It took only six computer keystrokes for the desk officer to break the last link. Click, click, clickety-click and checking account number 05-302-03-467 was officially obliterated. Here's a cashier's check for your balance, Mr. Levey, and thank you very much.
Death shouldn't be so curt or so neat, especially when the life of a bank has been so long and so rich. But neither history nor sentiment could keep the federal government from pulling the plug last month on the National Bank of Washington.
NBW doesn't deserve to be gone. It didn't steal, lie, cheat old ladies or invest in high-technology Cuban ski resorts. But all over town, NBW signs have been papered over with cheap, quickie scrolls that read: RIGGS. To stroll through a former NBW branch is to stroll through a cemetery. Clicks. Final balances. Thank you very much.
Perhaps the very qualities that made NBW so wonderful were the qualities that sank it. After all, there are very few banks whose top-of-the-line account gives you free traveler's checks, no-fee checking, free check printing, free investment counseling, free transfers between accounts, free automatic teller machine transactions, free balance information, free monthly statements, top-rate IRAs, top-rate money market accounts and lowest-rate consumer loans.
Yes, that previous sentence said "and," not "or." NBW gave you all those freebies and nice-ies, just for showing up. Many banks gloat about service and competitive rates. NBW never gloated because, like all winners, its performance spoke for itself.
Mourning a bank may sound incongruous, because most banks have the personality of a phone pole. You put money in. You take money out. You get a statement in the mail. What's the big deal?
But NBW was always more like a corner bar. The employees knew your name, the names of your kids and large hunks of your life story. The staff would be discreet if a customer insisted. But to walk in and hear, "Hi, Bob," brought a normally lifeless transaction into three dimensions.
Banking is probably the most rule-bound, hidebound profession ever invented. But NBW's great strength was knowing when to be human instead of robotic.
1986. NBW branch at 15th and I streets NW. Levey is in line, waiting for a window to come open, when a teller claps his forehead in anguish. He reaches for the phone. I can't help but overhear. Seems he has shorted a customer by 10 cents.
The teller calls some central registry, asks for the customer's phone number and tries to reach her at work. He fails. He also realizes that he is causing a customer backup. But rather than drop the search, he calls over a desk officer, explains and asks her to keep calling. She agrees, without a grimace or a groan. For 10 measly cents.
1987. Levey has been very successful in attracting pennies for his annual fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital. Make that "too successful." There are about 350 pounds of the copper rascals in his office. All are wrapped and sealed. But none of the four banks within a penny's throw of the newspaper will accept them.
The excuses are classic:
You don't have an account here. (Why do I need one? Aren't pennies money? Can't I convert legal American coins into legal American bills?)
We're too short-staffed. (Too short-staffed to do what? Write me a receipt?)
We only accept clean pennies. (That one left me speechless.)
So off I hiked to NBW, two blocks away. The staff said they'd gladly accept the pennies. Even the dirty ones. And did I need help getting them there?
1988. The Internal Revenue Service is hassling Levey. Three years earlier, he deposited a dividend from a tax-free bond in his NBW account and didn't check the tax-exempt box on the deposit slip. Letters have been arriving from the IRS. They threaten various Leveys with various mayhem if they don't pay the tax they apparently owe.
Levey asks NBW to exhume the appropriate deposit slip so he can show the IRS that the whole business is a mistake. This is a major pain in the neck for the desk officer. The bank doesn't keep three-year-old records in its computer, he explains. The deposit slip still exists, but it'll take many days and many person-hours to chase it, via microfiche.
Gosh, I really need it, and the sooner the better, I say. Okay, says the desk officer, just like that.
Less than 24 hours later, he calls. A photocopy of the deposit slip is on his desk. (By the way, I didn't get red-carpeted just because I write for the paper. One of my lower-profile neighbors reports similar walking-the-extra-mile by NBW staff.)
The day I closed my NBW account, the staff from Riggs was doing its best. Questions were being fielded. Snags were being resolved. Riggs had even provided finger sandwiches, served by a liveried waiter, to try to ease the pain of the transition.
But I said no to watercress-on-white. Some pain is meant to be felt, not blunted. And NBW pain hurts like Washington Senators pain and Washington Star pain. Way down deep, in the hometown nerve.