside me volunteered to speak. She set aside the page of questions on which she had written nothing at all. “I won’t read what I didn’t write,” she said. Her hands were folded in her lap, and her voice was clear and low. She was in her forties, wearing a blouse and skirt, and her hair was pulled back off her face and held in place by a clip. She paused a long time, but without tears.
I knew what I wanted her to say. I wanted her to say, “I hate the world.” “Some are gonna rob you with a six gun, some do it with a fountain pen,” she would say. “America, I have given you my all and now I’m nothing. Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” She didn’t say that. She didn’t say, “I’ll pay my back taxes when abortion is free on demand in Texas, why are one million young black men in prison, when will George Bush finally admit there were no weapons of mass destruction?”
She said nothing like that.
Instead, she talked simply and plainly for exactly three minutes and her story was so stark, so uninflected by program lingo, that I was ashamed of myself. She was in worse shape than I had ever been. Yet she spoke without a trace of self-pity. She stated facts, and didn’t stop for applause.
I would not have survived her life. Yet she said, “Every morning, I get on my knees. First thing. And I thank God for another day.”
Well. I was furious. Thank God? For another day? Every morning, I wake up angry that I’m not Brad Pitt. How dare she? The meeting lasted twenty minutes longer. I said the stupid serenity prayer, and then I ran outside and smoked three cigarettes – two of which I bummed from passersby – before I calmed down.
John Weir is the author of two novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and What I Did Wrong.