‘Debtor’ is more than a game. In America it tends to become a script, a plan for a whole lifetime, just as it does in some of the jungles of Africa and New Guinea. There the relatives of a young man buy him a bride at an enormous price, putting him in their debt for years to come. Here the same custom prevails, at least in the more civilized sections of the country, except that the bride price becomes a house price, and if there is no stake from the relatives, this role is taken on by the bank.
Thus the young man in New Guinea with an old wrist watch dangling from his ear to ensure success, and the young man in America with a new wrist watch wrapped around his arm to ensure success, both feel that they have a ‘purpose’ in life. The big celebration, the wedding or housewarming, takes place not when the debt is discharged, but when it is undertaken. What is emphasized on TV, for example, is not the middle-aged man who has finally paid off his mortgage, but the young man who moves into his new home with his family, proudly waving the papers he has just signed and which will bind him for most of his productive years. After he has paid his debts—the mortgage, the college expenses for his children and his insurance—he is regarded as a problem, a ‘senior citizen’ for whom society must provide not only material comforts but a new ‘purpose’. As in New Guinea, if he is very shrewd, he may become a big creditor instead of a big debtor, but this happens relatively rarely.
As this is written, a sow bug crawls across a desk. If he is turned over on his back, one can observe the tremendous struggle he goes through to get on his feet again. During this interval he has a ‘purpose’ in his life. When he succeeds, one can almost see the look of victory on his face. Off he goes, and one can imagine him telling his tale at the next meeting of sow bugs, looked up to by the younger generation as an insect who has made it. And yet mixed with his smugness is a little disappointment. Now that he has come out on top, life seems aimless. Maybe he will return in the hope of repeating his triumph. It might be worth marking his back with ink, so as to recognize him if he risks it. A courageous animal, the sow bug. No wonder he has survived for millions of years.
Most young Americans, however, take their mortgages very seriously only in times of stress. If they are depressed, or the economic situation is bad, their obligations keep them going and may prevent some of them from committing suicide. Most of the time they play a mild game of ‘If It Weren’t for the Debts’, but otherwise enjoy themselves. Only a few make a career out of playing a hard game of ‘Debtor’.
‘Try and Collect’ (TAC) is commonly played by young married couples, and illustrates how a game is set up so that the player ‘wins’ whichever way it goes. The Whites obtain all sorts of goods and services on credit, petty or luxurious, depending on their backgrounds and how they were taught to play by their parents or grandparents. If the creditor gives up after a few soft efforts to collect, then the Whites can enjoy their gains without penalty, and in this sense they win. If the creditor makes more strenuous attempts, then they enjoy the pleasures of the chase as well as the
use of their purchases. The hard form of the game occurs if the creditor is determined to collect. In order to get his money he will have to resort to extreme measures. These usually have a coercive element—going to White’s employers or driving up to his house in a noisy, garish truck labelled in big letters COLLECTION AGENCY.
At this point there is a switch. White now knows that he will probably have to pay. But because of the coercive element, made clear in most cases by the ‘third letter’ from the collector (‘If you do not appear at our office within 48 hours…’), White feels peremptorily justified in getting angry; he now switches over to a variant of ‘Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch’. In this case he wins by demonstrating that the creditor is greedy, ruthless and untrustworthy. The two most obvious advantages of this are (1) it strengthens White’s existential position, which is a disguised form of ‘All creditors are grasping’, and (2) it offers a large external social gain, since he is now in a position to abuse the creditor openly to his friends without losing his own status as a ‘Good Joe’. He may also exploit further internal social gain by confronting the creditor himself. In addition, it vindicates his taking advantage of the credit system: if that is the way creditors are, as he has now shown, why pay anybody?
‘Creditor’, in the form ‘Try and Get Away With It’ (TAG-AWI), is sometimes played by small landlords. TAC and TAG-AWI players readily recognize each other, and because of the prospective transactional advantages and the promised sport, they are secretly pleased and readily become involved with each other. Regardless of who wins the money, each has improved the other’s position for playing ‘Why Does This Always Happen To Me?’ after it is all over.
Money games can have very serious consequences. If these descriptions sound facetious, as they do to some people, it is not because they relate to trivia but because of the exposure of trivial motivations behind matters people are taught to take seriously.
The obvious antithesis of TAC is to request immediate payment in cash. But a good TAC player has methods for getting around that, which will work on any but the most hard-boiled creditors. The antithesis of TAGAWI is promptness and honesty. Since hard TAC and TAGAWI players are both professionals in every sense of the word, an amateur stands as much chance playing against them as he does playing against professional gamblers. While the amateur seldom wins, he can at least enjoy himself if he becomes involved in one of these games. Since both are by tradition played grimly, nothing is more disconcerting to the professionals than to have an amateur victim laugh at the outcome. In financial circles this is considered strictly Out. In the cases reported to this writer, laughing at a debtor when one encounters him on the street is just as bewildering, frustrating and disconcerting to him as playing anti-‘Schlemiel’ is to a Schlemiel.