I can remember the moment I first incurred debt crystal clearly. It was in the old The Broadway store in Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. It was April. It was 1985. I was 20 years old. It was a pair of sunglasses I didn’t need, but the lenses featured the latest in “blue blocker” technology that was aaaaaaall the rage back in that ancient day. Plus the arms had these flexing springs on them, which was cool. They cost $23.99.

In my bright red vinyl DayRunner organizer were the first two credit cards I’d ever posessed. An American Express card and one from  Broadway. How and why I was deemed worthy of them I do not really know. On an earlier lark I filled out an American Express card application. At the time I lived with my mom and my stepfather in their house on Sherman Oaks. I think I made $13,000 in wages that past year. I didn’t even have my own phone. I was working as a courier shuttling visa applications to the various consulates around town for clients. On the Amex app I wrote that my title was Senior Consulate Liaison. I blatantly lied about my salary. I mailed it in. I did the same thing with the department store’s card.

Though I harbored fantasies of my applications somehow being moved down the line unvetted, deep inside I knew better. And when the rejection letter arrived from American Express I was a bit crestfallen, but realistic.

Then, literally the next day, a credit card in my name from The Broadway arrived. It had a $400 limit. I was dumbfounded. And thrilled. I felt as if I’d been given a key to a kingdom I’d never thought’d available to me.

And that’s when the really weird thing happened. About a week later another letter comes from American Express. Inside is their trademark green card with my name on it and a letter telling me something about “after a review of your application we have reversed our decision and now welcome you as an American Express cardmember.”

Doooooood! How? I didn’t care! All I knew was that I had fucking arrived and membership had its privileges! Remember, this wasn’t far beyond the crest of the yuppie craze, which I did my best to emulate — even going so far as to wear suits and ties to classes at LA Valley College. An Amex card was the perfect accessory to that faux lifestyle.

And so there I was a short while later in The Broadway coveting this silly pair of sunglasses and debating whether to just pay cash or put them on one of my various and newly established lines of credit. Of course I did the latter, and when I handed over my Broadway card to the cashier (after ripping open the Velcro closure of my bright red-vinyl DayRunner organizer and pulling the card from its slot, of course) I did so with a little trepidation expected her to slide it and then confiscate it with a “Did you think we would seriously give YOU a card? ”

But instead she just handed me the receipt for my signature and bagged my purchase and that’s the very first moment I went into debt. Oh sure, I may have paid that amount off the moment I got the bill — and I was smart and responsible with my American Express card as well — but then came the other cards. The gas cards and from other stores and Visa and Mastercard and Radio Shack and… well, you know the drill. It may take money to get money, but it doesn’t take much to get credit, and thus it didn’t take long to become burdened by a pretty heavy debt load that I carried around in silent shame like a bad tooth. And it kept getting badder.

Six years ago I owed roughly $17,000 spread out over various Visas and such. At that same time I took the big important step of putting the credit cards away and operated almost exclusively with my debit card. If I didn’t have cash in the bank to pay for something, I didn’t get the something. Amazing how much that helps.

Stopping the credit card usage was a good beginning, but in the two years forward from that, I hadn’t made much of a dent in the overall balance. By 2006 I still owed something like $15,000.

That’s when I got serious and a plan developed and amounts were consolidated and moved via various low-interest balance transfers. But paying that single amount down hit a huge roadblock when I began my  22-month period of unemployment beginning in November 2005  (broken up sporadically with bits of freelancing). A lot of those ridiculouly ineffective minimum payments were made through that stretch, with Susan blessedly coming in to help with several payments during the leanest of those lean times. Then in September of 2007 with the amount down to $13,000 and me starting to work full time, over the past year and a half since I’ve devoted pretty substantial portions of paycheck to paying the pest down.

Better that than my fouled up bottomless pit of a 401K.

Towards the end of 2008 I realized with much astonishment that I could be credit card debt-free by my 45th birthday in May — the first time since that figurative day in April of 1985.

Yesterday the statement from Chase arrived and today I ended things early and ahead of schedule, writing a check that got rid of the last $1,000 of it:


I almost wrote a check for $976.01 so that my final check next month could be the symbolic $23.99 I spent almost 24 years ago. But I said to hell with symbolism. Let’s be rid of this monster once and for all.

I’m doing some pre-spring cleaning/reorganizing and I came across a copy of the paper from the day my daughter was born in 1989, and for fun (and sadness) compared it in size to a more recent edition I saved for posterity as well.

The 1989 Times masthead for Thursday, September 7, 1989, boasts a circulation of “1,118,649 daily / 1,433,739 Sunday” and came in at 198 pages — all for the lowlow of 25 cents.

The Wednesday, January 21, 2009, masthead is decidedly less informative, foregoing any circulation numbers and only listing its total at 96 pages, and for 75 cents.

Way back in October 2001, the boss of where I worked at that time implemented a program wherein during the regularly scheduled monthly meetings he wanted his employees to give presentations. The topics could be about pretty much anything, so I was one of the few to actually volunteer for a time slot and then got to work putting my thoughts down in a paper I titled “Bicycling For Fun & Profit,” the first — and incomplete — draft of the narrative which I just accidentally stumbled on whilst diving around the archives on my back-up hardrive..

Some of it seems so quaint now: Gas at $1.50 a gallon. Me resolving to bike 1,001 miles in 2001. Pretty much the total lack of any so-called bike culture (at least in its current and evolving form) worth mentioning.

I remember boiling a lot of the info down into a bulleted, Powerpoint-style presentation and probably have that file somewhere, but anyway… if it’s your bag or interest, a glimpse of me prepping to preach the power of the pedal from the wayback is on the other side of the jump (replete with a photo of my old Raleigh mountain bike — still sporting a number from what looks to be an LA Marathon ride —  at rest on the L.A. River Bikeway around Atwater Village).


I know this because I am keeper of both the receipt and the pipecase (and a really crappy scanner):

In the beginning of my first year at Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood I thought I’d become friends with a ninth grader named Tony. I say “thought” because it was definitively and painfully proven to me that this was later not the case at all.

I can’t remember the particulars that resulted in Tony being friendly to me — and it was nothing major; usually just a nod or a “hey” as we passed each other. But as anyone familiar with the hierarchy/pecking order of schools knows, for a seventh grader to gain the acceptance  and recognition of an upperclassman? Huge. Practically life-affirming.

But like I said, it’s not like we hung out down by the schoolyard or got together on weekends. Whatever it was that connected us is too far back in the archives to extract. What broke us apart, however, remains far more freshly filed.

It was another day at school during another lunch break. I was standing in the main part of the school yard, waiting in the long line for the cafeteria when I saw Tony standing over at the side with several other seniors. It was hard to miss Tony, he was tall and his head was topped with a decent-sized afro. I watched him hoping to catch his eye and get a hello and sure enough he finally saw me looking at him and dang if he didn’t excitedly motion me to come over to where he was.

I didn’t hesitate to jump out of line and head over. And when I got there my heart leapt because there was Tony holding his hand high and enthusiastically saying “Give me five!” I couldn’t stick my hand out fast enough, and for the split second when he stung it with a hard slap, I was in underclass heaven. I had arrived.

But then the sting didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. On top of that I was surprised to find Tony and his surrounding buddies laughing loudly, some with surprised expressions on their faces. One was howling and pointing at my hand, which brought my attention back to it and showed me why the pain wasn’t going away.

Impaled to the hilt in the middle of my palm was a blue bulletin board pushpin. Some of my blood was leaking out around it. I stared at it first in disbelief momentarily wondering how that could have gotten there. Then I realized Tony had delivered it hidden from between his fingers and the betrayal and shock registered, probably with the proud smile still stupidly stuck on my face as Tony and his entourage jumped around in pained glee.

Maybe the crew were expecting me to add to their entertainment by crying or screaming or running away and making even more of a fool of myself, but I just stood there staring at Tony with my hand held out and the blue pushpin sticking out of it and the blood leaking our around it until he finally realized the show was over and put on an expression that was half embarrassed and half curious.

In the Hollywood version of this story I’d put Tony onto the ground with a kick to the nuts and then get pulled off of him while using his ears as handholds and slamming his afro’d head into a bloodly pulp against the tarmac. But that didn’t happen.

In the other Hollywood version I’d just reach over with my right hand and pluck the pin out, illiciting more pained reactions from the seniors. With the blood unstopped and flowing outward and over the edge of my palm I’d position the pin point-up between my middle and ring finger and raise it my hand over my head.

“Your turn,” I’d say and Tony’s eyes would get wide and he’d run away like a big ninth-grade bitch with his friends following his chickenshit lead. Then I’d find Mr. Pittman, the school security officer, point out Tony to him and tell him what happened. I’d be sent to the nurse to have my wound tended. Tony would end up expelled.

But that didn’t happen either. Instead I just pulled out the pin, walked away physically and emotionally wounded, humiliated and heartbroken.

I kept the pin for awhile. Stored it in my keepsake box the way a soldier might keep a bullet that wounded him in battle. Ultimately though I realized I didn’t need anything physical to show me that people who you want to impress can be failures. That those you think are your friends are not. In that vein I suppose I should thank Tony for teaching me such an important lesson so early. But if I saw him today, I wouldn’t shake his hand. I’d hold mine up high and say “Your turn.”

Or I’d just kick him in the balls.

In September of 2005 Susan and I made our second hike that year in Point Mugu State Park. The first time a few months previous we explored the expansive grasslands of its La Jolla Valley, but this second time we hiked to Mugu Peak (about 1,300 feet).

About a third or so of the way up on the eastern, landward side of the mountain we passed this imprint of what had been a fossilized shell embedded in the rock from waaaaay back in the Cretaceous day when a majority of California was underwater and marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs swam in what’s now the air over our heads. Unfortunately since this remnant from that time is situated directly on the hiking path it’s been subject to vandalism as people have pried off the remains of the actual shell from its resting place, leaving only fragments and its impression:

I wonder how many millions of years did it remain unspoiled until some jerkball hominid had to come along and break it trying to take it as a souvenir?

Anyway, I just happened to be scrolling through the archives when I landed on this image and it reminded me not only that humans suck but that no matter much things seem to stay the same, they don’t.


Seems like only yesterday my Susan and I were wandering in wonderment the walks and waterways of Venice.

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