Last year, like many Americans affected by the recession, I began to anticipate the worst.
As the shrinking economy impacted the state education system, I was laid off from a tenured professor position. I put my credit card in the freezer. Gave up the idea that I would ever have a new car. Tore out my lawn and put in a second vegetable garden. Talked to my friends about sharing. And like many who were still able to do so, I refinanced my house at a lower rate of interest.
After many months of back and forth paperwork and paying of exhorbitant fees, my old mortgage was finally paid off by the new financial company that now owns my house. I'm fortunate to be employed again, so the picture is not so bleak. And a lower interest rate is always a good thing.
Then, yesterday, I received a statement from the old mortgage company -- the one that had been paid off. My account was not yet closed. There was a discrepancy between the payoff and the debt.
The amount in question?
I lost it. At a time when when the avarice of financial institutions has been exposed and they've ruined whatever credibilty they had in the public eye; when millions of people have lost their jobs and homes in a disastrous global domino effect; when the employed and unemployed alike are marching in the streets around the world to demand economic justice -- my financiers were going to quibble over one cent?
The cost of the printout, the letter, the envelope and the mailing, not to mention employee and computer time, would clearly have exceeded the penny in question. Either way, my ex-mortgage company was not going to come out on top.
But that was not the point. I knew that if anyone owed me a penny -- no matter who or what it was-- I would wave my hand and say, "Never mind."
Not the banks.
Was this how global financial empires were accumulated?
I called the phone number on the statement. A nice lady from South Carolina asked how she could help. Calling up my file, she saw the problem almost before I could explain it.
"One cent," I said, laying that fact on the table between us like mystery meat.
She blew a little sigh into the phone. "Oh, you know those computers," she said dismissively, as if we were talking about men.
"So explain the statement to me," I said. "Do I owe it to you, or do you owe it to me?"
"We owe you," she said.
"Phew," I said, "I'm so relieved."
I waited. Silence.
"So what do you plan on doing about it?" I challenged, with the kind of assertiveness I don't think I would have had a year ago.
"Probably write it off."
"But - but -- the cost of mailing this statement to me--"
"I know," she said, a world of ennui in her voice. "I know."
There was no doubt in my mind that if I had been the party who owed the bank that penny, there would have been no talk of a write-off. And that had I refused to bear the costs of sending them a check in the amount of one cent, interest would have been charged. And that had I still refused to pay that one cent plus interest, it would have gone to a collection agency. And that over that small stakeout of principle -- not principal -- my credit would have been ruined.
But not theirs.
How very transparent of them to tell me. And how incredibly, bureaucratically, institutionally - stupid.
I tell this anecdote because we are living in times when these kinds of stories have a certain bite. Their implications outweigh their detail. In the context of the global financial upheaval we are living through, we 'get' them. At least, I hope we do.
The personal stories that Americans from all over the country penned on the placards they held up to their faces in the "I Am the 99%" portrait series (also Move On's site,) -- as brief as Tweets and deep as a coal mine -- are far more important than mine. They seem to have done more than anything else to penetrate the public misperception that the Wall Street protestors are all wannabe hippies. They have also shamed some mainstream media into abandoning their shallow mischaracterizations and investigating more deeply the roots and meaning of the movement.
On an ever expanding number of Facebook posts, personal blogs and online forums, from the Kickstarted "Occupy Wall Street Journal" to new and old alternative media sites, people are also writing longer accounts of the recession zeitgeist and providing coverage of protests in their cities and towns. Just as new media pundits predicted, and the journalists covering the 2011 Arab spring previewed in North Africa and the Middle East, citizen journalism is coming into its own. Alongside and independently of professional reporters, people are stepping up to become active chroniclers of the times in which we live. They are writing, as the journalistic saying goes, the first draft of history.
Wall Street may not be democratized, but increasingly, the media is.
Some of these reports have found their way to Off the Bus 2012, The Huffington Post's platform for citizen journalism. We've published honest citizen accounts of protests from Salt Lake City and Stockholm, Oakland, Seattle and Kalamazoo, as well as ground level reports from the "battlefields" of the Iowa electoral campaigns and the streets of San Francisco. I know we'll publish more as we move into the election year.
But I fret about the stories I know we've missed -- those gems buried on an online blog known only to the writer's friends. How much richer could this site be?
The vision of Off the Bus is to become the first place that people think of to publish their news accounts, and the first place they go to read the accounts of other citizen journalists like themselves - a central forum for grass roots coverage of the political life of this country. Not that we are in the least opposed to a diversity of media; we go to the media sites we trust, communications research holds. But if Off the Bus were to become the central square, the Spanish zocalo, the Zuccotti Park of citizen journalism, so to speak -- people wouldn't have to search all over the web to find the popular accounts they were looking for. They could come straight to the source.
I'm just sayin'.
A penny for your thoughts?