Theft and independence

Nomad with Glassware
photo / danesparza Creative Commons license graphic 

I’m trying to imagine the look on the face of whoever stole my credit card number as they roll up to the Selma, California, Wienerschnitzel this morning for what has become an almost daily pilgrimage. Their likely agenda, based on my husband Ross’s and my recent profanity-laced examination of the last three weeks of our online credit card statement:

11:30am: Roll out of bed and throw on some flip-flops for a hearty drive-through breakfast at Wienerschnitzel.

Noon: Hit up Wal-Mart for the day’s first $400 shopping spree. [Suspected purchases: stacks of bad top-40 CDs, XL yellow tube top, power tools, crate of Huggies for miscellaneous spawn, Natural Lite beer].

2:00pm: Stop by Valero to gas up the monster truck and buy cigs and Slim Jims.

2:30pm: Lunch at Wendy’s. Mmm, Baconater!

3:00pm: Refresh the deodorant for the $300 trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. [Suspected purchases: grilling tools, black satin sheets, industrial-grade margarita blender and mix, Waterford crystal goblets from which to quaff Boone’s Strawberry Hill.]

4:00pm: Snack at Taco Bell.

5:00pm: Nap at the apartment, followed by unintelligible text message flirting with cousin’s ex-husband, followed by romantic tryst with same when he delivers three large Domino’s pizzas.

7:00pm: Big night out for two at a neighboring town’s Wal-Mart for another $350. [Suspected purchases: pregnancy tests and more power tools.]

It’s gone on like this nearly every day since mid-June, when I made my mid-month payment and gave myself a little pat on the back for almost having the balance of our debt completely paid down. When I skipped into the study last night to make our July 1st payment – the one that should have killed the debt-gorgon once and for all – I did a cartoon double-take at the ridiculous number sitting right next to “Outstanding Balance.” And my first thought wasn’t even “fraud,” but rather “Wow, I suck! How could I have spent so much at Starbucks?” I mean, I know my coffee is overpriced, but to mistake thousands of dollars of outright theft for a few lattes shows just how deep my corporate coffee guilt runs.

Then came my second thought, which did an even bigger swan dive off the logic cliff: “Ross has a secret life!” The slimy bass thumpings of titty bars echoed in my ears for two awful seconds before my brain finally let go of its first-line fiction impulses and picked up the blunter, homelier tool of Factual Examination. Together, he and I clicked through the pages of account activity and put together the story of a truly pathetic thief, one whose diet will likely kill her before the consequences of her actions catch up to her. We called and had the account closed, and Ross struggled to control the rage in his voice as he ticked off each fraudulent amount.

I have a Virgin Mary figurine in my kitchen window, partly to remind me of my mom and grandmother, and partly as a reminder of the Austrian mobile shrine operators I interviewed this spring when they set up shop on an intersection by the highway. After we killed the card, I went out to scrub off a cookie sheet and rinse out some wine glasses and I asked Mary quietly if she could help me be sincere in forgiving the person who had stolen our credit. I mean, how low must things be if you’re eating fast food three times a day and stealing from Wal-Mart? I know times are rough, people are losing their homes, and gas prices are high. But things have to change in this country, everything from the way we farm and ship our foods all over the place to the way we fund public transportation, healthcare, and childcare. Change is never comfortable, and it can push some people to the edge before they learn to adapt.

Then Ross came out with the bad news: We may have to cancel this weekend’s trip to Monterey, the one I’ve been planning and looking forward to since before he left for the second month-long training detachment his squadron has taken this summer. Ross is getting ready to deploy for eight months starting in January, and his squadron is in its period of work-ups, which are extended training exercises that take him away from home for up to month at a time. Each one is a little longer than the last, and I suppose they’re partially meant to get us Navy wives used to the idea that we’ll spend most of 2009 separated from our spouses. As it is, I’m working under the assumption that I can store up quality time with him like a camel hump for the long, dry season ahead.

photo / delgaudm Creative Commons license graphic 

Here’s where Monterey comes in. I’ve been squirreling money away for this trip since January. It’s a short three-hour drive from where we live in the heart of Central Valley’s desert, but the geological change from here to there feels like an entirely different country. Picture the difference between Odessa, Texas, and Honolulu, Hawaii, but factor in the astronomical cost of gas and an appropriately severe hike in food and lodging costs. Still, it will be the only vacation we’ve taken alone together since before we were married. We’ve put off taking a honeymoon for nearly four years now because Ross’s flight school and our limited finances have kept us from it, and this trip to the coast was going to be my way of nudging us back toward that goal. But then our credit card number got jacked and the new credit cards won’t be here for another week, and there’s no way we have enough cash to cover all the first-of-the-month expenses and the trip. Very few things can make me hiccup-cry like a four-year-old, but this was one. I put my head in my lap and bawled.

Then I thought of the thief again and my conversation with Mary and totally wanted to take it all back. Liberal guilt be damned! I was going to get to kayak with otters, and now this hot dog-eating Wal-Mart–scamming scumbag was going to make me spend the weekend in our white-hot, dusty town watching tiny fireworks obscured by the smoke from wildfires miles away and drinking myself stupid. It was too much. So I did what I’ve always done when life sits on my chest and threatens to let its loogie drop on my face: I called my mom and cried.

Heaven opened: My mom fronted me a loan until our new cards show up, and the film reel of Highway 1, crashing ocean waves, sea caves, Cannery Row, and unprecedented time alone with my husband started up again.

Breathing easier, I find myself eyeing my liberal guilt iron maiden again. Maybe my thief doesn’t have generous, financially secure parents who can make emergency loans. Maybe my thief just has hungry kids and no education. I could climb back in and start wedging myself up against the spikes of being privileged again in a world where many people aren’t – but then I realized how much easier, how much more automatic, this feels when I know I’m still going to get to go to Monterey on Friday. I’ll bet if I was staying home and drinking budget beer in 110-degree, smoky-sky heat I’d feel a lot less charitable. I might even start hanging out at the Wienerschnitzel, angrily smoking Salems and looking for the fake Rachel.

Maybe it really is easier to forgive when we’re lucky enough not to have to feel the injury too deeply or for too long – and is that really forgiveness? And how does one enjoy a trip to a beautiful place at a time when so many are losing their homes, even if credit card fraud nearly kept the trip from happening in the first place? Maybe it’s selfish, or dangerously deluded, but my primary concern right now is trying to store up good moments and memories with Ross before he leaves. I’m trying to save up, in other words, for an emotional recession I’ve got no control over.

I know this weekend is for celebrating our country’s independence and waving the flag and feeling good about our fellow Americans, but I think I may narrow my scope a bit. So happy Independence Day, my fellow countrymen, but mostly to those of you bearing up honestly under economic strain.

As for my thief: Get some exercise. That junk food’ll kill you.

photo / *Micky Creative Commons license graphic 


Late Night Austin Real Estate Blog's picture

I think it might be different if the charges were for books and food from safeway. But Walmart and Bed Bath and Beyond makes it seem like they are buying a bunch of crap instead of essentials for the family.