Friday, July 10, 2009

New York Banking

Another entry in the annals of public embarrassment: I remember very well the first several months of the year 2000. I had just graduated from an MFA program; I was newly engaged; I had found a job that paid decently and that was not, I hoped, incompatible with my writing life. Really, I should have been on top of the world. And sometimes that is in fact how I felt. The rest of the time, though, it seemed I was trapped underneath it, and it was unbearably heavy—the sudden rushing in of worldly obligations and expectations. In March, my fiancĂ© (now husband) and I went to France to visit his family, a trip I'd negotiated with my employer before I began work in January. By the time our vacation rolled around, I was very much in need of the break. My immediate supervisor kept telling me, in those first weeks on the job, that my early mornings, my very late nights, and the general frustrations I experienced daily were nothing more than a steep learning curve and that things would settle naturally. (They never did.) In the meantime, I was commuting an hour and twenty minutes to and from work, into and out of the city from Connecticut. My husband was living with two other bachelors in an apartment on East 92nd Street; the goal was to look for an apartment together, as soon as possible. Distinctly I recall being on a MetroNorth train with my husband, talking about searching in earnest, once the whirlwind visit with Gallic relatives was over. I explained—I know I did—that after our trip, I was coming up against an even busier time in my office, and that with details such as leases and logistics of moving, I would need as much support as possible. And I recall, just as distinctly, how one of the next conversations we had included his telling me how he subsequently agreed to take on additional shifts at his job, effective immediately. Cut to the week of our lease signing. Cut to phones ringing in the office, my juggling more than my share of tasks all around, coordinating a four-location move to consolidate my and my husband's physical belongings, and having to take a call from an insulting real estate hack. I don't remember what he said to me, but do recall it got me fuming. He was arrogant and nasty, rude and threatening. This was Manhattan in flush times, before 9/11, before the housing bubble burst, when it was a seller's (or landlord's) market, no question. I was stressed, overextended, and the latest development was this: lunch hour, when I could only spare thirty minutes, and I needed to get cashier's checks to cover first month's rent on a one-bedroom we'd found, plus security deposit and broker's fees (this was the last time we ever paid a broker, by the way). My own bank was a small, local bank in Connecticut, where the employees knew all the customers by name. From the bank, I had somehow managed to withdraw the money I needed (or more likely, I wrote a check to my parents and they gave me the cash), but I couldn't get cashier's checks there because I was in the city before the bank opened during the week and home way past closing hours every night. I guess this was naive of me—a thing I never considered myself as being—but I didn't anticipate having problems giving cash to a teller in exchange for the checks we needed. Think again. This is where the public embarrassment comes in. I tried Citibank first. There was one on Broadway, down in the mid 50s, not far from my office on Columbus Circle. I had a Citibank credit card, so figured I could pass as a customer if need be. Did I have a cash account in the bank? No. "Sorry, ma'am," the teller said. (She was calling me ma'am! Had I aged that much?) "But it's cash," I said. "Why would you need to cover it with an account balance?" I was turned away. Time was ticking, paperwork piling up back in the office, stomach growling but no time to think about food. Where else had I seen a bank? There was, at that time, a Chase branch on the southwest corner of 57th and 8th Avenue (which later moved a block or so farther north). I went in there, stood in line. "Do you have an account with Chase?" the teller asked. "No. I have cash." Again, all I got were condolences. Overwhelmed with a sense of urgency, with the frustration that can only come when you are thwarted by bureaucratic rules that seem to fly in the face of logic (a bank won't take cash?!)—exhausted with the sense of pushing boulders uphill, I gave out in the lobby of the bank. I tried to prevent myself from crying, but really, it was hopeless. The tears just came. And I remember thinking, I'm thirty years old, crying in a bank in front of everyone like a child. It felt unjust, humiliating. But sometimes there are mortal angels who step in and come to your aid. I felt a hand on my shoulder, saw a proffered tissue. A portly black woman in a neatly pressed jacket, wearing a brass name badge with the bank's logo on it, asked me to follow her to her desk. Her voice was gentle, but she didn't say much; she listened. And then she asked me for the cash I'd been carrying around, disappeared with it, and returned with forms I needed to fill out for the cashier's checks. I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and a huge burden lifted. I wanted to hug that woman. Maybe I did, I don't know. I do know that I returned to that branch once our move was complete and opened an account. I've been a Chase customer ever since.

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