Let me tell you about the time I met a pet lender in a public van. It’s a story about a public transport ride, but it’s also a story about rich and poor, and the amazing eye-opening effect of travel.
The pet lender was white, well-dressed, fit-looking, perhaps in his mid-40s. He was happy and exceedingly confident, wherein lay his downfall. He owned a company that offered loans so people that can’t afford a pet can get a pet.
It was in a van, but I mentioned that already. And it was in America. Of course.
I was in Vail, Colorado. I did it on the cheap. A crappy apartment far from the glitz and glamour of the centre of town, plus free lift tickets I swindled from the resort. Vail was charming and delightful and really I loved it. But some of the people you met there were as different from at home as the people in any far-flung corner of the world
The story I want to tell comes when we are leaving Vail. We needed to get from the town to the airport and we booked a van called Colorado Mountain Express.
We get in the huge American vehicle and there’s your typical mountain town shuttle van driver – addled and with a dream-catcher hanging rom the rear-view mirror. She natters with us as we drive to our next pick-up.
At some nice-looking condominiums far from where we had stayed, a single man gets on board and engages my companion and me in conversation.
He immediately strikes me as prototypically USA. Perhaps a scion of a great dynasty, or perhaps born outside Belgrade. Either way, his warm greeting, perfect teeth, intense eye contact and open-ness with information tells us we are in the presence of the American Dream .
“I make loans on lots of things.” he tells us. “For example pets,”
“If people want to buy a pure-bred dog, that can cost up to $3000, you know. We make finance available.”
We are incredulous. The mountain landscapes speed past, but for sheer American-ness, everything pales in comparison to hearing about this man’s company and its contribution to the American Economy.
The man reveals, when pressed, that the loans generally have an interest rate of 40 per cent, and maximum three-year terms. But many of them are not repaid.
“Obviously we don’t repossess the dogs in that case,” he says.
Having recently come into possession of a dog, I am quite aware that the main cost of canine acquisition and care comes on the care side. They are not free to run. The fact that people who couldn’t afford dogs would buy dogs strikes me as quite shocking. I put that to the man.
“I know,” he says. “It’s a really bad financial decision.” He seems to show a moment of genuine care for these people. But in retrospect, interest payments on pomeranians, pugs and poodles were funding his powder skiing, so any concern was a mere surface appearance.
The market for pet loans was only part of his business that also loaned for furniture and some complicated scheme with real-estate agents who would get an advance on settlement of homes they had sold.
Somewhere along the way our van-driver pulls over for another passenger to climb on board. She is blonde and immaculately coiffed, emerges from a lodging still more glamorous than the last one and takes the only available seat, next to the pet financier.
“I am tired,” she announces by way of introduction.
“You can lay your head in my lap,” says the pet financier with a smile.
In retrospect, that was it. You can’t say that to someone you’ve just met. It’s wildly inappropriate. So inappropriate that noone acknowledges it and she just moves on to another topic.
Anyway, over the next several hours of van travel, the garrulous pet financier gives up on chatting to the Aussies, and instead focuses his laser-like attention on the supposedly weary ice queen.
We listened intently as they chatted lifestyles of the rich and famous. Names were dropped.
“I’m flying out next week on my buddy’s private jet,” pet financier says. Twice. He is fairly subtle about it though, especially compared to his initial foray. He really does seem to have her rapt attention. They have plenty in common.
I begin to wonder if she perhaps hadn’t heard his initial lap comment. Perhaps I had misheard it? Or perhaps such a statement was de rigueur among the one percent?
Eventually, though, we near our destination. Pet man needs to close the deal.
“So I’m in town here for a few more days,” he says. “Are you?”
“Yes, I am,” she replies.
“it would be fun to catch up.” He pauses, but she’s apparently going to make him say it.
“Can you give me your phone number and we can organise a night to perhaps see each other?”
Literally 60cm away, in the back of this van, my companion and I are holding our breaths. It’s like a Bold and the Beautiful cliff-hanger come to life. What will happen next?
“No, I don’t think that would be appropriate,” she says.
We cheer silently. Hurrah!
“Okay, fine. I understand,” says the pet financier, head held high. He affects a mighty confident tone of voice in the face of crushing public rejection and my respect for him goes straight back up.
We had to get out of the van and carry on with our lives.
There’s no epilogue where we find out what happened to these two characters, whether perhaps she finds him hit by a bus on a street corner a few days later, nurses him back to health and they go on to devote their lives to ending world hunger.
But it is a story that has stuck with me, not just because the rich are lending to the poor to buy dogs they can’t afford, but because of the way travel can open your eyes, and how it is always the people you meet, no matter how normal they seem, that will give you the memories that last.