Episode 10: Always a Borrower Be
During our earlier spine-tingling episodes, we were introduced to The Last Chance Democracy Café, my club specializing in fine food, hard liquor and liberal conversation, not necessarily in that order. There, we met three elderly partisans, Horace, Tom and Winston, known affectionately as The Three Wise Men, who, during the course of a long evening in the café’s lounge, talked (and drank) their way through a free-wheeling discussion regarding the staggering level of economic inequality that exists in America and how it’s undermining our democracy. Their foil in this exchange was a young college student, Zach, who had come to the café for the first time. By the end of the evening, as far as we were concerned, Zach had become one of the gang. Whether he saw it that way, remained to be seen.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 10: Always a Borrower Be
by Steven C. Day
It was a typical brisk October evening, as I headed out to collect the wise men. Six o’clock, and already the daylight was showing unmistakable evidence of its mortality, with the long shadows beginning to surrender their individuality into one increasingly monolithic gray. Drifting along, the way one’s mind will do when taking in such a scene while driving, my thoughts jumped from subject to subject. But always, they found their way back to just one — back to Zach.
This was the first Wednesday following his first visit to the café, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether we’d be seeing him again that night. The wise men were clearly of a similar mind: The first thing each of them said as they climbed into my van was, “Do you think Zach’s coming?” He had told us he would, but then people say lots of things. It’s sort of funny, actually. There we were, Horace, Tom and Winston, all well into their 70s, and I’m no spring chicken myself, and yet we found ourselves in much the same position as a college girl worrying about whether some guy she met in a bar really meant it when he said he would call.
Well, in this case, he did. My rounds complete, Horace, Tom Winston and I all trooped into the lounge to find Zach sitting at the bar reading Wealth and Democracy. It looked like he had only read a few pages, but, by God, not only had he come, he’d actually tried to do some of his “homework!”
Noticing that Zach was already on his second beer, I said, “You might as well fork ‘em over now,” referring, of course, to his car keys.
“I walked,” he smiled.
Tom looked shocked. “Good God, man, that’s got to be eight miles.”
“I thought I might as well get a little exercise.”
“I don’t know,” Winston said with a frown. “Exercising on the way to getting drunk seems wrong somehow. Sort of like stopping off for Sunday church services on your way to getting a quickie at a brothel.”
Horace, who’s both a church elder and a member of his congregational choir, snickered. “And how the hell would you know? I mean, when’s the last time you went to church on Sunday?”
“More recently than the last time I had a quickie, I can tell you that. My knees still bend fine for praying, but my . . .”
“We’ve got the picture,” I quickly interrupted. Then I realized that I really did have the picture. Damn, could I ever have lived without that.
Every nonchurchgoing liberal should have a friend like Horace, by the way. It puts religion into perspective, reminding you that there’s a lot more to religious faith than Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. There really is a religious left. And not all faith-based politics is hate-based politics. I’m not suggesting that everyone should be religious or that we should relax the separation of church and state. Far from it. But secular liberals do the cause no favor when they lump all religiosity into the same reactionary basket.
Then I changed the subject to football and we talked about sports for the better part of an hour.
What? Because we’re liberals, you thought the only things we enjoy besides politics are listening to Barbara Streisand recordings and exchanging vegan recipes? Jeez, get a life.
The servers were moving about the café now performing the nightly ritual of lighting the candles. Every candle holder in the café has these words engraved in its base, “In loving memory of Paul Wellstone whose flame still burns brightly within a million hearts.”
On a very different note, someone had just flipped on the Bushspeak Machine.
Bushspeak: “The Best Way To Preserve A Forest Is To Cut Down The Trees.”
“I read a story in the paper this morning about student debt,” Horace got us down to what would become the evening’s “business.” “If you don’t mind my asking, Zach, do you have student loans?”
“Do I look rich . . . ?” shrugged Zach.
Winston jumped in. “Rich in wisdom, yes. Rich in spirit, yes. Rich in the sort of raw good looks and personal magnetism that drives women mad with passion, definitely . . .”
Zach looked appropriately embarrassed.
” . . . but rich in money . . . ? Well, judging by that 15-year-old Chrysler I noticed you were driving last week, I’d say probably not.”
Everyone at the table chuckled. It really was quite a car. The tailpipe was held in place by masking tape, if that gives you an idea.
Bushspeak: “The Best Way To Save American Jobs Is To Ship Them Overseas.”
“Hey, I like that car,” said Zach with mock indignation.
“So it’s dependable?” asked Winston skeptically.
“Yeah, a regular Old Faithful.” Then he grinned, before adding, “I can pretty much depend on it breaking down every hour.”
It’s remarkable really, but even now, a full year and a half following Paul Wellstone’s death, hardly a week goes by when I don’t see someone become at least a little emotional when they read that inscription.
“So I take it . . .”
“Yes . . . I have student loans, of course.”
“If this is getting too personal . . .” offered Horace
“No, no problem. I don’t consider it some kind of big secret.”
“Then — any other debt?”
“Well, credit cards, of course.”
Bushspeak: “The Best Way To Prevent Teen Pregnancies Is To
Deny Teens Access To Birth Control.”
Horace nodded in his best grandfatherly way. “It sounds to me like you’re a fairly typical American youth – buried in a bunker of debt deep enough to withstand a nuclear blast and getting in deeper by the day.”
“Believe me, Zach, I know the feeling,” I jumped in. And believe me, I do.
Being a glass half full kind of guy, I always try to accept love gladly from whatever source it comes. But it’s with less than my usual enthusiasm in such matters that I report that the credit card industry loves me. I mean they love me. I’m their ideal customer, a person so deeply in debt that it’s hard to see how I’ll ever dig my way out, but not in quite deep enough to drive me into bankruptcy. Sound familiar? It’s a statement of the times, I suppose, that in an age when nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, the longest lasting relationship in the lives of many Americans is with their creditors — a “marriage” that all too often truly is “until death do we part.”
Don’t think I’m complaining, though. I went into debt with my eyes wide open. You don’t open a business like The Last Chance Democracy Café without incurring debt. Getting the café started required a substantial business loan, of course. But months without a paycheck, while I worked to make the café profitable, also swelled my credit card balances. I think I’m going to make a go of it, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t touch and go for awhile. But I’ll tell you — even if I end up not making it, I’ll hold no grievances. To paraphrase The Godfather, “This is the business I have chosen.”
Zach, who, by the way, was starting to look a little self-conscious from all the talk about his finances, or perhaps more accurately, his lack of finances, never had that sort of option.
Bushspeak: “The best way to help the poor is to give money to the rich.”
“Well, I know I should be more responsible about money,” he said. “It’s just . . .”
“Bullshit,” snapped Tom. “Just exactly what are you supposed to be doing differently . . . ? I mean, we’ve already established you drive a car Fred Sanford wouldn’t be caught dead in . . .”
“You know — the guy in the show Sanford and Son.”
“Never heard of it.”
Way to go Zach, I thought to myself. Just what I needed — another reminder of how old I am.
“Well, in any event, you drive an old clunker,” continued Tom. “No offense . . .”
“None taken. But actually that car’s almost an antique,” smiled Zach.
“Right,” Horace smiled back. “And my guess is that any day now you’ll be having it hauled over to that special antique mall south of town to be piled up alone the highway with all the other antiques.”
Bushspeak: “The Best Way For The State To Teach Respect
For Life Is To Execute People.”
Not all of the accoutrements I’ve tried in the café have gone over as well as the Wellstone memorial candles. There was the time, for example, when I ordered novelty toilet paper with a cartoon drawing of John Ashcroft on every piece. I thought the customers would think it was a hoot. Instead, fairly typical was the response I received from Karen, a CPA who plays in the darts league: “Damn, Steve, the son of a bitch is spying on us in every other aspect of ours lives. Do we really have to invite him into one of our few remaining places of relative privacy?
I shipped the unopened rolls back the next morning.
Tom pressed on with Zach: “. . . I know you share an apartment with three roommates. You work in the campus bookstore. What the hell more are you supposed to do?”
“Well, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m responsible . . .”
Bushspeak: The Best Way To Win Support From Allies Is To Insult Them.
“Damn straight, you’re responsible . . . You’re absolutely responsible for your own spending decisions. You can’t blame anyone else for that. And you’re responsible for paying your debts. No question about it. But this concept of personal responsibility, that our friends to the right like to throw around so much . . . well, it only goes so far. And being a responsible person . . . as important as that is, only buys you so much. God, how to explain . . .”
“Let me try,” said Horace. “But first, I think it’ll make you feel a little better, Zach, if we give this some perspective . . . To start with, can you guess how much college tuition and fees have increased just since the mid 90s?
Zach shook his head. “Not a clue.”
“I read it the other day . . . let’s see, I think I remember that on average, nationwide, the overall cost of going to college has gone up more than 70 percent in just those few years.”
Bushspeak: “Experts Are Just People Who Get In The Way Of Doing What’s Fun.”
“You’re right,” said Tom. “The specific numbers vary a little depending on who’s doing the figuring, but it’s gone up by that much or more. And that’s nothing compared to professional schools like law and medicine. Many of them have gone up two or three times that much.”
“Wow,” said Zach.
“Wow doesn’t begin to describe it,” said Horace. “Ouch is more like it!”
Incidentally, there’s a new poster on the wall behind the big round table where the wise men sit. It says, “The revolution will be televised, but you’ll miss the good parts because of the commercials.”
I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I like it.
Tom continued, “And costs continue to go up every year. Just in the three years since Bush took office, the average tuition at a four-year college has increased almost $600. Meanwhile, family incomes and scholarship grants have been stagnant, which means, of course, that middle class families trying to educate their kids keep falling further and further behind.”
Bushspeak: “Jesus Was Just Kidding About That Blessed
Are The Peacemakers Stuff.”
“Which also means,” said Horace, “that millions of kids across America are doing precisely the same thing you are, Zach . . .”
“Going into debt . . . ?” said Zach.
“No, more than that. Going so far into debt that they’ll be lucky to ever be able to dig themselves out . . . If I recall correctly, the average student debt for graduates of four year colleges entering the labor market now is about $19,000 . . .”
Tom broke in, “Actually, $18,900.”
Did I mention that Tom has a photographic memory?
Did I mention that this gives him an incredible grasp of the factual details on almost every subject?
Did I mention that it can be incredibly annoying?
Bushspeak: “Jesus Was Just Kidding About That He Who Is Without Sin
Cast The First Stone Stuff.”
Horace let it slide. “And remember,” he continued, “this is just the average graduate we’re talking about. Many end up owing a lot more. And from what I know about the tuition at your school, I’m guessing that you’re one of those people. You don’t have to confirm . . .”
“No, that’s fine,” said Zach. “My guess is . . . well, by the time I finish up next year, I suppose I’ll owe somewhere in the range of $30,000 to $35,000.”
Horace gave Zach a “that’s about what I would have expected” nod, then said, “Have you given any thought to how far you’ll go into debt by the time you finish dental school?
“It’ll be a bunch, I know.”
“A big bunch,” said Tom. “A lot of new dentists leave school owning between $100,000 and $150,000 . . .”
“I hear you,” said Tom in a comforting voice, or at least a voice that was as close to comforting as Tom’s capable of. “But at least you won’t be alone. The last time I checked, the average debt load for new doctors was $103,850, while lawyers clocked in at $84,000. And remember, that’s the average, which means many owe much more.”
Bushspeak: “All Drug Users Should Go To Prison Unless They’re
Right Wing Radio Broadcasters.”
Earlier, I mentioned the religious left. One example is my pal, Ned, who comes to the café for lunch every couple of weeks: Ned, who’s progressive, both politically and theologically, is a minister in the United Church of Christ. I asked him once what he thought of people like Pat Robertson saying that God had chosen Bush to lead the country. “What, so Moses was busy?” was his only response.
Horace was watching the bubbles rise in his beer, usually a sign that he’s about to say something particularly worth listening to. “Some would argue, I suppose,” he began, “that we shouldn’t give a second thought to the fact that young professionals are now coming out of school buried in debt. After all, at least a lot of them will end up . . . eventually, making really good money. With all of the poor people in this country, some would argue, why should we waste any tears on a young dentist, say, who will soon be charging $1,200 to put in a crown.”
“Even speaking as a possible future dentist,” said Zach, “I have to admit that makes some sense.”
Bushspeak: “Nothing Spruces Up A Wilderness Area Like A Few Oil Derricks.”
“Sure it does. But maybe, just maybe, there’s more at stake here than meets the eye. Let’s say, for example, that five years from now you graduate from dental school owing some $200,000 in student loans and other indebtedness . . .”
“You said that before,” said Tom.
“And the way things are going, I’ll probably say it again.”
The Bushspeak Machine was about to start recycling the same messages, so I got up and turned it off.
“I don’t blame you,” said Horace. “But to continue with my little example, there you are five years from now, looking at trying to get your life started while somehow finding a way to repay all that money. How likely do you think it is that you’ll decide to take a job at a low income dental clinic, one that only pays, say, $40,000 a year?”
“It’s hard to see how I could.”
“Exactly. And as you might expect, that’s pretty much the same answer a lot of other socially conscious young professionals are giving these days. I mean, who has the time or energy to go out and try to save the world when you’re overwhelmed with just trying to make next month’s payment. One recent study, for example, found that school debt was preventing two out of three law students from even considering jobs in government or the public service sector.”
Tom sighed. “When you think about it, it’s almost comical. Whatever the topic in today’s America . . . and I mean whatever the topic, even something that sounds as disconnected as rising debt among young professionals . . . and somehow, at the end of the day, it always seems to come down to the same thing — poor and middle income Americans getting screwed. In this case, by making it even harder than it already is for them to gain access to professional services.”
“And there’s more to it than that, of course,” said Horace. “And here we revisit our old friend plutocracy. Liberal democracy and education are like snow and water, different expressions of the same thing. Thomas Jefferson understood this. That’s why he dedicated so much of his efforts to the founding of The University of Virginia . . . Without an educated electorate, there can be no meaningful democracy. And by failing to generously fund public education at all levels today, we’re degrading democracy . . .”
“Not only that . . . We’re also rationing opportunity,” added Tom. “I mean, every school kid has heard the speech. How much you earn will depend . . . or at least largely depend, on how much education you have. Well, guess what’s going to happen now that higher education is becoming so expensive that only the wealthy — and an occasional ball player — can afford to attend without going miles into debt? It’s a no-brainer. The distribution of wealth in this country will become even more stratified at the top than it already is today . . . Public supported education has always been the great equalizer. And now, it’s slipping away.
Winston delivered the period to the sentence: “And guess what? Studies show that America today . . . this so-called land of opportunity, has already become a nation with extraordinarily little upward mobility between generations. If you’re born poor, the overwhelming statistical probability is that you’ll spend your whole life poor. Face it boys: The American Dream is dead! Long live the plutocracy!”
* * *
The thing about Paul Wellstone is that I never really knew that much about him when he was alive. I knew the basics: That he was a good guy, a liberal and a straight shooter. But I never looked very deeply. It was only after he died that I took the time to get to know him. And it was then that he became one of my heroes.
After Winston had finished speaking, I found myself staring at the flickering candle on the table, thinking about how far our nation has traveled in the last few decades, and about how much of that journey has been in a direction away from our true greatness. And I thought about how few strong voices there are fighting to take us home again.
“We miss you, Paul,” I whispered.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
March 1st, 2006 at 2:13 pm
Not to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist nutjob, but I wonder how long it’ll be before Feingold or some other progressive Dem actually worth half a shit will have an “accident” like Sen. Wellstone?
Maybe not until October.
March 1st, 2006 at 3:53 pm
I’m going to sidetrack a bit from the main subject of this episode & go back to somewhere near the middle of (my) page 2 where Steve mentions the religious left. I just finished reading the latest newsletter from TomDispatch. If you’re not familiar with it try: http://www.tomdispatch.com./index.mhtml?pid=64317 & it talks a lot about this same subject.