Every morning I drink coffee with The Unyielding Claw of the Universe. She’s also known as Mrs. Shoffner. For the past couple of years we’ve bought caffeinated beverages at the same Starbucks and chatted as we drank them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I learn about the things she’s learned in her 35 years as a junior high English teacher, and she gives me shit about my caramel frappucino.
This morning I mentioned to her that my ancient car had just destroyed itself in a storm of black smoke and Japanese plastic. I complained about how expensive cars are now and about all my other financial burdens. And I described how in particular my student loan debt was crushing me—a staggering amount that I could never pay off, in return for a degree that hadn’t enabled me to earn the kind of money I’d expected. In fact, I told her that I thought all student loan debt should be forgiven for the good of the country.
Mrs. Shoffner laid her trifocal gaze upon me, and I felt as if I might have just done something bad with a dangling participle. She said, “Young man, did you freely assume this obligation? Was a hooded fellow wielding a red hot iron standing behind you when you signed the loan agreement?”
I smirked at her. “I did, and no, there wasn’t anybody like that behind me.”
“So you agreed to the loan, and then the rapacious lender altered the terms, perhaps increasing the interest to usurious levels. Is that the case?”
“No, but that’s not the point.”
“What then is the point?”
I told myself that she was from another generation and didn’t understand how unfair the current system had become. I resolved to be gentle. “You can’t get anywhere without a college degree these days. That’s just a fact. And college tuition is outrageously expensive. There’s no way to get that degree without borrowing a huge amount of money.”
I gave Mrs. Shoffner a polite smile and waited for her to acknowledge my explanation. She returned my polite smile and waited, offering the impression that I had incompletely conjugated a verb. I toyed with my frappuccino’s straw until my discomfort at last forced me to say something else. “I did the thing I was told to do in order to succeed. I got the education. But the game is rigged. I can’t get a job that pays enough, and now there’s no way to pay off the loan.”
“I see,” she said, and she sipped her black coffee with a double espresso shot. “Who told you to do this thing?”
After blinking twice I said, “Everybody.”
“Then everybody promised to employ you at a sufficient wage to repay your loan. Correct?”
When I frowned at her, she continued, “Or perhaps those who loaned you the money promised to employ you in so lucrative a position?”
“That’s ridiculous! You’re oversimplifying a complex—“
Mrs. Shoffner lifted her arthritic hand in a gracious motion, displaying her palm as if it were the Wall of Troy. I stopped speaking.
“In fact, no one made a binding promise to provide you anything, other than money that you must repay. Perhaps you heeded certain nonspecific advice, but it was you who chose to borrow money, and you invested in an education.”
“It was a bait and switch!” I said.
“Your education has intrinsic worth, but perhaps you fail to value Steinbeck and the Pythagorean Theorem. I myself find Pythagoras as nauseating as a rancid codfish. But you nonetheless made an investment, and you may have invested unwisely. If you purchase a house anticipating it will appreciate in value, and it then does not so appreciate, do you expect the loan to be forgiven?”
I cherished a fleeting image of ramming a cranberry scone up Mrs. Shoffner’s nose. Instead I said, “No, of course not.”
“Then how is this different?” She sat there, straight-backed in her navy blue polka dot dress like Socrates’ cruel maiden aunt.
I didn’t even have to think. “This involves people’s livelihoods. It’s about their jobs. It’s more basic.”
“Then perhaps you should have considered your livelihood before you borrowed this astounding sum. For example, if a man intends to become a poet, he might not choose to borrow $50,000 to finance the endeavor, unless he intends to repay the debt over 200 years.”
I leaned back and sighed. “Fine. Maybe I should have thought about all of that back then. Maybe. But this is where I am now, and I’ll never get out of it.”
Mrs. Shoffner looked around the coffee bar while pursing her rose-pink lips. “Perhaps this establishment is hiring. With a second salary I am sure you could pay off your loan in a few years.”
I gaped at her. With my mouth open that wide I’m sure she could see my tongue, and maybe my tonsils. Maybe even my stomach clenching at the idea of a second job.
“Why not?” Mrs. Shoffner grinned. “That is how I paid for college.”
Instead of answering, I just smiled at the old lady and lifted my cheap plastic cup in a toast. I knew I’d never convince her, so I’d pretend to capitulate and never mention it again.
She touched her cup to mine and said, “I know that you are not convinced, young man, but carry away with you this one idea. Nothing is ever fair, and the game is always rigged. Acknowledge that, and you shall be far more successful.” She winked. “Besides, what else do you have to do with your time? Sit around with vindictive old bitches and drink coffee?”