What Stories They Tell: Credit Card Statements
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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And credit card statements. Credit card statements. They're cryptic, boring pieces of paper that require you to send in payment. Turns out, though, they can be much more telling than you might imagine. What tales do your credit card statements tell about your? Grab your latest credit card statement now. Pick out a particularly telling item and give us a call. (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Also send us e-mail at email@example.com.
Amy Borkowsky wrote a book about the stories that her credit card statements prompted. It's called "Statements." You may know her as the creator of "Amy's Answering Machine," a book about messages from her mom. She joins us today from our bureau in New York City.
Nice to have you on the program.
Ms. AMY BORKOWSKY (Author, "Statements: True Tales of Life, Love, and Credit Card Bills"): Good to be here.
CONAN: Now give us one memorable purchase or maybe one great return that details a part of your life.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Well, there are charges in statements that document whole episodes of my love life. Like, I found a charge for a trip I took to Club Med in Cancun, which made remember a guy I met there. You know, we spent the whole week together. The first day after we get back, he calls me, and then I have a charge, $89 for Victoria's Secret, because, you know, things are moving forward, it looks like. And then a week after that, I see an $89 Victoria's Secret credit because I returned the stuff after the guy dumped me. So--unworn, of course, with the tags still attached.
CONAN: And of course that reminds you of the whole story of the relationship. But in a way, you say that you can to some degree use these as a diary almost.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Yeah. And that's the amazing thing. The way this whole thing came about is I was cleaning my closet and came across boxes with, you know, 12 years of American Express statements, and I realized it was, you know, a diary of literally how I spent my life. You know, I'm looking through the charges, and, like, oh, yeah, that's from when that tall guy took me to that French restaurant. And then, like, wait a second, I paid for that dinner 'cause he was cheap. So all those kinds of stories came back and together, you know, we put a book together from all of it.
CONAN: Even something as mundane as a purchase--well, to buy a ticket to a Tom Jones concert. Again, that Victoria's Secret theme is running through here.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Yeah. You know, it's interesting 'cause Las Vegas has an ad campaign that says what happens there stays there. I discovered that what happens in Las Vegas ends up on your American Express bill. I saw charges at Bally's for a trip I took with some girlfriends--this is, like, 10 years ago. And there were charges for lingerie when I bought panties 'cause we were going to a Tom Jones concert and, you know, that's the tradition, women throw their underwear at Tom Jones. So in "Statements" I tell the story of how I became probably the first woman in history to not only throw her underwear at Tom Jones but to actually attempt to get my panties back.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: 'Cause I did the math, you know. I was just obsessed. I realized, wait a second, women throw conservatively 10 pairs of panties at an average Tom Jones concert. OK, that, I figured out is roughly, like, 4,000 pairs of panties a year. In his whole career, it's a lifetime total of, like, a hundred thousand pairs of panties. And I was dying to know where are those panties now. So the whole panty retrieval adventure came back to me when I saw the charges on my American Express statements.
CONAN: Let me read you another one of your statements: `9-28-'94, membership miles, $25.' This was the story about the dos and don'ts of check diving.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Oh, yeah. You know, one thing I found in looking--you got to be prepared for the good and the bad when you review your credit card statements. I found I look a lot more generous than I am because there's all these group dinners that I paid for, you know, groups of close friends...
Ms. BORKOWSKY: ...and was very generous, very nice, I picked up the tab. What's not on there, all right, is that they all paid me in cash and I got the airline miles.
CONAN: (Laughs) So this is evidence of your--that's how you got to Vegas, is the airline miles that your friends paid for by chipping in cash when you put the meal on your credit card.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Well, I probably could get, like, 10 trips to Vegas now with all the spending. I think that one I actually paid for. There's an America West charge on the statement for that trip to Las Vegas.
And it was also interesting to look back on the holidays. Like, I looked to see what I did every February 14th. And there were way too many Valentine's Days when I was buying my own dinner. And then Valentine's Day, I think, of '96 I had a charge from 1-800-Flowers. And I'm thinking, hey, who was I seeing, you know, that I sent flowers to him? And then I remember I sent flowers to myself to make a guy I was dating jealous. So...
CONAN: (800) 989-8255 if you have great stories to tell revealed by your credit card statements, or e-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's talk with Renee. Renee calling from Nevada City in California.
RENEE (Caller): Hi.
RENEE: Nice to hear your subject matter. It's very funny to me. I was just last week going through my filing cabinet, and I thought, `I don't need these statements from those credit cards from, you know, 18 years ago. And I went through them just--you know, it was just out of curiosity. And I found the receipt for the very first gift I bought my boyfriend at the time who I had just started to see. I had no idea what the nature of the relationship was going to end up at, although I knew I liked him. It was a jean jacket, you know. I was 27 years old. And I thought, God, it's too expensive. Is it nice enough? But I don't want to be too nice; you know, I don't want him to think I'm pushy. You know, here I am, 18 years later, I'm actually in a parking lot to pick up our children from school. We ended up getting married. But it was a total gas. So I went through the rest of my statements--oh, what were, you know--God, we were together then. And I really had this sense about how the longevity of our relationship--I felt kind of old, you know, realizing that we had been together so long. But, you know, it was just a fun explore and...
CONAN: I wonder, Renee, does that jean jacket still fit?
RENEE: It does fit him, as a matter of fact. He's just as handsome as I found him then. You know, I'm madly in love with him; I'm nuts about him just as I was back then. But, you know, it kind of brought to mind that feeling of, you know, I really liked him but I was, you know, kind of insecure. You know, part of the joy of that initial romance is, you know, there's--you don't know. There's the fear you might be rejected. Is it too much? Is it too intense for just so early in the relationship? And we had been going out a couple of months at that point. I knew that I was going to marry him from the moment I met him. He didn't know that. But still it was--you know, I had that, you know, that kind of, like, heart palpitation--oh, I'm going to give him this something that, you know, it's a little serious but it's not, you know, totally serious, it's not a ring. But--and it was really fun to remember that and to have a little bit of that excitement. You know, I have excitement now with him, but, you know, it takes on a different tone when you've been together 18, 20, 30 years, you know?
CONAN: Well, Amy Borkowsky, a jeans jacket might have been a pretty good choice. You had bad luck with watches.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Yeah, I did. Looking through, like, 12 years of statements, I found that there were three different watches that I bought for different guys I was dating. I realize I have to quit doing that. Each time, I figured it out, the guy broke up with me within a month of getting the watch. So...
CONAN: He thought it was a pocket watch retirement kind of a deal.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Exactly. Yes. But--and it wasn't even the big things. I've had bad luck anytime I give a guy anything. I found a $3.75 charge from a restaurant near an old boyfriend's house from when he had a really awful cold. So I called the diner up to surprise him and have them deliver some chicken soup, which turned out to be, like, the kiss of death for the relationship. He calls me up, I'm thinking the guy's going to thank me, but he's, like, totally shell-shocked. Basically, he said he thought it was too nice, all right? That's, like, a $3 cup of chicken soup. But to me, too nice would've been if I sent over, you know, chicken soup and Robitussin, you know. I thought I was playing it cool. You know, I'll just keep it to just the soup. But I learned no watches and no chicken soup. So the next guy I get involved with is going to get socks.
CONAN: Renee, we hope you'll call us back when you give us the line item on the anniversary present.
RENEE: Oh, yeah. All right. Well, thanks very much. Fun conversation.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.
RENEE: All right. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Let's turn now to Janine. Janine is calling us from Ann Arbor.
JANINE (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Janine.
JANINE: Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
JANINE: My story just happened about two weeks ago. I live near Ann Arbor, and there's this awesome hot dog place that we go to that's on the Ann Arbor U of M campus. And my husband just happened to be looking through the credit card bills and he said, `Oh.' He said, `You know, if I didn't know this place and I looked at this credit card statement, I'd be a little bit anxious because the place is called Red Hot Lovers.' So it's a hot dog place, so they get the red hot from there, but he...
CONAN: I see. Yes. Lovers of red hots, rather...
JANINE: I just thought I'd share that.
CONAN: Yeah. You got to make sure that if somebody else is reading the statement that they can decode things like that.
JANINE: Right. Right. It would've been pretty bad if he didn't know about it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
JANINE: You're welcome.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Yeah, sometimes it works the other way, too. I have, you know, friends who are married, and they check the credit card statements to see where their husbands are spending their money. And the businesses are getting smart. Someone told me that I think in Ohio somewhere there's actually a strip club called Johnny's Family Bookstore.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: So it's, like, you know, you see a couple hundred dollars at John--you know, he's out picking up encyclopedias, I guess, you know.
CONAN: Must have been maybe the entire Penguin series, yeah. Let me ask you, one of the things--there were a couple of items in your "Statements" book that suggested toys, one of them in your pursuit of what turns out to be the elusive Easy Bake Oven.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Ah, yes. There was nothing harder for me to come by than an Easy Bake Oven. I went all over. You know, when I was a kid, that was the thing that I wanted that I never got. So, you know, you grow up, I was working in advertising and, you know, supporting myself, and I was able to spring $20 for an Easy Bake Oven. But I ran all over--I guess it was maybe around the holiday season. Everyone was out. There were all the--you know, there was the See It Bake Oven and the Watch It Bake Oven. And eventually, you know, I did find one and I was dating someone at the time, and I made him one of those little miniature cakes there. I was so proud. This was, like, the only thing that I had ever baked and I, like, come and present it, tah-dah! Voila! Here's the home-baked cake. And he's, like, `It looks like a hockey puck.'
CONAN: That relationship--how did that work out?
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Well, I'll tell you, I know in the other segment you were talking about--What is it?--Schadenfreude, joy in the misery of others. This--"Statements" has a lot of Schadenfreude, namely my misery. So...
CONAN: We're talking with Amy Borkowsky. Her book is "Statements: True Tales of Life, Love, and Credit Card Bills." If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. What's on your credit card statement that tells a story? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
One other toy item we have to discuss, Amy, and that was the expenditure for a Hula-Hoop.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Yeah. Let me ask you a question. I kind of like--are we on now?
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Oh, great. I have--yes, that one I'm just going to read you a couple of sentences, how that piece opens. It says, `Back when I was in fifth grade and it was time to pick teams for softball or soccer, I'll admit quite humbly that I was the kid everyone fought over. "You take her," one team captain would scream. "No, you take her," the other captain would yell back. "We got stuck with her last time."'
So the irony of this all is, I was never athletic, but I had and still have a talent for Hula-Hooping. So it was at a time when I was working at an office job every day and had a feeling there had to be something else I was meant to do. So I saw an ad in the newspaper for a new TV show that was looking for offbeat and unusual acts. So this story grows out of the charge for Toys "R" Us for a Hula-Hoop. And I remembered, you know, as a kid I had a talent for that. So I'm standing brushing my teeth, thinking how can I jazz up the Hula-Hooping to make an act outrageous enough to get on TV? So it dawned on me, why not Hula-Hoop and brush my teeth at the same time? So I auditioned for what turned out to be "America's Funniest People" as Amy the amazing toothbrushing Hula-Hooper. And...
CONAN: They didn't think it was Amy the rabid Hula-Hooper?
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Well, yeah, foaming at the mouth. Yeah, right. I was afraid I was going to die of minty freshness when I did it. But I also did a backup act where I Hula-Hooped and talked on the phone, which is what ended up making it into the show. And I did get my 15 nanoseconds of fame on national TV Hula-Hooping.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Daniel. Daniel calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.
DANIEL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
DANIEL: I have an interesting story. I was a dating a girl last year and on the day of her birthday, I raced home from work, on the way stopped at a store and bought her a gift, and then showed up at her house. And it was a happy birthday and everything. We've since broken up, but we've remained good friends. And when her birthday rolled around this year, I knew approximately when it was, but I wasn't exactly sure of the date. So I started digging through my old credit card statements to find out when the day was that I made that purchase last year. And after about a half an hour of digging and two different credit card files, I finally found the purchase that I made and I knew exactly what day her birthday was from that point on.
CONAN: That's interesting. I wonder, Daniel, could you also chart how much money you spent on the gift as the transition happened from prospective lover to friend?
DANIEL: We were pretty ...(unintelligible) at the time, so I didn't spend a whole lot of money on her then. And I probably spent about the same amount this time.
CONAN: All right. Well, there's an honest answer for you, Daniel. Thanks very much.
DANIEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's get Adam on the line. And Adam is calling us--Adam from Portland, Oregon.
ADAM (Caller): Yeah, indeed. Mine was a little bit of an opposite. It wasn't what I bought, it's what I didn't buy. And, you know, everybody has the identity theft things happen, but in my case it was essentially I had all these interesting names of things I supposedly purchased, and I started calling around to figure out what it was. And it turned out to be a whole bunch of pornographic Web sites and related services. And it was my first credit card, I was 17 years old, and I had the credit card with my grandmother, of all people, who signed on it. And so it was very embarrassing and very uncomfortable trying to explain to her what the stuff was and that it wasn't mine. And we got it all worked out, and it turned out somebody had taken the number and had used it. So I just got a new card and everything worked out. And what reminded me of all this is I was going through some old papers and found all that and all the paperwork we had typed up on that very recently. And so I went through that recently and thought, `Oh, my gosh, I'd forgotten all about this.' So many years ago. And so that was kind of odd sitting there with my grandmother and trying to explain to her what these things were when it said things like Fichi Enterprises(ph) and so forth.
CONAN: Yeah. It would've been easier if it had been John's Family Bookstore.
ADAM: Yeah, right. Well, ironically, that's very ironic 'cause I went--I always loved bookstores and I went to a bookstore years ago, and it turned out that that's what they did in the basement and I didn't know that. And they told me it was a $5 cover charge to come in. So I gave them my credit card and I went in and I legitimately bought a normal book because that's what I was there to do, and then later on somebody said to me--it was another book collector--`Oh, didn't you know? That bookstore, that's really a place for the politicians and the local people who want to look good can go down in the basement and go to the porno store.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
ADAM: And the guy looked at me very strangely the whole time I was in there. And I guess he probably didn't think I was really there for that. So that was another one of those little things. But that time I intended to buy the book.
CONAN: Adam, thanks very much. We appreciate it.
ADAM: Thank you. All right, bye-bye.
CONAN: And, Amy Borkowsky, thank you so much for joining us and for prompting this discussion with our listeners, all of whom have brought things that turned out to be pretty interesting.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Thank you so much. The book is called "Statements."
CONAN: "True Tales of Life, Love, and Credit Card Bills." Amy Borkowsky joined us from our bureau in New York. Again, thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. BORKOWSKY: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow it's "Science Friday," and Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you Monday. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.