Monday, January 29, 2007

I Know Who They Are

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, occasional reference is made to “they” or “them” whenever a bank forecloses on a farm. The concept is to paint the process of a farm foreclosure as being conducted by this faceless, formless, powerful entity that is inherently evil. “They” come and take everything away. Thus sending thousands of families on a near-doomed trip west in over-crowded, broke-down, flat-bed trucks. Steinbeck was writing what he was seeing during The Depression – the scenario played out repeatedly in the 1930s all over America. A farmer and his family got far behind on home and business loans to keep his farm running, the bank offered repeated warnings, the farmer just couldn’t pay, so eventually the family was evicted from the land, while a bulldozer ploughed down their ramshackle house, and the bank took over the land.

The reader is left to ponder, who are they? Who are these people to be so heartless and unfair, to do something like this, repeatedly, to be so disconnected from humanity?

Well, after doing a stint in a bank for a few months, I know who they are. They are a white guy named Chuck from Piscataway who has a wife, three kids and a mortgage. He has three black women working for him, all of whom are using the job to either get out of rough inner-city neighborhoods, or simply stay afloat in whatever suburban home the now live. While they can be loud, nasty and obnoxious on the phone sometimes with equally verbose bank customers falling behind on loan payments, I would hardly call them evil.

They’re not “they?” Who are they then? In The Grapes of Wrath, it was some bank employee who showed up at the farm with a shotgun and a work crew with a bulldozer to tear down the house. When it came to the bank, this person was most likely the only physical, human evidence of the bank’s power. With the bank today, these people I mentioned handle the cases on the phone. When it comes to handling property, they have a long list of repo men and repossession agencies all over the country, and these people go out, armed with bank papers and tow trucks, to let people know they have to reclaim the property these people can no longer make payments on. And, boy, some of the speakerphone calls I heard of this process going down would blow your mind.

This is still not them? Them is also the bank officer who works in the branch office who would meet with the customer and approve the loan, not knowing that one day the customer would stop making payments and force the bank to either reclaim property or bring legal action against the customer. When things get that far gone, a loan administrator within the bank would be contacted by the bank officer, and he would assign this account to Chuck and his women to contact the customer and see if there’d be any way for him to make some kind of payment, or, more likely to arrange for equipment reclamation, or, just as likely, find the customer totally hostile and incommunicative, thus the need for the bank to start legal proceedings.

I’ve just outlined who “they” are. All of these people, if you take them out of the context of their jobs, have families, homes, often kids, the same concerns most people have. Some of them are nice, some are nasty. No one had horns or hooves. There were no gray storm clouds wandering the hallways. These were all real people involved in the process of ensuring the bank got back at least part of the money it loaned to the customer.

Don’t get me wrong. Ultimately, I’m on the farmer’s side. Farming the land is a much more honorable, decent profession than working in a bank. That’s a simple fact, not an opinion. Not just putting food on tables, but pulling the food from the land in the first place, is about as basic and honest as it gets in terms of work. We’d starve without farmers. Their jobs are often a dice roll depending on so many factors they have no control offer. Crop failure can occur for any number of reasons: flooding, drought, freezing, plagues of various insects that damage crops, competition from larger farming conglomerates, market values decreasing the value of a crop in a given year, equipment failure, etc. The old adage “shit happens” truly applies to farming as a way of life.

But maybe it was just the time, The Depression, with its rampant poverty, that made Steinbeck position banks as this faceless, evil empire. With this job, I was a little put off every time I heard a farmer getting dragged over the coals on the phone. But I imagine if you do this for a living, you’ve been in this position many times before and turned off some important switch that would make most people pause and question the value of foreclosing on a farm.

To be honest, many customers defaulting on their loans were devious. Private investigators occasionally had to be contacted to track down these people, as they’d take out a loan, then close the original business their loan had been for, move to another state, and open up another business with that money, probably changing their names in the process, too. Case files often had a handful of names and business names. One thing I learned there – the bank will always find you. They may not get their money back, but they will make every effort to do so, and probably take a chunk out of you monetarily through legal fees in the process. It just aint worth it to try and beat the bank. The only people I saw do it were customers whose loans were so small that it would cost the bank more to legally pursue the matter than recover the loan.

A larger number of customers just weren’t very smart. We live in a society over-extended on credit, which has become an acceptable way of life. People expect to be in debt all their days. It’s my attitude that you should only be in debt to get an education, buy a home, or start a business. Everything else, if you can’t pay for it directly, don’t buy it. Of course, this would bring the auto industry to its knees, put a serious dent in the fashion industry and spell doom for large-screen TVs. People know the difference between want and need – they just can’t seem to acknowledge or in any adhere to the things they need. The Rolling Stones wrote “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” before millions of people lived their entire adult lives on credit. People get what they want all the time now, even if it means they can’t afford it. A lot of us receive gratification from owning ultimately meaningless physical objects, as opposed to gratification from living by any moral code or reward.

A small number of customers, like the farmers, are honest people who simply go under. Being that this was a New York bank, it was also still dealing with residual 9/11 financial fall-outs, businesses south of Chinatown finally closing after six years of struggling. Not many – there were probably a lot more from 2002-05 or so. On top of people like that, you had cases of bread-winning spouses falling deathly ill for months or years on end, thus a loan that was taken out to keep a business running before the illness would go unpaid while these people lost their main source of income, on top of the nightmare of watching a loved one die. Awful stuff to hear about.

(I also often heard people defaulting on loans use this as an excuse, when the person who had become ill had virtually nothing to do with the loan and were in no way tied to the customer's financial well being, .e.g. a tearful woman on the phone blurting, "Will you vampires leave me alone, my Uncle George is dying from brain cancer right now, and all you people can do is hound me on the phone, you heartless bastards." People will do strange and desparate things when they get cornered like this.)

So, if you want to know, this is the kind of thing “they” deal with all day long as part of their jobs. Sympathy for the devil? Well, the bank really isn’t the devil. I still don’t particularly like banks. They’re in the business of making money. Period. And they make a lot of it. At first I was shocked and appalled by how these folks operated, but after awhile, I could see that a vast majority of the time, they were dealing with bullshit artists looking to burn the bank. What I didn’t agree with was that these situations, which became easily identifiable even to a neophyte like me, were handled no differently from that of a farmer going under. I don’t know how you explain to the bank that you can’t make payments because it didn’t rain for three months. Could Mother Nature be named in the law suit? I gather whatever insurance farmers have to cover these sort of issues goes only so far, and that to be a farmer is to most likely be in debt much of the time, assuming a farmer is even able to operate independently without getting swallowed up by a huge conglomerate and reverting to the days of tenant farming.

Some part of you either turns off to do this kind of work, or more likely, you get so hardened to the situation, and realize that pausing to look at the accident by the side of the road is done so only to ponder your own mortality, and it’s best to drive on. Short of picking up a pitchfork and strapping on a pair of bib overalls, there’s not much you can do personally to stop a financial situation gone that far south.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"Farming the land is a much more honorable, decent profession than working in a bank. That’s a simple fact, not an opinion. Not just putting food on tables, but pulling the food from the land in the first place, is about as basic and honest as it gets in terms of work."

Not so much anymore. Back in the "good old days" when farming was largely a family enterprise, yes. But today, farming is done mostly by the same big, faceless corporations that own banks. Individual farmers today are not much different from Chuck and his staff: they are functionaries with limited authority in their jobs, and virtually no power to influence how their jobs get done. Even the seeds they're allowed to use are dictated by companies like Monsanto, which have a vested interest in keeping farming and farmers under their control. So if you're looking for a career that offers freedom along with a closeness to the land, sorry, the boat has sailed. The bib and pitchfork are about as relevant to farming today as an abacus is to the banking business.