Sunday, July 09, 2006

“Driver Carries No Cash”

I should get one of those stickers for the back of my truck to let all would-be muggers know the extreme disappointment they will find in my wallet: Two credit cards, a library card and no cash (But if you’re going to buy something at Albertson’s, could you swipe my savings card for me? Thanks). In a world where plastic is for princes, paper is for the paupers. Well, at least for me, if I don’t have it, I won’t spend it… if only I had it.

In last week’s Time, they did a brief Q&A with Imelda Marcos (I’m not sure why, if only to show how oddly scattered she seems; well, she is 77 and has been through a lot)… anyway, the reporter asked how rich she was, and her reply was, “If you know how rich you are, my dear, then you’re not really rich.” It was reminiscent of the saying, “Those that think money can’t buy happiness must not have very much,” and though I think I would be infinitely happy with millions of dollars, I probably would have the same amount of stress I currently have with mere thousands of dollars. In an article in Best Life (a magazine that akin to an owner manual for the modern man) about the brain’s ability to control happiness by Dr. Daniel Gilbert, he says that the “top candidates for major disappointment in life are children and money—particularly the latter.” He says that roughly doubling your income from $40,000 to $70,000 will make you very happy, but the same can’t be said for those moving from $70,000 to $150,000. He says the money/happiness curve tends to get “very flat, very fast.” But, you’re that much more rich, so how could that hurt your happiness? “The time you spent trying to earn money that won’t make you any happier is time taken away from doing things that will increase your happiness.”

Interesting philosophy, but the kind of riches I imagine are the kind that fall out of the sky when I’m least expecting it. From my dad, I inherited the “What if I win the lottery" gene, a condition whereby the victim constantly fantasizes what he would do if he won the lottery and was suddenly flush with wheel barrels of cash. None of this scratcher money; we’re talking a multi-state lottery that could finance the Americanization of a third-world country well into the next century. The kind of fortunes that will attract the interest of gold-digging Guess! models when I’m 85 years old, and the kind that will spark a tabloid invigorating concentration on my every whim, from my pool shaped like a sea slug to the 12 pianos operated by animatronic versions of lesser known Presidents, in a cavernous house connected by a labyrinth of secret tunnels and hidden rooms, lavishly ornate with rhinestone-encrusted mirrors on the ceiling and champagne drinking fountains for the pets.

One of the joys growing up was spent listening to the “what if” stories of my father, lottery ticket hopefully in his hand, waiting anxiously in front of the television for the 50-odd white balls to spread their magic throughout the state. The “what if” story always started the same way: “You know what I’d do if I won 50 million dollars?” and it ended with a description of John Wayne’s ranch from the movie “War Wagon” or a simple family farm of 1500 acres of buffalo, meandering brooks and horse trails. Dreams are contagious, which is why I find myself spending some idle moments wondering what I would do if I won the lottery or had an armored car full of cash fed through the mail slot on my front door. Some people say their lives wouldn’t change, that they’d still work or they’d still live in their same house, but I say a stuffed-to-the-gills bank account that allows parts of the world you never dreamed exist open up to you changes a person for the good or the bad, I don’t know, but it changes you in many ways.

However, much like my dad, I’ve got it all worked out. I’d buy a decent-sized motor home and tour the country for a few months, buy a good size piece of property and then have a custom home made. Perhaps this is why I don’t ever win: Plans never work out the way we want them to. I won’t win because I expect to win, and perhaps somewhere in my life I haven’t yet earned the right to (if I ever do).

On July 1, I went to Home Depot to buy some ant spray to kill the hordes of invading monsters in my back yard. Since it was Saturday, of course, it was crowded, and though I vowed never to go to any place like that on a Saturday, I was there… waiting in a long line to check out. Once I made it to the front, I scanned my card, punched in the numbers, made it through the tangled web of questions and hit enter.

The lady working there gave me a worried look before exclaiming, loud enough for most people around me to hear: “Your card has been denied.” And it was funny the way she announced it, as if she was surprised that a guy in frayed shorts, an old t-shirt and unbuckled sandals would have a credit card that was invalid. She seemed as though someone spilled their drink on her shoes; a little put out but mostly flabbergasted that such a calamity could befall such a person as her customer in this day and age.

“That’s odd.” I came to the defense of my bank. “I wonder what happened? Let’s use this one instead,” I said as I pulled out my American Express. As I was handing it over, I jerked it back. Of course, today’s July 1. My credit cards have faithfully served their five tours of duty in my wallet and their time was up; both of them, by some strange coincidence never before recorded the annals of the banking tomes expired on the exact same day. And it isn’t like I didn’t have fair warning. Their replacements were sitting gung ho on my desk at home, awaiting activation and deployment, as they had been waiting for nearly a month.

It was at this point, when I jerked back the AmEx nearly from her outreached hand, that the lady’s look turned to caution and I wouldn’t be surprised if her hand wasn’t inching its way toward the security call button, as she was undoubtedly standing face to face with a credit company defrauder, a rare breed of thievery in her small garden section world.

“They both have expired,” I exclaimed. “On the same day!” I felt the burn of people’s stares in the line behind me, a freeloader, a deadbeat, a malcontent. Just exactly what kind of city did we move into, they thought. His malfeasance is taking the cheer from my azaleas and for some reason, I just don’t feel like mulching anymore, not in a world where people like him roam, free to try and defraud the good people at Home Depot. The shame.

I repeated myself, a little louder so the burning wouldn’t scald into my scalp. “They both expired on the same day.” Looking for redemption. “I’ll just pay with cash.” I flashed open the pocket were normally at least a twenty should be hiding and it was empty; moths made their escape and from inside the vacant folds of leather I heard the echo of my own mortified heart screeching to a stop.

I had to leave, empty handed. I just turned and walked out, leaving the six dollar ant spray on the counter and the lady, no doubt, eying me as I slinked out of the door. Perhaps I muttered something like “I’ll be back,” but not with the same determination and confidence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but with the sheepishness of someone who will return only to be inflicted with more punishment. On top of everything, I felt guilty like I had done something wrong, like I was committing a crime.

That has never happened to me before. I have always had some form of currency on hand at all times, be it a check book, credit card, ATM card, cash or coins. Granted, I don’t always have that much; one time, I thought I had two dollars in my wallet but I found out that it was only one folded in half. Most times, I’m lucky when I have a few dollars in cash, as everything I do is handled through my check card. I bank online, so I know how much I’ve spent and on what seconds after I spent it. I know exactly how much Kara spent at the hair salon before she even gets home (you don’t want to know… let’s just say we could have stayed the night in a really nice hotel room), and it is completely manageable. With cash, who knows where it goes and when it leaves. Cash is like a wayward tenet: it promises to pay the rent on time, but when you go to collect, it’s gone without a trace. Plus, the bank won’t return it if I lose it. I lose my AmEx, and I’ve got a new one the following day and all charges made after I report it lost are covered. Same thing with my check card.

Plus, if my business ever gets audited, I have proof of what I spent and where I spent it. Dinner out was with a client… yeah, that’s right, and then we went to Target. Of course, I would find it ironic the government questioning my spending habits, and the whole audit process would smack of hypocrisy.

Cash doesn’t give you that kind of security. Of course, you end up doing stupid things with plastic, like charging a two dollar ball at Target or pay for dinner with your card only to find that you still had room for dessert.

So, all that is left to say is that I’m happy with my current income. Granted, I could always use a little more for those luxury items I don’t need, but the more I tend to make, for some reason, the more I end up spending. Plus, I’m already getting near the next all-to-important tax bracket, and on the horizon I can hear the government’s money sucking juggernaut rolling in my direction.

And then they want me to take a freakin’ survey about it. Speaking of which, I got a second announcement for the American Community Survey, which said that perhaps I misplaced it, so they were kind enough to mail me a fresh copy of the survey. I wish I had some fish to wrap.

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