As the United States continues to sluggishly dig itself out of the economic hole of the 2008 financial crisis, average household indebtedness is falling. But that’s mainly because of defaults on debt, not because of a newfound sense of financial prudence and responsibility. Jimmy Breslin would not be surprised. As one collection of his columns read, “Someone who is not in trouble over money is either too rich or too stupid to be traveling on the same circuit.” Here’s one of his classic columns on loan companies and the hassle they put people through.
You could see the cards right away. There were fourteen of them, taped to the door like Christmas decorations, and everybody on the way to work stopped to see what they were about. Each card was the same. “Urgent you call this office immediately,” the handwriting said. Underneath it, in print, was the name, address, and telephone number of a loan company. It was eight o’clock in the morning. Within an hour the whole block knew that Leon Berger was in trouble with the finance company.
“They did more than that,” Leon says. “Another time they called my sister up at midnight and told her I was going to be in a lot of trouble if I didn’t pay. She called my wife up right away. My wife jumped out of bed and started screaming that I was keeping another girl. How am I going to keep another girl? I can’t even keep myself. But my wife kept arguing with me and I didn’t get to sleep until four o’clock. I went to work half dead. I’m not in the office twenty minutes when the boss calls me in. He wanted to know about this money the loan company called him up about. For $311, they were trying to wreck my life.”
Things like this happen every day, and in every part of New York City, because finance companies, with no specific laws to slow them down, go after people in debt sometimes as if they were chasing dogs off the sidewalk.
People borrow money from finance companies because they happen to need it. They are supposed to pay it back in monthly installments. The installments are not cheap. For a loan of $800, spread over two years, the payments are $40.27. At the end, the finance company gets back $966.48, or a profit of $166.48 on the loan. Shakespeare wrote a big thing about this kind of action.
Now some of the people who borrow run into trouble and can’t make the payments. Most of the time they have to keep the matter secret because very few men want wives to know they borrow money. The minute they fall behind in payments, they are in the hands of the finance-company agents. The agents are generally young, but they act like they went to school in Leningrad.
Out in Freeport, Long Island, there is a guy named Stewart working for one of the loan companies and everybody calls him “the Hero.” He chases people as if they had his own money. If you are a late payer, he goes to the house next door and tells them that you owe money. That’s one of his better moves. His best one is to show up at the train station in the morning and catch his man in front of a crowd of commuters, then start yelling, “What’s the matter? Why don’t you pay what you owe?”
This isn’t just one case. Nor is the whole subject restricted to just a few people. New York is a city of credit. When there is credit, there are people in trouble. And there is always some sick degenerate sitting at a desk in an office who can’t wait to get personal pleasure out of somebody else’s trouble. There is no way to stop him, short of a sawed-off shotgun, which is warmly endorsed here, but rarely heard of. The situation calls for a strong law.
Yesterday State Assemblyman Michael Capanegro, Democrat from Queens, began drafting a bill that he is going to introduce at the next session of the legislature. Capanegro’s bill calls for the establishment of a commission to control the orderly collection of debts while protecting the dignity and privacy of small borrowers.
“I want to stop the repetitious, consistent, and constant molesting, phone-calling, house-visiting, calling of employers, and general intimidation and harassment of individuals by loan companies,” Capanegro said. “Loan companies have the legal remedy of the courts if people do not pay them back. I want them to use that remedy. Only a minute percentage of non-payers are of the type known as ‘dead beats.’ Most non-payers are simply up against it in life. Their problems should be ruled on by a judge, not by some vicious, power-crazed individual working in a loan-company office.”
Capanegro’s proposed law is not quite so far-reaching as two that once existed. One was sort of natural law. Under it, you invited the finance-company guy into the apartment and had friends present. All grabbed the finance-company guy, threw him under the shower, then turned him out into the street. This worked best in the middle of winter. By the time the finance-company guy hit the corner, you could ice skate on his overcoat. The other law was the one put on the books in Boston by James Michael Curley. He ruled that no Civil Service employee could pay back money to a loan company unless his wife said in writing that she would let him. This was one of the great pieces of American legislation. Right now, the best available is Capanegro’s, and it appears to be good enough.