THEFT! INTRIGUE! MYSTERY!

In which our hero finds himself perplexed

Hello friends--

Yesterday, after leaving dinner with a friend, I decided to check my messages. What a phrase: check my messages, like something out of a Nora Ephron script. But there were messages to check. I had seen a movie with my friend before dinner, and there had accumulated in the span of a couple hours, counting dinner, a small flurry of digital correspondence. Tweets, DMs, emails, texts, and a voicemail. It was the voicemail that concerned me the most because it was from an unmarked number. Anyway, I called it back, and discovered that there had been some fraudulent activity on my credit card. 

The walk light switched to the hand, and I waited there in the evening heat. It seemed a wholly unfair kind of warmth. There had been rain on and off all day. The clouds were heavy and gray. There was a breeze. I could smell more rain on the horizon. I was proximal to a construction site where someone is building a bowling alley or a set of condos or a set of condos with a bowling alley on the first floor. The clouds were architectural and moody, like in a J. M. W. Turner painting, except these clouds were remarkable for their lack of color. There was a patina of colorlessness. I couldn’t hear thunder which was a relief. There’s a strip of metal next to the fire station that rebounds like gunfire when cars rush over it. Clack clack. I listened to the message twice. I opened my banking app, checked things out. 

There were two or three charges at stores in Nashville. Walgreens, Krogers, FedEx. I laughed because I hadn’t paid off my credit card balance yet, and the charges were declined. I said, Joke’s on you, I’m poor too. The light switched, and I crossed the street, trying to make a plan. There was a number I was to call back. So I did, but while I waited for someone to pick up, I Googled the number, and found that some people had reported it as a scam number. So I freaked out and hung up in the face of the poor person who answered.

I tried to cancel the charges, but since they had been declined, there was no way to do so. I tried to report the charges, but there was no way to do that without a charge having gone through. I tried to report the FedEx charge, which was a refund of an authorization, but because this was money given to me, I couldn’t report it either. I searched my bank’s website, but there seemed to be only one apparatus with which to report fraudulent activity, and I had exhausted it. I decided to call the bank’s helpline number. It took me about another thirty minutes to actually track this number down--it’s hidden deep down inside of a menu, for security reasons I guess, with the advent of spoofing, when the caller ID indicates that a call is coming from a reputable place but it’s really a scam. There are so many ways to accidentally give yourself away. We trust so easily. 

I discovered that there was nothing to do except cancel the card, which was fine by me since the card was technically expired. I was supposed to have received a card in early July to replace it, but it never arrived. My mail has been...hectic, lately. I canceled my credit card. And I almost cancelled my debit card too, for good measure, but then I realized I didn’t have any money I could use in the ten days it takes for a new card to be pressed and sent to me. So I went to the Co-Op down the street to withdraw a small chunk of cash. But the ATM was out of order there, so I had to go back up the street to my house and then cross to the other side to go to the bank where there was a 24hr ATM. I withdrew the money and cancelled the card as I was crossing back to my house. 

I thought about the person who stole my card info, and tried to think about how they had gotten it, but then I decided that I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. My identity is a stream of digital information slipping into various channels. All of the important information about me exists in a set of databases that have been indexed and scanned, indexed and scanned. My banking info a sequence of mysterious asterisks that get filled in when I let my phone scan my face. In this light, my life resembles less a Nora Ephron movie and more a Philip K. Dick story. We’re all just digital ether firing into the void. 

But to comfort myself, I tried to imagine a scraggly, tired person wandering into Walgreens with information not their own, trying to buy food, trying to buy juice, or booze, trying to comfort themselves. And in this way, we were the same, two people trying to get by. I come from a long line of scammers, from a neighborhood of scammers. People putting their children’s names on utilities because someone in their family had ruined their credit by stealing their name. People using their cousin’s kids as tax dependents. People selling their food stamps. People lying about who lived in their house to get more government benefits. There was a time when I was deeply uncomfortable about all of the scams and all of the lying. There was a time when I was ashamed of it more than anything else because it signified to me a lack of morality and by morality, I think I mostly meant money. That’s a crime, I said to my aunt once when she tried to use my cousin’s name for cable. That’s fraud. I was maybe twelve at the time. Stupid and arrogant. I couldn’t see it then, that people get by with what they can. I was also fearful of consequences. The Law was what we called everything from the government to police to the postal service. We’d say That’s against The Law, meaning of course that something was illegal, but also that The Law had a force and you were moving against it, like moving against a powerful mobster. People from my neighborhood used to say You against me. Meaning many things, but also, you are not my friend, you are my enemy, you are plotting, you are evil, how could you do this to me, why are you attacking me? All that wrapped up in You Against Me. I scanned the expenses on the card again. Tried to imagine who they were, down in Nashville, if they even were in Nashville. 

That’s the thing about the world today, I guess. The computer might say Nashville, but it could just as well have been anywhere else. It could have been Maine or Oregon or California or Canada or literally anywhere. Location is just a comfort we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the vast roiling space of the digital. The scale of the digital is utterly inhuman. Last night, I created a series of human fictions to make myself feel better about the fact that I had been stolen from. Or nearly stolen from, which was the most that my banking app would allow me to claim. Someone had almost stolen over $100 from me. I tried to imagine what this imaginary person bought. What they tried to do at a FedEx--were they trying to send me something? A message, perhaps? 

I sent a secure message to the bank using the banking site’s messaging service. For a while, I considered that this banking website might itself be a cheap storefront operation. I considered that the money I thought I had might also not be real. I withdrew money from the ATM, yes, but what if I was just using someone else’s card too. What if that’s all we’re ever doing. Lying to ourselves as we take and steal, take and steal. I told myself that I would sleep on it. 

The bank sent me a message this morning. It contained detailed information about how to do what I had already done: cancel, report, or try to report. He said that he couldn’t help me with anything else as there had technically not been a theft. Have a wonderful day, the message said. The message read like it had been written by an algorithm. It had a weird, uncanny vibe about it. More digital transmissions. 

Oh well, I thought. At least I did what I was supposed to do.

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