Sorry, Wrong Number

I was standing at a Bank of America Versatel machine the other day when it asked for my code. There was no oral communication, just a request flashed on the screen after I had put my card in the necessary slot.

I have done this several hundred times in the past, but I was distracted at the moment and entered the wrong numerical code. When a notation on the screen pointed out my error, I panicked.

Most of what I accomplish in life I owe to automatic responses, from breathing to driving. Program me for a specific job and I am terrific at it, but inject a random request into my coded procedure and I fall apart.

When the Versatel machine asked me to try again, I had to stop and think what my code was, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know. Like Pavlov’s dog, I usually responded with conditioned reflex to the command “enter code,” not by salivating but by mindlessly punching out the proper sequence of numbers.


I didn’t do it. My fingers did it. The code was nowhere in my conscious memory and since no hypnotist was in the vicinity to pull it from my subconscious, I was stuck. The bank was closed.

Numbers flashed through my head. I recalled that a memory game was involved in my original selection of the four secret numbers required to free my money from the bank’s electronics system, but I couldn’t remember what the game was.

A 94-year-old man married a 13-year old girl? A 15-year-old dog ate a 40-year-old cat? Sometimes that works but this time it didn’t. My code wasn’t 9413 and it wasn’t 1540.

I remembered my driver’s license number once by just such a game and won $10. The idea in word or number association is to make the memory-trigger as ludicrous as possible.


Relative to my driver’s license number, for instance, I had 54 rabbits in the back yard of a 12-year-old nun who sold them to 31 astronauts. Hence the number 541231. That’s not really my driver’s license number, but you get the idea.

Eventually I began wondering how a 12-year-old got to be a nun and what she was doing with 54 rabbits and as a result, the numbers slipped my mind. That taught me a valuable lesson. You can’t intellectualize memory games. Forget the nun and her rabbits. Concentrate on numbers.

Meanwhile, back at the Bank of America, the Versatel machine waited for me to try again, but I didn’t know what it would do if I entered the wrong number a second time. Are the machines, for instance, licensed to kill? I canceled the transaction.

The problem was, I still needed $20. I considered begging, but that would be unseemly. And then I remembered I could probably get it at Vons. Surely Vons would spring for a double sawbuck in cash if I purchased at least an equivalent amount in check?


So I picked up three bottles of a decent wine, got to the counter and wrote a check for the amount of the wine, plus $20.

She said, “Do you have your Vons card?”

Something in my memory stirred.


“My card?”

She pointed to a computerized check-verification machine on the counter.

“We’re using those now.”

Then I remembered. My Versatel card had been programmed in the Vons system. No problem. I ran it through the machine and the little screen said, “Enter Code, Please.”

Oh my God.

The clerk waited. An impatient woman in line behind me cleared her throat. The most I could recall was that my Vons code was a name, not a number, and it wasn’t anyone I knew.

“The first thing crooks do in an effort to break your code,” a bunco cop once told me, “is to get the names of your family members. Everybody uses their kids and their grandkids in their codes. That makes crooks happy.”

I tried Elmer, which is a name my wife sometimes calls me. When I say Al Martinez fast people think I am saying Elmer Teenez. Strike one. I tried the code name I use in the Times’ computer. Strike two.


“You have one more shot,” the Von’s clerk said. I heard tones of suspicion and hostility in her voice.

Names and words tumbled through my head. Tom, Hoover (my dog), Lucy, Bob, Harvey, sun, moon, stars, sex, war, Skippy, Sandra Dee, Nixon, Robert W. Morgan, talk, babble . . .

Then it happened, and I knew I was safe. No, I didn’t remember the code. But my wife, by the slenderest of coincidences, entered the store and she did.

“You looked like you were in a real panic there,” she said.

“I was.”

“Well, it’s all over now. By the way, what did you need the $20 for?”

Damned if I could remember.