Joey, daring the spotlights that were scanning the warehouse in which he was holed up, took a quick look out the window at the crowd below, and shouted, “Never, you dirty, rotten bill collectors!” Then he ducked back to the haven beneath the sill.
He recently got more into debt than usual – in fact, he found himself surrounded by it – and he was having a restless dream about the multitude of bill collectors who were haunting his mind. Being an old movie buff with smiling memories of Jimmy Cagney, his brain had somehow cast him in a role familiar to all who feel a similar attachment to the Cagney legacy. His black suit was dusty, his white shirt was open, and he had a bottle of whisky beside him, from which he took an occasional reinforcement.
“Joey, do you hear me?” the Verizon customer service rep called through a bullhorn. “This is Verizon.”
“Whaddaya want?” Joey called back.
“This is a final disconnect notice.”
“Already?” Joey replied, and looked down at the pile of bills scattered on the floor. He started to leaf through them nervously and found the Verizon invoice. “I have your bill right here,” he yelled out the window. “It’s only fifteen days overdue. Don’t I get a month or two before you disconnect my service?”
“Not anymore, kid,” the Verizon rep shouted back. “You got a lousy payment record.”
“Yeah, so what do you want me to do about it?” Joey replied, knowing he didn’t have the funds to pay the bill at the moment. He eked out a living as a freelance journalist, and he had only recently come through a period where he had not placed his usual number of articles. Thankfully, he had finally sold a piece to Travel & Leisure.
Just then one of the cops in the crowd lifted his own bullhorn, and called, “Joey, this is Officer O’Hara. Come out with your checkbook open – or else!”
“Or else what, you dirty, stinkin’ copper?” Joey shouted back.
“I’ll tell ya what, kid,” the Verizon rep interposed. “We interrupt your outgoing service. And get this, Joey. Three days later, we interrupt your incoming calls – and that includes your DSL Internet service.”
“No, no, anything but my DSL!” Joey called. “I’m a freelance magazine writer. If I can’t email my articles, I’ll be finished. Have a little mercy, will ya? I’ve been a Verizon customer for over ten years!”
“Sorry, Joey,” the Verizon rep replied, “We gotta go by the rules.”
At that moment, the Con Ed rep reached for the bullhorn, informing the rep from Verizon, “It’s my turn. You’ve had your shot.” Then he bellowed, “Joey, do you know who this is? Con Ed.”
“What are you doin’ here?” Joey asked.
“You know as well as I do. Your electric bill is in arrears.”
“Arrears?” Joey replied. “I’ll give you arrears!” And with that, he mooned the crowd.
“Watch it, kid,” Officer O’Hara called through his bullhorn. “That’s indecent exposure. You could end up in the pen.”
“You think I care?” Joey shouted back. “At least, there I won’t have to pay for my room and board.”
Reacting to that comment, a lawyer, who had been unaccustomedly silent until now, reached for the bullhorn. “Speaking about room and board, Joey, I’m a lawyer with a message from your landlord.”
“No, no, not that, too!” Joey agonized, and, in Cagneyesque style, he made two fists and rubbed his temples with them.
“You’re over a month behind!” the lawyer reminded him, and held up an ominous, legal-size document. “I have the eviction notice right here.”
“An eviction notice?” Joey wailed.
“Yeah,” the lawyer replied. “You gotta vacate the premises!”
Then the Con Ed rep took the bullhorn back, saying, “I wasn’t finished with him.” He turned toward the warehouse in which Joey was holed up. “This is your final notice, kid. If payment in full is not received by today’s date, your service will be discontinued. That means lights out!”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear ya,” Joey called, and lied. “I put a check in the mail.”
“When did you mail it out?”
“That’s what you said last week, Joey,” the rep shot back, holding up his account record. “I have the evidence right here.”
“But it’s February! Without electricity, I could freeze to death.”
“We regret any inconvenience.”
The lawyer reached for the bullhorn again. “About your electric bill, Joey – don’t worry.”
He had by now tied the legal document around a rock and held it up. “Because you must vacate the premises no later than three days from the service of this notice.” Then he hurled the stone-bound document toward the window. “Read it and weep!”
It broke through the top of the window and crashed onto the floor. Joey shook the glass fragments off himself, crept over to the recently arrived document, and slipped it off the rock. He looked it over and mumbled to himself, “The pressure, how can I take all this pressure?” Then, with renewed resolve, he called back, “You’ll never take me alive! Never!”
The cop lifted his bullhorn. “Joey, listen to me. This is Officer O’Hara again. Be reasonable. No phone, no DLS, no lights, no heat. What kind of life is that? Do the right thing and come out with your checkbook.”
“I need time,” Joey called back. “There’s a check in the mail.”
The crowd burst into peals of laughter and commented variously, “Not that sorry tale again!”
“No, no, I mean, a check is in the mail to me.”
They laughed even louder.
“You don’t get it,” he said. “For once, I’m tellin’ the truth. You have my word on that.”
“Your word?” the lawyer asked, and laughed even more heartily. “You know what that’s worth? Not a plug nickel!”
“We’ve heard that one before, Joey – heard it too many times,” the Con Ed rep said.
“What is the source of the check?” Verizon asked.
“I sold an article to Travel & Leisure magazine. A major piece. They owe me almost three grand.”
“Did you say almost three grand?” Verizon wanted to know.
“You heard me,” Joey confirmed.
“When is the alleged check due?” the lawyer demanded.
“Any day. Accounting told me it’s in the mail.”
“In the mail?” the lawyer said, with a cynically sympathetic glance at the reps. “No dice, kid. What kind of chumps do you think we are?”
“But it’s Travel & Leisure, not some two-bit gazette. They always pay on time.” Then he reconsidered his options. “If that’s not good enough, how about this? I’ll take care of all of you out of my checking plus account.”
At the mere mention of that resource, the Citibank rep took the bullhorn. “Not so fast, Joey. This is Citibank. You already used up your checking plus.”
“All of it?” Joey asked.
“Worse, kid. You crossed the credit line. Today, we had to bounce three checks.”
“Not that! Anything but that!”
“Sorry, kid, we didn’t have a choice. Admit it. You’re at the end of your rope.”
“Just so I know, who were the checks to?”
The Citibank rep looked at Joey’s account. “The Chinese Laundry, the Korean fruit market, and Blockbuster.”
“Blockbuster? How could you do that to me? I’ll never be able to rent a DVD again.”
“Tough luck, kid. You didn’t give us any choice.”
“But I’m a good customer. I’ve been with Citibank since I came to the Big Apple.”
“Yeah, and you’ve racked up quite a history with us. I’ve got the whole sorry tale right here.”
“Come on, have a little mercy, will ya? Increase my line of credit. I’ll pay you back. You know I’m good for it.”
“Can’t be done, kid, your credit score is too low.”
Now, a matronly woman worked her way up to the front of the crowd. “Please, let me talk with him,” she pleaded
“Who are you, lady?” Officer O’Hara asked.
“I’m his mother.”
“His mother? That’s all you had to say.”
He turned to the reps. “We’re givin’ her a shot.”
The Citibank rep handed her the bullhorn, saying, “Good luck, lady.”
She turned toward the warehouse and looked up at the window. Straining to see through the glare of the spotlights that traced across the façade, she called, “Joey?”
He looked up. “Is that you, Ma?”
“Look, Mom, I’m sorry about this, but I’m in trouble, big trouble. I got in over my head. ”
“I know, son.”
“There’s only one way out for me. I know I’m a grown man and I hate to ask, but can you spot me a grand? I’ll pay it back, I promise.”
“I would if I could, son. But I don’t get my social security check until next week. How about a hundred? I can eat baloney sandwiches until then.”
“A hundred?” Joey asked. “Did you say a hundred, Ma?”
“Yes, Joey. I’m sorry. It’s the best I can do.”
“That’s all right, Ma. You keep it. I’m in too deep. You can’t help me anymore.”
“You know I love you.”
“Yeah, I know, Ma. I’m sorry I didn’t do better in life.”
Just then a mail truck drove up, with the horn honking like a bugle. The crowd turned toward it. The mailman jumped out, mail in hand, and announced, “Never fear, the mail is here!”
“Don’t tell me?” Joey called. “You got my check?”
The mailman took a telltale white envelope out of the handful of other missives and held it up proudly. “I got it right here, Joey.”
“Did you hear that, you dirty rats?” Joey called back, and stood up, dusting himself off. “I got the check.”
“Mind if I take a look?” the lawyer asked with the usual skepticism.
The mailman held the envelope up like a billboard.
The lawyer studied it, and affirmed, “It’s from Travel & Leisure all right, and, from the look of it, I’d say it’s definitely a check.”
A hubbub rippled through the crowd.
“Did you hear that?” the Verizon rep commented. “He got the check.”
“What do you know? The kid got the check,” the Citibank rep admitted.
Joey walked out of the building, a free man, and made his way to the crowd. He reached out and took the check from the mailman. “Thanks, buddy.”
“Just doin’ my job,” the mailman replied.
Then he headed for his mail truck with an irrepressible heroic swagger.
“Oh, Joey, I’m so happy for you,” his mother effused.
“Thanks, Ma,” he told her, and put his arm around her.
The lawyer, becoming instantly cordial, reached his arm around Joey. “Problem’s good as solved, kid. Just pay up and you can stay.”
“And you can count on Con Ed to provide all the electricity you need,” the rep assured him.
The Verizon rep winked, and added, “We’re your phone company. You know that, Joey. You got all the service you want, including your DSL.”
“And about your checking plus account,” the Citibank rep told him. “We’re gonna find a way to work around your credit score so we can give you an increase.”
“Really? Hey, whaddaya know? Just goes to show you what an ordinary guy like me can accomplish when he gets a check.”
He tore open the welcome envelope and looked at the little piece of paper that had just saved him from a fate worse than death. Then he kissed it and held it up for all to see.
“I’m a free man! Free of all my most pressing debts.”
With that realization, he smiled and slipped into a much more deeply satisfying sleep.