This is the first piece in a series profiling the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.
Jerry Ashton lives in New York, but he was out of town six weeks ago when he noticed on the Internet "that there was some kind of a demonstration that was going to be taking place." Okay, so it was all a little vague, but he was unhappy about the current financial reality, and when he got back to town a few days later he showed up at the park, hoping for a chance to take part in a dialogue that went beyond "the usual 'there's nothing we can do about it'" tone. He also hoped for the chance to interview some people for his book.
Ashton, who is 74 and semi-retired, was writing about the recession from the point of a view of a bill collector, a perspective with which he is intimately familiar. Since 1978, he has made a living by collecting debts. For many of those years he even ran his own company, CFO Advisors, which differentiated itself from traditional firms by offering what he described as a more "customer-centric" style. Whereas a traditional firm would bombard debtors with "a series of increasingly demanding letters and phone calls," he approached them as more of a "problem-solver." Often, he said, he would find a solution to the problem that satisfied both parties and spared their relationship.
Standing in the park one day, and later on the phone, Ashton spoke about his connection to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in particular, about how his experiences as a debt collector motivated him to join. In the collection business, he said, "it's like you're cleaning up after the parade and you see the damage -- you see what's been left behind. Right now the parade itself is faltering, and people are beginning to realize that the parade is being led by clowns."
As the CEO of his company, Ashton dealt exclusively with businesses, not individuals. So as the economy collapsed and ordinary people suddenly found themselves adrift in oceans of debt, he didn't have to worry about whether he was contributing to their misery. He didn't have to confront people struggling to pay back their credit card debts, for example, or their auto loans, or their student loans, or their mortgages.
Of course, not everyone in his industry could say the same. "They're in a tough position," Ashton said. "They make their livings by chasing after money, but if the money is created in a fashion that is less than ethical or sometimes unethical or sometimes illegal -- such as the mortgages that are foreclosed upon -- you got a major problem. There are those who owe and those who are owed, and the problem is that those who are owed are the people who cause the biggest damage. It's not the deadbeats. It's not the people who are unable to pay their bill. They want to pay their bills. They're the collateral damage of this great recession."
Ashton was dressed in a red sweater over a crisp collared shirt. He stood near the mouth of the "information tent," a cavernous structure of tarps where he stops to chat with friends whenever he comes down to the park, a trip he makes about three times a week. He's still talking to people for his book, but the nature of the project has changed. "Now it's a survival manual and an activist manual for people who have been affected by the Great Recession," he said.
When he was a bill collector, he explained, people would hire him in a last-ditch effort to spare their relationships with business associates, and he likened those ailing relationships to the ailing economy. "I was like a medic pounding on someone's heart and bringing them back to life one more time before they go to the morgue," he said.
"Now this economy, when you take a look at it, look at the gurney that we're on," he continued. "Who's pounding on our heart? Who's trying to make this thing come back to life?"