Thursday, October 2, 2008

Life before credit

This modest photo of a simple pearl ring was hard to find in the innumerable elegant, ornate rings that turn up in Google images. The gold band is thicker than the band on the ring I bought myself when I was twelve years old. The pearl looks bigger, too.

I saw my ring in the window of a small, local jewelry store in a tiny strip of shops that included a good small, local clothing store, an Isaly's and a drug store where you could buy a Coke flavored as you liked with cherry, vanilla, chocolate, or lemon. The store was small and local because this was last century, the mid-fifties.

The ring cost $12. Twelve times my weekly allowance. But I wanted it with that pure, clear desire children have. So I did a daring, grownup thing all by myself--put it in layaway.

Layaway was a commitment you made with the store owner by putting some money down on an item; in return, the owner reserved the item aside for you, and kept track of your payments. Perhaps the jeweler kept it in the window; I think so. I seem to remember looking at it often, dreaming of how it would look on my hand. And every week I went in and turned over my entire $1 until I paid the ring off. For three full months, I yearned for it and did without cokes, candy, movies. At last, I had paid in full, and it was mine.

Seems backward. Wait, save, do without? Or might it be that, generally speaking, buying on credit is backward? Buying on credit means you are taking possession of something you can't afford. Yow! as Sherlock the cat would say.

I have been fascinated by this week's stories about how small businesses can't get loans just now, so they can't grow and make more money. One guy featured on NBC news complained that he was set up to start some sort of service business, but the bank wouldn't loan him money to hire people. The camera showed us his workplace, his desk and three pods set up with chairs and computers.

I thought about this business of his. The concept is that he will pay other people to do the actual work, and he will get some of the money their labor earns. We are all used to this idea. An owner employs laborers. The owner oversees marketing and distribution---or, as the company gets more lucrative, oversees the people who do the marketing and distribution. He is the overseer. And he makes the most money of all. It is explained that he has the right to this money because he took the risk of starting the company. I have known several men who became wealthy like this, and they deeply believed they deserved their luxurious lifestyles.

Well, I guess if this guy used his own money, money he earned, to buy those computers and office furniture and lease the workspace, he did take a risk. But now he wanted the bank to take the rest of the risk. ("A bank" is a business to which I loan my money when I deposit my paycheck or pension.) What this entrepreneur was actually trying to do was sell the bank a Dream -- the American Dream.

It is the dream of the explorers, colonizers, enslavers and entrepreneurs who took this country from its native people. It goes like this: You can get something for nothing. You can get rich on other people's labor and gullibility. There's an easy way. There's endless abundance for whoever strikes gold first. Ah, so.

I find myself thinking about a Zen story about monks who decide that the eldest of them has gotten so old and bent that it is not right for him to keep working. They retire him against his protests. He, in turn, refuses to come to meals. When they ask him why, he says, "No work, no food." They have to give up and let him do his work.

This is one of those stories I have taken issue with at times, especially since illness has made it impossible for both Tom and I to work. I shouldn't feel guilty, because we don't ask anyone else to support us; we live on savings and pensions, which are a form of savings if you think about it. But the story means to make a larger point: you really have to earn your way. You give to the community, you get something back. Who knows? Maybe all this economic mess will remind us of that simple truth.

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