Monday, November 24, 2008
Debit or Credit? In Armageddon Times, Ejm, Cash
So, gabachos are totally freaking out over the worst economic crisis since Master Card launched its first 'Priceless' oblivious-leading campaign. You can see it everywhere. Been to Ikea in Palo Alto last Friday night, and, guess what, no one there. Even at Ikea, where everything is, like, trendy and cheap! Been last night to the movies, and, yep, it looked like Tuesday night. America (the state of mind, The Empire, not Ferrara, the actress) is feeling pasos en la azotea. For it's not used to this severe gloominess. Yes, every decade the United States' economy goes a little bit down before going higher up, but this one looks pretty feo, and it will get worse. Everywhere.
So, at this point you may be asking, "Dude, if the economy is doing so badly, what the hell were you doing at Ikea? Why not turning to Netflix to get some Sunday-afternoon foolish fun instead of doing movies at a ten-dollar-ticket theater?" Well, that's my point. For those of us who come from Latin America, the words Economic Crisis do not belong to the news, they belong to the memories of our upbringing. In Latin America, the act of surviving a financial downturn surpassed long ago the category of contact sport. It has become an Art. Latinoamericanos already know that getting totally scared about lack of money or opportunities or truth or plain future won't do anything good for us. Life is short and debt doesn't come back to haunt you when you're death. Let's live la Vida Loca, carnales!
(Yes, that's also why we're still down there in the C-list of developing countries. But that's another, rather boring story.)
Today's credit crisis will be big. They will make movies out of it in like, five, six, years time. And I already know how one of them will begin. I've seen that scene with my own eyes this afternoon.
Around 7:30 p.m. I stop by Supercuts on El Camino Real in Menlo Park (Northern California, Planet Earth) to get a haircut. I like Supercuts because its service is 1) Cheap, 2) Really Fast, and 3) Stylists there do small talk only for a couple of minutes. Once my cabellera is nice and trimmed, I drift to the cash register, and the nice stylist/cashier apologizes for 1) Not being able to accept my two-dollar-off coupon printed on the back of a Safeway receipt (the Supercuts that takes those is, actually, on Mountain View), and 2) Having a "problem" with the credit-card machine so she can only take cash. I apologize back to her because 1) I don't have a problem with the coupon, but 2) I only have $17 in cash with me, and since the haircut is $16 there will be only one extra buck for her tip. "It's fine," she concedes, with a sad voice. As I hand the bills out to her I feel 1) In Mexico in the eighties or 2) In any New York bar (I'm sure New Yorkers had it coming long before it all started, for their obsession with cash is not normal.)
So, anyway, I leave Supercuts and drive a couple of blocks north to the Safeway whose Supercuts-coupons didn't work for me. In a swift shopping mood, I carry three boxes of four-cheese frozen pizza, two gallons or organic whole-milk for my becerro-like children and a number of assorted salsas we ran out of at home (you can take the güey out of Mexico, but you can't take Mexico out of the güey.) Then I head to the self-checkout cash registers to pay and go (I love self-checkout! I have a crush on interacting with machines who don't require humans to operate, I can't help it) and the polite clerk who oversees the self-checkout area approaches me with a totally inappropriate old-fashion question: "Excuse, me, sir, are you paying with cash?," he asks. As I reply with a solid what-kind-of-question-is-that no, he goes onto explain, "We're having a problem with the credit card system in all cash registers and we are only taking cash".
At that point I turn my head to my left and stare at the eight-plus human-operated cash registers and I get the (Big) picture. All of them have come to a complete stop. Cashiers keep pushing buttons on their machines trying to make them work, to no avail. Middle-aged men wander around the paying zone talking worriedly on their cell phones with an expression on their faces that can only mean one thing: wife's on the other side of the line. A line of people of all colors starts to form in front of the only ATM-machine available in the grocery store. And, of all a sudden, I remember 1) The Economist this week's headline cover which I glanced at Borders this morning: "All you need is cash," and 2) A story I heard moments before on American Public Media's Marketplace on how people who (inexplicably) managed to stay out debt or who (inexplicably) have come out of it are deciding to go vintage Economy wise by paying all in a cash-only mode.
As I follow suit and get in line to get some cash from the ATM-machine I remember my frustration the last time I tried to pay with credit card at a gas station in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, around four years ago, and discovered that, OMG, they were yet taking cash only!
So, if the end of the world will come in the form of a financial crisis, I already know how it will start. Or started. Meanwhile, I try to bring together my inner Latinoamericano and my inner Immigrant-American and hold on tight to my retro-cool cash, trying not to worry (too much) about what's next for us in this Post-9/11-Post-China-and-India-Post-Everything-Goes-Bush-Era Hope-driven Obama-lead world and enjoying the ride. For if this downturn is like the ones I lived before, back in México lindo y que-pinche-que-el peso-se-esté-depreciando-tanto-carajo, it won't be the last one. And that, after all, can be considered all but a gift. From life, that is.