A Payday Loan

By Tom Word

Arnie Biggs ran a three-chair barbershop in our little town in the 1950’s but that’s not how he made his money. Like many of his trade, Arnie was a payday lender and a paper shaver. Arnie’s little shop on the town square looked out on the courthouse, the post office, the drummer hotel next door, and the hardware store that sat on the four sides of the square. In the center of the square hung the town’s lone traffic light at the intersection of Main Street (east-west) and Franklin Street (north-south). Main Street was also Route 11, The Robert E. Lee Highway, the main route through the mountain counties and the Valley of Virginia to Bristol. North Franklin Street was also Route 460, the main connector to West Virginia at Bluefield.
Arnie’s credit-control system was simple and foolproof. A first-time borrower could get $1 unsecured, with a payback on payday of $2. After that Arnie limited his loans to the borrower to what he had made in interest from him. (After two $1 payday loans, he’d be $2 ahead, and the borrower’s credit limit would go up to $2. The worst that could happen under Arnie’s system, after the first loan, was break even.)
That was for unsecured loans. Arnie also made secured ones. The typical collateral was a spare tire and its rim, rolled into the little back room where Arnie kept his supplies of talcum powder, clean towels, etc. Sometimes a pocket watch or a shotgun would be offered up as collateral. Arnie had a pawnbroker’s eye for collateral values.
Paper shaving was for borrowers needing larger loans, say to plant a crop or buy feeder calves. Arnie would go to one of the town’s two banks and co-sign the borrower’s note, for an immediate fee of 10% to 40%. To secure his exposure on paper shaving, Arnie usually got a second deed of trust on the borrower’s farm or a chattel mortgage on the calves.
Arnie Biggs’ hobby was bird-dog field trials. On his little farm just outside town where he lived with his wife Bertha, he kept a kennel, usually occupied by a couple of well-bred pointer brood bitches. A five-acre puppy lot held their offspring until sold or sent off for a spell running free on more rural farms.
Arnie’s deal with farmers for boarding out puppies was this. He’d deliver two weanling pups to the farmer, usually somewhere between November and February; the farmer would feed them and let them run loose with his beagles or foxhounds until the following fall. Then, with his crops in, he’d start to work the pups on quail and grouse, both or which were then plentiful in the vicinity. Arnie would get reports on their progress from the farmers as they came in for haircuts. At a year or so old, Arnie would give the farmer his choice of the two—always the farmer would want the closer hunter. Sometimes Arnie would tell the farmer to keep both pups (if neither ran big). The farmer would usually sell the pup he kept to a bird hunter from Roanoke or beyond—Arnie discouraged sales to locals and steered distant customers to the farmers who boarded his pups. Arnie’s shop was known far and wide as the place to start when you were looking to buy a pointer gun dog.
In addition to the two brood bitches, Arnie usually had a derby (two year old) or two at his farm. These he worked himself and took to weekend trials around western Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
Among the farmers Arnie farmed out pups with was Willie Rakes of neighboring Floyd County. In those days Floyd held many quail and grouse. Buckwheat was grown there, and quail loved it. Laurel, rhododendron, and white pines covered the mountains and hollows of hilly Floyd, making havens for grouse and hiding places for stills (despite prohibition’s repeal, moonshine whiskey making was still a key local industry).
Willie had a teen-aged son named Caleb, who loved bird-dog pups. As a small boy he’d socialize and walked several pups delivered to his dad by Arnie, and now he was engrossed with training. When Arnie paid a visit to the Rakes’ farm to get his pup from the pair delivered as weanlings, he was amazed at the polish Caleb had put on the yearlings. Both seemed to Arnie to have field-trialing quality. When Arnie asked Caleb and Willie which they wanted to keep, Caleb’s face fell. Caleb wanted to keep both, Arnie knew. “How about you keep both for a while. I’ll pay board on one of them. Caleb will hunt them and get them started toward steady to shot (Arnie had bought Caleb a subscription to the American Field for Christmas the year before, so Caleb knew what they meant). We’ll take them to some trials in the spring.” This pleased Willie and Caleb as an income proposition and kept the ownership fluid, to Arnie's liking.
Through the winter, Arnie came to Willie’s farm on his day off (Wednesday) to hunt the pups. Arnie was amazed at what Caleb was accomplishing with them. Caleb had named them Mutt and Jeff. Arnie one week thought Mutt the better, next week Jeff. As spring approached Arnie urged Caleb to work on their range, handling from one of Willie’s team of draft horses.
When in March the first weekend trial came up at Bristol, Arnie picked up Caleb, Mutt, and Jeff on Thursday evening in his ’40 Ford coupe. With the dogs in the trunk, Arnie drove west on Route 11 through Radford, Pulaski, Wytheville, Marion, and Abington. At midnight they reached Bristol and checked into the drummer hotel where Arnie had reserved a room, first taking Mutt and Jeff to the trial grounds (a dairy farm) and chaining them in a hay barn. At dawn they were back, and Arnie rented them horses for the day from the trial’s wrangler, an itinerant pinhooker at county livestock auctions across western Virginia and east Tennessee. The mounts he had at the trial grounds were motley, most soon bound for the killer (it was before the day of the Tennessee Walker in field trialing).
On the way Arnie and Caleb had debated who should handle and who scout. Arnie insisted he should handle, and Caleb acquiesced, but five minutes into Mutt’s heat, Arnie realized the dog would only handle to his trainer’s voice, and so the roles were reversed. Jeff placed first, Mutt second, in the amateur puppy stake, but the small gallery was evenly split on whether it should have been the other way round. The handsome happy youngsters, white with liver heads and one body spot each (Mutt on his left side, Jeff on his right) were the talk of the trial. Arnie had entered them both as jointly owned by Caleb and himself since the split had not been settled. Arnie intended to end up owning both.
On the drive home, Arnie pressed Caleb to choose which of the dogs would be his and his dad’s. “You pick,” Caleb said, and so Arnie picked Mutt—and immediately regretted it.
Through the spring Arnie took Caleb, Mutt, and Jeff to trials around the Shanendoah Valley, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The pups continued to improve, and one or both won or placed every weekend in puppy or derby stakes or both. Caleb’s skill as a handler improved each week.
Through the summer Caleb was mostly occupied with farm work and whiskey making, but still spent time with Mutt and Jeff in the cool of the morning and evening. When the fall trialing season approached, Arnie visited the farm to talk with Caleb about the trials they would attend with Mutt and Jeff. Caleb had already studied the fixtures column of the Field and knew which trials Arnie would choose from. They agreed on a trial for each weekend in September and October. When November arrived and with it hunting season, Mutt and Jeff had scored four placements each.
Arnie came in November and December to hunt quail and grouse with Caleb around Floyd County. They hunted Mutt and Jeff one at a time for quail and grouse, often both species at once. Caleb had both dogs reliably steady to wing and shot, even when game fell before them. Arnie grew more and more intent on owning both. But when he suggested buying Jeff, Caleb grew silent. He was not about to sell his dog.
Christmas week Caleb showed up at Arnie’s barber shop. It was a surprise visit, for Caleb’s hair was cut by his mother. He came in with cap in hand and asked if he could speak privately with Arnie. Arnie finished with his customer, as Caleb looked at the calendars on the wall—Vargus Girls and pointers—then at the well-worn stack of comic books, Superman and Batman mostly with a few Spiderman.
With the customer talc-dusted and thanked, Arnie took Caleb into the backroom, filled to capacity with collateral spare tires--Arnie’s pay-day lending spiked at Christmas.
“What can I do for you, son?” Arnie asked.
“Mr. Arnie, I need to borrow $300. I’ll pay you back by the end of January.”
Arnie saw his chance. For an instant he wondered what Caleb needed the $300 for—a new still worm for his father he speculated-- there’d been a report of a still cut by revenuers in the neighborhood of the Rakes farm, but no one had been caught at the still.
“What have you got to offer as collateral, son?” Arnie asked,
“All I got to offer is Jeff,” Caleb said. That was music to Arnie’s ears.
“Sure, son. The payback will be $400,” Arnie said, afraid that if he gave his usual payday rate of 100%, Caleb might try to borrow elsewhere.
In minutes Caleb signed a chattel mortgage and was gone with his $300.
Arnie heard no more from Caleb for a while. When he phoned the Rakes farm to line up a hunt, Willie said Caleb was away but Arnie was welcome to come and hunt alone or with a friend (Arnie had Mutt at his kennel now).
Late in January Arnie got a phone call from a fellow trialer in Alabama.
“Congratulations, Arnie!”
“Congratulations on what, and who is this?” . . ..
“This is Bud Green, and congratulations on that pup you raised—Jeff, can’t remember his registered name—winning the National Derby Championship.”
Arnie was speechless.
So Caleb had borrowed the $300 to go to the National Derby Championship with Jeff . . . Arnie couldn’t believe the boy’s initiative. With expenses and the entry fee, the purse would barely give him enough to pay back the $400 loan. But when Caleb arrived with the roll of bills to pay off the loan, Arnie knew he’d misread Caleb. When he asked about Jeff, Caleb said, “I don’t own him any more, Mr. Arnie. Sold him at the trial to a man from Georgia—he offered me a job too, and I’m moving there next week to work on his plantation. By the way, if you want to sell Mutt, my new boss will buy him for what he paid me for Jeff—I told him Mutt was a better dog.”