Island Life by David Slack

Ngaio in Winter

One of the sure signs that your finances are slipping out of your control is when the pile of unopened bills and letters begins to gather. You don't have to open them, because you know what they will say: Where the hell is our money, you deadbeat?

Ah, memories. I once had a job as a process server. You've seen it on the TV. A cheery type comes crashing into the hero's busy day on some friendly pretext and plants a court document on him. You've been served, buddy.

Visa, MasterCard, American Express, sundry finance houses; they all follow the same procedure: first you send the bills, then you write the letters, then you make the phone calls. Lastly, you issue dire warnings and then the file goes to the lawyers. The manure has now hit the blade, and will be flying your way as soon as the process server has been given the papers and a last known address.

The document itself is a terse, bald chronicle of the essential outrage: Eric Smarmy Whatson of 45 Cavalier Place is in default in his debt to American Express in the amount of $482,565.28. Annette Blowhard Princely of Penthouse 3, Arriviste Towers owes BNZ Visa $98,234.99. You are duly notified, blah blah etc, etc. In short, pay up, or be hauled into court where your sorry improvident arse will be toast.

My job was to carry this document to the person named therein, and having verifed their identity, bring it to their attention, ideally by stuffing it into their unwelcoming arms; an innocuous sort of bounty hunting.

What sport it was!

It's hard to remember, all these years later, but I think they paid forty dollars for a simple job, and eighty for the ones that were hard to nail. Good money, by student standards, and you were paid strictly on results. Find them, serve them, come back and swear on the Bible that you've done it, and sign a declaration to the court to that effect.

Serial debtors knew better than to answer the door, and that's assuming they'd been careless enough to keep people informed about their changes of address. But like every other kind of hunter, you learned how to stalk them. You worked out what time of day they were most likely to be home, you developed a good line in wheedling information out of the new occupants of the old address, and you learned how to tell when the "new" occupant was really the "old" occupant.

There were a few rules you had to abide by: you couldn't hit them at three in the morning, and you couldn't come calling on the Sabbath. At least, you couldn't then. In the 24/7 era, God only knows what's permissible.

Monday nights and Saturday mornings tended to be very good, though. Exceptional weather was also helpful. I called on a house in Ngaio one Saturday morning just as a sleet shower began. The owner had been especially elusive. He was home alright, but he would never open the door. Understandable, really. The papers declared that he owed Diners Club about 40,000 which was no small amount of coin in 1981. The sleet came down in a flurry, almost pretty enough to look like snow on a dull grey Wellington winter morning, and so the kids who were sprawled on the floor of the lounge sprang to their feet and hauled the ranch slider open, the better to enjoy the winter wonderland. Aghast, the father saw them, me, and the open door and came striding across the lounge in great steps to get the door closed, but too late, Ethel. He was served.

You're not allowed to serve anyone in Parliament while it's sitting either, which meant a I spent a bit of time chasing John Kirk around town before I finally managed to hand over the papers one night in the foyer of his apartment. Politicians are different from other people. He was the only one I ever served who smiled and shook my hand.

One day I had to serve papers on a guy who had stopped making the payments on his Toyota Corolla. Out I went to a cul-de-sac in Porirua. It was about four in the afternoon, and there wasn't a soul around. Every house was the same - the 1950s two-storey state house design. It made quite an effective amphitheatre, and without any trees, the sound of your car door made a loud echo as you shut it and walked to the door. You knocked, and waited. After a few minutes, someone came to the door. No, Dad wasn't home, but he might be back in a while. You went back to the car and sat and waited. While you waited, you listened to Phil O'Brien doing his entertaining drive show on 2ZM. No-one had mean things to say about his radio work in those days.

And then down the street came a car, slowly, pulling into the driveway. Dad was home. As he turned off the engine, I was at his window. He wound it down, obligingly. We established that he was the man I was looking for, and I said, as I pulled the papers from my jacket, "This is for you then", and dropped them in his lap. He biffed them back out. I put them back in. He chucked them out again. I returned them. He volleyed them back and as they fell to the ground, he said. "Do what you want, I'm not taking it." I told him that I had drawn the document to his attention, and that was all that was legally required.

At that, he flung the door open and leapt from his seat, yelling at me. I could take the fucking thing with me and fuck off out of here. At this moment, every window in every second storey floor of the entire deserted cul-de-sac flew open and heads came peering out as his voice rang around the amphitheatre. Showtime.

I swiftly calculated my options and settled on diplomacy.

I explained that if he ignored the thing, he'd still end up in court. He said he'd be fucked if he'd be going to any court. The Corolla in question was no longer working. It was stuffed. Why keep paying for a car that didn't go? It's like paying for a dead horse, man, he said. I sympathised with him. But he would need to talk to the lawyers if he wanted to get the problem fixed. Did I think they could help? I was sure they would give him a fair hearing, I promised. Of course, this was hopelessly panglossian, even for me, although on a personal basis, it certainly promised me the hope of a better tomorrow. I talked him down, got the papers in his hands, and the next day, I got my eighty dollars.

Oh it can be a sad brutal world amongst the borrowers and the lenders.

If I were you I wouldn't want to pay a lot for the tattered loan book of National Finance 2000. In essence, what's going on here - and may well repeat itself a few more times before the saga is done - is that a finance company has been lending money to all and sundry at high interest rates, to help them buy cars on a dollar down and no credit checks. And where does the finance company get the money to lend to these risky propositions? Investors in debentures that pay high interest rates. And why do people invest in such risky debentures? Because they've seen the ads for a high rate of return and, in some instances, been offered the reassurance of dependable authority figures like sports legends and venerated media personalities.

This is not the first time that people have learned the hard way that investing your money in a lender of last resort is a risky business.

As soon as the economy contracts, these things tend to get wobbly. Especially if you're lending mostly to car buyers. It can end in tears. The car stops working, they stop paying. It's like paying for a dead horse, man. People with a bad credit history can turn the corner, but they can also stay true to form.

This proliferation of easy-loan consumer finance companies might be a boon to the economy, but to my jaundiced eye, I just see people postponing judgement day. You max out all your credit cards, you consolidate those debts with one of the "Easy Loan" outfits and instead of owing a few thousand on four credit cards, you owe one big amount to one company. And then you take out more cards and off you go again. While you're paying the huge interest bills, everyone is more than willing to get a share of your pay packet. But the cycle has to stop somewhere, unless your means are unlimited, and what's potentially happening here is simply that people are digging themselves deeper holes than they once did before the boom came down and someone like me was standing at their ranchslider in the sleet.

Willing lender, willing borrower, sure. Let the borrower beware. Let people learn from the lessons of the market. If you like living in a capitalist system, you ought to be prepared to put up with the occasional bad smell. All the same, I don't think it's pretty to prey on people's weaknesses, or be oblivious to their fate.

I do like the look of this though: is "The online marketplace for people-to-people lending." Salon had an interesting report a while ago that explored the notion that sites like this might transform the credit industry into a fairer, more equitable business.

Trading money on the site is an intensely social activity, in which lenders sit in constant judgment of the most intimate aspects of borrowers' lives, scrutinizing their financial histories and making public guesses about their responsibility. Successful borrowers, meanwhile, must convince lenders to part with their money, not only by disclosing their finances, but by pleading their cases directly, promising to work harder at managing their money.

Of course if we're all going to be under the Islamic boot in another twenty years, this will all be academic. No usury will be permitted, and all we'll have left to remember of the moneylenders and the temples will be TV ads like this and this.

And I will always have Ngaio in Winter.