I was having coffee with a friend, who finally opened up and admitted she was in dire financial straits, hadn't worked in over a year. Her features were equal parts relief and misery, for she had spoken to almost no one about this. Yes, she had heard rumblings of others in similar circumstances, of course, around the edges of her life. But no one had come forward until now - until I had told her about my own circumstances, which had made me sell my homes, downsize massively, and actually find wild joy in the process. She was finding no joy, had been a vastly successful part of Hollywood. (The thing about us entertainment folk is that we have all often struggled between our high-paying gigs, so the devastation had sneaked up on her.)
I joked about my belief that 85% of the recent plethora of extremely expensive Bentley convertibles on the LA streets was people on their last 25k, leasing these monsters of extravagance like mental patients, hoping against hope that Obama's hope would pull them over their approaching abyss, despite the growing "For Lease "signs from downtown LA to the Santa Monica beaches.
I then found myself talking to her about another friend who had looked at her dire circumstances, had talked to experts (she's an up-and-coming hot lawyer in town). Armed with a careful strategy, this lawyer had defaulted on everything - credit cards, mortgages. Everything. She had renegotiated the whole mess down to paying back thirty to forty cents on the dollar, depending on the various banks. If she hadn't done this she would have likely lost everything - house, car, grocery money, probably her job. I should repeat that this is a brutally hard working, very successful lawyer, with a grown daughter and a top-notch mind.
My friend with the coffee had never even imagined doing this (neither had my lawyer friend - by the way - she had gone through six months of agony before bringing herself to the kind of behavior she would have thought abhorrent a year earlier).
Funny, isn't it, how our leaders have felt no such agony in bailing themselves out? The rich, the powerful, the arrogant who screwed up everything with their strange beliefs that they knew everything, that they had a right to everything, that they still have a right to everything and anything - even now - that they can grab.
Up at the "top of the world," everything's still whizzing along like gang busters - massive bonuses, a (more or less) wonderful stock market, bigger mansions (a few of those Bentleys paid for with pocket change from these guys, I'm sure). And I'll bet our friends over at GM and Chrysler are once again looking down at us from their Lear jets.
And yet my two well educated, highly ethical, very hard-working friends are going through agony. They may still go under. I may still go under. But I'm not going to do it without a fight, a nasty, brutal, gloves-off fight, because these guys at the top are dead wrong, They are thieves, liars and arrogant fools and they're still running this country completely without a hint of consequence for their crimes and inhumane-ness.
And then I found myself drifting to another strange image with my coffee friend overlooking the hippest part of Melrose Avenue. "Do you want to just let em cart you off to a camp somewhere?" I asked when she told me she just wasn't sure she could do what my lawyer friend had done. (I had been visualizing Nazis, of course, carting her away - I can be overly dramatic, I admit it.) Nonetheless the theme of fighting back grew stronger on my side of the table. She had smiled, had shrugged, then had laughed - had felt too embarrassed about the whole thing, I guess. But maybe that will change.
And I agree with her: there is something deadly wrong with not paying back all your debt. It eats at the soul, at the very fiber of what it is to be human. It lowers the head, makes the feet shuffle. But it hits me as I remember her now, sitting across from me at that table off Melrose Avenue that we are in a profound war today with an enemy that lies to us constantly on TV, the internet, billboards; that a kid on an airplane blowing up his pants or whatever is a small time terrorist compared to the ones running so much of our country in their fine suits and silk dresses who have their hands on the real weapons of mass destruction - just ask the people over there in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan.
Nonetheless, the last thing I could have ever imagined myself saying to a friend would have been, Don't pay back your debt. Default instead, finagle, renegotiate, and save yourself. Be prepared to fight another day. And hold your head up high as you do it because you are living in a time that will be remembered as a war - a civil war, perhaps - a brutal war against the Goldman (let em eat cake) Sachs mindset and the Bank of (let em charge us three bucks per ATM transaction) America/Citibank/AIG. These are hard-hearted business geeks who will pull out the money they have gutted from our grand country and take it to wherever else they can dupe trusting, hard working people: China, India, Brazil, Indonesia.
Yes, it's a war. And sadly, all is fair in war. It's a terribly sad truth, desperately sad. But others have been here before us. Others, sadly, will most likely be here fighting after we're gone.
Whether we like it or not, we have been drafted into this long, complicated, yet proud lineage of warriors fighting for what is right. It isn't easy, far from it. Black becomes white, your debt becomes something you do not pay off. It's easy to get lost in a war of this kind, easy to be destroyed, to become soulless. But we must win somehow, as others have won before us. And we must risk our souls to do it, I suppose, for no less than the Republic depends on us. No less than the well-being of our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are at stake. As for the soul: what else is it good for, but to risk it for that which we love?