Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle A Fool & Her Plastic

By Kim Mellen

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Friends, I was a bright-eyed college freshman when the dark lord Debt first came a-callin'. Our resident assistant had a job foisting credit card applications upon our campus apartment community, idyllically nestled in the Northern California redwoods. She was the token Goth -- white makeup, black Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, the whole bit -- and was true to form, disseminating evil throughout the nitrous-oxide world of the rich faux hippies she so loathed. She received $5 (or was it 50cents?) for each application sent in, even if it got rejected. She said I could cut up the card once I got it. I liked her; she was our beer connection. I lied about my income on the application; weeks later the card arrived. I looked at the cool holographic logo from various angles. I caressed my name embossed in plastic. I was going to leave it at that, but it was just too sexy to have this consumer rite of passage padding my wallet. My mother advised me to keep it "in case of emergencies." I didn't know what APR meant; thankfully I thought that entire 18.9% figure was what I was charged every month, which prevented me from running to the mall in some wild chick frenzy. Also, I was anal-retentive and poor; I felt gloomy whenever I had more than $70 charged up.

Of course, never was my card used for an emergency, unless you consider running out of checks an emergency. The nice credit card people would send me letters periodically, thanking me for being a good consumer, more or less keeping up on my monthly payments, and congratulating me because they were upping my limit! Glee! Still, because I was young and in a fuck-the-establishment kind of university, I wrote surly messages in the memo sections of my $20 payment checks. As if I were a victim.

Gas. Groceries. The years made me bolder and more frivolous: furniture, an occasional plane ticket. My credit card bills rose to three figures, then four. The gloom abated -- debt, the oppressive cloud it is, is still so nebulous and easy to ignore. I rationalized that when I got out into the working world that I'd just be sort of supporting my happy-go-lucky younger self's spendthrift ways. Hey, better than feeding a baby or a rock-star husband. In the meanwhile, I kept sending $20 or $40 checks to a large corporate monolith for absolutely nothing. One step forward, two steps back. Some dead Greek or Roman philosopher-type said that debt is the slavery of the free.

Then, graduate school forced me to take out massive, heart-wrenching student loans. People are so cavalier about debt in grad school -- in fact, the more debt you have, the more respect you get; a bizarro version of the real world of salary and parking-space snobbery. The free-ride fellowship students are simply despised; they're the telemarketers and meter maids of grad school. This sentiment, of course, is the easiest channeling of the despondency and dread of liberal art academic debtors. Still, compared to the imminent years of student loan payments, the dark, looming figure of credit card debt shrank down to an annoying little troll with the voice of Joe Pesci, dancing around my feet, taunting and poking: "You think I'm bad!?!"

It took a wee inheritance from the sale of my dear grandmother (god rest her soul)'s house to appease the plastic beast. My stomach churned as I wrote the $2,000 payoff check. I could feel grandma's beyond-the-grave disappointment. She would have wanted me to put the money in a mutual fund, or buy an heirloom armoire; instead I was remitting payment for seven years of nickel-and-diming. Still, what a relief. I cut the card up into little silver shards. The sky opened up, the wind whipped through my hair, the angels sang. I could proceed to sustain a debt-free illusion until graduation. Then, the Chihuahuas came.

Their two buggy faces stare out with that certain Chihuahua je ne sais quoi... Go witness the magic at: http://www.firstusabank.com/creditcards/akc/dog01a.html.

You will say what I said when the pixelized glory emerged on the screen:

I must have this.

The American Kennel Club's Chihuahua Credit Card by First USA Bank: Chihuahuas are the hook, the piddling 5.9% APR is the line, the instant-gratification online credit application is the sinker. (As an added bonus, this postmodern conversation piece can also be stamped with your yappy companion's name alongside your own.) If, however, you do not find the Chihuahua as pitifully awe-inspiring as I, you can choose among a number of the AKC's select breeds. Pomeranians, anyone?

Once you have a credit card, of course, your name and vitals are junk-mail and telemarketing fodder until you die, or move with no forwarding address. I've received pitches for cards of every luminous metal ranking, with all sorts of snappy themes. There's the Frank Sinatra credit card: "The Card That Lets You Do It Your Way." (Which reminds me... There's an upcoming academic conference at Hofstra University on Frank Sinatra. I wonder if they'll deconstruct the card there.) For our gay and lesbian friends, there's a Rainbow Card. And I swear I remember hearing a commercial on the radio for a card with a "family values" theme. Do you think they might be put out by the same company? If you've got a political, geographical, artistic, religious, occupational, or leisurely loyalty, you can advertise it to the smiling clerk who rings up your purchase.

I must have this. The battle cry of the consumer, directed at the very means of illusory acquisition. Brilliant. You identify with something, you want the card upon which the object of your admiration is emblazoned, you get the card, you buy more things.

In the words of that masterful theologian, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, I am back in the saddle again. Will I ever be able to bring myself to cut the heads off of my precious little plastic puppies?

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