Inner City Press -- Publishing and Taking Action Since 1987
Announcing the release and availability of Predatory Bender: A Story of Subprime Finance, with a non-fiction advocates' afterward, Predatory Lending: Toxic Credit in the Inner City. The first (sample) chapter of Predatory Bender is below on this intentionally text-only page; the first section of the related non-fiction Predatory Lending: Toxic Credit is available here. Some reviews: Paul Elie in Commonweal ("a brilliant act of subversion"); American Banker; Pittsburgh City Paper; and here (UK), in context of financial fiction genre. .CBS MarketWatch of April 23, 2004, says it has "some very funny moments." The Washington Post of March 15, 2004, calls Predatory Bender: America in the Aughts "the first novel about predatory lending;" the London Times of April 15, 2004, "A Novel Approach," said it "has a cast of colorful characters." See also, "City Lit: Roman a Klepto [Review of 'Predatory Bender']," by Matt Pacenza, City Limits, Sept.-Oct. 2004.
To order, either mail payment here, place credit card order to 1-800-247-6553, or order through Amazon.com (click here, directly to Amazon's Predatory Bender page), or through Powell's Books, or other booksellers. But why not cut out the middleman, and get it faster, by mailing payment to the publisher Inner City Press here? Each book is $19.95, add $3.95 shipping & handling for first book and $1 for each additional book.
PREDATORY BENDER -- AMERICA IN THE AUGHTS
A novel by Matthew Lee, © 2003
Jack in The Bronx
The West Farms Mall was built in the former South Bronx in the second year of the new millennium. While ostensibly the fruit of three decades of community struggle, the land beneath the mall was owned by Anguilla-based EmpiBank. The anchor tenant, too, was a part of Empi's empire: a storefront office of the high-rate lender EmpiFinancial. Jack Bender had worked for EmpiBank on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, the so-called Queen City. He was offered the position of deputy branch manager for EmpiFinancial in The Bronx and he took it.
And so it was that Jack Bender parked his Ford Taurus under the towering halogen lights that late-May dawn, fumbling with his keys to open the storefront of EmpiFinancial. It was Jack's custom to come to the office an hour early, alone. He poured himself a cup of yesterday's cold coffee, slipped into the machine a dry filter-bag and pushed the orange "On" switch. Jack used this silent hour to review the promissory notes his staff had managed to cajole from South Bronx residents the day before.
Bertha Watkins had agreed to pay twenty-four percent interest for a $2,500 loan to buy a new bedroom set at the Sicilian Furniture outlet on 161st Street. Gina had creamed her for credit insurance too. Two hundred dollars a month, prepaid, to protect a garish canopy bed that EmpiFinancial would never foreclose on because it couldn't be re-sold. People who buy pseudo-mobster furniture want it new. The point was to have the trappings of the nouveau riche; pre-owned (the euphemism for used) defeated the whole purpose.
Jack nodded as he reviewed Gina's handiwork. She was getting more and more vicious, which was just what EmpiFinancial liked in its employees. Vicious and smiling. Jack closed his eyes and pictured the closing:
"This way if you die, Ms. Watkins, you can rest easy that no one will come repo your beautiful new bedroom set. This protection, this peace of mind, costs only pennies a day."
Jack chuckled, lighting his first unfiltered cigarette of the day. Pennies a day was the classic phrasing, impervious to challenges from state attorneys general, or from Bush II's Federal Trade Commission, if for some reason they freaked out and sued. Any dollar figure was composed of pennies, wasn't it? EmpiBank's chairman, Sandaford Vyle, was paid pennies a day -- 63,562,600 pennies a day, to be precise. Jack has calculated it. $232 million a year, all told. Divide by 365, multiply by a hundred and you had it. Vyle was paid just pennies a day.
Jack'd always been good at math. Growing up in Charlotte with his daddy in jail, Jack got the best SAT scores in the school district's history. He could have gone to one of the UNCs, joined a frat house and guzzled beer straight from the keg. Instead at a teacher's suggestion he chose to pay out-of-state rates at SUNY Oswego. He'd been born in Bubba-land, as he called it, but he was not of it. He'd only returned after his mother went into the hospital, then into a sort of halfway house for the dying where she languished for six and a half years. It had given Jack time to get married, have a kid and get divorced. He worked his way up from repo man to manager of a Charlotte EmpiFinancial office. A month after he watched his mother buried in the red clay of the cemetery across from the Waffle House, Jack'd been offered a promotion to start-up EmpiFinancial's South Bronx office. He rented a Ryder trailer and left the next day.
After a month in a Comfort Inn out by Co-op City, he'd found a two-bedroom on Olinville Avenue. This was not the South Bronx, he'd been assured. It was a white working-class neighborhood. In the days after he signed the lease he realized that he was one of only two white people living in his building. But so what? One of the ways in which he wasn't a Bubba was that he didn't care about race. He noticed it, but he didn't care. The color he cared about was green. Bertha Watkins was in all probability a two hundred and fifty-pound African-American matriarch. So what? She'd pay for the four posts of her canopy bed -- handcarved in Malaysia -- just as good as the next person. I have a dream, Jack thought: a dream that one day we will all be equally in the corporate spell, equally marching in the integrated army of corporate control, selling and buying and paying and dying. Jack was lighting cigarette number two when Gina came in, her shoulder-length dark hair not as neat as usual.
"Gina, baby," Jack said, standing up from his desk. "I like the way you reamed this Bertha Watkins. The credit insurance on the bed? It's priceless."
Gina smiled but inside she cringed. Jack had a beer belly, a comb-over and the remnants of a Southern drawl. Popped blood vessels made his cheek bones red, whether from drink or disease, Gina didnt know or care. Within EmpiFinancial the name they'd given Jack was The Cracker. Gina'd driven Interstate 95 to Delray Beach for spring break, sure. But to be working for The Cracker was not what she'd expected when she'd paid to attend EmpiFinancial's seminar at the Courtyard by Marriott conference center by LaGuardia Airport. "The sky's the limit," the trainer had said. "You'll be sellin' a good product -- always remember that we have a product that people want -- and you'll be getting EmpiBank stock options that have never decreased in value. Never! Some say Sandy Vyle made a deal with the Devil, but me, I dont care." The trainer jangled his gold Rolex watch -- Patek Philippe, perhaps: from the audience it was hard to see -- and clicked to the next slide of his PowerPoint presentation. How after a year selling personal loans EmpiFinancial would train them down at its corporate campus in Baltimore to take the Series Seven, so they could pitch variable annuities to retirees. "You'll be workin' for Wall Street," the trainer said. "The sky's the limit."
That EmpiBank was based on Anguilla -- to Gina it sounded like a kind of lizard -- was not explained. Gina figured it was just smart tax planning. Who wanted to work for a company that was a sucker for the government anyway? If they didn't know how to manage their own money, what would they pay you with? Gina paid for the seminar, she got caught up in it like at a Baptist revivalist meeting -- and now here she was, smiling at a cracker with a comb-over about a loan to a functionally-illiterate welfare mother.
"We can flip her in a month," Gina said, going to the coffee station and filling her cup. "There's no way she can afford the monthly payments. She'll be back in here before summer's out and we can rip her on the refinance too."
"That's my girl," Jack said. Gina left the coffee station without even putting in the non-dairy creamer. She didn't want Jack to get within five feet of her. The sky was the limit.
Jack ogled Gina as she walked to her work-station. Gina wore pants but they fit her well. Some off-the-rack crap from T.J. Maxx. He watched the crack of Gina's gym-firm ass and thought idly of his ex-wife Diane. He'd just have to find a way to get visitation with his daughter. He'd have to pay the child support, and find a way this summer to drive down to North Carolina and pick Azalea up, Zalie, he called her, maybe take her to Rosarito Beach down in Mexico.
Jack was cosmopolitan, in his way. He liked to vacation as far south and west as his car would take him. Eighteen miles south of Tijuana lies Rosarito, beer cheapened by the collapsing peso, suspicious eyes dampened by NAFTA but still yet no extradition treaty for child custody, much less child support. He'd tell Diane he was only taking Zalie to Myrtle Beach, or maybe out to those South Carolina islands where they speak African gula. To get Diane to buy into it he'd just have to pay her a few more rounds of the inflated child-support while she picked up other Bubbas at the Beefsteak Charlie's in Charlotte. Actually they had franchises of pseudo-European sidewalk cafés in Charlotte now, sandwiches with snooty Italian names sold to get-over MBAs from New York and Chicago. It was still Bubba-land. Jack lit ciggie number three. He was glad he didn't have breasts so he couldn't get cancer there like his momma did.
Bertha Watkins, as it turned out, wasn't as stupid as they'd assumed. She came in just before lunch, a healthy-looking African-American woman with hair that had freshly been curled. She was pointing at her Note and Security Agreement, bitching about the credit insurance.
"I talked to a loi-er," she said. Lawyer, Jack thought: storefront shyster waiting for lead paint braindead babies in front of Lincoln Hospital. And Bertha wasn't as heavy as he'd imagined. For a moment he pictured her on the four-post bed.
"I want this charge taken off right now," Bertha demanded. "My loi-er Missa Le-vine" -- she said it like a vineyard, like a fine wine, Jack immediately thought, Micah Levine -- "he said your company's bein' sued for loan-sharkin', that the government's all into your business. So y'all just cancel the charge or I'm gonna--"
"Calm down, Ms. Watkins," Jack said. "That credit insurance there, it's just to help you. To give you security."
"I want it off," Bertha said.
Jack heard the elevated train rumbling out on Southern Boulevard, wondered whether Bertha had driven here or taken the Two Train, straight from Micah Levine's storefront on 149th Street and Morris Avenue. Micah has a garish electronic sign in front, scrolling again and again, "Have You Been Hurt?" in English and Spanish.
"Did he charge you for his advice?" Jack asked.
"Did Mister Le-vine -- you know, your loi-er -- did he charge you, to get you all fired up like this?"
"Who the hell you think you're speakin' to?"
"'Cause it's all legal, and Mister Levine knows it. The moment you sign the documents, it's an enforceable debt. The insurance is pre-paid, ya know what I mean? It's become part of the loan. Now if there's any problem paying it, we can always extend the terms--"
"Y'all are no better than the Mafia."
Jack didn't disagree. But it was all legal. And with a few dozen more Berthas, Jack would get a nice quarterly bonus and he'd be driving cross-country with Zalie, or at least talking gula and picking up mute Dianes on the nineteenth hole. He smoothed down his hair and again heard the elevated train.
"I'll be back," Bertha said.
"Your payment's not due 'til the end of the month," Jack called after her.
"What was that about?" Gina said, coming out of the bathroom fresh from her lunchtime line of cocaine.
"It's the lady you screwed over yesterday," Jack said. "She done got herself a loi-ah." Jack laughed. This was the way he could bond with Gina, he figured. They were united in sophisticated loan-sharking, lording their knowledge of the finer points over the vast unwashed of their South Bronx catchment area.
"D'ja cancel the insurance?" Gina asked.
"Hell no. Why'm I gonna give up good clean money that you earned -- that we earned -- just 'cause the lady has second-thoughts in the morning?" Gina looked at him strangely. "They always do," Jack added, thinking of Diane, hoping for Gina.
"Am I gonna get written up?"
"Not unless she calls Home Office in Baltimore and makes a complaint. Even if she does, we're only doin' what they tell us to do, right?"
Gina shrugged and licked a last grain of cocaine off her top lip. A white mustache like in the "Got Milk?" commercials. The Nuremberg trials were a long time ago.
"Most of 'em don't complain," Gina said hopefully.
"Most of 'em don't even know what the hell they signed," Jack said. "We gotta sell the insurance to meet our quota. Don't let this lady and her loi-ah make you gun-shy. Are you getting soft or something?"
"No, it's you--" Gina started to say, then stopped. Sexual put-downs would just make Jack more pushy. Gina was still dreaming of the Series Seven test, selling annuities and mutual funds, the whole aura of Wall Street. She didn't need some bogus complaint from a canopy bed.
"I'm gonna write down exactly how the closing went," Gina said.
"You do that."
* * *
And here's how it went:
Bertha Watkins never intended to come to EmpiFinancial. Where she went was to the enticing showroom of Sicilian Furniture, which was located on 161st Street where Third Avenue wiggles, right in front of the abandoned courthouse. You passed it on the bus -- bedroom sets in fake rooms with mirrored walls -- and you couldn't miss it, especially not with the "E-Z Credit and Lay-Away" banners that flapped in the breeze.
Easy Credit was an attractive come-on in the South Bronx, as anywhere else. (In the second year of the millennium Argentina found out just how low those first free hits can take you, but that's another story.) Bertha Watkins stood looking in through the window until she saw the four-post bed she wanted: carved wood all glazed with varnish, a fluffy pillow and everything except insect netting but you could buy that elsewhere, later, when the bugs got worse when school got out.
The man in Sicilian Furniture -- a real Italian, he -- let her lie down on the bed, bounce around a bit, stare up at the discolored ceiling tiles on which water dripped until the roof was fixed.
"Tell me 'bout your easy credit," Bertha said, still bouncing.
"It's through a major bank," the man said. "EmpiBank -- ever heard of it?"
Of course she had. They ran ads on TV showing thin yuppies, some of them Asian, drinking cappuccinos in SoHo's narrow streets. Or maybe that was Volkswagen -- it was hard to tell the ads apart. They had a new slogan, "Live richly." Like on this four-post bed. "Where do I sign?" Bertha asked. And that's where Gina came in.
"I'll just fax the form up to their branch on 174th--"
"I'll take it there myself," Bertha said. "I want this bed today. I wanna sleep in it tonight." What was the point of E-Z Credit if you had to wait? And how Easy was it, then, if they had to check your credit history?
The Sicilian called EmpiFinancial and Gina answered the phone. "Tell the Cracker we got a live one."
"I'll be right there."
Gina liked to go out and do these deals herself, while the pot was hot, while the borrower was still staring at the trinket of their eye, looking right past the fine print and all the predatory niceties. Gina showed up with her clipboard, didn't disagree when Bertha said, "You're from EmpiBank, right?" Let her think it was a bank. For some reason people assumed that banks wouldn't screw you, at least not as badly as they could. Bank are regulated, right? They're insured by the government. They don't come after you with a baseball bat, don't break thumbs or knees to collect on loans. According to television they help yuppies drink cappuccino and live richly.
Gina used her cell phone to call in to the office, reading off Bertha's social security number digit by digit like some secret code. "Just a fast credit check," Gina told Bertha.
"I pay my stuff on time," Bertha said. But she was beginning to wonder if E-Z, in fact, meant Easy.
Bertha was known by Fair Isaac; Bertha was in and in deep with EquiFax. If Gina had wanted, she could have known everything that Bertha'd ever bought. But that wasn't the point. Bertha Watkins had a FICO score of 685: mainstream by any measure, "excellent" in Empi's matrix. At any conforming lender, the lady could get a mortgage at six percent, in the post-September 11 economic downturn. She'd pay twenty-five percent interest on this bed. You want Easy? You want to bounce on the four-poster tonight? You live in the South Bronx? You're gonna pay. And then there was the insurance.
Gina closed her eyes and tried to remember what if anything had been said about insurance. She hadn't used the word. "You'll want protection, of course" -- that's how she'd said it.
Bertha was lying back on the bed, watching the uncomfortable suckers on the BX 55 bus driving by. "Protection for what?" Bertha asked. Perhaps she meant "from what."
"In case something happens, you get sick or disabled or... whatever. God forbid." Gina liked to use religion with these people. She didn't just mean "minorities" -- that's what she called them -- but even the white folks in the Bronx. Most of the people of pallor here were Catholic: Irish or Italian. There were Jews too, of course. The Bronx was or had been famous for that. But they weren't buying mobster furniture.
Bertha didn't answer.
"It's just pennies a day," Gina continued with her pitch. "You won't have to pay anything, not anything at all, today. It'll just be part of the loan. And the bed will be in your apartment before the sun goes down."
That closed the deal. The Sicilian was nodding too. He had three undocumented Mexicans out in the one-ton truck, ready to deliver this termite-fodder to anywhere in a ten-mile radius.
"Tonight," he said. "You'll be on that bed." He wondered, with who?
"It's a walk-up," Bertha was saying as she signed the contract.
"We're used to it," Mister Sicily said.
"Hey this is almost five thousand bucks," Bertha said, looking up. "In the window it says nine ninety-nine--"
"That's without the mattress and stuff," Sicily said.
And without the insurance and finance charges, Gina thought.
Somewhere Micah Levine was thinking: bait and switch. Actually Micah was picking a jury on 161st Street and the Grand Concourse, just eight blocks west, in the case of a baby whose forehead was pierced with forceps by a Filipino doctor-trainee who'd worked forty hours straight -- but that's another story.
Bertha'd already signed the form; Gina was reaching to take her clipboard back.
"You should change that sign, then," Bertha said.
Mister Sicily didn't answer. He and Gina exchanged a wink.
"I want it tonight like you told me," Bertha said as she went out the door.
Oh I'll give it to you, Sicily thought. Gina was already thinking about the next deal. If her numbers were good enough maybe they'd let her take the Series Seven even faster than they'd promised at the Courtyard by Marriott.
* * *
And here's the part that neither Gina nor Jack had been able to see:
Bertha Watkins had three kids now but she'd used to have four. Actually she was never sure how to answer that question, "How many kids do you have?" She'd had four: four live infants had come out of her womb, the first three the normal way then the last by vicious C-section named after some Roman following which she'd tied her tubes. And they'd been beautiful babies, all of them, but especially the last one, her daughter Penny. Duwon and Shaniqua and Starquaisha loved her too, their baby sister, with the pink elastics they called "thingies" tying her hair into pig tails, beating on her stroller's table. "Juice, mamma," she'd say and it sounds like "Jews."
Penny was almost three years old when Bertha got her tubes tied. Four was enough, and Arthur had died by then, after a lobe-and-a-half of his lung were cut out from smoking Pall Malls every day of his life. Arthur Watkins, the money-makin'-est brother in the Concourse Village Houses. They'd had to move out of those buildings, too, after Arthur died. They were like a co-op, the maintenance didn't go down even when your income did. Bertha fled the free market to a City-owned building on 149th and St. Ann's, crack vials in the stairwell but only two fifty-nine a month, exactly one third of her SSI check. That's where Bertha headed from Sicilian Furniture, and it's where the bed would be heading tonight, to apartment 4B with its panoramic view of the youth prison and the new auto parts store.
Her three oldest kids all started at P.S. 277, a block south on St. Ann's, some Spanish name over the door but they all liked their teachers. St. Mary's Park was right across the street and Bertha could keep her nightgown on, under a raincoat, when she walked 'em to school, get the lady across the hall, Mrs. Morales, to watch Penny for her. She'd given her first three children African-style names, New Afrikan, Nouveau Afrikans, just as Arthur's wanted it. Arthur Watkins sounded like an accountant from London -- his parents down in Tennessee had wanted to give him that leg up in life. "They'll never know you're black," they told Arthur when he signed up for the Army. "When you get back and you apply for a job, or for a mortgage or whatever, they'll never know you're black from your name and you'll do better." When Arthur was in the Army he kept thinking they'd send him to Iran to free those white ambassadors, those "America Held Hostage Day 421" people, but it never happened. He did push-ups and shot pool at a series of Army bases and then came back to Knoxville, having acquired an unfortunate taste for horse which they hardly even had in his hick hometown and so he'd come to New York and got a job with the MTA. It had a different name back then, "Surface Transit" -- whatever they called it, he was a bus driver and he made damn good money. When he met Bertha at the club on 149 and Walton he fell in love and his first son was conceived. He'd had enough of taking on the white man's names and so he called the kid Duwon; he looked like a boxer in his double-thickness pampers, like a young Joe Frazier. "Smokin' Joe!" Arthur'd say, taking Duwon at five up to the park by Yankee Stadium for "road work," some slow jogging once around the cinder track. Then two daughters in a row -- two more African names -- and then the last one, their miracle girl, that Bertha'd insisted on calling Penny, after some damn movie she'd seen. Arthur insisted that she at least have a neo-African middle name: they'd chosen Zade, pronounced Zah-day like that sultry Nigerian singer Sade. And then for Arthur the coughing up of blood, the bored doctors in Lincoln Hospital, morphine like the horse from his Army days and then darkness.
They say tragedies come in threes. Arthur's one-and-a-half lung-lobes were enough for Bertha but like they said in old newsreels on PBS, time marches on. Through the MTA Arthur had not only health insurance but also death insurance, a death benefit to be used for a grave-plot and ceremony. "Any religion you want," they'd told her and so she'd listened to that "dust to dust" and "he was a family man" from an oily Spanish priest she barely knew, the fancy black car like the Mayor's driving through the rain all the way out to St. Raymond's Cemetery, by the highway by the Throgs Neck Bridge just before you'd get to Queens. The people from Concourse Village had given her three baskets of fruit, as if when your husband died all you'd want was a banana and some fuzzless peaches. They'd been nice at Concourse Village but there was no way she could afford to live there anymore.
Two months after they moved to 149th Street Penny got sick. She was only four so she couldn't quite describe what was wrong, if she even knew. Bertha thought it was a cold. She boiled water tinged with Vicks Vap-o-rub and held Penny up over it, breathing the green air into her lungs and it seemed to be working. And then one night when Bertha was watching a rerun of In Living Color on Channel 11 the WB, Penny rolled out of bed and onto the floor and her eyes wouldn't close and she gurgled and choked and Bertha's mind froze.
"Get up!" Bertha yelled to Duwon, poking him in the side, up on his top bunk in his boxer shorts with his poster of Tyra Banks. "Your sister's sick!"
Duwon jumped down from his bunk and looked at Penny. His face went flat. "Call the ambulance momma" he said and she did, dialing 9-1-1 and screaming at the monotone operator who kept asking about symptoms when there was no time to waste, no time at all, Time-as-she'd-known-it was ending. Finally Bertha ran down the stairs with Penny in her arms, out onto 149th Street flagging down a gypsy cab without even the plastic divider, unlicensed, driving the five blocks west to Lincoln Hospital. She tried to pay him but he wouldn't take money. He drove away after he dropped her. Maybe he didn't want to be part of a police report, maybe he was a good Samaritan. His car smelled of pimp oil and had a cardboard evergreen swinging from the rear view mirror that Bertha could still remember. There were bums sleeping in the Lincoln Hospital waiting room but they showed her right in, through the swinging doors with Penny in her arms -- Penny who had not breathed for ten minutes now, Penny who was frozen, looking more and more like a doll, eternal. Finally they pried Penny out of Bertha's grasp and put her on a raised-up cot behind a curtain but Bertha could still see: they tried two charges of electricity but that was it, they pronounced her dead.
The minutes and hours and days and weeks that followed Bertha no longer remembered or wanted to remember.
A month-and-a-half later she got a call from Micah Levine -- he trolled the death records of Lincoln, especially for kids, and made his cold calls himself. "You may have been a victim," he began. "Your daughter, I mean. And sorry for your loss. But Lincoln Hospital is on the state's watch-list for malpractice and negligence -- a woman was given the wrong medicine just last week, and a guy had an operation and the doctor left his Macintosh iPod right inside him -- so I'll like to come by and discuss your case, or to see if you have a case, whenever it might be most convenient for you."
What's an iPod, Bertha wondered, after her first wave of disgust at this ambulance-chaser had died down. "I'll come to your office," she finally said. Duwon came with her; the girls stayed at home with Mrs. Morales drawing pictures.
Micah was a white man but hardly alabaster: he had dark hair, lots of it, and could pass for Hispanic. "This is your son?" Micah asked, thrusting out his hand so his suit-sleeve pulled back showing a wrist with some hair and a thick gold bracelet. Duwon'd already learned that you called this cheddar, this gold false or real, this metal you managed to grab with a gun or a law license.
Bertha nodded and waited. She told her story for the umpteenth time, she signed a form so that Micah could review Penny's medical file.
"Maybe we can sue Vicks" was all that Micah came up with. He said he had a whole library on Lincoln's negligence but since Penny had been dead on arrival, and since you couldn't sue the ambulance since she'd taken a gypsy cab, their only case if they had one was against the manufacturers of Vap-o-Rub.
"Forget it," Bertha finally said. Some things were fate, you just had to live with them. But despite herself she'd gotten to like Micah. He was a greedy bastard but he did nice things for no apparent reason, like bringing Duwon a baseball glove and taking him to sit in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, even after they'd decided that she had no case. Maybe he was interested in her, Bertha thought, laughing at the idea of this mousse-haired Jew climbing the dirty stairwell with fresh-cut flowers from the Mexican's shopping cart down in the Hub. Maybe he liked her like that. He didn't seem to know what he was doing, and she wasn't in the mood, not in this lifetime, for real romance at this point but he'd become a friend and a bit something more. And so Bertha called him about the bed, about the contract she'd signed as she bounced there on it; he promised to come by and take a look at her copy of the loan documents, he'd bring a new DVD video game for Duwon, too, and probably his circumcised penis, his curved Sim-City with Peyronie's syndrome in his sharp-creased loose-fit Italian pants.
There's a beer from Italy called Peroni -- Micah knew this but Bertha didn't, and Bertha didn't care.
Actually they hadn't given her a copy of the contract, there in Sicilian Furniture -- Gina took both copies with her, on her clipboard. But when the delivery arrived, Bertha refused to accept it until she got a copy. And so they gave her one. After the bed was in place (she watched the Mexican carry her old mattress down to the sidewalk, then throw it on the vacant lot next door, rev their truck north over pot-holed St. Ann's), Micah arrived. He played three games of Sim City with Duwon on the WebTV. Bertha always sent her daughter next door to Mrs. Morales' when Micah came; she didn't need those confusions, about whom he was coming to see. There was perverts of every race, of course, but the white man seemed sicker than any other. Finally Micah sat down and read the fine print, sipping from time to time the Peroni beer he'd brought with him.
"This was a bait and switch," he muttered. "Unfair and deceptive practices act, Truth in Lending--"
"You sayin' I don't got to pay?"
"You shouldn't have to pay this much," Micah said. "Especially the insurance -- they charged you the whole premium up front, you know that?"
"What's that mean?"
"They're charging you interest on money you don't even owe them yet," Micah said. "It'd be like you decide to pay Con Ed for your electricity bill for next year, except you don't actually pay them -- they charge you now, and charge you interest, all the way until you actually use the lights you've already been paying for."
"So what'do I do?"
"Tell 'em cancel the insurance."
Duwon threw down the joy-stick of the WebTV.
"What'd I tell you about that?" Bertha demanded. But by then Micah had already picked it up, and he and Duwon proceeded to play three more games while Bertha put the sheets and blankets on her new four-poster bed and Micah dreamed, perhaps, of bouncing on it but got scared for his car and so he left.
"I think he like you," Duwon said and watched to see his mother's reaction.
Bertha scoffed and told him to go wash up then go to bed. They'd brought the bunk bed with them from Concourse Village, despite the bad karma. But tonight the girls would sleep with their mother in the four-poster bed. Penny Zade would have fit, too.
* * *
Elizabeth or the Apocalypse
In Midtown Tom Bain watched or played at watching the Bloomberg machine because that was his job. He was a stock analyst whose beat was the euphemistically-named field of "specialty finance," otherwise known as subprime lending or, less politely, loan-sharking. Bain tracked publicly-traded loan sharks and issued research reports on their future prospects under different interest-rate scenarios. Bain had concluded that the Federal Reserve's interest rate moves had little impact on the loan-sharking field. The customers were not, the catch-phrase went, "interest rate sensitive." In his off-hours Bain didn't attend to the Wall Street niceties: the subprime customers were desperate, or ignorant; in any event, they didn't rush out to refinance when the Fed lowered rates, as it did after the September 2001 plane-bombing of the World Trade Center. Bain had used to work there, across the street from the Towers in Seven World Trade.
The building didn't get hit by a plane but it collapsed nonetheless. By then Bain was in his studio apartment in Battery Park City, watching the chaos and breathing the dust. He drank three six packs of beer that day, and now had gone back to smoking pot, taking crystal meth and ecstasy, partying away the few hours he was not glued to his Bloomberg screen. He could get married later. The women he'd met in business school were a bunch of infertile sharks; the bimbos in the Wall Street bars, the so-called networking parties, cared more about your stock options than your dick size, much less your sense of humor.
Bain would take them out to fancy dinners -- Windows on the World had used to be his trump card, leading to the full Greek sodomy sixty-nine, just like blow-dried Mister Trump must get -- but he hadn't found a marriage prospect in this way and didn't expect to. He was sowing his wild oats although he was now thirty-six and was starting to lose his hair, a little light on top he'd whisper as he leaned down in front of a mirror. Other than that he was a healthy specimen: smooth-skinned and moussed in his striped Oxford shirts, he was a hunting machine and he aimed to maintain it. He checked the stock price of the maker of Rogaine from time to time but held off from buying it. To order the stuff, even over the 'Net, would be conceding too much.
He thought about his girlfriend from college, Elizabeth Bullard, who hadn't cared about money at all -- she read Emily Dickinson for fun, for God's sake. She'd gotten married then divorced and now lived in Greenwich, Connecticut. Once a week or so Tom thought about calling her and trying to revive things. But it was probably too late. He was at the tail end of being a young Turk and it was already too late.
Sometimes Tom took crystal meth at lunchtime. Maybe Al Qaeda would blow the whole thing up, the whole island or the whole country, and none of it would matter anymore. For now he analyzed EmpiFinancial's tracking stock, breaking out its fundamentals from those of its EmpiGroup parent, and issued reports touting its business model as positively Darwinistic. Elizabeth would have liked that phrasing. And so again he thought of calling her. Anything to avoid ending again at midnight standing naked in front of the plate glass window of his living room waiting for Al Qaeda's planes to give his life meaning.
This afternoon, though, he couldn't get naked, couldn't take drugs, had to put on his tie and squint his eyes like any other Midtown wolf. Empi's chairman Sandaford Vyle was presenting, as they called it, at the Securities Industry Association's 21st Annual conglomerates conference. They'd be a Q&A and Bain was expected to ask a question about EmpiFinancial, whether the same model could work equally overseas as it did in the United States. Maybe Bain would get to take a trip to kick the tires of Empi's 200 percent interest rate loans on bicycles in India. Bain traveled three or four times a month, always first class. Since "The Event," he'd gone to Birmingham, Alabama, to spot-check AmSouth Bank's home equity loan portfolio and meet -- which meant drink with -- its risk-management staff. He'd gone to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he snorted six lines of coke in an absurd skyscraper with a guy who issued lines of credit to payday lenders. He'd interviewed a wannabe loan-shark in Cincinnati, who spent half his time ranting about riots and ingrates and Over-the-Rhine. Pittsburgh, where you could smoke in the airport and the steel industry had apparently entirely disappeared. His next step was Southern California, where many loan sharks liked to put their headquarters, million dollar faux Mediterranean villas with home-offices with maps full of pushpins on the wall. Maybe he'd do some surfing, in the three-foot waves of Laguna Beach. But now he had to mock-grill Sandy Vyle, issue a glowing report and then get high.
Since the collapse of Seven World Trade Bain had been working out of temporary digs in one of the dozen faceless office blocks on Park Avenue north of Grand Central Station. The street was wide and filled with well-tailored despair. The SIA conference was in the amphitheater of the building that used to be Bankers Trust, before BT got taken over and most key functions moved to Frankfurt. Globalization cut both ways -- witness EmpiGroup's tax-dodge shift to Anguilla. Sandy Vyle spent three months a year down there, getting as sun-burnt as a blood-red beach ball. He must have just returned, because up on the stage, standing alone at the podium with a white wall behind him, he looked to be on fire. Vyle wore a bright yellow tie and one half-expected him to pull a tropical drink out from under the podium, a daiquiri with a turquoise paper umbrella, some houseboys and a native girl physical therapist. Vyle was bioviating about EBIDA -- Earnings Before Interest, Depreciation and Amortization -- as Bain walked in. Tax wasn't mentioned; taxes had been evaded a long time ago. Bain hadn't missed much. He found a seat near the front and loosened his tie so he could speak when the moment came.
Vyle as yet had no successor. He thought he would live forever and perhaps that had been arranged down on Anguilla. Perhaps he was video-taping corporate pep-talks for the next decade, doing an as-told-to memoir with some sycophant journalist, buying spare organs in Chile and keeping them on ice. In business school, Vyle was all that Bain had wanted to be. He was a case study: the hard-charging Brooklyn-born hard-lender who now ruled Wall Street from a tropical tax haven. Now Bain no longer knew what he wanted to be when he grew up -- he'd have a pension by then, an investment secured against all but a dozen Al Qaeda attacks. He'd worked on a boat once, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, before he met Elizabeth, and he supposed he could do it again if Al Qaeda destroyed his nest egg's value.
Vyle was racing through the consumer finance numbers. Delinquency rates had been stemmed, Vyle said, and more and more sales finance contracts were being converted into home equity loans, the hammer of the threat of foreclosure, the very definition of having them by the balls. Bain jotted down the phrase about sale finance conversions -- that, he would ask about. He'd seen the term in Empi's Form 10Q's but had never been sure what it meant.
When the Q&A came, Bain asked the question. Some in the audience laughed, that the supposedly-expert analyst didn't know this basic scam.
"I'm glad you asked, Tom," Vyle said, smiling hearty and false. Vyle had a photographic memory for the stock analysts who covered Empi: he knew where they lived, and you knew what that meant. "These are, you know, private label cards, loans made through retailers, all at twenty-plus-percent interest but what's most promising is our demonstrated ability to convert these loans into liens, to lower the rates slightly in exchange for a mortgage on the borrower's house." Vyle smiled contendedly. He was still a walking, or limping, encyclopedia of consumer finance terminology. EmpiFinancial had been his first business, he'd bought it near bankruptcy for a song and used it as his base to build his empire. Vyle was sure he could still sell a loan, glazed with credit insurance like gravy, at any of EmpiFinancial's two thousand storefronts from coast to coast. "Crazy Sandy," he could see it now: "No money? No problem! Only pennies a day!" The phrase had been his invention. He should have trademarked it like that basketball coach who now owned the phrase Three-Peat for the next forty years.
Bain's face was turning red; he regretted now asking such a rudimentary question in this public forum. So he tried to make it seem like a set-up: "But how can you include in next year's projections this same rate of conversion? With the economic slow-down eventually the pool of home equity will be--"
"It's all explained in the footnotes," Vyle cut in. "We've stress-tested our model under more than sixty-four scenarios. I'd happy to speak with you off-line, Tom."
But Vyle had already pointed to the next questioner. And soon Bain would be high and naked, waiting for Elizabeth or the Apocalypse.
Seated in the front row but not on the stage at the SIA slam-jam was Robert Rudehart, ex-Secretary of the Treasury, emaciated New Democrat extraordinaire, the public face for Empi's vicious lending. He'd helped get Clinton elected, by timely expressing Wall Street's confidence in the corn dog's genius. He'd lent to Asia and fucked it up then run away and been on the cover of Time. Now he got paid more then Jason Giambi to use his government connections to cover Empi's ass. Soon he could write a book like Jack Welch, if he wanted. But for what? Words could only tarnish his sage reputation. George Soros was a billionaire who hawked his books in Barnes & Noble -- Rudehart didn't need it. Maybe Soros felt guilty. If so he should go lie on a bed of nails, Rudehart thought. Rudehart drank Cristal with rappers in the trendiest spots of asbestos SoHo, getting-off on the smell of so much lithe young flesh right there for the taking, but not needed -- only the gym, only the StairMaster, only the live-forever shakes of ginseng and lemon grass.
The red-faced analyst made Rudehart laugh. Who was he, to question Sandy Vyle? They play-acted accountability, these Q&As for wannabe MBAs, but everyone knew what the analysts would write. The business model was perfect and the stock was a buy, a strong buy, like ambrosia heroin you had to have it in your portfolio or you'd die. The red-faced analyst looked like he was going to puke and this, Rudehart liked. Rudehart was down to three percent body fat, from a mixture of tofu and Tai-Bo. He could get Billy Blanks to train him and he could probably fuck Billy Blanks right up the ass, if he wanted to. Everybody had his price. Even Rudehart, the best-paid showdog on The Street.
Bain stumbled toward the door, some sour bile at the base of his throat. In the foyer he ran into a colleague, Steve Silvestri from Bear Stearns' mortgage desk. Steve the Sleaze they called him, for the way he accepted numbers at face value for an extra tip under the table. Steve had praised Mercury Finance right to the end; he'd called Conseco - Green Tree a home run, until the CFO was indicted and the stock tanked.
"Bain, you look sick," Steve the Sleaze said, not a bit concerned.
"Yeah I'll catch you later Sleazer -- I feel like I'm gonna boot."
"Cognac for breakfast'll do that... What the hell were you thinking, in there?"
"It's our job to ask questions."
"It's our job to read -- yeah, even the footnotes -- before we ask questions. You're losin' your touch, Bain."
"I'm losin' my lunch." But he hadn't eaten any, so transfixed had he been by his Bloomberg and his thoughts of Liz and Emily Dickinson, a lesbian two-way across the ages complete with javelin, some black-and-white collective memory the photographs of which were probably copyrighted and the user-fees securitized, the structure deemed bullet-proof and timeless by the trained paid eye of Steve the Sleaze.
"See you in Malibu?" Sleazer asked. That was the subprime conference they'd all been invited to.
"Have surf board and condoms, will travel," Bain said, rushing past Steve and out onto Park Avenue.
* * *
From the West Farms Mall Bertha Watkins took the Two Train south past the ticky-tacky houses of Freeman Street, the crazy corner on Simpson where you're two feet away from the judo loft, then the old vaudeville theater on Prospect that was now a discount store, underground after Jackson Avenue and off she got at 149th Street. They were tearing up the intersection of The Hub, where Third and Melrose Avenues meet; all the traffic was rerouted, so Bertha could walk in the middle of the street up the hill to Courtlandt, down the hill again to Morris. Micah's storefront was as blinking as ever. Through the vertical venetian blinds she could see Micah, leaning back in his puffy expensive chair. Across the desk from him was a man in blue workman's clothes with his arm in a sling.
"Mister Levine is meeting with a client," Micah's secretary told her. She probably didn't know that they were friends, actually friends, that she wasn't just another longshot client trying to make money off a dead kid. Fine. She waited.
Finally Micah came out, shaking the workman's unslinged hand. "I'll write them a demand letter," Micah told him. "If they won't settle we'll sue their asses off... Oh, Bertha, I didn't expect--"
"They wouldn't cancel nothing. The guy said it was totally legal, I just have to pay. Cracker guy they got running the office. Like loans from the Klan if ya axe me."
"Did you tell them you have counsel?"
Bertha laughed. "Yeah. The guy axed how much you're chargin' me."
Micah glanced over at his secretary, then gestured for Bertha to come into his office. Then he stopped. "Let's go get something to eat." Bertha followed him out onto the sidewalk. An ambulance went screaming by, pulling into the driveway of Lincoln Hospital. "We can drive up to Arthur Avenue," Micah said. "Maybe we'll drive by these loan sharks' office and put the fear of God into 'em."
Micah left his BMW parked in the municipal lot between Morris and Courtlandt. He paid the attendant extra to keep an eye on it. Some might call it extortion but Micah called it smart. He got the best cases because he was right across from Lincoln's slaughterhouse. You wanna catch grouse you gotta get in the swamp. A hundred a week to keep his car unscathed was worth it.
They drove up Morris, behind the Melrose and Jackson Houses, turned east on 161st Street. Micah turned on his CD player. He was still listening to Steely Dan's Two Against Nature: it reminded him of his early twenties, of being the coolest guy in his law school class, getting high and acing torts. They'd called him The Snake for at least two reasons. The lyrics on this one were all about middle age despair but he could ignore them and just sing along.
Bertha thought the music was fruity. Not fruity like a wine, or like the mango Italian ice the Mexicans sold on rolling carts, but fruity like homo, pseudo-pop high-pitched voices: white man's music.
"Duwon's gettin' into trouble with his English teacher," Bertha said. Micah put the CD on pause; he wanted to hear that song again, Janie Runaway, he liked it.
"What kind of trouble?"
"She says he didn't do a paper but he says he did. She don't like nothing that he writes. Says it's too raw. Least that what Duwon tells me."
"Nothing wrong with raw," Micah said, thinking that might make a good lyric beginning. "Nothing wrong with raw at all."
Bertha was waiting for something more than that.
"Maybe you should go in and talk to the teacher," Micah said. "Don't they have a PTA or something?"
"That won't do no good. That's just some political shit, to collect ballots for the school boards. Nah, those teachers don't stay in the school not one more minute than they got to. Two forty five they're pullin' out in their cars, down to the Bruckner and they're gone."
Micah didn't respond. Even if it wasn't what Bertha meant, he felt implicated in this view of white professionals in The Bronx. They come in to make money then they leave. Probably like the guy Bertha called the Cracker, up at EmpiFinancial; like most of the doctors in Lincoln; like most of the lawyers whose storefronts encircled the hospital; like the police captains who surveilled the whole chaos keeping score. Micah wanted to turn the music back on but resisted the impulse. "They must have parent - teacher nights," he finally said.
"Yeah I'll look into it. It's up here, in the new mall."
Micah turned east on 174th Street, then left across traffic into the mall's parking lot. There was EmpiGroup's red logo; two storefronts down was a Rent-A-Center, its window filled with sofas and stereos and a dozen other overpriced, never-to-be-owned things. There was talk of a nationwide class action and Micah wanted a piece.
"That's the guy," Bertha said. The cracker had just come out of the office, like a rat out of his hole, walking toward the three-stand food court at the center of the mall. Bertha rolled down her window.
"Remember me?" she shouted.
[End of section]
Half tongue-in-cheek legal note: This is a creative work: resemblances to non-public figures, locales or institutions are coincidental. Subprime consumer finance firms of the type depicted herein do engage in hard-selling, bait-and-switch, and also pack insurance on such dubious collateral as beds, ice chests and fishing rods. One company, Citigroup, whose chairman was asked about just such practices during an open meeting at Carnegie Hall, stated as this went to press (September 2003) that it had just "ceased offering optional personal property insurance in connection with its secured personal loans." Call it the power of the pen, or of persistence. Predatory lending continues in the United States, and even worse globally: including by CitiFinancial, HSBC's Household, AIG, Wells Fargo, GE and others. Predatory Bender, however, is a creative work: resemblances to non-public figures, locales or institutions are incidental.
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Copyright 2003 Matthew Lee. Contact, c/o Inner City Press/Community on the Move: Phone: (718) 716-3540. Fax: (718) 716-3161. E-mail: Books [at] innercitypress.org