My Life as a Reluctant Loan Shark

People would break down in front of me and tearfully explain all the reasons why a good person would risk their job and willfully ignore company policy (and maybe even break the law) in order to help them out just this one time.

Oct 11, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

The first time an unhappy customer told me they were going to wait outside until my shift ended and then proceed to do a series of increasingly violent things to me until I was no longer alive, I felt genuinely terrified and reported the incident to my manager, who then had a co-worker follow me out of the building to make sure I was safe when it was time to leave.

The 50th time an unhappy customer told me they were going to kill me, I laughed in their face and told them they would have to book an appointment six months in advance just to be considered for the waiting list. By then I’d been at it for a year and averaged about a death threat a week (although my personal record was three in one shift), and I had simply lost the ability to take them seriously. If anything, I relished having something to talk about when the morning crew came in. It was always fun making their jaws drop with another tale of graveyard drama.

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Wouldn’t you want to be greeted by this friendly smile?

Sometimes I wouldn’t even have to say anything, as the scene in the lobby spoke louder than I ever could. There was the one time it was trashed by the guy who couldn’t believe I’d been serious when I told him I wouldn’t cash his cheque if he didn’t stop harassing the clearly uncomfortable woman in front of him. And then there was the morning when they had to spray away the speckled film of saliva on the protective window that separated us from the customers. That night a gentleman had spat at me when I told him he still owed us over $500 from a previous transaction.

But those were relatively infrequent occurrences. During a standard shift, I was much more likely to just be called a “cross-eyed cocksucker,” “short cunt,” “fat cunt,” “stupid cunt,” “ugly cunt,” “short fuck,” “dumb fuck” and “piece of shit”. My sexuality was often questioned -- in terms of preference, prowess and frequency -- as was the existence of my heart and status as a human being capable of human emotion. People would break down in front of me and tearfully explain all the reasons why a good person would risk their job and willfully ignore company policy (and maybe even break the law) in order to help them out just this one time. 

And those were just the honest, everyday folks who came in. The thieves, drug dealers, money launderers and fraudsters were even worse, especially when I saw through their clever ruses and insisted on seeing I.D. before paying out wire transfers to “James Bond”, “Clark Kent” and “Richard Asshole” or refused to accept that the person who the debit card really belonged to was waiting outside in the car, but was somehow unable to come in on their own and buy the dozen disposable credit cards they apparently wanted.

Many of my customers were drunk, while others were so baked I risked getting a contact high all the way through the inch-thick bulletproof Plexiglas. But a lot of them were just normal, regular people, who couldn’t believe they were standing in the middle of a 24-hour cheque-cashing/payday loan store at a time when most of the city was in bed, deftly avoiding the real world in their dreams.

Beyond the occasional shift worker, the majority of my customers fell into two camps, those who absolutely did not want to be there and those who would live there if they could. They were almost entirely different species, but they had one important thing in common -- they needed money and at 3:00 AM, I was the only way to get it. 

The problem was at that hour I had no choice but to say, “No,” much more frequently than any of the other tellers. They could do the due diligence to make sure a personal cheque for $4000 was good. They could also call and get the authorization they needed to cash something that large. I couldn’t. In hindsight, it really is surprising no one made good on their threat to wait me for outside. I wonder if any of the ones who punched the glass ever broke their hands?

Why did I put up with such abuse? For the same reason I pretty much do everything -- I’m epically lazy. The constant insults and threats of violence were balanced out by a three-on, three-off, 11-hour shift schedule that allowed me to earn a full-time paycheque on what felt like a part-time lifestyle. Even better was the fact that once I finished all of my specific graveyard chores -- which sometimes took less than an hour -- I was free to spend the rest of the time doing whatever I wanted, which mostly translated to me watching movies and TV shows on my MacBook.

Take away the customers and it would have been perfect. That is if you ignore the fact that I spent two and a half years without getting any sleep. 

My insomnia was partly a natural result of this kind of shift work, partly a result of the two energy drinks I typically consumed to get through the night, partly a result of my brain’s refusal to stop replaying whatever tense drama had last occurred, and partly a result of the very real guilt I felt being involved in a business specifically designed to exploit the poor and the desperate.

As someone who had occasionally cashed cheques there in the past, I had no problem with that part of the business, since I understood why some folks considered us far more convenient than a bank and enjoyed having cash in their pocket whenever they needed it. But the payday loans were a different matter. The longer I worked there, the worse I felt about doing them, especially since the people they hurt the most were almost invariably the nicest people I dealt with during any given shift. Even worse, at least one of them was someone I once knew.

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Reality sucks.

I never actually saw him in the store, but whenever I did an inventory of that week’s loan cheques his would always be in the pile. He was a nice, older man who I once worked with at an industrial supply warehouse during my twenties. He was retired now and living off a meager government pension, a significant portion of which we took every two weeks just because he once needed some emergency cash a long, long time ago. By even the most usurious of standards, his original debt had been paid a hundred times over, but now that he was trapped in the cycle, there was no honest way for him to get out of it.

And by the standards of the company, this made him an ideal customer. 

Wikipedia tells me that many of you may not be familiar with the practice, since you live in one of the 13 states* that have flat-out banned it. In my experience -- though the process and amounts varies widely from company to company and location -- a person would come in with their last paystub and a blank check. The amount they could borrow was based on 30-50% of their last paycheque with a set maximum of $1500.00. For that, they would be charged $19.50 per every $100 borrowed. They would then write us a cheque for the amount borrowed and the fee (that came to $1792.50 for someone who borrowed the maximum) and date it for their next payday, which is when we would deposit it into the system.

Since so many of our customers were just like many of us xoJaners and worked paycheque to paycheque (or “paycheck to paycheck” as you Yanks would write it), this sudden withdrawal from their bank account almost invariably put them in the same cash-strapped situation they were in when they came to get the loan in the first place. The most obvious solution? Get another loan! And then rinse and repeat for eternity.

This wasn’t a regrettable reality the company was forced to accept, it was the business plan its entire existence was based on. We were constantly being told how important it was to convince first time loan customers to take the maximum available amount, specifically because that was the best way to ensure that they would have no choice but to take out another loan and do so again and again and again until they either came into unexpected money, finally defaulted or died, whichever came first.

The company prided itself on being the fairest and most ethical lender in the market, but that didn’t stop it from urging us to convince people into entering a cycle of permanent debt that cost some of them over $7000 a year** for what ultimately amounted to nothing more than the privilege of cashing their own paycheques. It may have been legal, but it clearly wasn’t right.

Since I worked unsupervised, I ignored all of the directives and did everything I could to convince people to take the least amount of money they figured they could get away with. Most of them thought I was crazy (Why wouldn’t you take the largest amount being offered to you? Don’t you know that more is always better than less?) and ignored me. Almost always, I would see them again two weeks later and give them another loan.

The truth is emergencies do happen and many people don’t have the support systems some of us are able to turn to for help, so I can understand why the idea of getting these loans seems so attractive (especially when you look at the advertising that makes it look like free money, instead of something you actually have to pay for), but I would urge anyone reading this who finds themselves in this position to really think long and hard before getting one. Not only do they know you’re desperate, they’re counting on it, and they will continue counting the profits each time you come back just to make it through another week.

I have a thick armor and an enormous tendency towards personal inertia, but eventually the abuse, the guilt and the exhaustion overcame even the fact that I was getting paid my largest salary to date to mostly watch movies 6-8 hours a night and I had no choice but to quit. I slept for virtually the entire week after that last graveyard shift. My bed had never felt so comfortable in my entire life. My dreams consisted of nothing but flying, rainbows and voluptuous women.

And while I slept, dozens of uncomfortable people stood in front of my replacement and made a bargain I suspect many of them truly did not understand.

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* Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia.

** That number is based on the $292.50 it would cost someone who took the maximum amount of $1500.00 in my province of Alberta every two weeks for one year. That cost varies based on location, where the allowable rates are determined by provincial regulations. From what I understand, the company I worked for had lower rates than many of their competitors.