Bank On It

May 24, 2013

The other day I had to actually go into my local bank. I realize this is unusual at a time when almost all banking, like most other financial transactions, is done online. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that I had to go into a bank, and, judging by their expressions, it was a surprise to the people who worked there too. A couple of them looked around, as though wondering if Larry, over in the mortgage cubicle, had forgotten to lock the door again, just like he’d forgotten it was his week to buy doughnuts again. I was there to cash a savings bond my wife found in the closet. It had been given to me by my grandparents a few months after I was born, which was probably why I’d lost track of it because I had a few other things going on at that time in my life. Unlike me it had finally matured, and, like my grandparents, it would probably have disintegrated if it had been exposed to the open air all this time. One thing hasn’t changed about banking: they still have the velvet hopes in front of the tellers’ windows, so you can’t walk directly up to them. Even if you’re the only person in the bank you have to wind through the little maze they’ve built. I remember when ATMs first appeared, although in those days they weren’t called ATMs. They were called “timeless tellers”. I think they were mainly for deposits or checking your account, since, in those days, you could go to the grocery store and make out a check to cash, and Cash, who sat in the elevated office with plexiglass windows next to all the checkout lines adjusting his glasses or sleeping, would give you some money. This was a time when it was not only still legal to pay for things with cash but most people did. Credit cards were for rich people, and even then they were used sparingly for large purchases, like furniture or an emergency visit to the doctor, since there was nothing more embarrassing than being in the hospital checkout and having to say, “I’m sorry, I’m forty-four cents short. You’ll have to put my appendix back.” Although, to be fair, in those days you could pay for most emergency medical procedures with a live chicken, which the doctor would sometimes then use as an organ donor, but that’s another story.

For several years I wasn’t allowed in banks. This was the result of an incident when one of my friend’s mothers decided to take us out for ice cream, but she had to stop at the bank first, possibly because Cash wasn’t working at the grocery store that day. While she was making her way through the velvet rope maze my friend and I stood next to the table where the deposit and withdrawal slips are stacked. I suggested taking one of the withdrawal slips and writing “This is a bank robbery” on the back of it, then putting it back in the stack. Apparently several of the tellers overheard this idea and didn’t find it nearly as funny as my friend and I did, although the person who seemed most upset by it was the guy in line behind us who was wearing a Richard Nixon mask and carrying a violin case, and who’d left his car running out in the parking lot. I still think it’s funny, but one of the disadvantages of online banking is that joke doesn’t work so well anymore. Not that I’m completely down on online banking. When I went to college I opened an account in a bank near the school, then, after graduating, didn’t think about it. If online banking had been available at the time I probably wouldn’t still get occasional letters from that bank saying, “We’ve noticed that your account hasn’t had much activity for some time now.” And online banking has other advantages. You may have heard that some very savvy computer hackers recently pulled off a major bank heist, robbing multiple banks simultaneously for millions of dollars. It was very clever and didn’t even require the purchase of a Richard Nixon mask. I admire their moxie, their chutzpah, and the fact that they were caught quickly and ended up with bupkis. Although such cyber-robbery does take a little of the romance out of bank robbery. Not that I’m condoning it, but would we still be talking about Bonnie and Clyde if, instead of speeding down dusty roads in a Studebaker with loose bills blowing out the windows they’d been hunched over a computer, even if they were breaking through firewalls? And somehow I doubt John Dillinger would have been as legendary if he’d been caught coming out of a chat room and the FBI had pumped him full of pixels, even if he’d been wearing a Herbert Hoover mask at the time.

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