A short, relatively restrained rant about banks:
Our bank was recently swallowed by another bank. Yay, invisible hand of the market, which punished our previous bank’s bad business practices with death. Now we have a new, better bank. Theoretically.
Of course, the last bank was a swallower too, once upon a time. I moved to Fort Wayne in 1984, back when a bank was a bank, rewarded you for your business and generally followed the rules of an ordered universe. I was new in town, invited to dinner at a new friend’s house.
“I’m looking for a bank,” I said.
“I go to Fort Wayne National,” he said.
Fort Wayne National’s marketing slogan at the time was, “That’s my bank.” Simplicity itself. All I really cared about was whether they had a lot of ATMs, and whether any were near my home and office. They were. I stayed with them until they were sold to National Spitty (name cleverly disguised to fool some PR agency’s Google alerts), and had the sort of relationship you have with a bank in those days — they kept my money, sold me traveler’s checks before I hit the road, exchanged U.S. dollars for Canadian before our annual theater trip.
The problem came when we moved here. There were National Spitty banks in reasonably convenient locations, and although Indiana’s unique banking laws (i.e., rooted in the 12th century) required us to open new accounts in Michigan, we stayed with them. Why? Because when you’re a Midwesterner, you plod through your life like a mule down a furrow, that’s why. Because we’d been NatSpit customers for years.
Not long afterward, I deposited several thousand dollars in miscellaneous checks at an ATM at the closest location (in Detroit), went about my financial business and, a few days later, received a sheaf of overdraft notices, at $30 per. I called the branch where I’d deposited them and asked what the hell. The manager treated me the way she might treat a panhandling bum, only with less charm. I might be committing check fraud, she said, so she’d held the funds for 10 business days. Who were these payers, anyway, these obscure businesses like “The Detroit News” and “Hearst Publications.” Anyway, I was a new customer. I fit the profile of a sleazebag fraud artist to a T.
“I’ve been a National Spitty customer for 15 years!” I said.
I called the other National Spitty branch nearby, the one in Grosse Pointe Farms. The woman on the phone said, “Oh, you NEVER want to do business in Detroit if you can avoid it. Deposit your checks here, I handle the ATM, and I’ll credit you right away.”
Yes, they actually tell you that here. It’s like Eddie Murphy’s Mr. White sketch, only (Psycho violins) …real.
So things have been bumping along with NatSpit, and over time I realized, like all Americans, that banking had slipped beneath the waves, insofar as customer relations go. My relationship with the people who facilitate my bill-paying and otherwise spare me the hassle of keeping my cash buried in the back yard is cordial enough, but there’s no part of the experience I’d describe as pleasant. In fact, one of the things I generally liked about NatSpit was the way they made it easy for me not to interact with them, by keeping their online service fairly robust. Woe betide if things didn’t go well, however — reaching a human being, at least one with the power to make anything right, was nearly impossible.
(I did visit the Detroit branch where they’d held my checks, once. It resembled nothing so much as a ghetto liquor store, the tellers behind inch-thick bulletproof plexiglass. No wonder they were so testy.)
Long story short, now we’re with another goddamn bank, and already I hate them. They changed all my account numbers and sent me a new debit card, screwing up my gym membership, which is automatically debited. And we discovered a new wrinkle: Unlike National Spitty, which allowed you to transfer money between accounts online and access the funds from the receiving account immediately, ThreeCapitalLetters Bank does not. At least not if it’s a weekend. If you dare to move your money — YOUR OWN MONEY, which I feel the need to add in caps — on a Saturday, you can’t spend it from the receiving account until MONDAY NIGHT. The woman on the phone didn’t even feel the need to apologize for this. Screw you, sucker, we know you’re not going to take your business elsewhere. What, and redo all your direct-deposit arrangements and go through this hassle again? Besides, every other bank in town is going to give you the same deal. Why? Because we can. Have a nice day, and go get your fuckin’ shine box.
Oh, why bother with this? You all have your own tales of pain and woe, if not with banks, then with health insurance companies, mortgage holders or whomever. Here’s what amuses me most about them — how, in our allegedly perfect market-based system, our customer experience should be improving year to year. In some ways, it has, although I credit technology (the ATM) more than management. But mostly, banking — and many other allegedly service-based businesses — has only become more Soviet with time, more monolithic, less sensitive to customer complaint, more frustrating to deal with. Yes, I enjoy checking my balance online or over the phone. No, I don’t like being nickel-and-dimed — or ten-dollared and thirty-dollared — to death over every little thing.
But hey! It’s a holiday weekend! Let’s change the mood:
In the minutes after a cascade of gas explosions crippled the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, confusion reigned on the drilling platform. Flames were spreading rapidly, power was out, and terrified workers were leaping into the dark, oil-coated sea. Capt. Curt Kuchta, the vessel’s commander, huddled on the bridge with about 10 other managers and crew members.
Andrea Fleytas, a 23-year-old worker who helped operate the rig’s sophisticated navigation machinery, suddenly noticed a glaring oversight: No one had issued a distress signal to the outside world, she recalls in an interview. Ms. Fleytas grabbed the radio and began calling over a signal monitored by the Coast Guard and other vessels.
“Mayday, Mayday. This is Deepwater Horizon. We have an uncontrollable fire.”
When Capt. Kuchta realized what she had done, he reprimanded her, she says.
“I didn’t give you authority to do that,” he said, according to Ms. Fleytas, who says she responded: “I’m sorry.”
OK, sorry. Here’s something else, genuinely interesting. The death of the one-word exam at All Soul’s College, Oxford:
The exam was simple yet devilish, consisting of a single noun (“water,” for instance, or “bias”) that applicants had three hours somehow to spin into a coherent essay. An admissions requirement for All Souls College here, it was meant to test intellectual agility, but sometimes seemed to test only the ability to sound brilliant while saying not much of anything.
This is the sort of thing that would have terrified me at 19, but today I think I’d totally ace. What is blogging, if not a daily essay with a one-word prompt? (“Banking.”) However, what I find most interesting about this story is the glimpse at how they arrange things at Oxford. One of my former colleagues’ girlfriends was a Rhodes Scholar, and enrolled at New College. Punchline: Founded in 1379. Those Brits. Such a sense of humor.
The best single line from a “Sex and the City 2” pan (and this, friends, is a crowded field): “…essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.” Respect to Lindy West, The Stranger.
And with that, I guess it’s time to start the weekend. Have a good long one. I intend to get outdoors. You?