March 30, 2008

Financial Capital of the World


In this modern age, where the Aerogyro and telegraph are commonplace, you’d think depositing a check from a foreign country into a major multinational corporate bank would be a fairly simple operation. Something as everyday as say, a visit from the ice man. But you’d be mistaken. In some circumstances, it can even become an ordeal of Stoogeian proportions.

            The story really begins about a year and a half ago, when I did some work for the US branch of an overgrown British company. In order to pay me, the US office had to file papers with the corporate headquarters in London. The check would actually be cut and sent from there. That whole process itself took some doing.

            When the check finally did arrive five months later, I learned that since it had been cut in London, British taxes had been removed from it—approximately thirty percent of what I was owed. Now, it wasn’t that big a check to begin with, so this was, in a word, frustrating. Money was tight and growing tighter by the day—I could’ve really used that extra third (which was now presumably being used to buy new underpants for Lord Affenbottom).

            The details are boring so I won’t go into them. Let’s just say that the next nine months involved lots of paperwork and transatlantic phone calls, trying to prove to the British tax office that I was an American citizen, that I’d never lived in the UK, and that those taxes they collected were, by all rights, mine. (It’s a fairly common problem, I learned along the way).

            Finally, last Thursday I received a check, along with a letter saying, in essence, “We promise that British taxes will never be collected from you again—unless they are, in which case we apologize in advance.”

            Relieved that this little annoyance was finally behind me, I headed on down to the bank, check tucked neatly in my wallet. That the check was in Pounds Sterling was a minor glitch, I figured. All it meant was that I’d have to go to a teller instead of a machine, and that they’d take care of the currency exchange quickly and neatly, with a few taps on the computer keyboard. I’d figured out the exchange myself the night before, and it took all of thirty seconds.

            Although I’d been a customer at this bank for almost two decades, I hadn’t dealt with a real human teller in years. As a result, I also hadn’t been beyond the ATM lobby in years.

            The first problem I ran into was The Maze. You know what I’m talking about—that rat maze you need to run through before you reach the teller windows.

            If there are other people waiting, I’m usually okay with these—I just note where the other customers are standing and work my way backwards. But it was early, the bank was mostly empty, and my god, the stanchions and nylon straps which laid out the maze blended in perfectly with the carpet.

            For the next ten minutes, I slowly felt and bumped my way around the maze. I think I actually made it into the maze at one point, but then couldn’t find my way out again. It was another one of those times when a cane might’ve helped. I don’t even want to think about how this looked on the bank’s security cameras. ‘Guess I’ll just have to wait until it shows up on YouTube or some wacky video show. Even worse, I don’t want to know what the tellers must’ve thought as they calmly sat there behind their windows, watching my suspicious and bumbling antics.

            I finally found myself in the clear—don’t know how I did it, actually—staring at a teller, who was staring back at me through half an inch of Plexiglas.

            “Are you waiting for help?” she asked.

            “Yes . . . Yes, I am,” I said.

            Figuring still that I’d gotten the hard part out of the way, I approached the window and slid her the check, explaining that it was in foreign currency, but I just wanted to deposit it into my account, please.

            She stared at the check for a moment, then stood and disappeared, returning two minutes later with a manager.

            “I’m going to print out some forms for you to fill out,” she said. My guts went cold. The maze was hard enough—forms were a nightmare. I have trouble writing my own damn checks nowadays.

            As I waited for the forms, she did a lot of furious typing into her computer, explaining in the meantime that they were going to have to send the check to a separate special collections department, and that would require a $30 fee. “Do you still want to do it?” she asked.

            Well, shit, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly bring it to Pedro’s Check Cashing Emporium down on 4th, could I?

            I guess I’d been expecting some sort of fee, so it wasn’t really that big a deal.

            Then she looked at the check again, more closely. “Where is this from?” she asked.


            “The check,” she said, “Where is this from?”

            Well, I thought, given that it’s in pounds, and that the address printed in the upper right hand corner of the check was “London, England,” it’s obviously from Guam.

            “England,” I said. She nodded and continued on with her typing.

            She never gave me those promised forms, but instead asked if I had a deposit slip, which I did.

            “I wasn’t sure what, you know, amount I should put down,” I said.

            “Just fill it out with this amount,” she said, holding up the check. “In pounds.”

            So, even though it didn’t exactly seem kosher, I filled out the deposit ticket, scratching out the dollar sign and drawing in a fancy “L.” Then I handed that to her.

            “Okay now,” she said, “this will take eight to ten weeks to go through.”

            “Heavens to Betsy,” I replied.

            I’m sorry, but I return to my opening sentence. Are they handling this transaction via carrier pigeon? What the hell? But I was in no real position to argue at that point.

            “Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked.

            “Umm,” I said. “Yeah—could you give me any indication how much that might be in, y’know, American dollars?”

            She shook her head. “You’ll find that out in eight to ten weeks. They’ll send you a letter.”

            “All right,” I said, “thank you.”

            Avoiding the maze entirely on my way back to the lobby, I left the bank with a deeper understanding of why we’re in the economic shithole we are nowadays. I also left with the sinking feeling that I was never going to see any of that money.


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