At 6PM on a Monday my doorbell rings. I’m not expecting anyone, so I walk warily to the front door. I could just ignore the repeated ringing, but I am waiting for UPS to deliver a package – my wife’s birthday gift. I don’t want to miss that.
I open the door to find two overweight men dressed in superhero costumes. The taller guy sports a plastic mask with pointy ears and a skin-tight muscle suit attached to a black cape. The shorter one is donning a red body suit and a yellow cape. Above his double chin a thin black mask obscures his eyes.
Batman and Robin stand silently, failing to introduce themselves.
“Aren’t you supposed to say trick-or-treat or something?” I ask, befuddled.
Batman takes a final drag off his cigarette and crushes out the butt using a tall plastic boot. He looks up at me and says, “Your neighbor Bob owes twenty grand on a wedding. He’s not paying up. The wedding company hired us to let you know there’s a criminal living next door.”
I stare at my visitors for a moment before something flashes in my brain — recognition. When I was in Europe last summer I read about this. It’s an old tradition dating back to medieval times. They call it “shaming.” If someone owes money and fails to pay up, the creditor sends out people to alert family, friends, and neighbors about the person’s deadbeat status. They contact your wedding guests and ask them where they should send the bill for the chicken or the fish. They call your parents or your employer and let them know how irresponsible you’ve become. To make things “fun” and add intrigue the collectors often show up in costumes, say a top hat and a tuxedo with long tails.
Batman and Robin stand with their arms crossed in front of their chests, awaiting my response.
“That’s funny,” I say, “because he just bought a new motor home. I figured he was flush.”
Their eyes blink with surprise through the angular holes in their masks.
Robin takes an aggressive step forward and responds to my little lie.
“You know, when people don’t pay their bills everyone suffers.”
I chuckle and say, “Yup, that’s true. Especially the careless creditors and the losers they hire to go out and collect their debts.”
Batman’s back stiffens and his plastic chest juts forward. His hands ball into fists. He grunts something and starts to take a step forward, but then stops. He must know that a physical altercation would not be good for advancing his meager career.
“You know guys,” I continue, “When times are good and people are embarrassed by not being able to pay debts, your little shtick has a chance. But now, with this …”
I wave my hand through the air, panning the blighted neighborhood with its plethora of Price Reduced signs and empty houses.
“…people aren’t embarrassed anymore. It’s the new norm.”
Batman and Robin scrunch their mouths in determination. Batman goes for the old morality play.
“An agreement to pay is an agreement to pay, no matter the situation.”
I ignore his little sermon and say, “You know, once enough people stop paying, you guys will be looking for a new line of work. Maybe you could do security at a comic book convention.”
Robin thrusts his hands onto his hips.
“Hey, we’re just doing our jobs here.”
I put a hand in the air, palm facing the superheroes.
“Okay, you’re right. Maybe I’m being a bit rough. Tell ya’ what. Let me go get my phone. I’ll call Bob and tell him you came by, if you agree to leave after I call. Fair enough?”
Batman and Robin look at each other and then nod their heads.
I walk inside and stroll into the kitchen. I reach down and unclip Rusty’s leash. Rusty is Bob’s dog, who I’m watching while Bob is out job hunting. Rusty is huge and Rusty hates strangers. Hence the need to keep him restrained whenever the doorbell rings.
Rusty races around the corner and tears down the hallway towards the front door. I jog behind the dog, which is barking in pure fury. I reach the front steps just in time to see Batman and Robin racing with all their might down the street, body fat jiggling while their capes fly in the air behind them.