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Al-Qaeda Ate My Student Loans:
Or, A Conspiracy Theory By Way of F&J's Pizzeria

12.24.2001 | SOCIETY

My college education glossed over vocabulary, so when I received a letter containing the word 'forbearance' from the friendly folks who hold my student loans in their icy talons, I had to look it up. A message from a financial institution is usually like a phone call at 3 AM; the chance of it bringing good news is slim. I had a nightmare worked out; 'forbearance' probably meant 'interest rate twice as high as before'. Visions of broken thumbs danced in my head.

A dictionary search, and a closer inspection of the letter, told me quite the opposite. I would not be required to make any payments until April of next year, for reasons not fully explained. The letter contained a list of scenarios which resulted in a forbearance, but I did not fit into any of these categories, not being in the armed forces or a farmer in a hardship area. Had I inadvertently entered into some Faustian bargain? Would Sidney Greenstreet arrive at my doorstep, wishing to discuss the terms of our 'arrangement'?

Soon after the mysterious letter arrived, my roommate received similar news from the bank he was indebted to. His notice was less ambiguous, and stated that the reason for the forbearance was the sudden absence of the World Trade Center. As residents of New York City, we lived in a federal disaster area, and were thereby entitled to a six-month reprieve. As someone who is only employed part-time, I was glad to be rid of my hefty monthly payments for a while.

But my glee was tempered by the tragedy of the circumstances that brought it about. I wasn't about to start paying up again, in the same way I'm not about to alert a cashier if I'm undercharged for something. Still, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I did not deserve such a gift. I was lucky enough to escape September 11 unharmed, as were all my friends and family. Ground Zero is miles from my house, and though I saw the towers collapse from the nearby waterfront, my neighbors and the neighborhood seem relatively unaffected. Employment has been difficult to come by in Gotham, but it's been difficult to come by all year, even before the two jets took a one-way trip.

To salve my conscience, I thought of reasons why I deserved this gift horse. Hey, I was eighteen when I applied for the loan, and it was the only way I could have afforded to go to college. I had no idea how much money it would be, or how long it would take to pay it off. Never having missed a payment, I was entitled for some time off for good behavior, regardless of the reason.

But no, the reason did matter, considering the reason resulted in over 3,000 deaths. I would have to go deeper. How had that day been a hardship on me personally? How had it changed me?

For one thing, it's put me perpetually on edge, a place I don't like being. Every siren, every plane flying overhead, every loud voice outside my window has disaster potential dragging behind it. A blaring cop car is enough to flip my stomach. Living in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport is now more terrifying than annoying. These feelings are not only due to seeing the towers come down in my backyard, and watching the perpetual replay of panicked pedestrians running from clouds of rubble. I have friends and relatives who have worked at Ground Zero, and they have told me things I wish I could unhear, unknow.

It has changed people I know, people who I thought were fine just the way they were. The day after the attacks, I ran into a friend, a former roommate and, until recently, life-long Bronx resident. He was always a happy, fun loving sort, someone I never saw look the least bit distressed, someone who made it impossible to feel distressed in his presence. I spotted him through the front window of a bar in the East Village, still languishing as part of the Frozen Zone. His eyes were distant, and the beer on his arm dared to be finished. The look on his face defied description, because it was so lost, as if it belonged to someone else and was placed on him when he wasn't looking. He did not bear pain and anger well, but he had nothing else to wear. I had little to say to him that night, because I wasn't sure who I was talking to.

In late October, there was a brawl at Ground Zero between cops and firemen. Mayor Giuliani had proposed reducing the number of firemen involved at the site, and they reacted with understandable anger. On that day, I found myself at the F&J's Pizzeria, waiting for my meal along with a member of New York's Bravest. He'd just gotten back from the protest, and he drummed his fingers on the front counter, eyes still red with the memory of the confrontation, uncomfortable with stopping on any one sight for too long. His theory about why the firefighters were being recalled from the site? They found a bunch of gold and silver in the sub-basements, he said, from some big bank. They carted it away and that's it. They're gonna scale back the rescue mission. That money's all they care about. The bile in his voice was almost visible. His finger drumming got louder through each sentence.

This was a man who had been working 15-hour shifts, six days a week for two months straight, with no end to the long haul in sight. Though I did not ask, law of averages told me that there were probably at least five coworkers of his now dead. He worked a job where grief and mourning usually have to take a back seat to doing the work. If he is like the average American, he is paying exorbitant mortgage rates, and will be for 30 years, just to keep a decent house for his family. If he is like the average American, he is in debt to nine different banks on nine different credit cards, paying the minimum and shuffling payments between them to keep up with the bills and the Joneses. And now he had to think that all his city cared about was some rich man's money, that he had dug through the pulverized bones of friends to help out a bank that would own his cock if he ever dared miss a payment.

So I can live outside the grip of AFSA for now, guilt free until spring, as long as we can extend a similar courtesy to people like that fireman. What if, instead of encouraging people to spend money they don't have, the credit card companies forgave some debt? What if banks forgot about some mortgage payments, or handed out some loan remittances for small businesses? Like most New Yorkers, I have other debts I will never pay. And also like most New Yorkers, I believe I'm owed something, though I doubt I'll ever collect on it.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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