Sunday, September 25, 2005


bank statement

I write under several aliases. I do it because I don’t want all my boring, for-pay work traced back to me. It also helps to discipline my thinking, which is dangerously disorganized. And I am enough of a postmodern subject that I enjoy fragmented identities.

So I get checks for several names. When they come in, I sign them over to myself and deposit them in the bank. I have been doing this for ten years. When I lived in Union City, this was never a problem: the tellers were around the way girls who knew me from the neighborhood. During our first year in Jersey City, we found a local branch of the same regional savings bank. I was never asked any questions.

Last year, that regional savings bank was bought out by a giant chain. Most of the old managers and staff were replaced. The day of the switchover, the chain gave out goodie bags containing a mug, a keychain, a promotional t-shirt, and two large cookies. A few visits later, I was informed by a teller I’d never seen before that double-endorsed checks would no longer be accepted.

I explained that if the manager would check the files inherited from the old bank, she’d see a record of hundreds of checks that I’d deposited. Further, I told her that if she wanted to do some digging, she could determine that I’d paid taxes on all of them, and that they’d all been charged to the same social security number. She didn’t do any of those things. Instead, she took my word for it.

For months thereafter, the anonymous tellers at the conglomerate chain bank took my checks. Sometimes they’d look at me funny, but then so do total strangers on the street. Once the teller called our account up on the screen, she’d invariably accept that I’d been a customer for years.

On Saturday, I needed singles. I’d agreed to manage the cashbox at my Courthouse show that evening, and since I’d talked the County down to an eight dollar admission fee, I expected to have to make change. I grabbed my stack of double-endorsed checks, wrote out one of my own to “cash”, and hit the street.

When I arrived at the bank, I was informed that the checks I was using – those bearing the name and I.D. of our former bank – were no longer valid. Now, we don’t write a lot of checks: we do our banking online. But our old neighborhood bank was constantly making us buy new checks and deposit slips. Now those checks were worthless, and only those issued by the conglomerate would be accepted.

This felt unfair to me, and I said so. Not only did I consider it disrespectful to make me buy new checks when I have a huge stack of old ones on my living room counter, I thought it was disrespectful to the memory of the community bank that got swallowed. What, after all, is a check? It’s a piece of paper with a logo and a tracing number on it. The trappings surrounding the tracing number are irrelevant. Therefore, the only objection my new bank could have is to the logo: an insignia, and a memory, that the conglomerate would like to bury.

The teller didn’t want to hear an argument. She called over the manager, who immediately challenged the double-endorsed checks that I was attempting to deposit. I explained (again) that I’d been doing this for years, and that I’d never had a problem – and, in fact, that the conglomerate’s tellers had been accepting these checks for close to a year. Her face went blank. I would have to apply to the state for a special form, otherwise I would be breaking the law. The tellers who’d been taking my checks were lawbreakers, too. I was beginning to get irritated. I submitted that neither I nor any of her tellers, nor any of the tellers at my old bank were outlaws.

The manager turned to her teller. How much money is there in the account, she asked, privately.

And I snapped. All of the frustrations that I’d encountered over the past two years seemed to be summed up in that one utterance. Depending on whether or not I had sufficient money to impress the authorities, an arbitrary and stupid rule would now either be enforced or ignored. It shouldn’t matter!, I shouted. Surprised that I’d overheard, the manager’s mechanical remove fell for a moment. Suddenly, I had no desire to put my money in this bank. I demanded that she give me the checks back. She stammered for a moment about making a one-time exception, but by now, I was too hot. I grabbed my deposit from her, shoved it in my wallet, and walked out onto Newark Avenue.

Going to my old bank was a nice experience. I knew the tellers and they knew me. The bank offered very few competitive services, but I was always treated like a valued customer. Certainly I am not the only person in America who has been displaced by banking mergers. Still, I could take my money anywhere. If I am going to have to comply with irritating regulations and conform to the logic of conglomerate banking, I might as well bring my business to New York City, where the managers actually know what they’re doing. Being in New Jersey has always meant that I can depend on a neighborhoody flexibility to the ticky-tacky transactions that complicate urban living. Recently, I have come to feel like I’m stuck in an alternate-reality Manhattan with all of the impersonality and none of the benefits. As Jersey City continues its transformation into an outerborough – and an uninteresting one at that – I find myself missing both the friendly inefficiency of Union City and the commitment to excellence that I find in Brooklyn. One or the other would be fine. But by now, I know what I’m going to get: neither.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

I currently had $1600 in savings bonds that my father bought on the payroll savings dept. where he worked years ago. They've all matured now. But they're in his name.

My parents always did their banking at a little S&L on Bergenline Ave, because my mom could walk there. So convenience took precedence over higher interest rates and some of the amenities you get at larger commercial banks. But it was a little neighborhood place. All the tellers spoke Spanish more fluently than English; but if you were a regular customer, you were treated like one.

So when I found these savings bonds in the back of a drawer about 2 years ago, I took them to the bank. Technically, only the person whose name is on the bonds is allowed to cash them. But I explained to the manager - an Arabic woman at the time, who wore a headdress - that my father was suffering from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and couldn't leave the house. So she allowed me to have him sign them at home, and I just dropped them off. After hours, she computed all the interest and deposited the lump sum into my father's account. A perfectly reasonable "bending" of the rules for a longtime customer,right?

Only then the little neighborhood S&L got bought out by the Oritani Savings Bank Corp. We needed to pay for new checks too and throw all the old ones away. But worse, the new manager won't bend a bit; I have $1600 in savings bonds left and he won't cash them unless my 80-year old now-hospitalized father presents himself at the bank in person.

To make matters worse, it's a bureaucratic nightmare to try and cash a US savings bond after the owner's death. Almost impossible, I've been told.

And so $1600 of US Savings bonds that my father worked and sweated for years to earn are now basically worthless. So much for the American dream.
Make some lemonade? I dunno if your local broadcast TV has one of those "consumer" reporters - but if it does, your situation has all the hallmarks those folks love: an ill father, an uncaring bureaucracy, an aggrieved son... Who knows: maybe their attention might not only restore the worth of those bonds, it might embarrass the bank enough to discourage it from being so pigheaded with other customers...
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