Friday morning at the San Jose DMV, they were serving customer # G011. I’d been sitting for a half hour with a G071 ticket in my hand. Settled into an audio book, “Your Money or Your Life”, it suddenly occurred to me I might not have enough money to cover the license renewal fee. The fee was $33 and the DMV accepted only cash and checks. With only $25 in my wallet and my checkbook tucked in a pocket of my suitcase back at my friend’s house, I realized I had to get more money.
Within minutes I found myself biking down Monterrey highway toward Bank of America. The air smelled of freshly poured asphalt mixed with the sawdust of chemically treated 2×4’s. New construction sat silently on my left. The sun rose further and the air got hot. At last I spotted BofA, turned left with a line of cars, and pulled up to the ATM.
As I pulled out my wallet, two vagrants looked at me. “Can you help us out? If you can, do, if you can’t just say ‘no'”. I thought about the twenty-five in my wallet. I said, “no”. Keying in my ATM pin, I remembered I had two single dollars in my pocket. “Hey, yeah, I can help, how’s two bucks?” I asked as I handed the money over.
“Yeah, thanks, that is just about what we need for Denny’s.” They turned back to looking out at the highway and stayed seated. They seemed to have no intention of heading to Denny’s. I went back to my transaction. $200 max withdrawal. Sigh, okay. Then this, “by continuing this transaction you agree to a $3 ATM fee.” “What?” I thought. I got angry. “Those BofA Bastards. That’s 1.5% At least let me withdraw $500 you crooks!” I breathed, got over myself, took my cash and secured my money in my wallet.
Walking the bike back past the vagrants, I asked, “can you believe those bastards charge $3 to use their freaking ATM?” By now there were three guys sitting, waiting for $ to come to them.
The guy in the baseball hat replied, ‘Yeah, you think you got it bad? I get my VA check two weeks ago and have wrecked my car twice, TWICE! since then.” Another guy volunteered, “yeah, he did. crashed his car twice.”
“Wow,” I observed, “that sounds expensive.”
“Yeah, took my whole check and now I have no money. Plus it’s embarrassing walking around, not having a car.”
This comment surprised me. Really? He has no money and not having a car is embarrassing? Before I could stop myself I offered unsolicited advice, “Man, you should be proud to be on your feet.” I gestured to my $100 cruiser bike, “this is all I’ve got, I don’t own a car here and I’m damned proud to ride this sweet bike under the power of my own muscles.”
He looked at me kind of shocked. It was time for me to go. “Have a good breakfast, bye!” I waved as I dipped down the pedestrian curb, onto the newly asphalted street and rode away, back toward the DMV in the dusty sunshine on Monterrey Highway.
How shockingly marvelous was that? A clearly destitute guy is concerned that people think less of him for not having a car. I remembered earlier, sitting in the DMV listening to Your Money or Your Life. The author, Vicki Robin, had talked about brainstorming solutions for sustainable development. Once people realized that the answer was to reign in the American consumer, she found people would object, “We can’t do that!”
Yeah, reigning in the American consumer would certainly be difficult, for when a destitute man on Monterrey highway, begging for money, thinks that even HE needs a car, not because he has to get to work, or even to get around to see friends, but because he is embarrassed to NOT have one, what hope is there? Even he is keeping up with the Joneses. How do you change the buying habits of a culture like that?