My one previous firsthand experience with insurance of any kind was the LSD-induced delusion that I could fake my own death and cash in on a travel insurance policy my parents bought me for my last trip to Peru. Now, in order to drive a car, I would have to deal with insurance companies in a way that was decidedly less cosmic. I would have to actually purchase real and actual car insurance for myself personally. I had long dreaded this and used it as a reason not to venture beyond New York City and my car-free existence there for almost a decade.
My parents are always informing me of things I had not thought to worry about, when they are not reassuring me about all the things I came up with to worry about on my own. So I was not surprised when my dad called me up and reminded me that while I was getting car insurance, it was very important that I get an umbrella policy. An umbrella policy covered you for up to a million dollars, whereas with regular car insurance you could only be covered for up to a hundred thousand dollars. If you were in a car accident and the other party sued you for more than you were covered for, then you were screwed.
“This is such bullshit,” I said, “the way corporations are capitalizing on and creating people’s fear of one another. I just cannot abide this. I do not choose to live in fear of the worst outcome, while paying for the privilege of oppressing myself in my own mind.”
My dad, in addition to be being both a great worrier and reassurer of worriers, is also very understanding. “I understand you have your opinions of the way things work, Emily, and I understand you have your ideals and your own way of doing things, I really do. But there is a reality here.”
“There is a reality here” is one of my least favorite phrases. I just do not really believe there is a reality here, or anywhere.
“Is there?” I ranted. “IS THERE A REALITY HERE? OR IS WHAT APPEARS TO BE REALITY ACTUALLY A VAST HEGEMONY IN WHICH CORPORATIONS PROFIT FROM PEOPLE’S FEAR OF DEATH AND ONE ANOTHER, AND IS THAT NOT THE WORST POSSIBLE MOST TRULY MORALLY CORRUPT THING? AND IF I BUY THE INSURANCE AREN’T I BUYING INTO THE FEAR? AREN’T I JUST PAYING THEM TO TERRORIZE ME AND IS THIS NOT THE TRUE MEANING OF TERRORISM, NOT THE IMAGINED BOMBINGS BUT THE SLOW IMPRISONMENT OF EACH PERSON IN A WEB OF NUMBING FEAR OF THE INEVITABLE AND PROFIT THEREUPON?”
“Look, Emily, you do what you want. I’m telling you what my advice is. You asked for my advice, and I’m giving it to you. My advice is to get an umbrella policy. Because God forbid you get in an accident and someone else sues you, they can garnish your wages, Emily! They can garnish your wages for the rest of your life!”
This gave me pause. Didn’t garnish mean, “put a little sprig of parsley or some other herb upon”?
“But I don’t have any money and I barely make any money, so what exact wages are they going to garnish?”
“Like if one day you publish a book and it makes money, they could take that money,” said my dad.
What a nice dad, still believing I could be successful and trying to get me to insure my (unlikely) hypothetical future success against my (more likely) hypothetical future bad driving. This was all making me very emotional. I was now starting to feel an amalgamated anxiety about the hypothetical car accident and the question of my unpublished books. In addition to that I was getting a lump in my throat because my dad was so nice he didn’t say, “What the fuck are you doing with your life? Go to law school!” but rather spoke as if one day I could make it, or make any money at all, let alone entrée-sized money that could be garnished.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said.
So I got one. It turned out that getting an umbrella policy actually lowered my premium somehow. The moment of satisfaction I felt about my lowered premium only caused me more rage. First these motherfuckers get you to pay them to make you afraid of things that will probably never happen, and then they encourage you to feel an almost quasi-sexual thrill about saving money on the money they shouldn’t be able to charge you in the first place, and this is just fucking perfect, because in America sex has always been trumped by capitalism. And of course all of this had to do with cars and death, the other two great American specialties. I was literally buying into everything I was against–namely oil consumption and the fear of death.
Not to mention the paperwork. The umbrella policy involved a separate contract with a separate and subsidiary insurance company, with separate phone queues and separate hold times. What a terrible, terrible idea this had been. I never, ever should have left New York. The insurance part of it was a hundred times worse than I imagined. I missed my family, my friends, my Metrocard. No mountain or river or moderate climate or change of scenery or vague pursuit of personal legend or whatever the hell I was doing was worth this degree of entanglement with corporate bureaucracy.
For some reason, in order to get an umbrella policy, you first needed to get renter’s insurance. For years, I had intended to get renter’s insurance, but never gotten it. The words “renter’s insurance” sat at the bottom of every un-done to-do list I had made and ignored. Ironically, now that I had vacated the apartment I’d lived in for almost eight years, I would finally have renter’s insurance, and if the whole place went up in flames, I would be remunerated.
Already the insurance was multiplying in the dark places, like a fungus. I was thinking about all my stuff, all the things I’d wanted to leave behind, all the ballast of my life from which I was trying to cut free. I’d been trying to lighten the existential load, but the insurance was lassoing me to it again. If I’d really meant to cut free I would have sold it all off or given it away, but I am very fond of my stuff. One day I’d either return to my old home or make a new one, and I wanted my stuff in it. Now, picturing it charred or shattered made me terribly sad. I felt like I’d abandoned my stuff, like it was calling to me, “Emily, Emily,” said my beloved framed photographs, “come straighten us on the walls! Come dust our top edges!” “Emily, Emily,” said my pretty glassware. “Come drink cocktails from our delicate forms!” “Emily, Emily,” said my books. “Why have you left us here with these strangers?” The weight of the objects I owned was doubled by insurance, and its promise of owning it all not once, but twice.
I once read about an artist who had used a specially-designed machine to systematically grind every single one of his possessions into a fine uniform powder. I was intrigued by this project. The article cleverly sent the reporter along with the artist on the day he ground up his very last possession. The artist switched off the special machine, turned his back on the pile of dust, and then took the reporter to the Gap to buy some khakis.
After a series of phone calls and hold times and wait times and shouting commands into the voice-activated phone system with increasing rage I was pre-screened for the required renter’s insurance for my car insurance umbrella policy. During this nomadic and unformed period in my life, in my fragile and uncertain mental state, the pre-screening itself was actually quite emotionally harrowing.
“What is your current address?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t have one. I gave up the one I had and I don’t have another one yet.”
“Well, where is your primary domicile?”
“My primary domicile is the currently the car.”
“Please supply the address of either your previous or next domicile.”
“So I need to insure the place I am not renting in order to insure the car I am actually living in?”
“That is correct, ma’am.”
I was feeling very put-upon by all of this, but forced myself to do it. I had managed somehow to have my New Yorker subscription follow me all summer long, by re-routing it every few weeks to the places I passed through. I hadn’t missed a single issue. I told myself that if I was capable of that feat I could get through this phone interview.
“This policy will also give you $300,000 liability insurance.”
“Like if someone comes to your house and hurts themselves, and they sue you, you will be covered for up to $300,000.”
“Oh no, no, no,” I said. “I don’t want that. Can you remove it from my policy, please?”
“No, ma’am, we cannot give you the liability policy on the car unless you are carrying liability on your home.”
“But I just told you, I have no home. The car is the home.”
“You can apply this liability insurance to your permanent address should you come to have one at any point in the future.”
“I really don’t want to make any preparations whatsoever for someone to be so gravely injured in my home that they would sue me and require $300,000 compensation. I think that’s a bad foot on which to start off a dinner party, don’t you?”
“But now you have the peace of mind of knowing that if someone is injured in your home and sues you, you are covered for up to $300,000.”
“But this is what I’m saying, that that actually detracts from my peace of mind. I have never once before worried that someone would sue me over an injury they incurred in my home. You have put a bad thought in my head. What if having liability insurance somehow alters the universe in such a way that people start getting injured in my home? My hypothetical home? What if people start suing me because I have insurance? I want to have no insurance whatsoever on the possibility that I will so gravely injure a guest or loved one. I want no back-up plan for this disaster. I want to fly blind on this one. Do you see? Do you understand? This is very bad energy. Can you please, please remove the liability insurance from my policy?”
“Ma’am, it is my goal to provide you with the best possible service today but I can’t do that.”
“Can you just pretend to remove it from my policy and tell me that you’re doing it even if you’re not?”
“No, Ms. Ween-ston, I cannot.”
“I’m apologize, Ms. Wine-stine.”
“Wein-steen. Nevermind. Next question.”
“This insurance covers theft, fire and acts of God. It does not cover earthquakes or floods. Would you like to add earthquake and flood coverage for $15?”
“$15 a year or a month?”
“Per year, ma’am.”
“Fine.” Seemed prudent, earthquake-prone region and all, climate-change-causing-increasing-meterological-upheaval and all. But wouldn’t my damaged family photographs be the least of my worries if the Big One hit? Wouldn’t I just be glad to be alive and probably finally see the true truth of everything which is that material possessions don’t matter? But I was tired of resisting and tired of deciding. Maybe the Big One would hit, and if I survived, I would somehow unearth the email with the policy number, submit my claim and get a check for a few grand I could then blow exploring a new and different earthquake-prone region of the world. Seemed a fine gamble to take for $15 per annum.
There next came a series of questions clearly designed to see if I was at a big risk for a break-in or stalker.
“Have you ever been an elected official? Have you ever served on a board of directors? Have you ever been a professional athlete? Have you ever been a public persona in any other capacity?”
“No, I am completely unknown and not very important.”
Strangely, the insurance people did not inquire about crazy ex-boyfriends, which I thought was an oversight on their part, and I did not volunteer any information of the kind.
“Do you keep firearms in your home?”
“No, I am really afraid of guns.”
“Do you own more than five furs?”
I thought of my furs. For the last many winters I have been wearing a hooded sheepskin coat that once belonged to my grandmother and then to my mother. It weighs about ten pounds and is so warm and heavy that I don’t have to wear a sweater underneath it. I wear t-shirts and then the giant sheepskin coat. It has a strange blue stain on the back, and the fur is rubbing off the cuffs. Last winter it tore under the arm, and though it’s now drafty, the coat still doubles as an effective sleeping bag. Then there is the white alpaca fur hat I bought at an outdoor market in Peru, the very first day I was there. We were still adjusting to the altitude and I was dizzy. I didn’t know what exactly to say about my furs.
“Do you own more than $100,000 worth of jewelry?”
I thought of all my married friends, and their unique and individualized insured diamond engagement rings, and their tastefully diamond-studded wedding bands, and how their unique and individualized husbands had not only selected and paid for these items but insured them as well, with all of the phone calls and forms this might have entailed, and I marveled anew at the depth of their devotion and commitment and the way they had rendered these emotions in jewelry so expensive it required insurance.
I thought of my own jewelry. Lately I had been exclusively buying things made of entangled chains.
I thought of my lost gold leather wristcuff. My friend Megan had made it for me and specially sized it to fit my thin wrist, which is the same size as her thin wrist. She had signed it inside in black ink, two tiny initials in her unmistakeable handwriting. It went with everything. I wore it constantly. It turned dresses into outfits. It turned t-shirts into outfits. It turned bikinis into outfits. Once I had thought it was lost but it had been squished into the pocket of jacket and washed several times. Then it was lost again. Having found it before, I refused to believe I couldn’t find it again, and then suddenly I had a very clear memory of a day on which I had put it on but never taken it off, and realized it had fallen from my wrist somewhere and was gone.
I didn’t want money. I wanted the things I had lost.
“Can I help you with anything else, today, Ms. Wine-stine?” asked the telephone representative, who was being monitored for quality assurance, about whom I would soon be emailed a questionnaire inquiring whether or not my needs had been met while she informed me that I had no choice but to carry $300,000 liability insurance on my home if I wanted to carry $1,000,000 umbrella insurance against all the horrible and possibly fatal mistakes I could make.
Yes, I wanted to say! You CAN help me! You can insure me for EVERYTHING!
Can you insure me against broken hearts? Unfinished essays? Can you insure me against Total Life Failure? What about infertility? Cancer? Bad parties? Bad sex? Bad haircuts? Bad trips? Disappointing avocados? Bottles of wine that do not live up to their label descriptions? Joints that don’t draw? Burnt eggs? Skunked beer? Flat fizzy drinks?
How about boring conversations? Failure to claim the best sleeping spot at the campsite? Bad sound at the show? Scratched DVDs? Can I have orgasm insurance? Sunburn insurance? What about wrinkles? If I get wrinkles and am no longer attractive, can you remunerate me for lost flirtation, plus some kind of lump sum for despondent consolation shopping?
I want constipation insurance! I want to be paid if I don’t shit at least once in any 24-hour period! And I want to be paid if I get bored in the middle of reading a book, I want to be paid for the cost of the book times the number of pages remaining over the total number of pages plus $10 for every hour spent reading the book!
Rapid-swimming insurance! I want to be paid if I swim a Class IV or above rapid! I want to be paid if someone makes an offhand nasty remark that eats away at me for the rest of the day! Vomit insurance on a per-retch basis with a three-retch deductible! Boob-saggage insurance! Pay me when they start to drop, pro-rate it per pencil that lodges in the deepening fold! Freakout insurance! I’m high-risk for that one, quote me a premium! If I get a medical marijuana prescription for my anxiety, can my deductible be lowered?
Insurance was making me think about all the horrible things that could happen, some of which might happen and some of which were definitely going to happen. Insurance, I was coming to believe, might actually be the worst thing in the universe, worse than guns, worse than diamond mining and the wars it funded, worse than the mining for that mineral they put in computers and cell phones and the wars that funded, and the kind of mining that lopped the tops of mountains and scared away all the birds with noise, worse than drilling offshore and polluting the Gulf, worse than the mining that trapped the Chileans. Insurance trapped and polluted us all. Insurance made noise in all of our heads, scared us all away from life, made every other driver on the road and every guest to our home our potential legal and mortal enemy. Insurance sold terrible lies to everyone. Insurance was selling the illusion that we could ever, ever get back what would inevitably be lost.
Three months later, I got into a fender bender. A cop happened to witness the whole thing and said it was the other driver’s fault. He came over on his motorcycle and looked me in the eye and said he would write an event report that said the other driver cheated her turn, entered my lane, and hit me. But when the insurance companies got hold of his report, it said he saw nothing. Fucking cops, man. Luckily, I sprang for collision.
But I had a $500 deductible, and the damage was only cosmetic, so I said, fuck it, and left it there, the dented fender, the scar on the car, the reminder and harbinger that insurance and all, everything, everything, everything would be damaged and then destroyed, that all of it and all of us were as good as dust.