Borrowed Dreams: Debt Has Long Been the American Way. Why Are We Only Paying Attention Now?
My father was a repo man. He did not look the part, which made him all the more effective. He alternately wore a long mustache or a shaggy beard and owned bell-bottoms in black, blue, and cherry red. His imitation-silk shirts were festooned with city maps, cartoon characters, or sailing ships. Dad sang in the car, at the top of his lungs, mostly obscure show tunes. His white Dodge Dart had Mach 1 racing stripes that he had lifted from a souped-up Ford Mustang. The “deadbeats” saw him coming, that’s for sure, but they did not understand his profession until he walked into their homes and took away their televisions.
Dad worked for Woolco, a company that lent appliances on an installment plan. When borrowers failed to pay, ignored the letters and phone calls, my father would come by. He often posed as a meter reader or someone with a broken-down car. If he saw a random object lying abandoned in the yard, he would pick it up and bring it to the door as if he were returning it. He was warm and funny, charming, but pushy. He did not carry a gun, but he was fearless under pressure and impervious to verbal abuse. If the door opened, he was inside; if he was inside, he shortly had his hands on the appliance; the rest was bookkeeping.
Repo men like my father saw people at their worst, and he was not inclined to be forgiving. This noble profession found him late in 1973, after the first oil shock, when Floridians and many others were drowning in consumer debt. My dad had his own problems, having lost his job as a regional sales manager at Kimberly-Clark. Repo man was a sudden and severe step down, but he was divorced with three hungry boys to feed and child support to pay. My younger brothers and I would watch from the car at a safe distance. At age 9 or 10, I would try to fill in the details of what had happened to the people who came to the door. This was perhaps the first phase of my training as a historian.