When banks began charging their customers to use the automatic teller machines, I was one of the first to scream and shout.
Not fair, I said. Another example of big business gouging the small consumer.
Now, I would like to apologize.
Now, I realize I would pay any price to use the machines. Because I would pay any price to avoid going into a bank and dealing with the human beings there.
And judging by the long lines at the bank machines, I would say avoiding other human beings has become an important part of most of our lives.
It is two weeks ago and I am standing in line on a sidewalk in front of a bank machine. By some unstated code the person using the machine gets about five feet of “private” space, while the rest of us stand behind him and mutter about how long he is taking.
“What’s he doing, taking out a second mortgage?” is one of my favorite mutters.
There are about eight of us in line and we are blocking the sidewalk, which we consider our right. As we wait, a woman comes out of the bank, stuffing a receipt into her purse. She almost walks headfirst into our line. She stops just short of us, looks up a little startled and says: “There’s hardly anybody inside the bank.”
None of us moves.
“There’s almost no line inside,” she says.
We stare at her.
“Well, all right,” she says, a little miffed. “Wait in line then.”
We wait in line then. We don’t care how short the line is inside the bank. Inside the bank, they have bank humans instead of bank machines. Ask anybody, the machines are worth waiting for.
It is a week later and I am trying a little variety. Instead of waiting in line at a bank machine on foot, I drive up to the drive-up machine and wait in line in my car.
When it is my turn, I do what I always do: I forget my secret number. Many banks let you pick your own secret number. My bank does not.
My bank does not because it knows that 93.8% of all Americans pick 1-2-3-4 when asked to pick a secret number. (Six percent pick 4-3-2-1 and .2% pick Elvis’ birthday.)
My bank picks a secret number for you and I have a terrible time remembering mine. I have tried various mnemonic devices: I know, for instance, my secret number starts with Red Grange’s jersey number plus two, but then I get in trouble because the next two digits are either the number of keys on a piano or the real age of Dick Clark.
So I drive up and I punch in the wrong number.
“Sorry, that is incorrect,” the machine flashes on the screen. “Try again.”
I am used to this. I don’t resent it. The machine is being polite (it said it was sorry) and it is giving me another chance, which is two things no human would do.
I try again.
“Sorry, that is still incorrect,” the machine tells me. “Try again.”
This is the first time I have gotten it wrong twice, but I am looking forward to the adventure. At worst, I figure, the machine will spit my card back at me and then I can drive home and rummage around in my sock drawer for my secret number, which is written on a card that cleverly says “Secret Number.”
I get it wrong a third time.
“We are very sorry,” the machine says and I can tell that it really is. “Your card must be withheld for your own protection. Please see a teller inside.”
Icy fingers of dread clutch at my heart. I don’t mind so much that my card is gone. But I am terrified at having to go inside and talk to a bank human. I have avoided this for years.
Inside the bank, there is no line. (Everybody is outside at the machines.) I go to a teller. Her gaze is fixed on a spot two feet above my head.
The machine kept my card, I say.
“You musta done it wrong,” she says.
Yes, I did, but how can I. . . .
She turns to the teller next to her. “Hey, is it warm outside or what?” she asks.
I was wondering how I can get my card back, I say.
“ ‘Cause if it’s warm,” she says, “I’m not gonna wear my, you know, sweater.”
My card, I say. I need my card.
She turns back to me. “You musta done it wrong,” she says.
I know, I say, I know.
“Lemme ask you something,” she says in a low, serious tone.
I lean forward.
“Is it warm out?” she asks. “Or what?”
I know when I am beaten. There’s no way you can get my card for me, right? I ask.
“It’s in the machine,” she says, shocked. “We’re not allowed to touch the machines.”
And I don’t want her to. The machines are polite and do their best and I don’t want people messing around inside them and making them as bad as we are.
I know I am being hard on an entire species. But I also know we can all buckle down and do better.
Because, gosh darn it, I want human beings that our machines can be proud of.