Sunday, December 18, 2005

More LA Stories: 2005 (Part I)

Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride?
Gather ‘round, boys and girls and hear a cautionary tale from ol’ AJ. It’s based on a very wise, old Chinese saying, He who make cheque fly will eventually have ass grounded.

Ya see, it all happened like this…

After a very hectic period at work I was anxious to get on the plane for eight days of R&R, doing one of my very favorite things — spending time with my family and friends. It was late August, one of the worst times of the year to be in Middle Tennessee from a weather standpoint, so I was really looking forward to getting away from the humidity and enjoying that incredible SoCal climate; that incredible combo of warm sunshine and a cool ocean breeze — the one thing above all that I so desperately miss about my former homeland.

Traffic getting to the airport was mild on a Friday, between A.M. rush and lunchtime. I arrived at the airport, having already printed off my boarding pass online, and had to wait only a few minutes prior to boarding time for my flight. I was able to procure my usual, preferred aisle seat in the upper two-thirds of the cabin and was comfortably settled in. I was curious as to whether I’d end up with a neighbor who wanted to talk or keep to themselves during the four-and-a-half hour flight. Personally I can go either way. I usually bring music to listen to, but for this trip I was unable to find my portable CD player (and I still haven’t found it), so I was out of luck as far as music was concerned. I suppose I was a little more inclined towards conversation for that reason.

I’ve met some interesting people over the years on airplanes. Last year, on this same flight to LA, I sat next two a father and son who were on their way home from the East Coast where they had followed our mutually favorite Major League Baseball team, the (then still) Anaheim Angels on a brief eastern road trip.

In 2002, I visited a friend who now lives in Idaho. On the flight home I spent a fascinating time discussing high-tech trends for what was then an entirely new concept of the “plugged-in home” — pre-building high-speed fiber-optic cable and other tech options into entire subdivisions of new homes — with an electrical contractor specializing in that cutting-edge service.

But perhaps my most interesting in-flight confab, at least now in retrospect ocurred in December of 1992, on the first of several business trips I would make between Nashville and SoCal, back when I still had freelance clients there. I sat and listened while a wired, very young-looking, and just a little geeky Dermot Mulroney chatted my ear off about his part in a just-completed movie entitled, The Thing Called Love, his first “big” role, in which he co-starring with River Phoenix. It was shot mostly in Nashville and Mulroney was just returning home following the film’s wrap. At the time I’d heard the film mentioned on the local news and was familiar with Phoenix, but had no idea who this Mulroney guy was. So I politely listened, gave him my business card and told him to look me up the next time he was in town.

After that, I didn’t really think all that much about the encounter until five years later when the movie,My Best Friend’s Wedding came out. To my surprise, here was this same Dermot Mulroney playing the lead male role, starring opposite Julia Roberts. This was obviously his greatest commercial success to date. He’s had a few other starring roles but has primarily made his career as a supporting, character actor. Still, just to realize in retrospect that, “Hey, that guy talked my ear off on an airplane once, way back when,” well, it was kind of a cool experience for non-Hollywood types like yours truly.

As it turned out, I had enjoyable conversations with two people who ended up occupying the seats next to me on this sold-out West Coast flight. The gentleman who took the window seat to my right was from a small town in southern Tennessee, returning to Bakersfield, CA for his father’s funeral. Later, the still-vacant seat between us was filled by a guy connecting from Detroit flying out to Los Angeles with his family for a vacation. He had given up his previous seat to a lady who needed to sit next to her elderly father with Alzheimer’s. There weren’t any empty adjoining seats left, so he gave his up to accommodate her.

It was a great flight. In the air, everything was smooth. It wasn’t until we landed that I encountered some turbulence. And going back to something that had happened earlier that morning, I probably could have seen it coming; as Lennon and McCartney once said, I shoulda known better.

Michelle had told me earlier Friday morning, after viewing our checking account balance online, that she was surprised to see the check she’d sent in for our son Shaun’s Fall Semester tuition had already been received by the bank, a mere two days after being sent to the University. Not that we are normally in the habit of kiting checks, but the close proximity of the tuition due date and my trip to California wasn’t anything Michelle had necessarily made provision for, or even worried about. She understandably assumed it wouldn’t be a problem due to the fact that normally it takes about four days to process a check being sent from outside our local area to come back and hit our account. That being said, Knoxville is nearly 300 miles from where we live, more than far enough away to qualify for that kind of scenario. Additionally, our paychecks were due to be auto-deposited on Friday night, so there was no immediate concern given to the possibility that the funds needed for me to rent a car in LA wouldn’t be there when I needed them. Michelle believed she had headed off any potential problems by moving some extra money into our checking from another account, once she’d seen that the tuition check had already posted.

So when she told me about it early Friday morning I agreed that it shouldn’t be a problem. However something happened soon thereafter that should have clued me in that all was still not well in Debitville.

My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:15 AM, so the plan was that I would first take Michelle to work at 7:30, come back home and finish packing, and then pick her back up at 9:30 so she could drive me to the airport. When I dropped her off at work, Michelle reminded me that the car was low on gas and asked if I would stop and put a few gallons in the tank on my way back home, which I was happy to do. When I went to get the gas, my debit card was rejected at the pump. Irritated but not dismayed, I figured that for some reason the money Michelle had transferred simply hadn’t been officially credited into the system, given that it had only been an hour or so since she’d done it. So I paid cash for the gas and proceeded on home to finish preparing for my trip. In retrospect I know now that I should have followed my gut and gone to the bank to check our account status, just to be sure. I had the time, although taking that extra 30 minutes or so would have made things tight. Still in the long run it would have saved me even more time, not to mention the embarrassment and frustration I would experience some six hours later.

As I’ve already mentioned, the flight was great. The time passed quickly and I was in good spirits when the shuttle dropped me off at the rental car agency.

It’s hard to say that I wasn’t thinking of it at all, but I certainly didn’t expect to have any problems. Yet there was that flash; just a thought that sort of hung in the back of my mind as one of those, now-wouldn’t-it-just-suck-if-this-happened kind of fleeting thoughts which oftentimes spring from the fertile fields of my paranoid mind.

Only this time it came true.

“I’m sorry sir, but your debit card has been rejected. Do you have another you could use? Like a credit card perhaps?”

“Um…nope. This is the only card I carry,” I replied, as a steadily growing feeling of warm dread began to overtake my spine and shoulders.

I was boiling over inside, furious that something like this could have happened to derail my vacation before it even started. However I tried to remain calm, asking the attendant what recourse I had. She said she would check with the company’s credit office and see what she could do. She then disappeared into the back for several minutes, only to return with the same discouraging refrain: she was sorry, but they just couldn’t rent me a car today.

Unwilling to give up just yet, I asked if she would call my bank directly to make sure there wasn’t some kind of mistake or at somehow vouch for the good standing of our account, regardless of what that damned computer said. Perhaps I could get the bank to explain that there would be more than enough in the account later that night when our paycheck money was due to go in automatically.

But no dice; the bank said the current balance was short of the amount needed to cover the rental company’s required 200% hold for the projected weekly rental fee. I would have no choice but to wait until the auto-deposited paycheck money hit the account.

But how did the tuition check get back to our bank so fast? At first we surmised that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville must bank with the same institution that we do, but would learn later, it was more likely that technology played the dominant role in our little misfortune.

Many companies are now using software which allows them to use that series of numbers printed along the bottom of a check to directly debit a payee’s account. It’s the same process used by companies who allow you to pay by check “over the phone.” But now, realizing that The University of Tennessee has this ability makes another one of their policies more than a little dubious. To pay via check for tuition and other fees is free. However if you want to pay online with a credit or debit card, you’ll also pay a $25.00 service charge for the privilege! How wrong is that, particularly when they can get their money just as fast with a check as they can with a direct transfer via credit or debit card? Oye.

I’m a wild and cash-only guy.
Just the same, about now you may be wondering exactly why I found myself in that predicament in the first place. Why don’t I carry a credit card like everyone else?

Call it a “once bitten-twice shy” mentality, or maybe I’m just stubborn, but ever since we became debt-free (except for the mortgage) in August of 1999, I’ve been pretty staunch in my stance against using credit cards.

I haven’t checked my credit report in years, although I know I probably should. We re-fi’ed the home mortgage a year and a half ago, so I know my credit is good, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn if I’m five-star or one-star. And the only reason I would, is if I ever intended to use credit again, which I don’t. I may want to get another mortgage someday, but even that’s a wait-and-see proposition. I just don’t use credit. Don’t want it, don’t need it.

I’m a cash-only kinda guy. I’ve learned that for me, if the money’s not in the checking account (or not already earmarked for something else), then too bad AJ, you can’t afford it. The good news is, with nothing but the utilities and mortgage that have to be paid each month, it only takes a couple weeks of saving to be able to buy just about anything I want anyway. And while I know that I’m sort of a weirdo for living this way, after what I’ve dealt with in terms of debt issues, the alternative is infinitely worse in my estimation. But don’t relegate me to the horse and buggy set just quite yet. 99.999999 times out of 100, my Visa debit card does me just fine, thank you. I can purchase anything with it that I could with its credit counterpart. In fact, over the past six years I’ve never run into a problem of any kind as a result of not owning a credit card.

Until now.

Next: Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride? (continued)
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