Every deadbeat debtor, even the US, has to grow up eventually
Many years ago, when I wasn't as responsible as I am now, I took a bit longer than 30 days to pay my American Express bill. Back then, before mortgage-backed securities, subprime lending, sovereign debt default and Standard & Poor's downgrades, banks in general - and American Express in particular - had a pretty rigid idea of what constituted prompt payment. Forty-plus days wasn't it.
I found out just how irritated American Express was with me when I cavalierly put my card down to pay for a meal at a fashionable dive restaurant in Santa Monica. I was at Chez Jay, a local institution, which is a shoebox-sized restaurant (more like a glorified bar, really) frequented by a collection of tired old beach rats, hip movie stars, nerds from the adjacent RAND Corporation and deadbeats like me.
The proprietor of the place was, fittingly, a guy named Jay, and he prowled the establishment with a genial seriousness. He had seen it all in his 30 years owning a watering hole a few steps from the beach - the mix of clientele; the span of decades; the basic rule that everyone, at some point, stopped into Chez Jay for a steak - and so he knew exactly how to handle a simple thing like a patron slapping down his AMEX card, and AMEX, via the then-ubiquitous modem saying, essentially: "Not so fast."
Jay sauntered over to my table, asked about our meal, complimented the ladies present and then put one of his large hands on my shoulder in an avuncular and friendly way.
"Mr Long," he said. "Could I see you for a moment?"
And he led me into his small office, held my worthless card up, and told me that American Express was declining to accept the charges.
I did the usual thing. I pretended there had been some mistake. I threw out the possibility that there was a computer error. I suggested identity theft. I did everything and tried everything except to tell the truth, which was that I was a 23-year-old fool, who had spent too much and had thought American Express would spot me a couple of weeks.
In the middle of my weasel-word monologue, Jay held up his hand.
"Brother," he said, "we've all been there. I just wanted to let you know in private. Away from the ladies."
He tossed me my card. "They wanted me to cut it up, but I can't do that to another guy. As I said, we've all been there."
"Thanks," I said. And I wrote him a cheque for the amount.
"Are you in show business?" he asked.
"I'm a writer," I said, as if there was a difference.
Jay shrugged. "That's show business, pal. Piece of advice: be careful with the dough. If it comes fast, but goes out faster, that's gonna be a problem."
He held up the cheque and put it in his pocket. "Come by tomorrow with cash. Are we square?"
We were square. I shook his hand and then he piloted me back to my table, as if we were long-lost pals. The next day, I took out a cash advance on what was left on my VISA card, headed over to Chez Jay, and paid my debt, which made me feel like a real man. A broke man - who among us, though, has never felt even a little bit broke? - and a man with a lousy credit rating, but a man.
What's more, I learnt a lesson about cool: Jay had it, and I didn't.
Eventually, of course, I also learnt to pay on time, handle my money, keep my American Express card, and turn 30. (These things are, I've since discovered, related events.) But being broke was a good lesson, and my teacher was Jay Fiondella, the seen-it-all impresario of Chez Jay.
Jay died a few years ago, but I couldn't help but think of him when Standard & Poor's downgraded United States government debt from AAA to AA+. It was the equivalent of walking up to the American table, clapping a meaty hand on its shoulder and saying: "Can I see you for a second?"
And America will behave pretty much like I did - it's all a mistake, there's a computer error, it's some kind of fraud - until it comes to its senses and learns that it's got to be careful with its dough: if it comes in fast, but goes out faster, that's gonna be a problem.
Nobody likes being broke. And nobody likes being a deadbeat. But there's nothing quite as satisfying as getting yourself square. Because brother, we've all been there.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
Published: August 12, 2011 04:00 AM