Cash. I need cash. We’re taking the elevator down after the meeting and he's excited and giddy and slapping my back when I remember my wife telling me she needs cash. As the doors slide open I tell him I’ve got to swing by the ATM over there but instead of continuing on his way he walks over with me.
I slide my card in, the machine prompts me for my PIN. I pause.
To shield or not to shield? On one hand, shielding my PIN is a deeply ingrained behavioral pattern with strong correlations to personal safety and fiscal security. That’s good. On the other hand, shielding my PIN from him signals pretty loudly that I don’t trust him, that if I didn’t turn my back or cover the keypad with my other hand, he’d lift the code and phone it in to his friends in the Russian mafia who’d crack into my account and wire its contents through a series of dummy accounts till it ended up in one of those offshore money laundromats to be split 80/20 between them. You know, something like that. That's bad.
I don’t have any reason to doubt him, no rumors suggest he’s a code cracker, and he does work down the hall from me and I know where he lives but you never know so I spread my hand over the keypad and move my fingers up and down in a manner that doesn’t necessarily correspond with the keys they’re pressing. Very slick. Except somewhere along the line I hit a wrong key and the ATM’s angry buzz gets his attention and he’s now staring at the keypad as I punch in my PIN again and this time I have to slow down, not slick at all, and I’m sure he can see everything, but what can I do?
I’m in, finally.
How much? I started my banking life as a $20 man, the amount my meager allowance permitted me to withdraw each week from that brand newfangled ATM just off campus, a salad day sum, except I subsisted on peanut butter rather than lettuce. Those were simple times. My lack of funds gave me no choice but to keep them simple. Even the slightest monetary misstep would reduce me to fasting or mooching until my next weekly withdrawal, so discipline and order ruled the day. Financially, that is.
Over the years, my standard withdrawal amount steadily increased even as I moved away from the cash economy, shifting nearly all my purchases to 2% cashback plastic cards. I believe my cash anomaly has four principal explanations: (1) I’m withdrawing for two, as my wife hates to use ATMs, (2) I withdraw less often, maybe twice a month, so I withdraw more per visit, (3) I make and spend a lot more money today, and (4) I support a not insignificant segment of our local cash-based service economy: cleaning people, contractors, babysitters, handymen, barbers, bellmen, tennis and swim instructors and so on.
So I punch in $400 and he whistles, slaps my back, and tells me he’d like to party with me, big spender. I begin to recite for him the four explanations listed above but he isn’t listening, suggesting instead all the fine illicities I can buy with a wad like that in my pocket, then softly sings the opening lyrics to that Bay City Rollers song, the one that starts “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y, Night!”
Another angry ATM buzz. He shuts up. New words flash on the screen: “You have insufficient funds in your account to withdraw that amount,” a nasty little poem I’ve never seen before, having heretofore managed my fiscal affairs with exacting rectitude. A charter Quicken user, for years I tracked the progress of every penny as it wended its way into and back out of my pocket, categorizing and prioritizing and planning and setting budgets, all in a quest to avoid ever being reduced to a $20 withdrawal man again. Then a few years ago I stopped tracking the pennies, I let weeks, then months, go by without balancing my checkbook, I allowed too much money sit too long in an interest-free checking account, I neglected to reinvest dividends and allocate contributions, I stopped reading account statements as they arrived. Basically, I slackened my discipline, paying attention only to the big stuff. Overall, this is probably a good thing, this boost in my financial materiality threshold, for it gives me more time to think lofty thoughts and spend my remaining minutes with the ones I love.
But it is also a bad thing, for now I’ve overdrawn my checking account if this ATM can be believed. I start over again, punch in a $40 withdrawal this time, the ATM buzzes then flashes the same insufficient funds notice. I pull up my current account balance, it’s -$586.27. Negative. I’m definitely overdrawn. For the first time in my life. And he whistles again, pats me on the back, and lowers his voice as he leans in and says, “Blew it all on blow, didn’t you?” Then he laughs and launches into that Bay City Rollers song again and by now my face is burning and I just want to get the hell out of there.
As we separate in the garage, he offers me cash, not enough to get high, he tells me, just enough to get a good meal. I ignore him.
(Now lest you think that I am in fact in the habit of incinerating Benjamins when lighting my crack pipe whilst lounging about club VIP rooms in the company of high-priced ladies, you should understand that he’s joking, the humor being the absurd contrast of the fictional out-of-control nightcrawler lifestyle persona he invented for me with the sober strait-laced suburban shlub that’s the real me. Really. This is what passes for humor in cube culture.)
Sitting in my car, idling in the long exit line, waiting to pay, it occurs to me that I only have $5 on me. That's the rate for 30 minutes, and I parked here three hours ago. I call my assistant to get the bank’s number and she’s reading my mind, or so I think, as she immediately interrupts to tell me the bank called, it’s important, you overdrew your checking account, they need to speak to you immediately. Have I mentioned she has this loud, piercing voice that reverberates up and down the hall? I can’t hear the laughter from the cubicles. Yet.
She transfers me to the bank, I speak with this guy whose job requires him to call deadbeats who overdraw their checking accounts, no wonder he sounds so grim even as he tells me “first time I’ve seen your name on the list.” That’s good. He says “maybe someone’s trying to pass bad checks through your account” and now I’m thinking maybe that Russian mafia stuff wasn’t just one of my paranoid delusions, and he reads from the list of my recently cleared checks and at number three it hits me -- of course, I am so stupid! -- I paid a whole year's tuition last week and forgot to transfer in the funds in to cover it. He’s a pro, does this all the time, already has my money market statement open on his screen, offers to transfer funds in to cover the deficit, put a little extra in, everything’s set. Have a nice day, sir. He's chipper. We're both relieved.
Now if I can just ransom my car from this garage.
I’m three back from the booth, it’s really tight here near the exit, I can’t back-up or turn around and there’s nowhere to park except the handicapped spaces. I run back across the alley over to the office building, stand in line at the ATM, wait for three solvent customers to conduct their business slowly and deliberately, choosing each key with the ultimate care before punching it, while I tap my foot nervously, hoping my cash is in there. After forever it’s my turn, I punch my way through the screens, the cash is there, hallelujah!, I grab some and run back to my car.
The line of cars won’t let me back in. It’s so tight here that I can't turn around. I can only maneuver my car straight back into the line. Someone has to yield or I’ll just have to wait here until the garage empties out which at this rate shouldn’t take more than, say, six or seven hours. It's confrontation time, and I hate confrontations. But I have no choice, so I slowly back up until my rear bumper is almost touching the car behind me and then I roll down my window and gesture to the car behind it. The guy behind the wheel pretends not to see me, so I honk my horn and that gets his attention and I my gesticulations grow increasingly exaggerated as I point to exactly where my 3,000 pounds of steel will soon be whether or not he decides to let me in. The key, you see, is the frantic but determined delivery, a fevered look that conveys an eagerness to deploy wanton and senseless violence the minute I don’t get my way. He gets the message, they usually do, and frowning dramatically and shaking his head he pauses to allow me to edge into "his" space. Thanks, buddy.
I pay the fee and I'm free.
As I speed away I notice something flapping under my wiper. I pull over, get out, lift it out from under and see that it’s a ticket. Parking in a handicapped space.
Eventually my rage subsides into thoughts of those $20 withdrawal days.