The young couple stood together as they fed the shredder. Gone was the torturous guilt and the suspicion, the fear of answering the phone, the dread that rose at the sight of a stranger on the doorstep. The machine spewed out the last of its now benign plastic contents and whirred into silence. The couple looked at each other and vowed silently that they will stay clean this time.
Even if American Express offers them two months with no service charge and unlimited credit.
This is the downtown office of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a 40-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to healing the overextended, the bill-collector fugitives, the plastic junkies. An 80-year-old man on Social Security charges his way into a $30,000 debt; a young actress besieged by more creditors than casting agents; a woman gambles away her house at Gardena card clubs--counselors finally convinced her that perhaps she should tell her husband about that 30-day eviction notice.
Boxes of tissues sit on each of the 23 counselors' desks, and during a recession with a 7% unemployment rate, Kleenex soaks up a big chunk of the organization's office supply budget. Business at the service, which is actually funded by several major credit card companies, is up 30% from last year--12,000 were counseled at the 11 offices in Los Angeles County last year. In January, 1,500 people came in for the free advice, which includes financial planning tips, debt payment schedules and psychological counselling. "In this country, we don't really understand what credit means," says director Gary Stroth. "People just need to learn how to handle their debts."
Until they do, there's always the shredder.