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Archive for July 16th, 2008

my bank branches: a brief memoir

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My parents, to this day, still don’t believe that they can use their ATM cards at banks not their own. And by “their own,” I mean the actual branch a quarter-mile from their house. I’ve taken their card and done it for them, drawn cash at the mall, etc. But they still don’t believe me, even when it works.

My first ATM card came with my second bank account. I had a little passbook account during high school which never filled higher than $60 and generally hovered around $0. The passbook was interesting – I’m not sure if it was really true or not, but I had the sense that if I lost it the money would vanish too. As if the passbook was the only record of the money in my savings account – that it was in fact my savings account.

It’s funny to think about kids growing up without the experience of waiting on line in banks with their mum. Every week, the same. I have very fond memories of waiting on line with my grandmother at her bank in the mall, across from the hair salon that she had after my grandfather died, to drop off the day’s takings. And there was, overall, a sense small awe about it – the sense that this is where they keep the money, the fact that this was the only working office you entered (except for dad’s, when he’d take you by every once in awhile…) There was a bureaucratic solidity and functionalism to the place that would seem so out of place. Whatever it smelled of, the local branch, it wasn’t multinational capitalism, the slash and burn of the market now available on PC! or whatever it smells like now. I want to write more about quasi-governmentality, about the air of officialness, but not now…

For now, think about the very fact of safety deposit boxes! They surely don’t exist any more, right? They are exactly antithetical to what a bank is today, they send the wrong message about the company in question… They are primitive, and cater to primitive impluses on the part of the customers, and as such, I am sure thay they no longer exist. Perhaps I will check, just to make sure…

I remember noticing, toward the end of my growing up, that this branch still had an 8 inch floppy disk drive on the counter. 8 inches! This was at the beginning of harddrives and laptops and the peak of the 3.5″ disk days! Even I had never used one of those, and my first computer (sort of lifted from my dad’s work) came in 1981 or 1982, an original IBM PC with dual 5.25″ drives. Were they keeping the account records on those? What else would they be for?

So it was only in college that I opened an account that came with an ATM card. But, like many, I remained nervous about depositing checks through the machine. Do you remember the cycles of news features that went around, I think around 1999 – 2000, that asserted that statistically you’re better off with the machine for deposits? Machines make errors, but not more than tellers, who are human, bored, expensive, and we’d like to have fewer of them, thanks. And so I stopped depositing my checks inside and learned to use the ATM for that too.

In my college town there were two banks to choose from, then one bought the other a few months after I moved in. My bank, days after it bought the naming rights to a brand new arena in an east coast city, was in turn acquired by yet another, larger bank. The accents of the stationary that they wrote you on changed from blue and green to red and blue, and then they asked if they could stop sending you “expensive, wasteful” mail altogether and so the emails arrive, painted up in red and blue.

In graduate school, the branch of my bank closed for six months after I arrived in order to refurbish. When it reopened, it had dragged the teller bar back to a windowless warren at the back of the building and replaced it up front with a “personal finance center” with self-standing cardboard cut outs of sailboats and hanggliders, country homes and, I think, the Eiffel Tower. There were couches and booklets to peruse, and soon after they added an espresso machine, though it was unclear when, if ever, you were entitled to an espresso drink. Certainly not when you were heading to the counter (barely happened anymore anyway) to do something like question a charge on your account or have a certified check made out.

But up front, well-dressed people milled around ignoring the grad school looking types who came in. The first few times, embarrassingly, I tried to cash a check with them. I thought it was just a late-ninties thing, like the open-plan offices that were opening everywhere – and that maybe you’d walk around with your teller as they got you your cash. (Think what Apple’s done in their stores – they have checkouts in the back but sort of frown on you for using them… You’re supposed to “pick up” one of the “geniuses” and get him to whip out his little wi-fi device and instamagic the funds off your card…)

I still have that account, but I’m going to close it soon. I got scared about closing accounts for awhile because of the mysteries of the credit rating, the effect that it has to open and close accounts. If we were to rewrite Capital today, we’d have to have a whole chapter on credit ratings, those of individuals, those of non-individuals and so on. Have you ever had trouble with your credit rating? Ever tried to contact the agencies in question? Lucky you if not. They do not publish the phone number – I think the helpful people that found it must have tried every possible number in sequence until they got someone who picked up with “Yeah, Experian here, whatchu want?” You get about seven seconds to state your case, despite the fact that they seem, from the volume of email that I receive from them, to make half their living on selling peeks at your credit report back to you. They don’t mention that, shit, if there’s something wrong you won’t be able to do anything about it. It’s basically like that perennial and increasingly-less sci-fi question about knowing the exact date and cause of your death in advance.

Anyway, my new bank account is with an outfit that I’ve visited exactly twice, and a year or so went by between opening the account and my first visit. Both times it was for a certified check, once to move out of New York and once to buy a car. There are branches here, but I’m not entirely sure where they are. When I talk to them, I talk to people in call-centers in India. When I need money, I go wherever’s closest and cheapest to get money. My daughter, I’m sure, will never write a check – I’m down to one or two a year. It is annoying when people send checks to me. My salary drops automatically in, the utility payments are lifted automatically out. I’m not sure they even give you an option of being paid any other way. The banks that you pass on the street look less and less open for business everyday – you’d feel strange entering one, like you might find it empty once you were in, just a plasma screen showing infomercials about investment products and retirement plans staring Dennis Hopper or someone who looks like Dennis Hopper, and an espresso machine, but no coffee and no cups.

We learn about things through buildings – we are taught about the rules of the world, the way things are now going to work, however they worked in the past. And, just as important, corporations compose their constitutions, their business plans, in brick and mortar, faux-leather sofas displacing marble columns, product pamphlets replacing deposit slips in the little containers under the writing surface. Imagine the conversations in the corporate HQ that eventually led to the redesign of my grad school bank. Imagine what came before and after those conversations. What changed when they decided to start charging to see a teller?

Most pertinently, when we see these new images of people lining up outside the failing banks, we are used to thinking 1929. The media reminds us of 1929. But there is more to it than that. For how many of these people is this the first trip ever to their local branch? The second time they’ve stepped inside, the first being the day that they opened their account? The bank run, queue to see a teller, materializes the anachronistic nature of the bank branch today, physically inforces a return to practices that have long since been marginalized, rendered as old-fashioned as mailing a letter with a stamp, writing in long-hand, or having shoes repaired. This is, truly, a dialectical image, where the spark leaps from past to present, despite the fact that both prongs are nowhere else but the grubby sidewalk of this supermarket plaza in California.

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July 16, 2008 at 11:36 am

tip jar

with 24 comments

So I’ve just had my best day ever for hits. This is in, well, some five years of blogging. Thanks, Jane, for the link – that helped. It also helps that I remain, somehow, one of the goto sites for banana images on google, which makes up another 78 touches. But aside from that, there are more of you checking this blog than ever before.

Now, look. I’m not asking for cash or even amazon clickthru revenue. What I am asking for, if you could, is for you to leave a comment under this post telling us roughly who you are, where you are, what you do for a living, and anything else you think relevant. Why? I spend a lot of time coming up with this stuff, in the summer several hours a day before I start work on my monograph (still, god, I’m still doing this….), grad papers that remain to be marked, the novel(s) I mentioned a few posts ago. It’s sort of shameful in these circles to admit it, but I take my hitcount fairly seriously, and am all the more likely to write here when I feel that I’m being read. Since moving to wordpress.com, I no longer have a snazzy hitcounter that can fill me in on the whereabouts and sometimes university affiliation of my readers – all I get is the raw number. So, it follows, anonymous comments will not be tracked down to their owners – I simply have no way of doing this now. Comment is free on AWP, as it were…

So, if you enjoy reading this site and you’ve been lurking without commenting (just fine by the way) take the big splurge and leave me a note in the comments telling me, no names necessary unless you’re desperate to say, who you are, whatever way you’d like to define that.

(If you’re someone that I already know reads this blog, there’s no need for you to participate in the great AWP delurk either… This is just for the silent majority….)

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July 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

Posted in me, meta