It had been building for months, though even I was surprised by the fury of my reaction. I’ve never been a violent person, physically or verbally, but there I was, standing before staff and customers, giving all who could hear a piece of my mind.
I grew up in a world in which banks were like the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life, and bankers were like George Bailey. In fact, it was just such a banker who agreed to sponsor a weekly radio show I sold to our local radio station when I was sixteen. With his sponsorship, three other businesses signed on and I found myself with a thirteen-week contract. Banks were comprised of real people back then who got to know their customers and made decisions accordingly.
Over the years, I bought stock in a couple of old-style banks that survived and thrived by truly serving their communities. I considered their officers and employees as friends, and in a few instances vacationed with their families. But as time has gone by, bankers—particularly those in charge of the big-name banks—have come to resemble Henry F. Potter, the greediest man in Bedford Falls.
As much as I eschew the label “conservative,” it fits my style of fiscal responsibility. I pay my bills on time, make most purchases only when I have the cash, and pay off credit cards in full at the end of every month. The result: I have stellar credit and a good deal of money saved. Yet big banks act as if they want nothing to do with me.
My problems began when I decided to refinance a real estate loan with BMO Harris on a tiny condo I own in the French Quarter. They took my money to pay for an appraisal and tied me up for days copying and supplying reams of paper filled with a lifetime of financial information, only to turn me down because the hotel room-style condo didn’t have a kitchen. “It didn’t have one when you made me the loan in the first place,” I reminded them.
“Times have changed,” the female loan officer shot back. “We only keep in-house loans for our special customers. The rest we sell off to Freddie Mac, and they don’t refinance properties that don’t have kitchens. It’s the rules.”
“And you couldn’t have told me that before you took my money?” I asked, disbelieving.
“We have a schedule,” she said. “We have to do things in order.”
I found out that day how un-special I was.
Weeks later, my partner, Debbie, found a piece of property in Sedona she wanted us to buy. The realtor warned that the banks were no longer lending on vacant property, but he’d heard that the Arizona Credit Union would. So for $5, I became a member. Throughout the lengthy process I was assured that they wanted my business and that everything looked great, especially with my having earned six hundred thousand dollars the year before. But when they finally made their decision, I was told I’d been turned down because I hadn’t submitted pay stubs.
“We talked about this before,” I reminded the guy who’d been encouraging me for weeks. “I own my own company and have for thirty years. I write myself one check a year. I’ve never produced a paystub and don’t even know what one looks like. You have my federal returns. You know how much money I make. Why do you need pay stubs?”
“That’s just the way it is,” he said. “Those are the rules.”
I found out that day that in addition to being un-special, I was a rule breaker.
Maybe it’s just me, I began to think. Not a chance.
Debbie, soon after, opened a bank account at Bank of America, depositing tons of money in preparation for our building project in New Orleans. Bank of America personnel, like lap dogs, began licking her hands, barking what a wonderful customer she was, begging her to give them more business, such as taking out a loan. She listened to this for months before deciding to refinance one of her properties out of state. “Thank you, Debbie!” the chorus rang out. After taking her money to pay for an appraisal and tying her up for days while she copied and supplied reams of paper filled with a lifetime of financial information, they turned her down because there were too many rental units in her building and not enough owner-occupied condos.
“You couldn’t have determined that before you took my money?” she asked.
“That’s not how we do it,” she was told by one of Bank of America’s best and brightest, inviting Debbie to make a formal protest if she wanted. Debbie did and never heard another word. She was so un-special, she didn’t even deserve a response.
Which brings me to last month. I hired a guy and his two assistants to clean debris from the property we purchased in New Orleans. They charged a hundred dollars apiece. I told the lead guy I had to pay by check because I was heading for Chicago in the morning and didn’t have that much cash. He said he was good with a check but that the two other guys didn’t have checking accounts and needed to feed their kids.
Hoping to head off starvation, I looked at Debbie and said, “Let’s open a local account and transfer ten thousand dollars from our joint account. Then when we need a little cash, like today, we’ll have it.” She agreed. So we walked to Whitney Bank, New Orleans’ local bank—at least until it merged with the Hancock Holding Company in 2010. I told the customer service person we’d just moved into the neighborhood, were planning to renovate a hundred and fifty-year-old house, and wanted to open an account, handing her my Illinois driver’s license and a credit card.
“I’ll need to see water and electric bills,” she said.
“There aren’t any,” I informed her. “The reason the house needs renovating is because there’s no water or electricity hooked up.”
“Well that’s a problem,” she told me. “You can’t open an account without proof of residency.”
“I’ve got three guys working at my house and they need to get paid,” I told her. “We want to be good neighbors, hire locals, and support their families. Kids need to eat. Let’s just use the address on my Illinois driver’s license.”
“I can’t do that,” she said. You have to be a Louisiana resident to open an account. Those are the rules.” To make sure, she got up, talked with a supervisor, and returned seconds later. “Yep, those are the rules.”
It dawned on me as I slid my Chase credit card back in my wallet that Chase had a branch in the French Quarter. I looked at Debbie and said, “I’ll give this one more chance. Chase has our cars and I have a hundred thousand dollar line of credit on their card. Surely they’ll open an account.”
Two nice guys, one also named Craig, listened to our story—the guys working at the house, our need for two hundred dollars in cash to feed their kids, our lengthy relationship with Chase, our gold-bond credit status, and our desire to open a local account beginning with a deposit of ten thousand dollars. They said, “Sure, let’s get started.”
I said, “But I don’t have an electric bill.” They looked at me like I was crazy. They thanked us for our business, our loyalty, and our years of fiscal responsibility. “We love to work with customers like you,” they told us. Twenty minutes later we had an account, a handful of checks, and two new friends. I wrote out a check for two hundred dollars and handed it to the guy not named Craig. “Oh, we can’t cash this,” he said. “It’ll take days for your ten thousand to clear.”
“But what about the guys in the back yard,” I reminded him. “That’s why we came in here in the first place. What about our years of service, our superior credit, all the money your company’s loaded onto my card?”
“You’re right,” he said. “That’s worth something. Let me see what I can do.” He returned ten minutes later with a supervisor holding a sheet of paper. “According to the computer,” the supervisor read, “we can give you one hundred dollars.”
That’s when I lost it.
“SO IN OTHER WORDS,” I said so everyone could hear, “KIDS WON’T EAT TONIGHT BECAUSE THE CEOs OF THE MAJOR BANKS WHO ESCAPED JAIL AFTER CREATING THE GREAT RECESSION AREN’T WILLING TO RISK TWO CENTS ON THEIR WAY TO MAKING THEIR NEXT TRILLION!”
Craig, now seated at his desk talking with two new customers looked up, smiled, and said, “I better not comment on that one.”
He might have been working for the evil empire, but I did appreciate his humor. It was almost as if he actually got it. If I weren’t so angry at the Henry F. Potters of the world, and still in need of finding a solution for the guys, I would have laughed right along with him.
Debbie and I got home and began scouring through the change jar, couch cushions, and secret compartments in each of our wallets. Our total take: two hundred and two dollars. The following day we drove home with two dollars to our name and the satisfaction of knowing we can be our own bank!