by Larry Feign
My wife is a better human being than I am. I admit it. The evidence is irrefutable and absolute. She has a Titanium Card and I don't.
She didn't even ask for it. Like being awarded the Nobel Prize, she simply received an envelope in the mail informing her that she had been elevated from Gold to Titanium status in one bounding leap. Attached was her new card, which felt like plastic, but bore the word which signalled her entry into the most exclusive fellowship on earth: Titanium Woman and Man.
At first I thought it was a joke. In fact, I used to make such jokes. Back in the days when it actually meant something--if you were a shallow, insecure snob with bad skin and self-esteem issues--to have a Gold credit card, any lunch or dinner gathering was bound to end with a game of plastic one-upmanship.
"Here, let me pay with my Gold card."
"No, just to make sure, I'll pay with my Gold Premium card."
"Well, I wonder if they'll accept my PLATINUM ELITE PREMIERE PLUS at a dump like this."
To which I would be tempted to chime in: "I'd offer to pay with my MOLYBDENUM-EINSTEINIUM ISOTOPE card, but I think I left it in its lead casing back in the laboratory."
Why titanium? It's something you find in rocket ships, not in downtown jewellery stores. Don't these credit card people look at the financial pages? Check the Precious Metals Exchange: the next metal up, above gold and platinum, is palladium. On the other hand, Palladium Card sounds like an annual pass to a London musical theatre.
Those credit card people obviously flunked high school chemistry. On the Periodic Table of Elements, gold has an atomic number of 79, platinum is 78. Therefore the next posh brand of credit card logically should have been 77--iridium--with osmium, number 76, in reserve as the next elite level after too many riff raff get their calloused hands on Iridium Cards. Titanium, number 22, isn't even close.
Does anyone really care which metal their card is named after? As far as I'm concerned, there's only one consideration when choosing a credit card: the free welcome gifts. I don't think I'm alone on this. Tell the truth, do you really pay attention to the interest rate or "member benefits" before you apply for a card? Of course you don't! All you ask yourself is: What do I get free with this thing?
Several years ago I was rewarded with $400 in supermarket vouchers if I applied for a certain credit card. This was a no-brainer! Four hundred dollars converted to my favourite brand-name snack food items, what could go wrong with that? Several days later I received my approval letter and, more importantly, a voucher that I could use to pick up my vouchers. Now, why couldn't they have simply placed the coupons in the envelope and saved everyone a lot of trouble? I phoned the number on the back of my card, punched in my card number and PIN code and half a dozen menu choices, and finally got through to a human being. She sweetly explained that "for security reasons" I had to pick them up in person.
The nearest Premium Redemption Centre was in Kowloon, inconveniently located halfway between two train stations, not a good place to be at the height of south China summer. By the time I reached the ancient building I stank and my shirt was stained with dark ovals of sweat. The lift was filled with housewives, young office workers and old people, all of us avoiding eye contact with one another, as if ashamed to admit that we were each taking valuable time out of our day to queue up for a free trinket.
The lift door opened onto a line of fifteen or more people stretching into the dimly-lit hallway. I realized how desperate I must appear. Four hundred dollars wasn't to be sniffed at. But it wasn't as if my financial well-being depended upon it. In fact, I'd qualified for the card because I wasn't desperate for $400. Suddenly I felt like a beggar lining up at a temple for a sack of free rice.
Finally it was my turn. A taciturn ape behind the counter snatched the collection letter from my hand, made me sign it, then reached into a box, sneered and slapped four precious cash vouchers onto the counter, as if I was, well, a beggar. I used them up later on several bottles of cheap English vodka, necessary to soothe my humiliation.
The card companies try to keep you hooked with special offers and bonus points. Who are they kidding? Imagine: you've surprised your spouse with an anniversary celebration at an expensive 6-star restaurant in a famous hotel. You secretly selected it because it was on a list of "carefully selected merchants" on the little colour flyer that slips out of your monthly card statement. You whip out your credit card and tell the waiter: "If I use this card, we each get a free glass of wine, right?" You'll lose more money in the divorce settlement than you saved on that house wine.
If I ever want to feel good again about credit cards, I'll just have to wait until the next highest metal is issued. After Titanium, what? If the card companies really want to appeal to Hong Kongers, they need to consult the Periodic Table and select lucky atomic number 88. That's radium.
I can imagine going out to dinner with colleagues. I grab the bill, take out my wallet and say:
"Think I'll use my RADIUM."
They all run for cover. Now, that's status!

This article appeared in CULTURE Magazine, June 2008 | ©2008 Larry Feign