Plastic is Passé

Globe and Mail, 27 September 1999

Credit is no longer a mark of distinction.

Cash means class and escape from the matrix.

"The common man is one who buys goods by cash payment; a gentleman is one to whom I give credit and who pays me every six months with a cheque."

You got it Georg – I was reading Georg Simmer's 1903 Philosophy of Money - only degenerates deal in cash. I'd once proved it at a Toronto hotel: "I'm decreditizing myself, " I told the clerk brightly, handing her ready money. She looked at me as if I'd confessed to heroin rehab and demanded a $100 deposit for the phone.

Credit is the mark of distinction. It implies trust, solidity. In credit transactions you preserve the distance, the reserve so essential to gentility. You build up a reserve (to use the other sense of the term) in relation to the trader. Instead of rootling in pockets and doling out bills, you pay with a wave of the hand. Carelessly scrawling a signature. Swiping plastic with the air of an 18th-century gentleman signalling, "Put it on my account."

Even better, when goods are brought to your house not even a card sullies the transaction: "Viewed from the outside and, as it were, esthetically," says Simmel, "delivery by the businessman has acquired the form of a tribute, of an offering to the powerful that is accepted, at least in individual cases, without a corresponding return."

That very evening two burly guys arrived at my door struggling with a huge box.

"Where do you want it sir?" one said.

"Up there," I said, motioning them up the stairs.

My new bed had arrived and so had I. None of this buying a futon from some patchouli-drenched ex-hippie, trying to stuff it into a friend's van, getting slapped against the wall as it uncoils at the bend in the stairs, reaching the bedroom sweating, back muscles screaming.

"Over there, I think is best. Yes, that will do."

I almost felt lordly. Simmel was so right.

Or was he?

My reverie came to a screeching halt, like the Barry White tunes in Ally McBeal when the character named John runs up against reality. What was I thinking? This wasn't gentility. Any lowlife on the block could order a bed from some furniture warehouse. Any scumbag could not pay a dime for six month’s time. Where's the distinction in that?

"View from the outside and, as it were, esthetically," all I had was a Sears truck at my door. Worse, I thought dismally, I had bought the bed on plastic, not out of choice but because of a blip in my cash flow. Using a credit card these days likely meant you had no money at all, just hope and a line of credit.

Sorry Simmel, I thought, tossing Philosophy of Money across the bed, you’re wrong. Cash is class.

Think about it. We already have the farmer's market, where we cheerfully pay too much for eggs sporting genuine chicken guano. Cash has become bourgeois nostalgia, part of a longing for an artisan culture where we actually dealt face-to-face with the makers of the products.

            And cash means panache. At restaurants, instead of the unseemly post-dessert duel – "Take mine," "No, take mine!" - cash trumps all cards. (Note: It can't be a wad of limp twenties, so obviously from the bank machine, rather a couple of crisp hundreds tucked into the folder - that will do it.) No more fiddling in the dim light like a myopic bookkeepers, trying to put the tip in the right slot and find the correct copy to take.

Cash. Done.

But cash marks more than power and style. It hints at subversion because it frees you from the matrix. When I set up a joint account to transfer funds to my son in another city, I soon realized the monthly statements were telling me what he spent and where. Which bar, which bookstore, which restaurants. I had dates. I had addresses. Soon though (had he guessed?) there was only one cash withdrawal at the beginning of the month and then ... nothing.

Paying with cash is like writing on water: You're part of nobody's marketing profile. You're a nomad, consuming and moving on, invisible, untraceable. Cash puts you in a trench coat and dark glasses; credit puts you in a grey minivan.

So save plastic for the groceries.

Cash is the mark of distinction.