I decided to head downtown for a day. Reminds me of home. Every now and then I miss Chicago’s South Side; my old stomping ground. I like to get a little taste of life in the big city once in a while. I was going to have lunch with an old friend of mine from the neighborhood who moved here a few years before me.
I parked the Debt-no-bile in a parking lot not too far away from the restaurant and was walking down Broadway and Madison, whistling “As Time Goes By.” As I passed through the maze of skyscrapers and boulevards, I saw the café and smelled the prime rib from 50 yards out. As I looked at the outdoor tables, I could smell something else; trouble.
I saw my friend Dutch sitting at one of the tables, nervously shaking like a pair of dice at the craps table. He was talking on his cell phone. I could just feel that something wasn’t right. I hopped over the waist-high fence that separated him from the street and sat down at the table. He looked at me and kept talking into the horn. He could barely get a word in.
“Alice, calm d … calm down. Now … now just hang on a second! Take a breath … that’s better. How much do you owe?”
I’ve been around, and that’s never a good sign. If she owes dough so bad that they’re going batty on the phone, you’d better watch out.
“Why can’t you talk? Listen, we can work this out … oh, don’t believe a word those lying jerks tell you! … Sis, listen to me, it’s not so bad that you can’t get out of it. I’ll help you! I’ll help y … hello? Hello?”
The line was dead. He hung up and looked at me.
“What’s going on, Dutch?” I asked him.
“It’s my sister Alice,” he said, panicking. “She just called me, all scared to death. I asked what was the matter and all she could say was ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’ve messed up and I don’t know what to do. They keep calling me and threatening me. I don’t know what to do!”
“Who’s calling her?” I asked.
“Some collectors. They’ve been calling her about eight times a day, she said. I asked why, and she said she couldn’t talk about it and hung up. I’m afraid she’s hiding something.”
“Where was she calling from?” I said.
“Her apartment, about five miles over,” he said, pointing over his shoulder.
“Let’s roll,” I shot back. We scrambled for the Debt-no-bile and busted a hump over to her place.
Twenty minutes later, we walked into Alice’s third-floor apartment. She was cuddled up on the couch, clutching an old teddy bear and crying like a baby. Dutch sat down on the couch by her feet and I parked myself on the floor next to the sofa.
“Alice, what’s wrong? Talk to us,” Dutch whispered to her.
Her face was fire-truck red and splotchy, scrunched up in anger and fear. She could barely reach up to wipe her eyes. I had never seen anyone in that much pain, and that includes me when I went broke. I was edgy. After a few minutes she spoke, her voice quiet.
“I’m scared … I don’t know what to do. What’s the use anymore?”
“Alice, what’s the matter?” Dutch asked.
“It’s all my fault,” she began. “I signed up to use a couple of credit cards; you know, just for emergencies and stuff. I bought a little here and a little there and then, in November, I just sort of lost it and went on a shopping spree, buying Christmas gifts for everyone. It was the first time I’ve actually been able to buy presents for everyone that I wanted to. Before you know it, it got out of control. I bought more than I could afford and now I can’t pay it back.”
The more she talked, the more she talked herself into a frenzy. “The credit card companies are charging me so much interest that I can barely make the minimum payments. A couple of weeks ago, it got so bad that I paid them first and bounced checks for my rent and electric bill. Those overdraft fees from the bank are only adding to it.”
“I even went to a payday loan place for some help, and now they’re calling me. I don’t make enough money. Even if I could get out of this mess, it would take me years. I have nothing; I hate my job. Ben just left me. It’s just …”
I thought it was as bad as it could be. I was wrong. What she said next made me start shaking.
“I don’t want to go on. I have nothing left … I just want to be gone.”
I grabbed her hand as she started crying again. I looked at Dutch; he was whiter than a roomful of ghosts. Big Guy, I thought to myself, I need you here. I took a deep breath.
“Alice, listen to me,” I started. “These people who are calling you are nothing but worthless scum. They don’t know you and they don’t want to. All they care about is the money. They figure if they can make you emotional, you’ll pay them before the rent. When they saw that you did that, they kept at it. All this nasty stuff they say they’re gonna do to you, it’s a bigger bluff than a pair of 3s in poker. They’re not going to do jack to you; they’re just trying to scare you.”
I let her cry a couple more minutes.
“How much do you owe?” I asked her.
“$30,000. I can’t pay all that back on a receptionist’s salary. I barely make enough to break even, and that’s without all my bills. Every month, the hole gets deeper. What am I going to do?”
“Can you pick up some extra time at work; maybe cover someone’s shift somewhere or something?” Dutch asked.
That seemed to make her feel a little better, like she hadn’t thought of it before.
“If I put in some overtime, I guess it would help,” she said.
I heard the faintest glimmer of hope in her voice, and I was fired up.
“You can do this, honey,” I said to her.
Dutch handed her a tissue. She wiped her eyes. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Even if I make more money, the creditors will still call me. I owe them the money and I can’t pay. I don’t even know what to say to them.”
The timing was better than an Abbott and Costello comedy bit. Just then the phone rang. I leaned over and saw ‘Out of Area’ on the caller ID. I had a feeling; I picked up the horn as Dutch gave his sister a much-needed hug. “Hello?” I said.
“I want to talk to Alice,” said the guy on the other end, his voice flatter than month-old open soda.
“Who wants to know, joe?” I asked.
“She owes my company money. Put her on, moron, or I’ll come after you, too.”
I smiled to myself. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good exchange. I motioned to Dutch and Alice to pay attention. Hopefully, Alice would see how I handle this and soak it in. “Why don’t you give me the message?” I said to the guy.
“All right, you want a piece of me, big shot? You got it,” he said. “I’m calling from Big Bad Bank and she took out a credit card with us a few months ago. She owes $7,000 on it, and since she’s being a loser and trying to stiff us, we’ll be suing her real soon. And since you brought yourself into it, we’ll probably sue you too.”
“Easy, chief,” I said, waiting for the right moment. “If you’re gonna be mean, I won’t talk to you. If you want to —“
I didn’t get the words out before he cut me off.
“I’m gonna do what it takes to get you to pay up, bonehead!”
My temperature was starting to rise. I was revisiting old times. “But I’m not the one who owes money, bub.”
“I DON’T CARE ABOUT EXCUSES! PAY UP OR YOU’RE DEAD MEAT!!”
That flipped the switch. “Genius, I was being nice, but now you’ve crossed the line. First off, they’ve got this new invention out … it’s called a life. You should get one. Second, since you told me specifics about what she owes, and because you’ve been calling 10 times a day, you’ve violated the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That’s all I need to nail you. Pretty soon I’ll sue you and own that little agency of yours. When she gets the money, you’ll get some money. In the meantime, the next time you harass the little lady, you’re gonna get a referee whistle right in your ear. Do you dig?”
There was silence for a minute. I looked at Alice and winked. She seemed shocked, a combination of wanting to cry and wanting to laugh. She hadn’t heard the talk before.
“Whoever you are, I’m going to get you soon,” the mystery man said. “I’m going to collect.”
“Collect this!” I yelled, slamming the phone down.
I looked at Alice. She seemed like she was ready to explode. She had gazelle-intensity the whole time, baby … she just needed a little boost.
“I know people who can help you get a better job, Alice,” I said. “But until you get this debt paid off, you’re gonna have to pull double-time and make some extra cash. Pick up another shift at your job. When you’re not doing that, deliver pizzas. It’ll be hard and it’ll be tiring, but every dollar you pay off is like another kick in that guy’s keester,” I said, nodding to the phone. “You can do it.”
She kept staring at me. The room was quiet.
“You ready?” I asked.
She nodded. I smiled. I looked at Dutch. His was ear-to-ear, jack.
“You want to see how to make a budget to handle all the dough you’re gonna rake in, dollface?”
Now she smiled. “That’d be great.”
I laughed. Another one in the bag, baby.
“Dutch,” I said, “Order us a pizza. I’m hungry.”