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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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 16, 2008 at 11:36 am

13 Responses

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  1. I don’t think that bank accounts appear on your credit report. I’ve worried about that, too, on a couple occasions when I was on the verge of being overdrawn and thought it might screw up a balance transfer rate for me (you know how they have it set up — you screw up with any creditor, you’ve screwed up with us, too). Nothing came of it, though.


    July 16, 2008 at 4:16 pm

  2. Despite all those business articles about “the unbanked” and microcredit and Wal-Mart opening bank branches in their stores, my bank in California is _packed_ every time I go in at lunch time or right after work time —- lines and lines of people who are obviously cashing checks from their gardening or housekeeping work —- they don’t appear to have cards (or accounts?) as far as I can tell. I hope they’re not getting as screwed on fees as you do over at the check-cashing places (which I also see doing brisk business over here).

    “automatic deposit” and the convenience of undocumented labor just don’t seem to go together, although all these homeowners must not find the cash part of cash under the table to be convenient either, judging by those lines … how will people pay their gardener and their nanny if personal checks go away?


    July 17, 2008 at 7:07 am

  3. thanks, adam – you and I do seem to worry about the same things.

    and geez, that’s a good point sisyphus. I totally forgot that lining up to get cash is still very much a present reality for a huge number of people. Perhaps it’d be interesting to think about the way a lot of that sort of trade has been shifted to check cashing joints. But you’re right – I missed that. The derealization of banking is indeed an middle class and up phenomenon…


    July 17, 2008 at 4:29 pm

  4. My bank in NYC (which I joined when I came here 30 years ago because it was the bank for the small typeshop where I worked) may be the last grand bank still functioning as a bank. It’s on the Nation Register and blessed by the Landmarks Committee and I’m telling you, you respect money when you walk in the door. Huge soaring space, chandeliers, marble and wrought iron… a sad story is that the Emigrant Savings bank on 42nd Street (name now?) moved out of its grand space across the street into a Formica box and the tellers had to gaze at their old working place. It is now a catering palace. I do wonder what will happen to my bank. The wasted real estate must make more than a few developers nuts. Nothing is forever– catering, anyone?

    report from the heartland

    July 17, 2008 at 5:38 pm

  5. Dialectical image! Some folks in Davis/Berkeley debated that possibility some years back, before the banks and their buyouts were the big news. The question: do the sparks that leap then somehow produce revolutionary consciousness? Seems like Benjamin wanted it that way. But in a way, the lines-at-bank-image would seem to me to send the bourgeoisie running the opposite direction, deeper into false consciousness, deeper into their own ‘individuality’– the spark jumping from 1929 to singe their pocketbooks, not their consciousness. The stimulus would certainly seem the start of the trickle down approach to the new deal.

    But what I really wanted to say is that I have to go into my ‘local’ bank on the first of every month, so as to enact a direct transfer of moneys from my account to that of my landlord…

    Dan TG

    July 17, 2008 at 8:00 pm

  6. What possibility is that that they debated, dan? I think, you know, that the issue of “revolutionary consciousness” created thereby is a tough question.

    BTW, if you’re talking about Bush’s stimulus check (just received mine), I have to say – it’s shockingly un-regressive, the direct payout per taxpayer. I’m more or less in favor of it, despite the reasons why the administration does it. It is, in fact, redistributory. (Suppose you do have to pay taxes, right, to get one? That’s not so good….) I’d take decent Keysianism anyday over the other options on the table…

    Unfortunately, I’ve been spending mine this week on drinks in the UK. Which prolly won’t help to kick start the sputtering US economy.

    You could prolly call the bank (or maybe fax them) to do the DD. Or log-on etc… That’s what I was doing until i moved in to my house. But sure, point taken. Still, you know what I mean. There’s been a gradual derealization of banking that’s been going on for some time.


    July 17, 2008 at 11:09 pm

  7. sorry – for the new to AWP, CR is me, as is AWP. I have trouble keeping track – but both are the proprietor of this site. It’s a long story…


    July 17, 2008 at 11:10 pm

  8. Hey, I’d like to note for the record that, at the age of 45, I’ve never had a bank account (a credit union only) — and it works! Last week I had to check my credit rating for the first time. I don’t have one.

    And CR, I’m not sure I take your point, even if we’re sticking with what’s “on the table” (by which I trust you mean “conceivable in present conditions” – nothing’s really on the table in the sense of “on offer”). The payout is in fact regressive, compared to what the standard rate of progressive taxation would be. You could put the same money into stimulating the economy by paying out higher unemployment benefits, e.g., a stimulus funded by a progressive tax. So in fact the payout is neo-Keynesian at best and neoliberal at worst; it’s certainly not redistributive in any real sense, but rather the opposite.


    July 17, 2008 at 11:33 pm

  9. hmmm. not sure. look, i’ve been over here so I haven’t kept up closely with it. But all taxpayers get X amount, based on 1-2-plus in family, right? That’s not progressive, within the field of taxpapers. I get the same amount as, you know, finance types?

    I guess, given a bush admin stimulus package, i’d expect some sort of percentile based tax relief. You pay X you get Y/x back. Instead, we all get the same. It’s more progressive than usual, no?

    Tell me – I’m all ears.


    July 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

  10. sorry there are missing question marks in there somewhere. I’m on a weeklong bender, funded by GWB and including a shit talk by Marshall Berman tonight, but at least you can buy beer at talks here.


    July 17, 2008 at 11:42 pm

  11. Was the talk at once of those clubs? Robin Blackburn took me to Frontline for a talk last summer; it was indeed nice to buy a drink between speakers. And after. Proper.

    Here’s what I mean: the Bush payout has two failings, even within the logic of the “stimulus package.” One, some of it goes to people who can afford to save it, and so doesn’t go back into circulation. And two, though the rate if the payout is progressive when measured against a flat payment, it’s comparatively regressive; that is, it’s less progressive than income tax itself. You’d get a more effective and more redistributive stimulus if tax revenue was used to provide an actual Keynesian/New Deal program, with those losses to the tax base covered as deficit.

    Bush’s stimulus should be understood as a less progressive alternative to true redistributive Keynesian programs; not as being one itself.


    July 18, 2008 at 12:47 am

  12. Oh I agree with that. It was just shocking to me that they didn’t do it via a percentile giveback, given the history. Could I circle back and change to “shockingly progressive for the GWB administration?”


    July 18, 2008 at 11:34 am

  13. CR– JD already made my point for me– that redistribution via the logic of individual ‘investment’ in the economy is significantly less progressive than anything that might get decried these days as nationalization, ie unemployment, public works etc. I take your point about the percentile though– shocking in the context of this administration.

    And the possibility we debated was that of dialectical images themselves– can they, do they, exist? Some took Adorno’s point that a frozen dialectic is no dialectic at all; in proper dialectical fashion though, I’m not sure we ever came to any conclusions. Myself, I think the idea’s a good one, but misnamed. What to call that thing that makes the dissonance of history visible? That’s a good, and a big, question.

    Dan TG

    July 18, 2008 at 5:51 pm

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