It’s about time

It’s mid-October, so the Christmas commercials have started running. But something’s different this year.  I’ve noticed that both Sears and K-Mart are emphasizing the “new” old thing—layaway.

I believe I may be one of the last generations to remember layaway. I never used it myself, but I was too young to buy anything pricy enough to require the service until it fell out of fashion. I do, however, remember a dining room set that my parents paid for “on time,” a dark wood colonial model with uncomfortable chairs that remained in the store until it was paid off.

That would have been close to forty years ago. I doubt if my parents would have even had credit cards at the time. I remember my father, born just in time to have a actual memory of the Great Depression, shaking his head when CHARGEX card signs appeared at gas stations.  My questions about the Diner’s Club signs on the windows of restaurants would go unanswered, as if explaining that people bought meals on credit was beneath him.

I’m presuming that this re-branding of layaway as a smart (it is!), hip (if that’s what it takes) and new (na-hah) way to shop is in response to the realization by retailers that people today are at either at the end of their credit, have torn up their cards in an effort not to sink deeper in debt or are in bankruptcy. Layaway means they can still keep shopping. It’s credit in reverse. Instead of taking the purchase home via VISA and making little payments for it, you make those same little payments up front and then take it home. No instant gratification, but I’m sure a lot less guilt.

Here in Canada, while our banks may be some of the strongest in the world, we’re not smarting from a bailout and our employment levels far more normal than in the U.S., we’re still being told that for every dollar we earn, we owe a buck fifty in consumer credit. That’s scary. But I understand how it happens. Since my love and I are planning on a move down the road, we went to our bank this week to get preapproved. With two good jobs, no consumer debt and excellent credit ratings, the bank offered us roughly two-and-a-half times the amount of mortgage money we’d feel comfortable borrowing. For the rest of the day, we’d repeat the huge figure to each other and giggle. It’s beyond ridiculous when you consider that one of us may want to buy some clothes, a book, an airline ticket—or groceries—sometime in the next 25 years. On paper the math works. But if there was an emergency, a broken major appliance, a new transmission or if either of us lost our jobs, we’d be forced to dig out one of those shiny clean credit cards or dip into those available lines of credit every bank hands you for having a heartbeat, and join our fellow Canadians in debt. That’s how it happens. Most of us are merely a few paychecks from big trouble.

For some reason, this event seemed even more inane coming just days before today, October 15, 2011, the Day of Occupation. Not only in New York and major American cities, but everywhere, even here in Canada where, despite our comparative economic health, there are people in need of work, of homes, of daily basic necessities.  I know their goals haven’t been made clear, I know there’s a lot of confusion as to exactly what results they expect or how we’ll determine if they won or lost, but it doesn’t matter, they’re doing something. Too, the fact that they’re mostly young people is heartening; my ex-hippie generation has long complained about the apathy and materialism of today’s youth. I guess they showed us.  They’re mad as hell and they’re fighting back, risking cold and rain, pepper spray and over-zealous cops to try to undo the damage made to their world. And let’s be honest, we’re leaving them a real fixer-upper. Ironically, while the occupiers were occupying parks and streets, another group of young people were occupying Apple Stores around the world, to get their hands on the next, slightly improved iPhone. Both groups got roughly equal coverage in the news. But I know which bunch I’d rooting for.

Here’s what I take from all of this—people are getting smarter, braver, more willing to push back. They’re either unwilling or unable to buy things unless they have to cash to do so. And on a larger scale, they’ve taken a good look at the sorry state of affairs we’re in, realized that no one can save them but themselves. They now see that government, in any flavor, is concerned only with keeping itself in power—and they are revolting, in the true meaning of the word, with acts of protest and civil disobedience. They’re saying no to the institutions that have forsaken them, be they the department store on the corner or the entire economy. They’re taking their future into their own hands and laying the groundwork for a revolution.

I’d say it’s about time.

(Author’s Note: Her Joyful Noise may be a tad more sporadic over the winter months, but I vow that it will not disappear. When you write full-time in your job and write part time for yourself, you have to be selective about how your words get spent.   Thing is, there’s what I think may be a novel jangling around in my mind, it’s first time in a long time I’ve felt that way, and I’d like to get it committed to pixels. I’ve wrapped most of my pending freelance assignments (aside from a long essay on memoirs due in the spring, the usual two pieces a month for Publisher’s Weekly and what looks like may be a regular gig for a Canadian literary publication) so I’m going to make time to focus on the book. Incidentally, one of those finished assignments was an interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt, poet, lesbian, feminist, and ant-racism and anti-poverty activist. Her most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Money Machine, available from publisher Carolina Wren Press or at independent, women’s and online bookstores. If you agree or identify with the points I raise in this blog, you must read this book.)

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