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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.

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July 16, 2008 at 11:36 am

“you would think they were praying to it”

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A young man whose English is of rather recent vintage has been coming around just about every other day in a very sharp if cheap suit to knock on our door and educate us on the amazing opportunities to save! big! bucks! via energy deregulation. He’s caught me in moments of rage in my sleepy clothes (rage re: the previous post) and yesterday he woke up my daughter after my wife had painstakingly gotten her down for a nap so that she could get some work in.

We tell him to come back later, every time he knocks, but yesterday he caught me coming in from a smoke on the street and I got to hear the pitch. I had a bit of trouble making out what he was exactly talking about, what he was selling – I think electricty, from some company that’s not British Gas, which is what we’ve got. But what I could make out – and christ if he didn’t say the word six or seven times in the course of his 90 second pitch – was deregulation. I had not heard of deregulation, had I? I did not know what deregulation was, did I, and that what it was was an opportunity for me to save several pence per unit on my electricity consumption? Did I know that deregulation afforded me choice, unprecedented choice, whereas in previous years, the years Before Deregulation, I was forced to simply pay the rate they wanted me to pay for my energy?

It made me think of Conrad, actually, though almost everything nowadays does:

“I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

I guess Enron, not just its final implosion but more the summer of rolling blackouts that it orchestrated in California in 2000 (see the last paragraphs here) wasn’t as big a story over here. But then again, I guess you can still here the pitch back home – more to would-be pyramid scheme early-entryists than to end users, but still…

Perhaps that’s the sort of video my young travelling salesman friend has seen. Perhaps that’s what he’s up to. I love the part about the “greatest redistribution of wealth ever seen in our nation.” There’s a specter haunting America, the specter of infotainment driven microenronbots knocking on yr doors, redistributing yr wealths…

Mine is a bit more perverse perhaps and frontminded, but I think there are actually tons and tons of people who share a tendency to stick with what once were state-run monopoly operators out of a set of wholly comprehensible (if often, now, illusory) reasons. Nostalgia for simplicity and security would probably lead the pack. It drives the slimy-laissez fairists mad, the unwillingness to take the time to consider our options in full (maybe set a weekend aside to go over our literature and those of our competitors with your spouse) and to be brave and self-standing enough to take the great leap forward into market choice! This tendency – see this clip for an interesting case study – is again something that might well be a popular instinct with potential to be activated into something useful indeed.

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June 17, 2008 at 11:21 am

city as satire

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NYT on a new and enormous Koolhaas project in Dubai.
(We’re all going to have to start thinking and talking about Dubai one of these days, aren’t we?) Apparently, though we don’t have all that much to work on and Ouroussoff gives us very little, this is meant to be something like an materialization of the “generic city” idea from Koolhaas’s S/M/L/XL.

I know I have a lot to say about this “generic city” business, which is a concept as complex and ambiguous as the ad without products (whatever that is…) and in perhaps just the same ways. But my copy of S/M/L/XL is in storage and won’t be available to me till I move into my fractional piece of this not-quite-generic place where I am now. Soon enough…

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March 6, 2008 at 12:29 pm

nostalgie de la boom… and ads without ads

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My wife and I have introduced a thing where each of us takes one night a week out by ourselves while the other watches the kiddo. (We’re late getting to this – it was suggested long ago – but what the hell were we going to do with our nights out in the old place, so the time is right…) On my night, I headed down to see the Rodchenko exhibit, but the damn place was closing (nice opening hours here, god). So I had to come up with something else to do with myself. Good movies were out – they’re reserved for some barely imaginable time when we can see them together. So I saw Cloverfield instead. I feel an obligation to see such things, which my wife definitely does not share, and so… 

(Parenthetically: $26 to see a fucking movie? Are you out of your minds? I saw the damn thing in the worst and likeliest of all possible places I guess, but back in the states there’s a constitutional right to affordable consumption of crap movies. I think it’s administered by the Dairy Board, whomever it is who gives the free milk and bread to the starving grad student moms… But I digress…)  

So. Not much to say about Cloverfield. Fun I guess. The genre’s looking very, very tired. But in the very fatigue of the form, I do think we’re seeing something new and interesting afoot. Semi-new anyway. The producers and writers of the thing are all at least my age, but the presumed audience, I guess is a lot younger. Young enough, in fact, to have the same relation to the attacks so heavily quoted in this film as my students are starting to have. For a few years there, we were all in it together. Now, it’s getting a bit strained. Shocking when it dawns on you that your youngest students weren’t even teenagers when the shit when down. In a year or two, when we’re dealing with kids that were seven or so in 2001, it’s going to feel even stranger – for them as much as for us, who somehow can’t stop threading it into our conversations. 

In Cloverfield, I think we see early signs of an anxiety not about terror, but about its absence. It is a movie tailor-made for a demographic that has grown up hearing about 9/11 but which has only vague, mostly false, memories of it. A generation who parents worried about shielding from the tv, even when they were far too young to distinguish the threat of annihilation from the threat of, dunno, the scary shit that lives in your closet. 

(Heard Bush mention the other day the “attack that occurred six-and-a-half years ago.” It’s been a long, long time. Wow…)   

The yupster parties in loft spaces (hahaha) on the Lower East Side (hahahaha) are going to feel something missing, are going to long for the crisping threat that something will happen downtown, that there will be a reason to run up to the roof, that their emotionally desolate choice (just for instance) to leave the girl behind to take a VP position in Japan (? – oh, i see, godzilla. Try Dubai…), the iron continuities in play behind that, will come to a sudden and abrupt end when some rough beast inaugurates another round of trauma sex, epiphanies of “what really mattes,” a war or wars to momentarily back and then, later, pretend that you opposed from the start etc etc etc. 

But unfortunately, this dystopian fantasy is positively utopian in its impossibility. The crows won’t come home to roost, not here, not anymore. The world, dearies, has moved on. The Time Warner Building ain’t the double-barreled omphalous of the world anymore – it’s in the wrong country to matter. No one’s going to expend good fissile material on a nation and an economy doing a great job fizzling out on its own. The catastrophes to come for the kids that were meant to see this film are going to be far less picturesque, and certainly won’t be available for videotaping. 

Anyway, wow. At least I’m blogging again, right?

One other thing, on a related note: saw this little number at the end of the extremely long strand of ads (mostly for cars and other new dystopian movies) that ran before Cloverfields:  Brilliant, and very very strange indeed. And strikingly beautiful! An ad for adlessness, if there ever was one. It may become the totemic youtube of this youtube intensive blog!

And even better, way better, is that the damned thing looks like the opening sequence of an absolutely incredible (and a good deal more horrifying, to many in the wider audience, than Cloverfields, which isn’t very horrifying at all) of a very different sort of speculative fiction, one about a specter lurching back from the place where dismissed specters go in order to decapitate the idols of the era, break open the walls of the buildings in the expensive neighborhoods, and leave most bedazzled and exhilarated at the sweep of violence that has rubbled so many things we thought could never go, that we believed, despite ourselves, that the world simply couldn’t live without.  

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February 15, 2008 at 1:12 am

coal smoke and scary statues

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From the boilerplate describing the newest entry in the SimCity series of games, SimCity Societies

Shape your city through its values and priorities.

More than just a city-building simulator, SimCity Societies puts you in the new role of social engineer. Mix and match six “social energies”—productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge—to determine the core attributes that will be reflected in the infrastructure of your city as well as in its people. After you plant these seeds you’ll witness the evolution of your city as everything from its physical appearance to the sounds heard on its streets adapt to reflect these values

Well, at least we know what “social energies” are on the table and which are off. But never fear, commies, while “Vertovian Wonderland” doesn’t seem to be an option in version 1.0, you do still have the ability to construct what is repeatedly called an “Orwellian City.”

Another world is possible, I guess. Precociously ostalgic eleven-year olds, you have nothing to lose but your windfarms!

All this reminds me of something that I might well have posted before, but I can’t help rerunning. It’s a paragraph from Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

Several years ago I found myself on a family vacation with my seven-year-old nephew, and on one rainy day I decided to introduce him to the wonders of SimCity 2000, the legenday city simulator that allows you to play Robert Moses to a growing virtual metropolis. For most of our session, I was controlling the game, pointing out landmarks as I scrolled around my little town. I suspect I was a somewhat condescending guide – treating the virtual world as more of a model train layout than a complex system. But he was picking up the game’s inner logic nonetheless. After about an hour of tinkering, I was concentrating on trying to revive one particularly run-down manufacturing district. As I contemplated my options, my nephew piped up: “I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates.” He said it as naturally, and as confidently, as he might have said, “I think we need to shoot the bad guy.”

I wish I could believe that Johnson knew how hilarious the last two lines are, but I’m afraid not. They are as inadvertantly ironic as the title of the book in which we find them.

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October 13, 2007 at 12:13 am

wallstalgie / wallfallstalgie

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Within the course of a few days, Putin gets the Tupolevs circling and circling again, and the the western news orgs give in to their own nostalgia for the X Miraculously Opens in X-Commie Stronghold! story. Can you believe that it was a mere eighteen years ago that history once and for all came to an end, etc etc etc?

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September 7, 2007 at 9:40 am

“have you been to the edge?”: photo caption contest

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Need more interactivity, hereabouts. Donc a photo for you to caption:

The NYT explains what the image is here.

What are you waiting for? Get captioning, or I’ll make you watch the Gorbi Pizza Hut ad too.

To hell with it, I’ll make you watch it anyway:

Read the rest of this entry »

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August 9, 2007 at 12:43 am