On the psychopathology of pecuniary insult

Sleepless and twitchy from fiscal angst, I recently made an appointment to see my shrink. Perhaps you’ve heard of him; he’s Dr. Sigurd Froyd, a senior practitioner for the multinational mental-health conglomerate Strategic Coping Ltd., and he appears regularly on Twin Cities TV news shows as a psychological expert. Maybe you saw him on Halloween, debunking the spirit world while a self-styled “ghost-busting babe” with streaked hair and purple fingernails gave him dirty looks. If it seemed to you that the anchorpersons were more sympathetic to the ghost-buster’s arguments than to Dr. Froyd’s, well, it just goes to show that a low-cut tank top trumps pure science every time.

I’ve been a client of Dr. Froyd’s for 20 years, but I hadn’t seen him in person for about 14 months. He’d moved his office again, from the Fridley strip mall to a converted warehouse in Burnsville. As I entered, I could hear powerful, hydraulically driven tools being operated nearby. The tools went phoot! phweet! zzzzzzziggip! flurrr!—a random pattern of sounds that might as well have been a blues song about Dr. Froyd’s inability to deal with landlords.

Because I am conflicted about consulting a therapist, I like to start my sessions off on a light note and keep them there as long as possible. Dr. Froyd had always seemed to appreciate my jokes, but on this day, when I opened with, “Doc Frawd, Ah cain’t afford yer copay, but I done brung yew a fresh-kilt chicken an’ a sack o’ hick’ry nuts,” he merely glared at me and shoved a box of tissues from his side of the coffee table to mine.

“We ought to talk sometime about your need to make fun of poor Southern hill folk,” he said.

“Shore thang,” I replied. “Let’s git ’er done.”

He heaved a long and ragged sigh, which was punctuated by a tool beyond the wall going churk! churk! greeeeezukh!

“Renovations?” I asked.

“I was told the neighboring space had been rented to a team of tax preparers,” said Dr. Froyd. “Which may be true, but at this time of the year I believe they’re stripping stolen cars in there.” He dragged the tissues back to his side of the table. “Ah, well,” he said. “We’ll all be hillbillies soon enough.”

I gave a tentative nod.

“You know,” he went on. “With the hickory nuts and such.”

“I got that,” I said. “That’s why I’m here: money-related issues.”

“The psychopathology of pecuniary insult.” His tone made me think he had, in happier days, written a learned paper on that topic. “I gather you’d like me to bump up your Zoloft again.”

“Don’t you want to hear about my symptoms?”

Now I got the laugh that my opening joke had failed to elicit. It went on for a very long time, high and whinnying, mingling with an occasional girrrb! and quank! from next door. Eventually he dabbed at his eyes and said, “Let me guess—insomnia and facial tics. Welcome to the brotherhood.” Then his gaze got more glinty and weird than I’d ever seen it before. “This is going to make the Great Depression look like a pothole!” he hissed.

“Dr. Froyd,” I said soothingly, “remember what you’ve always told me about not getting ahead of oneself, trepidation-wise?”

“You don’t understand,” he moaned. “I work for Strategic Coping Ltd., which turns out after all this time to be a subsidiary of the Royal Commerce Bank of Cameroon. Which means, for reasons not entirely clear to me, that all of my retirement monies—23 years’ worth—were invested in mortgage-backed securities. Everything’s gone. And my house was double-mortgaged to raise more money to invest in mortgage-backed securities. As you might say, I’m screwed. Utterly.”

A loud flooozh! came through the wall.

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to sound philosophical. “Some people think we could use a little austerity. Maybe a lot of austerity. Maybe even a sustained slog of it, all the way to a hickory nut–based economy.”

“Fools. Cretins. End of Days-ers. Let them talk to my grandmother if they think forced austerity is good for the soul. Well, she’s dead, but you see my point.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know what I realized the other day? If you say ‘Strategic Coping’ quickly, or you don’t enunciate carefully, it sounds like ‘Strategic Hoping.’ Which is a magniloquent oxymoron. As am I.”

There was silence now from beyond the wall, as if the car-strippers were listening. I pointed this out, sotto voce, but Dr. Froyd said, “Doubtful. They’re probably getting high. I smell it sometimes.” He cocked his head and flared his nostrils; the graying strands of his comb-over were spangled with tiny drops of perspiration. He seemed to be sampling an aroma that escaped me, and it sent him back in time.

“Knollwood Plaza, St. Louis Park, 1962,” he said. “Did you know it?”

There was no need for me to speak. At last, we were getting to the therapy.

“The site of my initiation into the rites of retail,” he said. “The Red Owl grocery store on the east end, Powers department store on the west, and in between the splendors of Walgreen’s, Woolworth’s, and J.C. Penney.

“It was Christmastime. I was 5 years old. My father had gone to Penney’s to buy my mother some jewelry. This was a momentous purchase—the family had very little money then. He had brought me along to ‘help,’ but he soon fell into conversation with a saleslady and I wandered off to peruse a blonde-wood display table covered with earrings. Hundreds of pairs of them, all fastened to heavy white-lacquered cards. I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, a sense of the innumerability of made things. Innumerability and attractiveness—and a corresponding infinitude of desire. Also, a sense of entitlement: Why shouldn’t this store, and indeed this entire plaza, be stocked with merchandise from which my father and I might choose? It seemed meet, right, and salutary, as we said in church.

“I found some earrings I thought my mother would like—green iridescent lozenges with ornate gold clips—and set off to bring them to my father’s attention. Somehow, though, I was distracted, and when we arrived home I slipped my hand into the pocket of my quilted nylon parka and discovered I’d stolen them. My God, the sobbing, the shame—I can’t convey to you how deeply sinful I felt, as a kindergartener, over this purely accidental theft. I thought I deserved a spanking, and to be sent to bed without supper, but everyone, including the store personnel, found my larceny adorable. This only made me feel guiltier. And it gave everything I acquired thereafter, right up to this morning’s Powerball ticket, the icky taint of shoplifted swag.

“Now it looks as though I’m going to get that spanking, figuratively speaking. And I may literally miss some suppers—” He grabbed the tissues and lurched into the coat closet. I could hear him weeping in there, even as the power tools started up again (heek! hork! harrrgle!), and I knew our session was over.

Out in the parking lot, after joyfully noting that my car was intact, I reflected admiringly on Dr. Froyd’s methods. Once again he’d worked his mental-health magic. Once again he’d shown me that no matter how barren I might feel, financially or psychologically, there was always someone who had things much worse. And that’s worth keeping in mind when you’re headed into a depression. Even a non-great one.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson used to buy his Cub Scout uniforms at the Knollwood Plaza Powers store.

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