Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unoccupied Main Street

Just a minute... just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You... you said... what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be!

-George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life

My father was a pack rat.  Digging through his papers is like a walk through time.  I found his certificate for being a crossing guard in 1939, my siblings’ immunization records, a recipe for baby formula vintage 1959 and a 1964 Tax return.  Do I have a job on my hands.

I have scouted the area for various consignment stores to unload some of the more non-collectable things.  I don’t think I have the time nor patience for Craig’s List or eBay.  What I have noticed in my scouting is such an abundance of empty storefronts.  If that is not a sign of the economic times.  Locally, an entire Mall will be demolished.  It was one of the malls where Saturday Night Live would parody the “Scotch Tape Store”.  In the boomtown 1980’s, pre-on-line shopping, these stores cropped up like mushrooms on a cloudy day.  Thirty years later we are left with the aftermath.

Going back to my father’s bountiful paper booty, I found the most curious thing.  It was a loan note for my grandparents’ first house bought in 1949.  It was not a bank note but rather a loan from the “The Sons of Polish Charter” for $5700.  It was a promissory note with full details of payment and penalties.

It made me think of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the bank troubles today.  We have long left a society where ethnic groups help one another. We have “progressed” to financial services that few of us understand and perhaps only 1% profit from.  There’s derivatives upon derivatives and financial “products” that seem fine on paper but try to collect on it and the mountains of paperwork are staggering. There is always some penalty or fee that diminishes the real return.  Meanwhile, the theory of ‘micro-loans” in other countries wins people Nobel prizes.

I am not a financial wizard by any stretch of the imagination, but when you take ordinary people out of the equation of savings and loans, it leads to a system of abandonment, just like those empty storefronts. We are just cattle. George Bailey knew his customers and neighbors because they were the same people.  My grandparents were members of the the Sons of the Polish Charter. You are less likely to default on your neighbor or friend.  Does Bank of America know you?

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