Michael McVay created American Summit in 1997. The company quickly moved from his garage to a number of well-appointed office buildings. By 2003, it was the seventh-largest IMC in Minnesota. Like the others, it specialized in nonconventional mortgages, designed for people who would be rejected by most banks because of insufficient capital, low credit, or a spotty employment record. Nonconventional is another name for subprime. “They’ll find money for people in bankruptcy,” Forster wrote. “Or they’ll sell to customers like the one [American Summit’s director of marketing] described as hiding from the repo man, waiting for the sheriff to serve him foreclosure papers on his home, and up to his neck in credit card debt.” The question about bankruptcy that I asked each person I called was not, as I’d thought, an attempt to suss out a warning sign, but an enticement. I was checking not for a red light, but a green.
Hundreds of other IMCs behaved the same way. What American Summit did that most didn’t—what allowed its bosses to claim they could “turnkey an office and be profitable within eighteen days”—was use “aggressive marketing techniques.” That is, telemarketers.
For my cohort—white, middle class, liminal, too young to be Gen X, too old to feel millennial, post–cold war but pre-Google—it’s difficult to believe that for most, the ’90s were a time of quiet desperation and slow violence. We came of age during the glancingly brief end of history, raised to believe that our futures were limitless and that our nation’s narrative—at least the one it told its kids—was trending forever up. The reality is difficult to believe even for me, who as a kid spent my weeknights tallying the nation’s debt, on the phone with its debtors.