I have a complicated relationship with money.
For one thing, by the time I met my wife, who was a professional bookkeeper at the time, my finances were in such disarray, she could only take me on as a charity case. And a husband.
She spent decades getting me out of debt — this is not hyperbole, it’s literally true. So as a courtesy to her, out of sheer gratitude that I’m not languishing in a debtor’s prison in some Dickens novel, I try to be careful about money. Paper receipts are carefully deposited in the appropriate tray on her desk in our home. The plastic cards I’m allowed to carry around — well, I understand that the moment I use one, my wife’s phone goes ding! and she checks her bank app. So, basically, yeah: We have no secrets.
In the old days, people didn’t have plastic cards, or apps. It was just a matter of what you had, and what you could stuff in your pockets. Nail clippers, comb, inkpen, cough drops. I grew up in a world of extreme post-Depression materialist paranoia: If you leave home and it’s not in your pocket, you’re destined for shame or — God forbid — inconvenience.
Hence, my years of carrying around a wallet that could rival an NFL offensive lineman at weigh-in time.
I realize there was a Seinfeld episode about a super-fat wallet making George Costanza’s back hurt because he was sitting on a small mountain, but I don’t think that’s funny because I had to pay a chiropractor in Newburyport to tell me that my back was hurting because I was sitting all day every day on the super-fat wallet in my right rear pocket. He used the term scoliosis. Whether my distended wallet caused my curvature of the spine or just called my attention to it, either way, my wallet was thicker than it was wide. Like a Wendy’s triple: vaguely rectangular, but definitely bulbous.
If there is a bloated-pocket addiction, and there’s insurance coverage for the condition, I’m probably eligible.
Thus it was from the beginning. When I was in my early 20’s and started my first fulltime job, I was one of three writers on a media staff. (It was the 70’s, so they didn’t call us “media staff”; they just called us “the writers.”) We writers were all in our 20’s, but of course one of us was the coolest, and it wasn’t me. The coolest one, Dennis, called me “Bulgepockets.” This was because not only was my wallet obese (predating Seinfeld by more than two decades), but I religiously stuffed all my other pants pockets with as much stuff as could possibly be stuffed in there. Handkerchief, notepad, keys (car, home, office), tiny flashlight, mini-notepad, Juicy Fruit, spare change, chapstick — God, don’t let my lips crack for lack of a tube of Blistex! Desperate to be cool like Dennis, I tried hard to leave stuff at home, but it was really hard. The day you leave that Swiss army knife on your dresser, a beautiful woman is absolutely going to bat her eyelashes at you and ask you if you can pry something open for her.
A few years ago, I started seeing a counselor. It wasn’t about my bulgepockets but the bulgepockets couldn’t have helped. Counseling turned out to be extremely valuable for me, and one of the side-effects was that I relaxed somewhat. I was able to start doing more of that thing they call “go with the flow.” One evening I took everything out of my wallet. I looked at each item and calculated, based on my personal history, the odds that I would need that thing the next day. My New England Aquarium membership card could probably stay behind. If my family were planning a trip to the New England Aquarium, the chances were good that I would remember to take my membership card. Those business cards, ragged at the edges from being carried around for years, would probably not be of use at Market Basket. One by one, the treasures I had carried around in my hip pocket for decades went into a little box on my dresser.
For the few items I would need often — driver’s license, credit card, Charlie card for the T — my fashionable high-schooler daughter got me a cool leather cell-phone case with a couple very slender pockets. I gave myself permission to carry a comb in my front right pocket. Otherwise, I was free.
The only remaining question was, Where do I put my cash? Not that my bookkeeper-spouse lets me carry great wads of cash, but a few greenbacks can come in handy when, say, the Google Pay reader at Zumi’s is on the blink.
For one of those birthdays I had back in the 60’s, someone gave me a money clip. I found it in a junk drawer. I folded my meager supply of bills into it, and it slipped sleek and flat into my front left pocket.
Change is difficult. I was irrationally nervous about carrying cash apart from a wallet — as if cash in a money clip were somehow easier to lose than cash in a wallet. But I determined to memorize the money clip’s location — front left pocket, front left pocket — and I could pat my front left pocket anytime I wanted, to feel the money clip through my pants and reaffirm my financial security.
Last week I had special permission to take $200 from the ATM — I had to run a few errands where I would need cash — and it was a little unnerving how thick those ten folded twenties were. It’s a serious responsibility to carry around that much cash, at least in my marriage, so if you crossed my path that afternoon and noticed me patting my leg, that’s why. But I zigzagged from place to place, made my cash purchases uneventfully, and headed home.
Which is when I had my crisis.
I got home, slipped off my jacket, hung it on its mudroom peg, stepped into the kitchen, patted my leg — and the fabric was perfectly flat.
Paranoia comes true.
There are not many ways to break into an instant sweat in New England in November, but this is one of them. I dug my hand into my pocket, hoping against hope to find the money clip there, but no. I raced back to the mudroom and went through my jacket pockets. I went out to the garage with a flashlight and peered under the seats in my car. I retraced my steps, searching the floor. We have a cat who’s been known to steal stuff — but he, for once, looked totally innocent.
My heart was pounding with panic at the idea of telling my wife I had lost my cash. My brain maniacally sorted through excuses. Look! This is what comes of counseling. Relaxing is deadly!
But the money was gone.
I was doomed.
Later, when my wife got home, I was extra-affectionate. She was understandably suspicious. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her.
The rest of the day, I tried to act normal and go about my regular activities. But a threatening cumulonimbus cloud of guilt and dread hung over me.
Finally, the awful day drew to its grim conclusion. I headed to the bedroom to undress for bed. I stood before my dresser, defeated. What used to be an elaborate pocket-emptying ritual only takes a second or two these days. Phone case, check. Pocket comb, check.
But wait. There was something else in there, with the comb.
I had somehow stuck my money clip in the right pocket instead of the left.
Stupidity isn’t easy. But you learn to live with it. You celebrate the little victories — like when you’re stupid but you don’t get caught. And even a stupid person can learn incremental lessons. Like, don’t confess until you absolutely have to.
It would be easy to relapse. To overreact to this single crisis and go back to being Mr. Bulgepockets. But no, I won’t. I am stronger than that. I am a mature adult. I can learn from this mistake, and go forward from here.
I’ll just pat both legs from now on.