October 7, 2014

The Poker Debt: A Personal Journey

Someone said, “People showed strongly negative feelings toward the word ‘debt.’ Very few admitted to debt problems even if they had tons of it.”

David must pay off a poker debt

“Debt?”

“Some people got angry when we even mentioned it.”

Heads nodded because this reminded everybody of Terry, a participant in the research. “Terry!” someone exclaimed. Terry had not only swung from anger to despair when compelled to illustrate his financial situation in a graph, he also carried a smallish torch for the researcher. When she had asked him what kind of incentives toward saving money would interest him, Terry had said, “I don’t know — hugs?”

“They see debt as part of life, normal life,” I said in the knowing voice that I trot out when I begin to fear that my value is dropping.

Someone said, “So how do we help people get a handle on their debt and encourage spending without the bank looking like it’s encouraging it?”

Someone said, “Hmmmmm, it’s tricky.”

Someone said, “It’s the nut to crack.”

The people sitting around the conference table in the mile-high office overlooking San Francisco Bay pondered the problem. How might a credit card company make money off its customers without bankrupting them? I, among this group, gravely cupped my chin and stared thoughtfully at the whiteboard on which arrows pointed to circles, and circles sat in a pyramid, and the top of the pyramid represented the most hallowed customer and the bottom of the pyramid the most reviled and feared. Like everything else in life, I wanted to be a top, but possibly I occupied only the middle, and on bad days, I was a bottom.

One person then said something new, ignoring everything that the one before had said. Then I said something, ignoring my predecessor’s comments. And this went on for another hour, a masturbatory spiral until we started thinking about lunch.

And when that happened, it became difficult to focus. Conversation turned to the brainstorming of ideas of the most rudimentary nature. How about a friendly colored kiosk? Maybe we shouldn’t call a loan a loan, but call it extra money. And maybe say obligations instead of debt. Soon, a lunch menu appeared before me, slid over by my neighbor Jane, who had already made her choice. No surprises there: a salad. Next to her perfectly drawn circle around the picture of the salad, a note insisting that the dressing shall be served on the side. To soften the command, Jane had drawn a heart instead of a period. I worked my way down the options, looking for the most expensive lunch item since the company was buying. But alas, no lobster.

Then my phone vibrated. Not a text or an email, but, surprisingly, a call. I recognized the number as the one that had repeatedly called for two weeks. After each failure an increasingly threatening email followed. But I had to answer it now; I’d run out of time and excuses.

When I stood to say, “I’m sorry, I have to get this,” Jane looked at me with narrowing eyes. We had traveled to five cities together on this job and my hatred for her had only grown, especially after she had repulsed my advances. Cupping the phone I said, “It’s my mom, for God’s sake.”

In the corridor, after finally acknowledging the call, I heard a voice. “Mister David? This is Daniel Dala from King Poker.”

“Hi!”

I found an empty huddle room, and, closing the glass door behind me, paced quickly around the tiny table.

“I’m calling from the security department. I’m glad we have finally reached you.”

“Me too!”

“Have you heard back from your credit card company?” Daniel Dala sounded so far away that the concentration required to understand him had coated me in sweat. He was talking about the credit card company that had reversed the significant charge I had made to King Poker, the total of which I’d already blown in an orgy of late night Texas Holdem. Actually, the truth is, I’d forgotten that King Poker, flouting American laws forbidding banks to transact with gambling sites, used a shell company called Big Tech Trading Command Shop with a Chinese street address. When I saw Big Tech Trading Command Shop on my statement, I indignantly called the credit card company to dispute the charge. Later, locked out of my poker account, I realized the mistake.

“I did talk to them,” I said, “but it’s not going to work. They can’t unreverse. They’re investigating the charge.”

“I see. You will need to pay your debt to us using another method. Do you have pen and paper, Mr. David?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“I’m going to give you information for a Western Union money transfer. Please, in the next 48 hours, cable the balance you owe to Oswaldo Bolivar, country Nicaragua, in the city of Managua.”

“Okay, could you spell that name, please? And actually, which one is the last name?”

“The first name is Oswaldo.” Then Daniel Dala spelled it.

I said, “Seriously, Nicaragua?”

“Do you need a payment plan?”

“No, I do not need a payment plan. But could you hold on for a sec?” I trotted back into the meeting room, said, “What about payment plan instead of loan?” and returned to the huddle room to finish collecting the information I needed to pay King Poker back all its money, scrawling the details on a Starbucks receipt for $2.50 that I had previously planned to expense.

At the Hilton, I fell on the bed, palming my forehead despairingly, and considered the options. Unless a Western Union office resided at SFO, the transaction couldn’t happen until New York. This problem had been following me around since Bristol, where I couldn’t do anything about it because my phone had no overseas minutes. In Cardiff, Wales, repeated urgent emails from King Poker had ruined World Cup watching. After Cardiff, I flew to visit my aunt on a North Sea island, where, in a James Bondian casino, I won a poker tournament that helped salve the sting of the King Poker fiasco, but also brought those troubles to the fore. Compartmentalization may work only for Bill Clinton and sociopaths.

Back in New York I set aside an entire morning to deal with the situation, and printed out a map of all the nearby Western Union agents. The machine at the first location, a pharmacy, had broken down a week earlier, said a woman in a white smock. She looked either concerned or wary. It’s the middle of a workday, I’m in an old t‑shirt, sweating, and I need to send money to Nicaragua. I couldn’t be the only one.

“Try Happy News down the street.”

Happy was a terrible name for Happy News. A nervous man with a Trinidadian accent, sitting behind piles of paper in the shabby shop, seemed offended that I wanted to send money. He kept saying, “But not after 2pm!” It was only noon. He made it sound as though the transaction would entail too much work for him. I got nervous and backed out of the entrance.

At the next place, ten blocks away, a Walgreens, the machine was “down.” At the fourth place, a supermarket, the woman in charge of the Western Union machine had taken her lunch. I looked at the map. One avenue over, a check cashing business seemed promising. But even here, the bumptious manager, hanging in the back of the room far beyond the plexiglass armor at the counter, shook his head strenuously when I asked about their Western Union service.

“No no, not working, not today.”

“Really? They don’t seem to be working anywhere. Is something up?”

“I can’t talk about that.”

“What?”

“No no, there’s nothing I can say about that.”

Back at the supermarket, the lady in charge had returned from lunch. She took my information and my money, and printed out a receipt a yard long. But she had made a mistake.

“See,” I said, “you put down ‘Favid.’ It’s actually ‘David.’ ” So she ran it again. With the walk home came an end-of-the-day feeling of a job well done.

Back in my apartment, I emailed King Poker the 36 alphanumeric transaction ID. Soon, Daniel would send me his thanks, and re-open my account, satisfied that a regrettable error had been rectified. I decided to nap.

The next day came the news from Daniel Dala that the money wasn’t there. Someone had cancelled the transaction. On the phone, a Western Union customer rep told me of an investigation into the payment’s recipient, and asked me to recount anything unusual in the transaction. She hinted at possible nefarious doings.

“Who, Oswaldo?” I said. “No! I can’t believe it!”

“What was the transaction for, sir? Some people use Western Union to purchase medications from overseas, like Viagra.”

“What? Hey, it wasn’t for Viagra! It’s for a gambling debt!”

“I see, I see.”

She instructed me to visit the nearest agent for a refund, minus the transaction fee. Meanwhile, Daniel Dala gave me another recipient’s information so we could try it again. This time, a Mr. Fermin Ocampo would wait for the cable at a Western Union office in Manila.

The temperature in New York had reached 95 degrees. I planned to pick up the refund at one location, and then, because I felt too embarrassed to set up another transaction at the same place, go all the way to a Western Union agent on 9th Avenue. I would do this before a visit to the dentist for a terrible toothache that had been plaguing me since leaving San Francisco.

But before I left, I updated my calendar to “not available,” messing up a few meetings that Jane had required me to attend. This would anger her. Also that my work had piled up over the last two days, untouched. To build strength, I rested my head for a moment on my keyboard. I closed my eyes. I tried to daydream of far away places, but could only come up with an imagined Mr. Ocampo, standing in line on an old cracked marble floor, while a ceiling fan whirred above him somewhere in one of Manilla’s seediest neighborhoods.