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Aug 16, 2019

Previously, I mentioned a part of my life that I still have nightmares about and I hesitate to even go into it now, but I promised I would tell you some of the stories and I figure it’s best to just get it out of the way. To give it a nice name, I was a bill collector. Some called me The Loan Man and others called me things I can’t say in decent company. So, in episode 23, I’m gonna take you from day one, through some stuff in the middle, and all the way to my take this job and shove it moment - a situation you won’t blame me for, I promise. In fact, you’re gonna wish I’d punched the guy. I’m Michael Blackston and you should know that I’ve tried to forget the days I’m getting ready to tell you about, but I guess I owe you some transparency when it comes to my Funny Messy Life.

Sometimes when you hear someone say hindsight is twenty-twenty, it’s a cute little lesson you might have learned, like:

I shouldn’t have financed that living room set at 85 percent interest, or;

What happens in Vegas doesn’t actually stay there, or:

Turn off your body mic when you go number one during a live show.

But sometimes it’s a much more serious lesson, like:

Turn off your body mic when you go number two during a live show and you ate at Taco Bell earlier, or:

Never trust the man in the suit with big teeth who tells you going to work as an “Assistant Manager” at a small loans company is basically the same thing as starting a career as a professional banker and before long, you’ll be a bossy pants, bossing people around in your boss pants and driving the classic 1960s Mustang convertible you’ve always wanted. Because he’s lying.

A lot’s changed in the collections industry since the time I was imprisoned there, and from what I hear, it’s all good things. I’m not a fan of political correctness, but like a blind squirrel, sometimes political correctness finds a nut and it being against the law to harass people is one of them. A friend who still works for a company like that recently told me some of the things they used to be able to do that have now been outlawed for the good of humanity, like:

- Chasing (which is going out to the home or job of somebody -that owes money and demanding payment),

- Being anything other than professional on the phone,

- Making repossession threats without going through the proper legal channels,

- Calling your friends, neighbors, and loved ones when you refuse to communicate and telling them what a scumbag you are and that you probably kick puppies, punch kittens, and voted for Hillary.

These are all good things to make illegal, but they weren’t always. Actually, there was always a rule against telling other people your business - it’s called Third Party Disclosure - but we didn’t adhere to it very much. That was when everybody still had a land line and didn’t have a device in their pocket that had the power to crash the energy grid of a small country and record phone calls at the same time. I feel like the advancements in that kind of technology is probably what’s behind a lot of the rule changes.

We’ll go back in time, now to the late nineties, not long after I got married and was looking for any job that would keep the bills paid. When we got married, I was working as a Walmart portrait photographer, blowing bubbles and making mouth noises at toddlers and crazy people. This was still when normal people held actual cameras and if they wanted a professional looking photo, they went to a professional photographer. Everyone didn’t have a device in their pockets that had the power to search and immediately play the national anthem of the small country whose energy grid it just crashed and at the same time take an awesome digital pic of you and your dessert in Portrait Mode. I still loaded film into the Walmart cameras with my hands in a portable darkroom bag.

I didn’t exactly hate that job, but I hated that job and when my step-dad got me a position at the motorcycle dealership where he worked, I jumped at the chance to quit taking pictures of snotty children and crazy people to sell motorcycles to snotty bikers and crazy people.

Unfortunately, I didn’t so much hate that job as I absolutely despised it and the money I barely made because I don’t know anything at all about motorcycles, nor do I care to learn. Customers would ask, “Do you even know how to ride a motorcycle?” And I’d say, “Nope. Nor do I care to learn.”

You can imagine how thrilled I was when I opened the classifieds and saw an ad that said ASST. MANAGER NEEDED! EXCITING NEW CAREER OPPORTUNITY IN BANKING! Have you ever wanted to be a BOSSY PANTS, but have never made it past being a LAZY BRITCHES? Call for an appointment and we’ll make ALL your pants bossing dreams come true!

Oh, I called the number and I made that appointment.

I put on a tie and the pants I thought would scream BOSSY best and I sat in front of a man I trusted immediately. He seemed sincere as the day is long. His office was nice and plush and I thought to myself, This … THIS is the beginning of a solid future. I have to nail this interview.

Um, … no I didn’t. It turns out I could have probably walked in there wearing a grimy tee shirt, overalls, and muddy boots. I could have looked the man right in his eyes and said, "I’ll be a dang good’n fer ya, if’n y’all’ll hire me!" I could have then spit on the floor from a mouth chawing down on a world record wad of tobacco and he would have hired me.

Why? Because I was breathing and it was the small loans industry in the late nineties. At that time, small loan companies turned over employees faster than a Baptist heads for the banana pudding. If they lost someone, all they had to do was put an ad in the paper promising the opportunity for high-falutin’ bossiness of pants and people like me would come running. The nice office was a facade, just like free Disney World tickets in return for a short presentation turns into some salesman holding you hostage for hours while trying to convince you that the maintenance fees and your first born are a small price to pay for a time share.

In other words, it’s a load of hockey. Thaaaat’s right, HOCKEY!

He hired me on the spot and when I walked into the branch office I’d be working in for the first time, I had this feeling. It was kind of like that sensation you get when you thought it was gonna be gas, but then realize your body has bigger plans, mixed with the way I imagine state troopers feel when they get assigned to the DMV.

The people behind the desks looked like they’d given up on life years ago and simply existed under the florescent lighting. I’d been told that the branch manager had been there for thirty years and would be the best at training me. And she was. She was a no-nonsense old lady who struck fear into the hearts of customers so that they wouldn’t dare be late or suffer the consequences. Consequences doled out by the hand of an old southern lady can be brutal. If you need to identify one, just look for the woman with her hair up in a bun, saying stuff like, I was workin’ here before Spot was a pup, or when you was still knee-high to a grass hoppah!

I remember coming in one morning the first week I was there and having her tell me about killing a massive cockroach the night before. Biggest Palmetto bug you evah seen. I squarshed him flat as a flittah!

You don’t mess with a woman like that. I think that’s why one customer’s husband tried to come over the counter at me at the end of my very first day.

Here’s what happened:

My job was to call delinquent customers. An account was considered delinquent after one day being past due. So if your payment was due on the 15th and you didn’t pay it, your account was delinquent on the 16th. I always hated that word … DELINQUENT. It’s the word that comes after Juvenile when you describe some brat who sets the woods on fire messing with fireworks unsupervised - twice, - or goes around collecting money for the functionally illiterate so he and his cousin, who did stupidly stupid things with him, could buy cigarettes. Yet, there you were, only one day past due and considered DELINQUENT. The problem was, there was no grace period. You pay on or before your due date, you’re awwwwwlright. You’re the best - the bee’s knees. But, you dare to be even one day late, you, sir, are DELINQUENT and we’ll call your home, your Nearby (which is a friend, family member, or neighbor you used as a reference when you got the loan), AND your place of work. And I ain’t jokin’! That was the policy and the old southern lady told me I would be expected to do that with every delinquent customer, twice a day, until I communicated with them and set a date that they would come in and pay.

I didn’t want to do it, but I was afraid of the old southern lady and I needed the work, so I did it. And the husband of a woman with a very unique name I remember to this day (although, I won’t say it because of the third party disclosure thing and I’m not sure how long the statute of limitations on something like that lasts) cmae into the office just before we closed and said in a slightly perturbed manner, “WHO THE BLEEP IS MICHAEL?!”

I don’t know why I didn’t say something like, He’s gone for the day or Michael? What Michael? Who know not this Michael of whom you speak. But I didn’t. I said, “I, good sir, am he. How may I be of assistance?”

Mr. Angry Pants then tried to jump over the counter in my direction and would have squarshed my pants that weren’t feeling so bassy as flat as a flittah. That is, if the old southern lady hadn’t been a lot faster than she looked and made it to the counter before he could get over it. She stuck a bony finger in Mr. Angry Pants’s face and gave him down the country - another very southern phrase. By the time she was done with him, he had apologized and paid the loan payment.

That was the beginning of a time in my life I refer to as the firey road to actual hell and I can’t blame Mr. Angry Pants. I might have marched into the office too, if it’d been me. I wouldn’t try to start a fight, but my pants would have totally been angry.

The old southern lady had a stroke about three months into my working there and never came back. That’s when I really learned the finer points of being a jerk when it came to collecting. The next manager was a spitfire.

There hadn’t been any warning about a new manager when I walked into the office on Monday morning and met the young southern man. He was two or three years older than me and wore a huge smile when he came to shake my hand and introduce himself. He nearly crushed my hand. He was wiry, strong and I could tell right away that things were about to get interesting. He’d been ushered into the managerial spot over the weekend almost immediately after the old southern woman had her stroke. In fact, I didn’t even know about the stroke until he told me and then explained to the office that things would be different from now on. Fast paced. We were gonna take butts and kick names, by glory!
And things did change. Calling cards, which was what we did first thing every morning and before we closed every afternoon, was the first change I noticed. Calling cards is the harassment I told you about. If your account went delinquent, your information was kept on a yellow card and we had to call all of your numbers to try and contact you and mark down the results of every call.

Calling cards with the old southern lady was like listening to somebody’s grandma give ‘em whut fer after they’d done something wrong.

Calling cards with the young southern boy was like listening in on a college football tailgate conversation between two rival fans.

He loved to tell people he was gonna come take their TV while they were watching it. I even heard him say to an old lady on the other end of the phone that he was gonna come take that box she watches her stories on. It was just plain meanness and I never liked it. I guess that’s why I didn’t make a good assistant manager. I refused to treat people that way and I think it probably drove the young southern man crazy that I wouldn’t do as he asked and use some of the same tactics he did.

The crazy part of it was that with the exception of a few people, it seemed to work and most of our customers loved him. He’d get them riled up enough to come barging into the office, madder than hornet and by the time it was over, they were eating out of the palm of his hand. He just had a likable way about him once you got to know him.

There was one time he didn’t get a customer to like him after he made her come in to sit in a booth and discuss why her account stayed constantly behind. She came in, sat down, listened to him run her over the coals, then left. But just before she walked out, right as she pulled open the door, she said something that made me laugh and summed up the young southern man.

She said, “Mean ass loan man.”

After the young southern man left for greener pastures, there were a couple of others that came through. One was a young man fresh out of the military who had more interest in booze than running an office. The other was a whole different cat than the alcoholic or the young southern man. He had a soft voice and a kind heart, except for one time he got into it with a woman on the phone and called her a B-word. He never did stuff like that and it had been a one-time thing. Unfortunately, the woman had been recording the call and there was a price he had to pay.

Then it was my turn. Corporate felt like I had been groomed long enough and it was time I took over as manager of the branch. By then, I had been with the company for almost two years and wanted out, but the money was good and the promotion came with a raise and incentives. But like I said, I can’t treat people that way and it showed in the numbers.

After a couple of months, there was a surprise visit from the district manager to see about fixing my issue of being a nice person. I couldn’t stand the man. He was arrogant and he shifted from side to side on his feet if he was standing when he talked to you.

Earlier, I mentioned the process of sitting in a booth to discuss your account. That’s what we tried to get you to do if you were having trouble paying - come in and sit in a booth across from you. We would try to make you feel bad about it, scold you about how we were good enough to make the loan when you needed it, and try to lock you into a promise to pay on time from now on. And oh yeah, we were also to try and make you pay a payment right then, no matter what.

On the day my district manager came for a visit, so did an old lady who had been under the same loan with us for - no joke - 50 YEARS! I’d tried on numerous occasions to convince her to stop renewing the loan and just pay it out so she didn’t owe us any more. She renewed every three months because she got a little back, then payed on it religiously on the third.

She came in that day and asked me to sit with her in the booth. She had a problem. She had no idea my district manager was just on the other side of the partition from her in the next booth over, listening to how I would handle it.

My check didn’t come in on time this month. There was a mix up at the social security office, she told me, then asked if she could renew it and skip the payment. I told her it wasn’t up for renewal yet.

Then she said, I have the money, but if I give it to you today, I won’t have enough for my medicine.

This woman had paid us who knows how much in interest over the past few years and she never missed a payment. She was never once … DILENQUENT. She asked if she could skip this month and double up on her payment next month.

I told her that would be fine and for her not to worry about it. She’d been a loyal, perfect customer for that long, I didn’t see why we couldn’t trust her to catch it up the next month. The little old lady was as happy and relieved as she could be.

My district manager was not as happy and relieved as he could be. He was the exact opposite of happy and relieved. You might say he was quite the Mr. Grumpy Pants about it because as soon as the old lady was out the door, he slid over into the booth and sat across from me where she’d been. And his pants were grumpy.

Now there are only a few things in this world that set me off without fail, some of which include pointing your finger at me in a mean way, pinching me for any reason at all, and having no mercy on the elderly, just to name a few. Mr. Grumpy Pants managed to hit on two of those. Had he pinched me, I might be telling you about this from a prison cell.

Red faced, he pointed his finger at me and sounding a lot like Foghorn Leghorn, he said something to the effect of, “Now boy - I say, Boy - that’s the problem we’re havin’ with this heyuh braynch! That woman told you she had the money in her pocket.”

I explained that she was the perfect customer, that I’d never had to call her once for her payment, and that I was confident she would do as she said.

“You should have told her she has a contract and she had to pay that payment right now!”

“But she has medicine to buy.”


It gives me such sweet satisfaction to think back on what happened next.

I looked him square in his red pie face, locked eyes with him, reached in my pocket for my keys to the branch, and smiled as I slowly slid them across the table to his side. He looked confused and asked me what I was doing.

I told him I refused to treat people that way any longer and I quit. Then I told him not to forget to lock up.

He told me I couldn’t do that. “You can’t do that, son, I can’t stay all day. I’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Not my - I say - not my problem. And yes I can do that.”

I packed up my stuff while he huffed over the telephone, desperately trying to find someone who could relieve him for the rest of the day. I was a grinning Mr. Smarty Pants all the way out the door.

I savor that memory every time. I guess I should let it go, but I have to try and keep something positive about my experience being a Loan Man. Over twenty years later, I still have nightmares about walking to work and sitting behind an old desk in a dingy office to call cards. I’ve had a couple of small loans since then out of necessity, and after sharing war stories with the people who still work in the industry, I think I could probably do that again if I had to. Things have changed. You have to treat people with respect now, or they’ll hire a Mr. Lawyer Pants to sue your Criminal Pants.

I did eventually achieve Bossy Pants status, but it took starting my own business and I’m glad I did. Of course, now I’m about to take my company in a scary new direction and I might need your prayers.

Or a loan.