I HAVE A FEAR. My fear is that one day I will come home from work, park my car and walk up to the porch to find all my creditors waiting. There will be Mr. Master Charge and Mr. Bank of America and Mrs. American Express. Off to the right will be Mr. Sears and Mr. Bloomingdale's and Mr. Exxon. Mr. Gulf Oil will be sitting on the rail and Mr. Mortgage will be behind him, picking his teeth with a switchblade.
Mr. Bank will be barring the door and Mr. Student Loan will be there for old time's sake and Mr. Diners Club will be sitting on the step, filing his nails. Mr. Credit Union will be smiling and Mr. American Oil will be staring blankly ahead, flipping a silver dollar into the air.
I will pause at the first step, having known all along that this day would come.
"You're on to me, huh?" I say. They say nothing.
"You've added it all up, huh?" No response.
"You know I've been using my float." At this, all heads nod.
My float is my personal high-wire act. It is a method of paying bills with money I might not have. It is a term I and others have borrowed from the world of high finance when I first heard it used to explain how the travelers' check industry makes it money.
If you think it's by selling the checks for something like a dime apiece, you're wrong. It's by knowing that at any given time some people are walking around with uncashed checks. This means that until these checks are cashed, the company has use of the money. This is their float.
My float is a bit different. My float relies very heavily on an institution called the District of Columbia city government. It can take the city government anywhere from a week to a month to process a check. In the meantime, I make use of that money by sending out other checks. One goes to American Express.
An American Express check can take some time to clear. I don't know whether this is because American Express is slow or because the place you send your checks is in the New York City area -- Newark, in fact. It can take two weeks for a check to go one block in New York. Anyway, with the money from the American Express float, I pay Diners Club.
Diners is in Denver. It takes mail three days to Denver and when it gets there, Diners takes a day to process the check. With this money from the Diners float, I pay my father the money I still owe him. He cashes the check immediately because he knows about my float.
The use of the float makes me very anxious. I feel like I did when I was a kid and lifted some bubble gum from the 5-and-10 on the way to school. I kept expecting the classroom door to open, some cop to lean in and crook a finger at me. It is the same with the float. It is my little horror of the middle class, and I expect that, some day, Hollywood will discover this universal fear and make movies about it: "The Float from Outer Space" or "The Amityville Float."
Back to my float. I inspect the back of checks to see how long they take to clear. The checks written to the bank for cash clear very fast. For this reason, I never cash checks at the bank. I cash checks at the liquor store and I patronize those that are slow in depositing checks.
I know by now that the cleaner is slow, but the supermarket is fast. Magazines are notoriously slow, but subscriptions don't cost that much anyway. The electric company is fast, as is the gas company, and the city government when it comes to parking tickets.
You can always rely on the calendar. Weekends and holidays stop the mail and the banks are closed. Sometimes you can work the float and your payday with such finesse that I amagine one check arriving just as the other is cleared. It is sheer ballet, a true thing of beauty. I think awards ought to be given.
But I worry that the end is in sight. Electronic banking is coming and I read with a shudder about the wonderful world of the future when some store computer would simply withdraw the money from your account right on the spot. The ads make it sound wonderful. Maybe for the stores, but not for us.
The float is the salvation of the little man, and the poltician who defends it could be president some day.After all, with the little man, it's either sink or "float."