It’s three weeks after Christmas, time for the dreaded envelopes to arrive containing the credit card bill for ill-fitting and ill-advised purchases that have already been forgotten or broken, but which have yet to be paid for. I’m sitting in our little colonial town’s sponging house, waiting for the next shipment of debtors who’ve maxed out their credit lines and gone, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, to infinity and beyond.
I’ve been appointed Town Spongemaster, and if you think that’s a weird office, we also have three–count ‘em three, no waiting–measurers of lumber. Just in case you have some lumber you’d like measured.
We also have boundary walkers, who once a year walk the boundaries of town on Gauge Days to make sure they haven’t been moved. “Beating the bounds” has been an important annual ritual here since the Industrial Revolution, to make sure that the hard-drinking working men of neighboring towns weren’t encroaching on our territory. To mark important points along the way, parochial school boys were swung against them so that the spot might “forever remembered be.” The system worked; if a substantial Protestant elder of the town forgot where the post to the town’s north gate was located, he’d call for young Seamus O’Herlihy who’d say “It were right over there that you swung me up against the stone marker, Master Mather. Here’s the bump on me head to prove it!”
“I remember this spot–it felt good when they stopped banging me against it!”
But Spongemaster–that’s a higher and much more distinguished office. I was appointed by the Selectmen because I’m the only guy in town with a knowledge of colonial insolvency laws and an ascetic disposition against buying stuff. A successful shopping trip, as I like to say with zen-like inscrutability, is one from which you return with no purchases.
My job: to sponge cash off of over-leveraged upscale shoppers before they’re shipped off to debtors’ prison where, as every WASPy schoolboy knows, the game of squash was invented. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said to Hemingway, the rich are different from you and me. To which I and not Hemingway replied; yes–they don’t pay their bills.
“I say old sport–could you spot me $2,500 for my club dues, just until my hedge fund distribution comes in?”
The first sponge-worthy shopper is dropped off by the bailiff of the Middlesex North District Court of Insolvency, and unceremoniously, I might add. I go out of my way to cushion defaulting debtors from the apparent indignity of it all, pointing out to them that notable personages such as Gilbert Stuart and Henry Fielding were squeezed like sponges in their day.
“I wish they had something just a little bit more expensive.”
I recognize the woman–it’s Carol Delapaula, a local socialite who is held in high esteem in our little conspicuously consumptive suburb for her gift of gift giving. Her munificence knows no bounds; if you give a gift to your kid’s teacher, she gives one to the teacher’s aide, the school crossing guard, and the custodial staff. If you give her a gift for her birthday, she’ll give you a thank-you gift for your gift. She can take your best shot and give it right back to you–gift-wrapped at no extra charge. She’s like a gift-wrapped Ali-Frazier fight.
“Greetings, and welcome to Ye Olde Sponging House. Can I take your coat, your cash–or your credit cards?”
She looks at me like I’m a fly in her premium shopping mall frozen yogurt. “How long do I have to stay here?” she asks coldly.
Home equity financing available.
“Until you reach a composition with your creditors,” I say. “Your January bills are so high you won’t be able to make the minimum payment.”
“Rodney will have his bonus soon,” she sniffs.
“And what if it’s . . . somewhat smaller than anticipated?”
“We’ll borrow on our home equity line.”
I can only shake my head. “You’re borrowing long-term to pay for current expenses? Who do you think you are–the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?”
She’s a trifle embarrassed by the comparison. “Well, I did put on a few pounds over the holidays.”
“And the shopping?”
She regales me with tales of his ‘n hers matching llamas, which have become something of a status symbol around these parts. Horses are so–declasse, doncha know?
Buy four, get one free!
“If it helps, I could write one of my patented more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letters,” I offer helpfully.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s from Hamlet.”
“We don’t ski in the Berkshires.”
“No, the play–by Shakespeare?”
“Did the Youth Drama group put that on? If not, I didn’t see it.” What a mom!
“In legal terms, it’s a revocation of acceptance, couched in polite terms about how you’d hate to see the bottom fall out of the market for llamas around here because you parked yours on the town green with a sign that says ‘Defective product from Hammacher Slemmer–and they wouldn’t take it back!’”
I can tell from the look on her face that she’s beginning to warm to the idea. “Does that really work?”
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Like catnip on a tabby. I got a major catalog retailer to take back a do-it-yourself hockey rink a year later because I was tired of fooling with it. It’s all in how you say it.”
She gives her little head a shake, like Robert Frost’s horse, as if to help her tote up some figures in her head. “Well, I guess we could get by with just one llama.”
“Sure you could. And you wouldn’t have to worry about baby llamas, unless you have a particularly randy teenaged son.”
“Nope, two girls.”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess: a Caitlin and a Courtney?”
“How’d you know?”
“Call me psychic. Anyway, there’s just the little matter of my fee.”
“‘Restructuring’ your debts. How much did you pay for your llamas?”
“They were $10,000 apiece.”
“That’s not too much to pay for a good llama. My standard commission is 10%, so that’ll be $1,000.”
“To write a stupid letter?”
“Oh, it’s a stupid letter you want, huh? That I can do for $750.”