I went to my bank the other day to deposit two checks. They weren’t especially large, but they were unexpected. They were from my health insurance company and totaled about $180. That’s not enough to make me rock back on my heels the way the Monopoly man does on the card that reads “Bank error in your favor,” but, hey, in this world of sorrow and despair, $180 is not to be sneezed at.
Anyway, to the bank. The business strategy of the modern bank is to minimize the things that their employees must actually do. Customers are expected to serve themselves, leaving the bankers free to spend their days attaching ballpoint pens to the ends of chains and making risky loans.
I’m used to that — that particular battle was lost long ago — and so I went straight to the ATM in the bank’s lobby to scribble my financial details on the outside of a pre-gummed envelope, punch in my account information and feed my lovely, unexpected checks into the ATM’s waiting orifice.
But what was this? There were no envelopes. Every little acrylic cubby that used to hold deposit slips and deposit envelopes was empty.
Oh, I realized with dread, there had been Improvements.
“Improvements” are what companies do when they want to save money. The word is synonymous with “to better serve you.” You know how that one goes: “In an effort to better serve you, we are burning your village, killing your livestock and sowing your fields with salt.”
I didn’t see what was wrong with the old way — envelopes — and so I was a little wary of these Improvements. And yet I was also a little excited. I figured the bank had some sort of new technology that would scan the checks and automatically determine their amount and I wanted to see it in action. Oh, what a wondrous age we live in!
After I dipped my ATM card, the machine instructed me to insert the first check. I did so and waited expectantly. Yes! The readout flashed $105. Then I inserted the second check and waited.
At first nothing happened. Then the machine indicated that it could not read the check — a check that was identical, save for the amount, to the other check. It spit it back out with a message that I should deposit it with a teller.
I walked over and joined the line. Everyone in front of me was refinancing their Jet Ski loans or converting Mexican pesos into Chinese renminbi, giving me plenty of time to think. And what I thought was this: In the old days, bank employees would read the checks at some point. If there was a problem, they would fix it. Now, when the machine makes a mistake, the customer is the one who has to sort it out.
This is progress?
My column last week about the D.C. depicted in “J. Edgar” prompted Alexandria’s Jean Marcouyeux to write. Jean noticed there’s a scene where Hoover stands on his balcony at the Justice Department building and watches FDR’s first inaugural parade, in March 1933. “Visible prominently across the street is the National Archives building,” Jean wrote. “However, the Justice Department building and the National Archives building were not completed until 1935 as part of the Roosevelt-era Federal Triangle project.”
Anne C. Dickerson of Irvington, Va., used to work for the Hannah Harrison Career School in Washington. That’s one of the charities Julius Garfinckel funded in his will. It was administered by his nephew. The school was founded to train women who needed a means of support in such areas as nursing and hotel housekeeping. It closed in the ’90s. “One point remains in my mind,” Anne wrote. “We were ALWAYS to pronounce his uncle’s name GarfincKELL!”
Finally, Jack Cohen brings us full circle. Jack said Garfinckel’s was a little rich for his blood, but in the 1960s he did spot J. Edgar Hoover shopping there. “At the men’s tie counter, not ladies’ dresses,” Jack wrote.
We’re exactly halfway through our campaign to raise $400,000 for Children’s National Medical Center. I wish I could say we were at the $200,000 mark, but we’re not. At last count, our total stood at $68,676.
But now is the time when most donations traditionally come in. I hope yours will be among them. Your tax-deductible gift will help pay the medical bills of poor children. Please send a check or money order (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online, go to washingtonpost.com/