April 26, 2015

Sympathy for the Bill Collector


Bill collectors are awful people. We all know that. They’re ugly, twisted, sadistic, mean-eyed little troglodytes whose sole purpose in life is to threaten, humiliate, and use every means at their disposal short of removing thumbs (depending on who they work for) to force perfectly innocent, angelic folks like you and me to pay off our delinquent bills, plus interest. In a ranking of the world’s most loathsome people, bill collectors rest somewhere below ambulance-chasing lawyers and cannibals, but somewhere above, I dunno, Pol Pot.

            I guess I’m fortunate in that I’ve had very few bill collectors after me over the years, but that’s only because I’ve always been too paranoid to dig myself into an inescapable credit pit. Oh, there were a couple of bill collectors here and there, mostly the result of unexpectedly hefty hospital bills, but I was able to give them the brush by:

1.      Writing long, even interminable sob stories about the avalanche of woes I was facing at the moment, as well as my felonious treatment at the hands of the hospital staff, and

2.      Quickly moving to another city under cover of darkness while leaving no forwarding address.

            But y’know I’ve always approached bill collectors with maybe a shade more understanding and sympathy than most, having been one myself.

            Among the slew (make that “swamp”) of jobs I worked in the eighties and nineties (porn shop clerk, security guard, receptionist, etc.), few were quite as entertaining as my two-year stint as a bill collector working for a bunch of hippies in West Philly.

            The hippies in question ran an indie publishing house that put out a bunch of whiny lefty books no one but whiny lefties would ever want to read. Books about the heroic struggles of female migrant farm workers in Guatemala, or how the noble people of Ghana were being oppressed by the evils of Western Imperialism. Although they sold occasional titles to the likes of Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks, for the most part they were dealing with pretty much every indie and left-leaning bookstore in the country. In short, they were selling their books in bulk to other hippies.

            Now, hippies have never been known for being the most fiscally responsible sorts, let alone the most reliable and prompt when it comes to paying bills, but these folks I was working for, see, they were too softhearted to make a stink about it. Time came, though, when they realized no one was paying up, and they had to do something about it. So they put out the word they were looking for a mean little troglodyte who’d collect bills for them. That way they could keep their own karmic hands squeaky clean as they scooped up every last loose dollar that was owed them.

            Well, it was 1988, and I went into the interview with my torn jeans and army jacket, my ratty fedora, a shirt that read “War on Everybody,” simply not caring at all whether or not I got the job. I was ushered into a very nice, carpeted conference room and asked to take a seat at a long table across from three of the owners, who ranged in age from mid-twenties to early forties. They asked me if I would have any trouble getting on the phone and telling people to pay up.

            “Um, no? Do I have to be nice about it?”

            “We would prefer it, but we understand in some cases that might not be possible.”

            “Uh-huh. Right. Okay then.” I started the next day.

            Now, when normal people are harassed by bill collectors, they get annoyed, they get angry, and they get scared, especially when the threat of legal action enters the conversation. Hippies are different. Hippies tend to cry. More than once I had some indie bookstore’s supposed accounts payable person start bawling like a baby on the other end of the phone as I laid out the situation, and in one instance was told the AP guy couldn’t come to the phone because “he was sitting down by the river having a nervous breakdown.” What the bawlers didn’t realize is that I despised hippies, had nothing but contempt for them, and so their tears were like mother’s milk to me. Screw actually getting a check out of them—hearing them sob was proof enough of a job well done.

            Apart from the simpering, pathetic crybabies, I also had to deal with a lot of “Whoa, dude, chill,” and “it’s only money, brother.” That just pissed me off no end, and explained why I spent all my lunches across the street at the Shamrock Pub.

            Here’s the ironic thing, though. For all their hifalutin and righteous talk about anarchism and Marxism and whatever the hell else, I was working for self-proclaimed anarchists who in the end just wanted to make more money, and I was trying to get it for them from some other self-proclaimed anarchists who just wanted to hold tight to what they already had. And in the middle of it all, as I snarled and threatened and did whatever the hell else I could to collect unpaid bills which sometimes ran upwards of fifteen or twenty thousand dollars, I was getting paid five-fifty an hour without benefits and without any bonus percentage for a big score.

            So keep this in mind next time a bill collector phones and starts threatening to bring in the immigration officials or, better still, starts asking your kid how it feels to have deadbeat parents. Try to remember they’re just wage slaves often working from a script handed to them by their own bosses, and chances are good they actually make far less than you (at least when you were still employed).


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