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TinotopiaLog → My Recent Bank Experience ( 7 May 2001)
Monday 07 May 2001

My Recent Bank Experience

Most of my banking activity is conducted at a distance. My salary, royalty checks, payouts from brokers, etc. are all deposited directly; my accountant pays the bills; and I get cash from ATMs.

So it was an unusual experience the other day when I went to the bank in person. I needed a few thousand dollars in cash or its equivalent — money orders or cashier’s checks — to buy a car.

My day-to-day accounts are at Suntrust bank, because they haven’t egregiously pissed me off yet, and because they have a branch near my house.

That branch’s lobby was closed when I needed my money, and they didn’t have the ability to generate cashier’s checks from the drive-up, so I was directed to a Suntrust counter in a nearby Safeway.

The bank-in-the-grocery-store is something that I thought was dying. The concept was popular in the 1970s, when banks were rarely open past 3 pm; now, there’s less need for it. All over the country, but especially (it seems to me) in the Washington area, banks are starting to get arrogant again, and the supermarket mini-branch is making a comeback.

The Safeway branch I went to was staffed by two teenage girls, both wearing generic mall casual clothes: jeans and shirts from Express or The Gap or some such store. One girl had an unfortunate case of painful-looking acne.

The girl without the acne was already with a customer, so I drew acne-girl. She put aside her calculus homework (literally), and aksed when I needed.

I told her that I needed a cashier’s check or money order, whichever would cost me less. As it turned out, I needed a money order, because I didn’t have with me the name of the person from whom I would actually be buying the car.

So I handed over my driver’s license and my bank card. It took a while, but eventually she figured out who I was, and how much money I had in my account.

Trouble was, she didn’t know how to generate a money order. Neither did the other girl. The branch manager, who had until this time been hidden somewhere, popped out and started assisting. She was obviously a banking professional, but it had been a while since she’d worked as a teller, so the process was still bumpy.

So bumpy that at one point I asked them whether they had the entire amount in cash. They didn’t, and they seemed a bit surprised at the notion. That a bank branch would have a few thousand dollars on hand — we’re talking about an amount that you could easily fit into your pocket, even in $20 bills — was, apparently, unthinkable to them.

Eventually, I got three money orders (there’s an upper limit on the amount of an individual money order, a limit that was determined with certainty only when the computer refused to generate one with of greater denomination), and a few hundred dollars in $20 bills.

(When buying a car from an individual, always plan to pay part of the price in cash, in small bills. If you have a cashier’s check for $5000 in your pocket, it’s going to be a lot harder to pay $4500 if you discover that the tires are bald.)

The fifteen $20 bills were counted out by the teenage girl. She had to restart once, because she was momentarily unclear on what came after $180 ($200) — looks like she needed more math and less calculus. She had a hard time counting the bills, and they wound up in a big pile, not a neat stack, on top of the counter.

Oh, yeah, and the counter was entirely at eye-level. In the past, the tellers’ windows were designed for privacy, so the other people in the bank couldn’t see what you were doing. The idea is that if it’s widely known that you’ve got $5000 in your pocket, you are more likely to be a target for robbery.

At this Safeway branch, though, all the money goes over the top, and everyone nearby can hear the teller count out the cash. The two people in line behind me (all of this took a while), the customer at the other window, and the people in line behind him all knew that I was walking away with several thousand dollars in cash or a cash equivalent.

Now, I don’t object to teenagers working, or even to them working in banks. I realize that Suntrust has to maximize their profit, and so they have to get the cheapest labor they can. And for the teenagers, working in a bank, even for lousy wages, is better than working at McDonald’s.

But I object to the fact that Suntrust is now failing to provide professional care for my money. Banks have long built fancy buildings, solid buildings, to communicate to their customers that the bank is trustworthy, that it is going to take good care of the assets entrusted to it.

The Suntrust counter at the Safeway continues this architectural tradition: while most of the store is utilitarian and lit with fluorescent lights, the bank area has a lot of wood paneling, (fake) marble, carpet, fancy lighting, etc. But it’s all meaningless when the teller is wearing a T-shirt and doesn’t know how to count money.

I see this, as I see a lot of things recently, as a symptom of the ongoing death of the middle class in America. Rich people still get professional bankers, competent and dressed in wool, to count their money out to them. But the poor have long endured unprofessional bankers, in the person of clerks at the yellow-signed check-cashing shop/Western Union bureau in the ghetto.

And now, at least after 3 p.m. on a weekday, and at least if you’re a Suntrust customer, this is the best banking service available in Reston, Virginia, a high-midle-class suburb in the wealthiest county in the United States.

Part of this povertization of the middle-class experience is due to the fact that what were once almost exclusively middle-class experiences are now accessible to the lower-middle-class and to the poor.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike was young, the service area restaurants along the way were Howard Johnson’s, with table service, real plates and cutlery, and white tablecloths. Now, they’re generally Sbarro or McDonald’s, almost invariably filthy.

In the early days, driving across Pennsylvania was something the middle-class did. The poor would take the train, if they went at all; they wouldn’t tend to own cars. Now, the middle-class is more likely to fly than to deal with that fairly arduous drive.

The poor experience hasn’t really moved up the ladder to supplant the old middle-class experience, though; rather, the middle-class experience that used to mean white tablecloths and table service has been pulled down, to somewhere halfway between the old poor experience and the old middle-class experience, and lodged there, as the only option in between the true grinding poverty of government assistance and the expensive world of the wealthy.

It’s possible to chalk much of this up to the Faith-Popcorn-BS-"cocooning" trend: cinemas have gone downhill because the middle class, with all the money, is at home watching DVDs; going to a restaurant is a miserable experience because the middle-class is going to Williams-Sonoma and creating their own dining experience at home.

More likely, the cocooning trend is a reaction of the middle class to the decline of their public options. The middle class is not sitting at home at night, counting out money for each other.

And the problem is this: The United States’ ease of social mobility is a crucial component of the culture that has resulted in so much entreprenurial success in this country. Fifty years ago, there was a large difference between the day-to-day experience of someone with a household income (in 2001 dollars) of $20,000 and someone with $90,000. Today, this isn’t so true. The $90,000 household can just go to Burger King more often. The $20,000 family is not going to strive as hard for advancement, because unless they become fantastically wealthy, their lives aren’t going to change that much.

Posted by tino at 10:13 7.05.01
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