Barbara Woods felt freer than she had in years. Her discharge papers had come yesterday, an official release from the lengthy confinement she had suffered as a result of a seemingly innocent act while still in college. Sitting there in her drab uniform, staring out at the morning mist through barred windows, she thought back to the day it had all started, alone with her memories for the moment or two it took for her customer to dig out her credit card. 'It's funny', she mused as she watched the woman draw it through the reader, 'how much power a little bit of plastic can wield.'
While she handed the customer a receipt and thanked her for coming in, a man wearing a warm-up jacket over a hoodie, who looked no older than she had been that fateful day in college, opened the door and froze, mid-step. He was still holding the door open when Barbara's customer sidled past him to leave.
"Excuse me, sir?" she said, stepping from behind the counter. "Are you all right?"
He finished his stride and let the door swing shut behind him. "Sure. I'd heard about this place, but I never imagined..." He raised a hand limply to indicate one of the people serving, a grey-haired man in a sunny yellow jumpsuit. Looking again at Barbara, he said, "How does it feel? Aren't you all embarrassed about being in this place?"
"Actually," she said, scanning the noisy dining room, "I was more embarrassed at my own hearing. This is like being in some kind of live-action role-playing game. I have more of an opportunity to chat with customers here now than I did before they made the place over."
An older couple had put on their coats and was heading towards the door, so Barbara excused herself and went back to the register. The young man waited patiently until they had paid, and then stepped closer.
"So all this -- the new ball-and-chain logo, plastic window bars, the prison uniforms and everything -- is because of the corporate conviction, huh?"
She nodded. "Fremont-Wayfarer may be serving three years for theft, but all Edward Reese, our CEO, sees is a new angle to milk for profit. What he hadn't counted on was how our new union would turn the whole scheme against him."
"Yeah. I heard you folks were using the novelty as a conversation-starter."
"And it's been great. The other day, for instance, a couple came in just to ream the manager over it, and ended up giving us a way to spread the discussion into real prisons. But what I like most is how it turned the FW Diner from a handy place to eat into the meeting hall for a growing community of activists. Speaking of which, is there some cause that gets you fired up?"
"Yeah. Deadbeats. The sort that run up a tab and then skip out on you." He stepped back when another customer reached the counter, a woman toting a laptop case. She paid cash, and then, while she was tucking the change away, he said, "You don't have to answer, but I'm curious about your choice of payment. Most people use plastic anymore."
She laughed privately. "It's the banks that are ruining everything. If you buy something with a credit card, they create money on a balance sheet. So I'm not helping them get even richer. Call it a one-woman consumer revolt."
Barbara nodded in agreement. "I'm right behind you, but for a slightly different reason."
"Yeah. I've just been through a personal bankruptcy. Mostly credit card debt, but it started out with a trip I took back in college. The card was supposed to be a convenience, but it turned out to be more of a trap. When I booked the trip I had a part-time job, so I figured I could easily pay it off. After I got back, though, I needed an MRI, and my insurance balked at covering it, so I went deeper in the hole. From there it was just a matter of compound interest. I couldn't catch up, much less pay it down."
The man slipped his warm-up jacket off and draped it over his arm. "Here I am talking to you like we're old friends, and you don't even know my name. It's John. I'd imagine that being that deep in debt must have felt a lot like living behind bars."