Escape from the cavern of the credit Morlocks

There are two kinds of people in America: those with good credit, and Morlocks who live below ground and emerge at night to steal your children. Returning to the US after my years abroad I found myself condemned to the underworld by one of the big wireless operators. I was in a carrier store trying to open a billed mobile phone account for my wife. How hard could it be? I’m a US citizen with a well-paid job at a brand-name company. I wore a shirt and shoes.

The discussion went something like this: How long have you been at your current address? Oh really, that short? Well, where did you live before that? I’m sorry, where? Are you sure? I didn’t know Americans could live there. Anyway, since you’ve been in your current address less than six months I’ll have to run a credit check. What was your last address in the United States? Really? THAT’S NOT WHAT THE CREDIT BUREAU SAYS.

And that was where things ground to non-negotiable halt. Twice.

Six months out of graduate school and flat broke, I hadn’t been a deft steward of my own finances when I left the United States in 1995. I was underemployed and maxed on three credit cards, all charging student-card interest rates that fell somewhere between payday loan and the guy who broke your uncle’s kneecaps. I was also carrying enough student loan debt to notice, although not enough to make me a heartbreaking case study in one of those stories about how student debt is ruining America.

In Singapore I got my first real paycheck ever, for an amount of money that seemed absurd at the time but was in fact a lowball tradeoff for the equity that was supposed to make me rich someday, but didn’t. I immediately did two things. Less responsibly, I ran out and bought a thousand-dollar, 29-inch 16x9 JVC tube television set. It weighed 80kg and seemed like a television from The Future. It had a remote control so complicated that the button-encrusted top flipped open like a door to reveal a whole second layer of buttons underneath.

More responsibly, I paid off all my debts. As long as I lived in Asia I was never in debt again. I was terrifically smug about this, but it was less the product of saintliness and more the product of living in places where home and car ownership were simply impractical.

In 2001, when I’d been in Singapore for five years, the state of California dunned my tiny brokerage account for money it thought I owed for 2000 taxes. This came as a surprise to me as I’d had no income in California since 1995, and precious little before then (though, as a self-employed writer, what income there was had been ferociously taxed). In a kind of reverse green card process, I assembled a mighty dossier to prove to the bureaucracy that I didn’t live in the US and had no interest in doing so. I eventually got the money back, but the episode convinced me that it might be a good idea to sever my remaining links to the suddenly grabby state of California. I closed my inactive brokerage account, cancelled all the credit cards and even let my driver’s license lapse.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I had a Singapore credit card and driver’s license, and was getting paid in Singapore dollars and living most of my life in Asia. And I had little interest in moving back to the United States. What could go wrong?

Smash cut to twelve years later as I stand in the Palo Alto shop of one of the major US wireless carriers, futilely explaining why I, an employee in good standing of a company they buy zillions of phones from, should be granted a post-paid account for my wife.

Sorry, this is America, comrade. We don’t care how they do things back in Whereveritwasistan that you were living in, or how good your credit is with the Communists. In America the credit bureaus are the unseeing judge. The power on high. The remote, Olympian force that casually dispenses destiny. Woe betide the mortal who has had no apparent credit for more than a decade, and who gives a prior address that that doesn’t match up with whatever is etched into the Great Stone Tablet.

What was etched into the Great Stone Tablet next to my name, I later discovered, was an address in Forest Hill, West Virginia. This was a surprise to me as I’d never been to West Virginia, let alone lived there. Apparently, one of my Singapore postal codes shared several digits with a zip code in Forest Hill, West Virginia. Who knew?

I did what one does when the gods are displeased with you. I submitted a request to have my records corrected. With the credit bureaus at least you can do this online, and no goat sacrifice is called for (though they are not actively discouraged). Amazingly enough, my prayers were heard and sort of answered. My prior US address was amended to the correct one, and on my third attempt to get a phone line all my information was confirmed by the Great Stone Tablet. There was rejoicing and 4G connectivity. I’d never been so happy to get a bill.

But a phone line was just the first, wobbly baby step in the reconstruction of my credit. After all, I was becoming a creature of the American suburbs again. Cars. A house. The respect and admiration of my peers. All of it would require credit.

Though I had dissolved nearly every other aspect of my US financial existence, I had fortunately kept the checking account I opened in San Francisco in 1991. I’d like to say that this was some great act of financial foresight, but it was mostly to avoid fees when spending money on visits home. An American debit card also came in handy for buying stuff on iTunes when I lived abroad. When I moved back to the US I wired all my savings into that account. After years of wrestling with Chinese banks I am hard pressed to say anything good about any bank anywhere, and my US bank was deeply soiled in the collapse of the housing bubble. But due to my suddenly swelling account of long-standing they were willing to give me a new Visa card on the spot. And you know how it is with credit card issuers. Like a flock of crows, once one of them has its beak in you they all want a taste.

The other cornerstone of my rising credit edifice was a car. My wife and I started car shopping in earnest a few weeks after arriving back in the US. We were prudent, restrained and utterly Silicon Valley in selecting a slightly used Prius in an un-manly shade of powder blue that demurely suggested, “I will never attract the attention of the police, so give it all you got.”

As happens in the car buying process, the backslapping salesman handed me over to the finance guy with the slightly-too-wide smile who tried to up-sell me on the warranties, anti-scratch film, Scotch-Guard, and so forth. I was prepared to write a check for the full price of the car when he made his one and only successful up-sell: a loan.

“We’ll finance it if you like,” he said.

I made a kind of Scooby-Doo surprise noise. Uhhrrrr? Having been cowed into total surrender by the wireless operator that wouldn’t let me open an 80-dollar-a-month billed account, it seemed astounding to me that I could casually finance a car to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Ah, but this is the American car business. A car is a secured loan. Cars are a pillar of the economy. They’ll finance a dead body to buy a car in the US of A as long as it can twitch enough to make an ink spot on the contract. They’ll even finance you, comrade, for the low, low rate of 4.5%.

This is a totally obscene rate for a car loan, but I wasn’t disposed to ask too many questions. “Hey,” Wide Smile said, reading my mind with uncanny accuracy, “if you want to take out a mortgage someday, this will help.” So I twitched enough to sign on the dotted line.

In fact, the ghosts of my no-credit years weren’t done haunting me. The Toyota dealer tried to pass my loan onto another giant, gruesome American bank. That bank sent me a letter that said, roughly, “We’d rather not, since you don’t seem to exist.” The dealer then tried their luck with a much smaller, regional bank, which was thrilled to take on my loan. I repaid their faith by paying off the loan in six months, before they could earn much from it. So maybe the big bank was on to something.

Last month the reconstruction of my US credit hit its logical peak. I took out a mortgage so my wife and I could buy a little ranch house in Redwood City. This was what everything else had been leading up to. The point behind re-establishing credit in the first place. When I started the mortgage process I had been back in the US for a year and a half. I had a colorful assortment of credit cards and two car loans, one paid off and one active. I had credit ratings in the high-respectable band. When the mortgage broker ran my numbers, he positively glowed. “You’re gold plated,” he said. “Start shopping.”

Ah, but we’d been here before.

I’d applied for a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage because, let’s face it, interest rates aren’t going to get any lower unless civilization collapses. It was all green lights until it wasn’t. The mortgage broker called me and explained that the tawdry investment bank that buys their thirty-year fixed loans wouldn’t buy one with my name on it because I didn’t have three lines of credit that had been open for at least two years. I only had one. This, I assumed, was my Singapore Citibank Visa card of long standing.

That meant switching to a ten-year adjustable mortgage because the broker’s company doesn’t resell those, and thus they require only one mature line of credit. And that, in turn, means refinancing sometime next year when my new credit lines are sufficiently grown-up, in order to not have to spend the next decade rooting for civilization to collapse so my ARM doesn’t blow up. Awesome. But at least the mortgage company ate the origination fees – a surprising display of remorse from a financial company, as all the evidence suggests that finance is the industry for which the term “remorseless” was invented.

It turned out that the one sufficiently old line of credit that I did have was not my Singapore Visa card. As I’d always suspected, my superb overseas credit remained invisible to the American credit-industrial complex, which views everything outside the United States as rumor and innuendo. That helpful, lone line of credit that was the slender difference between mortgage and no mortgage was an old Chase Visa account I’d thought among those cancelled when I’d dismantled my American finances in 2001. An account for which I no longer have any records at all and which, the mortgage broker told me, hadn’t actually been used in more than a decade. I’d been haunted by the ghost of my old credit one last time.

So here we are. Less than two years after failing to open a phone line for my wife, I have multiple credit cards. I have a car loan. I have a mortgage. I’ve gone from being debt-free and socking money into the bank to owing hundreds of thousands of dollars on an amortization schedule that lasts until my 77th birthday. All of this I desired.

I’m assimilated. I’m indebted. The system loves me now, and wants me to borrow. If that doesn’t complete my return to America, what does?

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