Few American institutions have changed as little over time as the local bank, that little brick building with the decades-old drive-through windows, Star Trek-era tube-shoot technology and banners shouting “Free Checking!” — a concept no more revolutionary nowadays than “Free Toaster!” was years ago.
To be fair, most major banks now offer contemporary virtual banking experiences like supermarket ATMs, online banking, and direct deposit. (What other institution works so hard to stop you from visiting in person?) But you’d think by now someone would have come up with a better pen theft-prevention system than permanently shackling them to the table via beaded chain. Sure, no one’s stealing the pens, but who cares? They’ve all been bone-dry since the Reagan Administration.
My Dad used to have my brother Paul and I count, stack, and wrap coins in the hopes that we’d learn enough fiscal responsibility to one day know better than maxing out his gasoline credit cards on soda and junk food. These paper coin wrappers -– still used today -– seemed designed to make you lose count. Clink. Was that 50 or 51? Or was it 49?! Any day I expected the bank police to break down our door, announce we’ve shorted them on rolled pennies for years, and throw us all in bank jail… or at least take back their toaster.
Checks haven’t changed much either. My wife writes “For Deposit Only” on the back of her checks, but I’m not sure why. It’s as if she fears the teller would otherwise roll up the check and smoke it. Just to be safe, I write “Please don’t smoke my check” on the back of my checks. Underneath that I write “Please don’t fold my check into an origami crane,” then “Please don’t lick my check.” It would go on and on but I have a phobia about “writing below the line” and giving the bank police more excuses to come knocking.
I’ve always fantasized about getting personalized checks. You know the kind — watermarked with puppies or rainbows or Looney Tunes characters. But what’s the point? Does the mortgage company really care if you have a thing for Bugs Bunny? Can you imagine it inspiring conversation?
“Oh look, Bugs Bunny. So cute! Let’s only deposit half of it.”
“Nah, let’s just smoke it.”
Banks age at a slower pace than snails on vacation because they don’t have to grow up. Most people would rather pay ridiculous ATM fees than go through the hassle of changing banks, transferring money, and waiting for new checks and debit cards.
Still, there are some good reasons to leave a bank. Many years ago, I was infatuated with a bank teller named Jenny, who was beautiful and friendly and purred “tens or twenties” in a way that made my toes tingle. When I negotiated my way through the waiting line and finally asked her out, she politely refused after making a single keystroke. Looking back on it, that keystroke probably revealed that I couldn’t afford a jelly donut, much less a dinner for two.
That’s a good reason to switch banks.
But banks can keep their Jurassic ways so long as they make good on a single promise: keep our money in safer hands than our own.
Now, if only we could say the same about our children, gasoline credit cards, and the federal government.