Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banking With Saint Murphy

Headnote for US Americans: “cheque” is the precise French, British and Canadian word for “bank check.”

Sometimes I laugh—we may indeed be living in a “complex society,” but hey—you just can’t take it too seriously…

Recently I was privileged to finally fork out for my membership in a writer’s group in a community center. When I first tried, “they” had wanted me to put my crinkly cash in an envelope, scribble an explanation of what it was for, and then slip it under a door of an office that served several groups. I was hesitant—worried about Murphy’s Law… This time around it was better: an official tabletop mail box with a dedicated slot for each group, and—hurray!—an “Official Application Form” stating: “just staple a cheque.” I thought, “OK, that’s more like it.”

The only stapler nearby was a huge big massive thing, with a faded note on the handle: “This is a heavy-duty stapler.” I appreciated the warning: Clearly, it fired clips the size of a barbed wire fence post staple. I asked the administrative assistant, what we used to call a “secretary,” for help, as her own little office stapler was far beyond my reach. So she came over holding her stapler but instead of handing it to me… click!” —Murphy’ law!... stapled right across—obscuring—the little dollar numbers on my personal cheque! Now what? ... I quietly stuck my application through the mail slot. “Never criticize a volunteer” is my motto, so I didn’t let on that her “help” had been not-so-helpful.

Besides, I knew something: A cheque is not too serious, not too sacred, and certainly not “carved in stone.” In fact, you could scratch out a cheque on a piece of birch bark if you wanted to—and it would be perfectly legal. Honestly!

I am reminded of a splendid used bookstore, far from any banks or bank machines, out near the stampede grounds. One Saturday afternoon the old owner called me up, and I rushed on down. I had a standing order for any turn-of-the-century books by Richard Harding Davis, and they’d just gotten a full bag in from the city of Edmonton, gateway to the Klondike. Yahoo!

I bussed straight down, arriving late in the day, near closing, with insufficient time to walk a few blocks to any bank machine and back. Unfortunately on that day I must have forgotten to bring my money. Or else, more likely, I hadn’t brought enough cash, for those antique 1899 books cost me a day’s pay. Back in those days, back when I didn’t own a wallet, while I would never forget to stuff some cash into my jeans pocket, I often forgot to include my bankbook. How often? The tellers had finally resorted to putting my name and account number on a page under the glass along the counter. Hey, I wasn’t the only name on that page! I had finally ended up memorizing my number.

So there I was in the bookstore, without enough money, but with my bank account number memorized. I said “memorized” to my fellow book lover, adding that, if any address was needed, I knew which block my bank was on. The storeowner was delighted; we smiled in good fellowship and triumph. He said he’d find some foolscap in his desk and cut it into a convenient cheque size. (We had no birch bark) As the old capitalist was rummaging around for paper he came across a blank cheque—not a personal cheque, meaning: Not one with a discrete computer code along the bottom that would cause his own personal account to be debited. So we used the old blank one, filling in my memorized number. And yes, the cheque went through just fine.

Years later I told this story at Mount Royal College as we were discussing bureaucracy. My classmates got all distracted, saying, “But you can’t write a cheque on foolscap!” “Why, sure you can,” I said. “It’s not like cheques are printed by the government Bank of Canada!” The point of my story, that day in class, was that a bureaucrat would not have taken the trouble to go rummaging for foolscap. Bureaucrats are motivated by wanting to be comfortable: For them comfort is serious, sacred, all but set in stone.

Meanwhile, out in the business world, managers are motivated by wanting results. In the working world you don’t ask for excuses as to why you can’t do something, you look for ways to get things done. And you impress this on your support staff, such as your company lawyer. Pity the lawyers: I am told they are notoriously trained only in finding problems. As for the bureaucrats, they live in a cozy comfortable world off on their own somewhere… Don’t expect too much from them.

I realize it’s all too easy to take banks all too seriously. Truly, I don’t think anyone ever forgets hearing Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock’s classic piece on timidly getting his first ever bank account. We mortals can sure relate, eh?

As for the banks … they’re just not sacred. I am reminded of the time I was indulging in petty larceny as the treasurer for my Toastmasters club. In fact, knowing my limitations, I had insisted that, for withdrawals, all of our account cheques would require two signatures, called “double signing authority.” No, I’m not larceny challenged—math challenged, maybe—I just have a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. Dues time came around. While half of us paid with cash, half of us paid our dues using cheques. Of the latter, unfortunately, while half of them used our specific club’s legal name, —the name on our bank account—the other half, under the mercy of Saint Murphy, wrote their cheques out to “Toastmasters.” Now what?

Like any good treasurer, I had sat down with my bank manager when I first took over the club account. So back to the manager. “Hello Sean,” she said. “… You can see,” I said, “how the club members meant to write their cheques out to our club. As for “Toastmasters,” I continued, “I only write a cheque to “Toastmasters” twice a year when I send our club dues down to California.” She looked over my papers, nodded, and said all the cheques would go into my club’s coffers…. Yahoo!

As we go through life, having our fun by reading Stephen Leacock's "My financial career," let’s remember that cheques and bank managers and bureaucrats are all a means to an end. That’s all, nothing too serious.

Sean Crawford
Stampede City,
Province of Alberta,
In her majesty’s dominion of Canada
In the best part of North America

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