18 January 2011
I went to the bank and I wanted to say a couple of things about what that was like. Perhaps it is important to know that I am a bit over sensitized to such things at the moment. I have a corporate client, who shall remain nameless, for whom I have done a couple of days of work over the past year. They have just instituted an SAP system. Such systems are typically instituted in the name of cost savings and efficiency. It has now taken them over six months to pay me for the work I did. I wrote them a longish case study and deconstruction of my experience with an extrapolation to process safety and corporate culture. I have not received a response. I do not imagine more work forthcoming. When I look at the ROI for the work, I have now invested as much of my time in the process of getting paid as I did in doing the work itself. Of course this has been mirrored in their organization as well. For me it is simply karma for all the suffering I have caused being so dysfunctional about invoicing and paper work in general. Though writing is not modern, paperwork is almost certainly a fairly recent 'innovation' in its current form. Can you even imagine life or who you might be without it? I will not share the case study with you and you can thank me for that later. Instead I will share with you the case of my going to the bank, and you can berate me for that at your leisure.
I hosted a couple of mindmapping sessions. I asked for a small cash amount or equal exchange, if people felt is was worth it. Many of the participants gave me checks for the cash amount, drawn on a local bank, which shall also remain nameless. Let me be clear that I am grateful to those who took the time to do the sessions and grateful that people felt it was worth something and were able to make a gesture consistent with that. This little missive is not about that in any way.
So I have a number of small checks drawn from Nameless Local Bank (NLB). I decide to cash these checks at the bank itself. Those of you wiser than I am in the ways of such things will realize that this may have been a mistake for me. I do not have an account with NLB and really only have an account anywhere, barely and in name only. Since I do not really make any money, this is not really a difficulty. I have had bankers in the past who I knew pretty well and as is often the case such a relationship makes a difference. I understand that.
A friend recently told me what I feel may be an apocryphal story, regarding the origin of paper money. I have researched this a bit with respect to how corporations and debt based economy came about in Europe, but I had never heard this story. The story he told was of an un-named (by him) island people. As the story goes a certain family among these people found a large rock in the ocean. I mean a really big rock. Somehow they managed to transport this massive boulder from an extremely remote location, over the ocean, to the place of there dwelling. An heroic feat. As the story goes, this family then experienced increased and increasing prosperity. People attributed this to the giant rock. Giant rocks became all the rage. Other families organized themselves to transport larger and larger rocks to their own places of dwelling. The rocks themselves became tradable. Eventually these rocks were so large that it was very difficult indeed to move them, but they still retained their value as sources of prosperity. People then began to own a 'paper' that gave them value rights to a rock that was not in their own front yard, but which could not really be moved.
Interesting, but iffy. I will look into it more.
So anyway, I had this handful of checks (for which I was and am grateful). I got on a bus and went to the bank. In the process I left the more or less human dimensions of the immediate little town and entered the automotive dimensions of the outskirts. By automotive dimensions I simply mean that the scale and design of everything was geared, so to speak, for the convenience of someone strapped into the mostly controlled explosion we call an automobile. Inhumane dimensions in other words. Strip malls. Four lane streets. Car dealerships.
Please don't misunderstand me. I have lived in many of the largest cities in the US, Europe and Asia. None the less, this liminal area of town designed to accommodate vehicular reality and efficiency occurs for me as horrific. I think I passed maybe four distinct malls and several blurry areas on my way to the NLB. It was not really all that far. It is a small town. I saw lovely people who I watched and wondered about, but I did not enjoy the experience overall. I enjoy even less walking through such auto-scapes, mall-scapes, asphalt-scapes which is why I took the bus.
Eventually, after some walking, I found the bank, a nondescript building among nondescript buildings. It was lunch time-ish, which means that it was the time many people had available (and has been consensually and institutionally allocated) to strap themselves into mostly controlled explosions and hurl themselves to their financial institution, since the rocks are of such a size that they are difficult to move (well, actually the rocks are now so abstract that they cannot be found to move, but it is the same effect). This means that there was of course a long line. I don't mind lines, though I am not pathological in the way the Brits can be, feeling a need to start a line next to anyone who appears to be standing still. I like to watch people, observe myself, notice how I am standing and other such edge of the seat stuff.
Being slightly touchy about institutions in general, I felt I should ask if I could even cash the checks, feeling that it might be possible that, though drawn from this particular bank, at this particular branch, I might not be able to cash them, in fact. The answer was that I could, but that I would be charged an amount that happened to be 10% of each check, though a fixed fee. I may have remarked, before placing myself in line, that this seemed odd to me.
Cleverly predicting the need to identify myself I was armed with my trusty and beaten passport. With the exception of my very first passport I have traveled the seven seas and literally every continent, crossing borders and engaging in many and various transactions with little or no trouble whatsoever armed only with a passport. My first passport was a horrible miscalculation. I had my head shaved and was wearing an institutional green generic windbreaker for the photograph. I looked like I had just escaped and the British immigration authorities viewed my unmarked and pristine document in just that light. They were not friendly. I got a new passport after only one stamp in that first one. When asked why I was getting a new passport I just showed them the picture. My current passport, many passports on, has a very respectable photograph, itself now a problem since I am clearly not very respectable in person. Of course add to this that I am in the vast minority of US citizens who even possess such an arcane document, the reasons for doing so no doubt in themselves suspicious. In theory I have a driver's license, but I have no idea or even interest in where it is. I possess no other form of identification.
There are currently two standard forms of identification practice that until recently were unconstitutional. One is that you should be required to give your social security number to anyone at all other than social security. I tried protesting this in the 80's, talked with the Attorney General's office and such and refused to give out my SS#. This is now a pointless effort. The second is that a US citizen could be required to carry and produce papers. "Papers please," was a phrase from WWII black and white movies, asked by men in black trench coats and fedoras. I had a disagreement about this constitutional right with the Milwaukee police even before my SS# fiasco. They did not have trench coats, but they had nice boots and spiffy peaked caps.
So you understand, I should say that when I was five, my kindergarten class was making those nice ceramic plates with a palm print and some scrawl approximating a name under them which one gives one's mother in attempt to display that one is some sort of budding Michelangelo. I remember very clearly swinging on the swings when the authorities (my kind and patient kindergarten teacher) came to get me. Once we were in the examination room (the kitchen of her house where we had kindergarten) I told her and the artist that I would not be able to make such a thing since it was very possible that the FBI would then have my finger prints. Much to their credit, they did not (outwardly) freak out or laugh or anything. They did ask a couple of times, I think to be sure that they were actually hearing what they thought they were hearing (i.e., the interrogation continued). Once they understood, the artist calmly explained to me the entire process and where the plate would be at all times (propaganda). I had some questions about this that I asked. They may have called my mother at some point. I am not at all sure where I got this idea about fingerprints. It was not from television. I think I may have gone on a field trip to the police station with my older bothers Cub Scout den, during which finger printing was demonstrated and about which I remember being very thoughtful. Clearly this was a similar process. The plate was made. All was well.
Today in line at the bank I was surveilled by no less than a dozen cameras. Such surveillance is now just simply a fact of modern life. I am sure I have been surveilled all over the world. I am no longer bothered by such things, long ago having determined that my life is altogether so terribly boring that I can only feel compassion for any other human who might have to attend to such surveillance. I first decided this about my journals in my early 20's. It is mostly true. This has nothing to do with the state and private enterprise right to surveil. That is a different matter.
After my NLB movie debut in line I eventually reach a teller, who also happened to be a trainee, with a trainer patiently sitting at her shoulder. Both seem lovely people. I learned the trainees name from her name tag. The trainer did not have a name tag, though she presumably had a name. They do not seem overly disturbed by my passport though they have to consult a bit to figure out how to use such an arcane thing as identification. They inform me that I will be charged a fee per check for cashing them. I tell them I do not feel good about that, but understand it is not their fault. I wonder aloud if they also charge a fee to the holders of the checking accounts. Heroically rising to the task of role model the trainer attempts to make the reasoning transparent to me, which is that I am taking time away from people who do have accounts here, etc. The profit model of the bank is not mentioned. Heroically, I say nothing at all to this except 'thank you.' Each check must be processed individually and I do indeed take a lot of time away from people who have accounts. I am not entirely sure what I will do with it now that I have it though. Even more time is stolen since I am also participating in the training of a new employee who must step through the process each time, in front of a trainer and a non-account holder of dubious credibility.
And of course... well... they want my phone number... "Why?" "Well, in case something goes wrong with the check?" "In which case, I would think you should contact the person who wrote the check who does have an account with you, which activity I am subsidizing with my fee, instead of wanting to call me." It is not their fault, I know. There is a line. I am using arcane documents for identification. I do not have an account. I am an 'other' in all the worst ways. Management gets involved. I try a different, simpler tack. "I do not have a phone." Moments of silence between the three of them also attracts the attention of the other tellers. I have decided not to begin talking to the people in line, though it has already crossed my mind several times. "Oh... ok. Erm... put 'no phone' on it." I whisper to the trainer that "I use Skype..." you know, so I am cool, despite all indications to the contrary.
They ask me for a thumbprint.
I just start laughing out loud. Since they already know I am a dubious sort, I am sure this does not surprise them. I cannot help it. They want a thumbprint... for this! I remember the entirely inconsequential nature of my life (the innocent have no reason to fear!) and put my thumb print on each check, telling them in the process about my kindergarten experience and confirming thereby all their worst suspicions and fears. They eventually process the checks. It takes about 25 minutes or so, for much of which I have been silent. I tell them that I hope I have not caused any suffering in their day and thank them.
I return to the inhumane auto-scape and wait for my bus. The whole thing has taken me about 2 hours and over 10% of the value of the checks cashed. This does not include the psychic overhead involved. I know. I could make this easier... and if you are in certain parts of Asia reading this it will already seem incredibly easy since more processing is involved with buying something from a department store. We live and swim in the waters of convenience and efficiency so thoroughly that we become its slave, serving that system rather than anything even approaching the reverse. We become accustomed to, even hypnotized by this as a 'normal' state. It is not normal. It is not efficient. It is not convenient. Extrapolated globally it is violent. It is not humane for anyone involved. Even noticing this condition, much less commenting on it, resisting it, refusing to cooperate in it becomes a matter of grave and often nationalist concern, suspicion and offense.
Really, I should have tweeted "I went to the bank." To both of you reading this I am confident the rest would have been self evident.
Posted by Roger Burton at 16:26