Several years ago, St. Joseph found me a job. I still haven’t thanked him properly.
In a way, the job it allowed me to quit was right up his alley, since it was related to real-estate sales. Representing the bank, I would call borrowers who were on the verge of letting their homes go into foreclosure. My task, to put it as bluntly as possible, was to cajole or frighten them into selling their homes on their own.
Property values had tanked, leaving most of these people deep underwater, but many realtors had adapted by specializing in short sales. With every such sale, the bank lost money, but not so much as it would have lost had it been obliged to observe all the legal intricacies of foreclosing. Also, the responsibility for showing their houses to prospective buyers disinclined borrowers to vandalize them or steal their appliances, which would have cost the banks even more.
As I said, borrowers could be talked into this bothersome process through cajolery or intimidation. I’d gotten a bellyful of my own cajolery years earlier, when I’d closed loans on straight commissions. These borrowers – well, okay, not these very borrowers, but others like them, who took advantage of loosened underwriting guidelines to borrow above their means – had proven quite shrewd when it came to nickel-and-diming me out of my origination fees. Now, when they played the babe in the woods, claiming to have been duped by fast-talking loan officers, I had grounds for believing they were full of shit, and I felt justified in making them crawl.
I had not, you understand, expected to end up like this: chained to an automatic dialer, speaking a bastardized, formulaic version of the English language for an hourly wage. I’d hoped to become a professional – a man with letters after his name and a shingle over his door. But I’d turned out to lack more of the necessary abilities than I have space to list here. Consequently, I was a peon. And I was treated like a peon. When it is your job to contact people by phone unbidden, you can count on being addressed like a shoeshine boy or a rickshaw wallah. It is your lot to be sneered at.
But for once, it was not my lot to take that sneering lying down. In the hope of avenging my vanished hopes for dignity, I seized every bit of license allowed me. Home ownership has always been the ne plus ultra of respectability; every deed might as well be a passport stamped: MEMBER OF THE MIDDLE CLASS. Being declasse myself, I knew exactly how to hit these haughty borrowers, so to speak, where they lived.
I represent the bank that holds the mortgage to your house – the one you haven’t been paying. Want to talk to me now? An extension? You’ve been living in your house for free for six months. You think we’re running homeless shelters? You say you’re a favored client? You mean you were a favored client – when you paid your bills. You’re not that person anymore. Now you’re someone who’s about to lose his home. Excuse me, did I just hear you use the word “demand”? You’re in no position to make demands. We make the demands here. Let’s get that straight right off the bat, my friend.
There’s intense pleasure to be got from taking an arrogant person down a peg, seeing his ego defenses crumble until nothing remains but naked fear and shame, and rage absurd for its impotence. But none of its intensity can make that pleasure any less sick or cheap or hollow. There is nothing ennobling about degrading an essentially helpless fellow human, no matter how shifty or rude or irresponsible. After every tearful scene, the elation of victory wore off quickly, leaving behind a black, gritty foulness – a kind of vomit of the soul.
As I had been baptized that Easter, the soul and its disposition held real interest for me. But, though I hated the job, I had to admit I hated it less than the ones that had come before it. My performance numbers were stellar, I was bringing home large bonuses almost every month. For once, I was not living hand to mouth. The benefits were excellent. My hope was of escaping to another department, one unrelated to home finance, where I’d get to write ad copy, or push papers harmlessly around.
But my strong-arm approach was taking its toll on my reputation. I was in grave danger of typecasting myself as a goon. Then, one summer afternoon, a borrower got under my skin even more than usual, and I made my takedown even more personal than usual. The borrower complained, the complaint reached the ears of the general manager, who brought me into his office and forced me to sit through to a recording of the call.
I can’t remember exactly what I had said, except that I’d come very close to calling the borrower a liar, one thing we were forbidden to do. What did come through on that recording with hideous clarity was my tone, which was one long sneer. Unlike the automatic, unreflecting sneers I was used to hearing, this one was both calculated and brazen. For the duration of that call, I sounded like a bully, and, like all bullies, I sounded like an idiot – someone stupid enough and unimaginative enough to take cheap pleasure in easy domination.
For that call, I was given an official reprimand – my first. Not only did it disqualify me from collecting a performance bonus for that month, no matter how many delinquent accounts I might resolve, it put a black mark on my record that would make it practically impossible for me to land any other job within the company. At least for the time being, I had effectively trapped myself.
I told my story to Pina, a Catholic friend, and she advised me to recite something called the Thirty Days’ Prayer to Saint Joseph, who happened to be her namesake. It was exceedingly long, and the language struck me as fussy, but I recited it every day until, about three weeks later, a consulting agency offered me a job as a fraud investigator.
I began this story with the admission that I’d never thanked St. Joseph properly. The disgraceful truth of it is that, for anyone attentive to questions of status and prestige, Joseph cuts a drab and uninspiring figure. Not only was he pliant enough to re-order his life for a child that wasn’t his – and a woman of whom he could enjoy no carnal knowledge – he was the least exalted person in the company he kept. Jesus, of course, is King; Mary is Queen of Heaven. Joseph, despite his descent from King David, is not even a bonnet laird or a squireen.
Joseph’s perfect self-abnegation may be easy to admire in others, particularly when their Christian virtues have the effect of making our lives easier. But to someone who’s come down in the world, his heroic meekness looks suspiciously like basic prescribed behavior. Self-mastery can be terribly unsatisfying when it serves only to placate the people who have already, in effect, mastered you.
I didn’t do so well in the fraud investigation job. After receiving a stipend for the first three months, investigators were paid on a straight-commission basis. Before reports could be approved and paid for, they went through a long and complicated feedback loop, which reminded me a little too much of the underwriting sausage factory of my loan officer days. Frustrated with the conflicting demands of the various editors and fearful that I might find myself toiling for no paycheck, I quit after receiving my final stipend. Just then the economy hit an historic low and I found myself facing the worst financial crisis of my life.
With his patience, Joseph would probably have seen through the logjam, just as he would have resisted the urge to beat up gratuitously on borrowers. Though his resignation looks otherworldly, it is of practical use to the people most mired in worldly affairs – those who can’t afford to be proud or picky, who must scramble for crumbs, people like the Holy Family on the way to Egypt. It can’t be for nothing that his province includes real-estate sales and work, the worldliest affairs of all.