I lost my job at the New Orleans public library when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and I relocated to Seattle. The first job I could find was with a check cashing and payday loan company. But what at first felt like a blessing soon turned into a nightmare.
When I was a kid, I loved Barnabas Collins. I watched the daytime soap Dark Shadows every day as soon as I got home from school. Quentin the werewolf was great, Kate Jackson as Daphne in her first television role was captivating, and what kid couldn’t identify with young David, who talked to the ghost of his dead cousin Sarah? But Barnabas was the best character in the series. I made my mother buy me a ring like his, asked her to find me a cane like his. I wanted to be Barnabas.
When I saw the show again decades later, I was shocked to discover that Barnabas was the villain of the show. I already knew he was a vampire, of course, but instead of a poor, misunderstood hero, he was a cruel and manipulative killer. He bit Willie and Carolyn and turned them into slaves forced to serve him against their own best interests. Barnabas was not the good guy.
I’ve heard people say that payday loans offer financial assistance to those no one else will help, so whatever their drawbacks, payday loan companies are offering the poor a real service. But let me tell you what I saw.
When I worked the graveyard shift, I was amazed at the folks who would come in at 3:00 in the morning for a loan. What in the world was going on in their lives that a payday loan at that hour was their only option?
Poor, desperate people came to us around the clock. When I worked the graveyard shift, I was amazed at the folks who would come in at 3:00 in the morning for a loan. What in the world was going on in their lives that a payday loan at that hour was their only option?
Of course, the fact that it was their only option is the point. People don’t willingly choose to have a foot amputated. An economic system that forces the poor through the doors of a payday loan store are essentially “serving” a segment of society that have developed gangrene, people who have been deliberately injected with Clostridium perfringens so others can profit from “treating” them.
Our customers frequently demonstrated behavioral problems. There was the man who came in to urinate in the trash can in our lobby. There were the two young women who talked about the most humane way to get people addicted to drugs so that the two women would have a steady income. Then there was the guy who came in with his jeans down around his knees, and no underwear to make up for the displaced attire.
“Uh, sir,” I said, “you’re going to need to pull up your pants.”
“I can’t,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I shit in them.”
At that moment, I could smell he was telling the truth. I started working quickly to cash his check. As I did, I saw a young, clean-cut couple enter the store, newbies rather than regulars. I saw the horror on their faces as they stared at the backside of the man at my window. The couple retreated quickly.
But they returned thirty seconds later. Shit or no shit, they needed money.
Another afternoon, a young black woman came to my window. She was gentle and polite, which was certainly not the norm among our clientele. When she handed over her paystubs along with her payment, I saw immediately that her stubs were too old for us to use to make another loan. 90% of our customers who repaid a loan took out another one at the same time. They were almost never able to pay off their debt and go back to a “normal” life.
I knew that if the young woman was aware I was not going to be able to extend another loan that she would keep her money and pay us back later. But my boss told me to take the money. It was due that day, and the customer’s problems weren’t our concern. So I took the money. And as I gave her the receipt, I informed her we couldn’t reloan with the documents she’d given us.
The young woman did not protest. She did not become angry. She just nodded sadly and went to sit in one of our chairs in the lobby, where she lowered her head and cried softly. She’d told me when she arrived that her rent was due that day.
What the hell was wrong with me? How could I let my own financial struggles persuade me to aid and abet the monsters running this company?
If “just following orders” wasn’t good enough for the Nazis on trial at Nuremburg, it wasn’t good enough for me. I searched harder for another job and finally found one, but there will always be a stain on my soul from the time I spent assisting vampires as they preyed on the poor.
I do remember several other of my check cashing customers even all these years later. The alcoholic who came in scraped up because he kept falling on the sidewalk while intoxicated. The homeless man who wanted to become my lover. I remember the guy who told me that as bad as we were, we were better than banks. At least our fees were up front.
To adequately address the abuses of payday loan and check cashing stores, we must also address the multiple issues in mainstream banking.
We must stop thinking of Barnabas Collins as the hero. We need to put the bloodsucking payday loan industry into its coffin, and then nail the lid shut.
A wooden stake would do, too.
Let’s end our enslavement to those who operate in the shadows and move into the sunshine instead.