- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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"Brother Can You Spare $87,000?"

Rockvale, Tennessee, July 16, 2006 - - A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing. Total dumb-ass is downright deadly.

About a year ago I came home from France to discover that thanks to the women in my house I was in possession of a lease-purchase agreement for the little farmette I've begun to refer to on these pages as El Rancho Tedioso.

Which suited me just fine. I had grown tired of the crack house a couple of blocks down the street from where we were living in Mumblesburg, with the accompanying bolt-loosening window-rattling sub-woofers in the trunks of seemingly every other vehicle that passed my house. The idea of a bucolic setting was one which inflamed my imagination. So we moved out here to Rockvale into a house that was begun in the 1850s and which has gone through several eras of alternating love and neglect, and which is now a three bedroom, two bath, four fireplace respectable-old-lady-with-a-past sitting on a low hill. Everybody in the county knows the house, and I've heard stories, some lovely, some funny, about the joint and all the people who've lived here.


I'm about as determined as a man can be to hold on to the rancho. But there are complications, mostly having to do with being as I said, a dumb-ass. Here's what they are:

When I first signed up for the lease-purchase deal, apparently our credit scores were in the 600s. I had never paid attention to that stuff, even to the extent that I didn't know that kinda dossier was out there on people. Originally, we had four months to find a mortgage. But then, every mortgage broker we got into contact with told us that there were some outstanding tax liens from back in the day when we were rich arrogant medical professionals…before Mama had the flat in San Francisco fall in on her and she and I simultaneously lost it. By "it" I mean of course all track of time and place and identity. You'd have to have it happen to you to understand… But anyway, these captains of finance told us that if we just took care of the tax liens we could get a mortgage.

We negotiated a six-month extension on our lease-purchase agreement.

We got in touch with the IRS, the California Franchise Tax Board, other agencies who needed to be satisfied…this took some doing and, for a while, all our income, except for the lease and the utilities, and the bare minimums required to survive. With the unfortunate result that we got behind on some credit cards. I've come to understand that this is a common story in America today; there were even a couple of shows about it on "Boston Legal". Unfortunately, Alan Shore doesn't live nearby.


"Okay, so if we send you the $260 you're asking for, how much will our payment be next month?" asked Patty.

"Oh, Ms Finley, only the regular minimum monthly payment of $30 will be due," burbled our new friends "Christina", "Bob", "Daniel", "Robert" and "Jeff" from their terminals in New Delhi.

This was a scenario that was repeated several times, with varying astronomical amounts, but always with the same reply: Pay what we're asking now and next month your credit card payment will be back to the base amount. So we sucked it in and paid up…


"What's this?" I asked a month later.

"Well, sir, believe me, it's only fair. After all, you signed The Contract, and if you'll look, you'll see that every three months there is a Periodic Finance Charge of only $7.95, which unfortunately took your balance beyond your credit limit, and so we have to charge you an over limit fee as well as your usual base payment this month, so now you owe $82.95. We can take it directly from your bank account for only $11.95, and save you the inconvenience of having to remember this every month."

"Uh…do you have a supervisor there that I can talk to, "Jeff"?"

"Certainly, sir. Just a moment and my supervisor will talk to you."

I listen to Kenny G for a while.

Then a guy comes on the phone who is NOT in New Delhi.

"Hello, is this Mr. Finley? My name is Greg Kneecapper. I understand you have a problem with our billing system."

"Well, yeah, Mr…Kneecapper, is it?… It's just that when I was making arrangements to get caught up last month, I was told that this month I'd only have to pay the minimum payment due and now it turns out that you're billing me for an overlimit fee that I didn't incur…I mean we didn't use the card at all last month."

"I have to disagree with you, Sir. YOU signed The Contract with us and YOU read that there's a Periodic Finance Charge every period and YOU neglected to take the Periodic Finance Charge into consideration when you made your last payment, and YOU caused your account to go over the limit and now YOU are responsible for this month's payment. It's out of my hands. There's nothing I can do about it."

"Sure there's something you can do about it. You can take off the overlimit fee and I can make this month's payment PLUS the Periodic Finance Charge and then I'll be caught up with you."

"It doesn't work that way, pal. Once the amount due is in the COMPUTER, then the only thing that will take those charges off is if you make the payment, which, as I say, YOU are responsible for because YOU signed The Contract."

"Well, okay. Say I do make the payment. Is there any way to make sure that these charges will not sneak up on me again?"

"Well, we DO have a Payment Assurance Plan for $4.95 per month, deductible from your account of course, that would take care of making sure you received credit for any payments you were unable to make on time. All you'd have to do is provide a letter from three different doctors as to why your payments were going to be late. If they WERE going to be late, which I would recommend never happen. But you'd have to notify us a month before you planned to be incapacitated. Other than that I can only suggest that YOU read the agreements YOU are making in the future."

"You know, making last month's payment to you and some other cards have pretty well tapped us out. I'm not sure we can come up with another huge sum this month."

"Well, that's your problem, but I have to tell you that failing to make these payments can really hurt your Credit Scores. And I strongly recommend that you make this payment."

I didn't make the payment.


Mr. Kneecapper was followed by Mr. Armbuster, Mr. Geekneck, Ms. Thighmaster, and ultimately Mrs. Ballbuster. The conversations were basically the same as the one outlined above with much the same result: our inability to pay the Periodic Finance Charges plus the Seasonal Service Agreements on top of the Annual Late Charge Protection Fees led to a cascade of mounting charges that caused accounts which had a limit of $300, for instance, to reach totals of, oh, about $1300. At which point our credit scores went rapidly into the dumper. And when we went back to the mortgage companies, they all said, "Yes, well it's very nice that you got rid of all those nasty tax liens, but now Experian is 484, Equifax is 501 and TransUnion is 496. So, until you get the scores back up at least into the 550 range, there's nothing we can do for you."
This was last week. The fastest credit repair stories I've heard involve at least three months.


Our original agreement with the owner calls for still another extension if we are unable to get a mortgage together by the end of the contract, which expired June 31. Somehow that clause got superseded by a piece of paper which gave us until July 17 to come back with a commitment to close within 30 days. While I'm not so sure about the legality of all of this, I'm really about as ready to have a mortgage as the owner is for me to have one. I have not been late on any lease payments, either here or anywhere in the past 10 years at least, so making house payments on time is not something I fall down on.

Since we've been here we've built up a little more than $6000 in escrow as a down payment toward $87,000, against which the owner is committed to paying up to $5000 in closing costs. What I'm looking for is a mortgage for a year or two which will give me time to repair some credit so I can then refinance and get any white knights who may come down the pike profitably out of the picture. Anybody got any ideas? Can I get a witness? Can I get a co-signer?


Last night I sat on my porch and listened to a mockingbird sing cover songs long into the summer night.

God bless the Child who's got his own.

Brother, Can you spare $87,000?

Panama Red