Saturday, December 3, 2011

Grown Up Business

While I've been known to articulate some vaguely radical political philosophy, the truth is that I'm very much a moderate in my habits.  I'll vote at any opportunity, and I'll gladly speak my opinions when moved to do so.  I'll even sign a petition or two, fixing my (largely illegible) signature in support of a noble cause.  But I don't like holding signs or chanting slogans, especially when such activities are held outdoors, where temperatures can reach such frightful lows as fifty degrees (or worse!) and I might be forced to carry on conversations with complete strangers. 

Even a privately symbolic act, like changing banks, is something I undertake only with reluctance.  Ideologically, I stand with the 99%, and regard large banking corporations with distaste.  Stories like this little gem can only serve as proof that America's financial giants exist primarily for their own sake, a perversion of whatever nobility there is in a capitalist system.  And yet, for as long as I can remember I've kept a small sum of of money in an account at Bank of America, one of the biggest of the Wall Street bigs.

When it comes to something like changing banks, the practical simplicity of the act is countered in my mind by the conceptual difficulty of overcoming the inertia of familiarity.  The Bank of America in scary news alerts seems almost like a different company from the one that holds my spare cash and issues me a convenient debit card.  Lately, however, the kind and gentle behemoth I remember has been acting more like the ogre the rest of the world sees.  This spring they pushed me into a new type of account that imposed an eight dollar monthly fee if I committed certain rash, irresponsible actions, like speaking to a human teller.  Then there was the farce two months ago when the company threatened to impose a five dollar monthly fee on the use of debit cards.  If they hadn't backed down when they did, I would have probably dumped them as soon as the fee went in place.

The final push came when I realized that I was more thoroughly entangled with Bank of America than I'd ever realized.  A while ago my favorite (and only) credit card, originally issued to me by Charles Schwab, became disassociated with that company and managed directly by a group called FIA Card Services.  It never occurred to me to check, but I learned this past month that FIA was, in fact, owned by Bank of America.  Paying my bill on the Charles Schwab website was fairly simple; every change since then has only made paying more inconvenient.  I might have gone on with the status quo indefinitely, but I was tired of trying to play the bank's game.  I decided on Wednesday to go to my local branch and, once and for all, sever all of my connections with the company.

On the long march downtown, I girded myself for an emotional battle.  Bank of America is a very large, intimidating organization, much like the mafia.  I imagined they would try to talk me out of it, perhaps by appealing to our long history together, or prophesying  the collapse of the financial system, or making veiled threats against my family while caressing a baseball bat.  I am terrified of confrontation; even though I was definitely sure that I didn't want to bank with them anymore, and had absolutely no shame about my motives, I dreaded explaining myself to the people whose livelihoods depended, in part, on my money. 

Once inside, however, the staff were nothing but polite and professional.  When I announced that I wished to close my account, they did not ask why.  They simply ushered me to a cubicle to process my request quickly.  The lady at the desk even smiled the whole time.  It was a little creepy.

There were a few road bumps.  The lady informed me that she'd "heard somewhere" that cancelling a credit card could have a negative impact on a person's credit score.  I was sensitive to the prospect of bad credit, but I held firm; credit card providers are a devious lot, and that sounded like exactly the sort of bluff they might try on a noob like me.  I held my ground, and insisted on ending the card.  She promptly called an associate, and handed the phone off to me.  Score one for the 99%.

The man on the phone who manages credit cards asked me, point blank, if they had "done anything wrong" to warrant the loss of my business.  My resolve shook: a more committed ideologue would have readily recited all of Bank of America's corporate sins, laying them at the feet of the hapless employee and demanding an apology.  A more disgruntled customer would have recounted a tale of woe and abuse, shaming the employee and demanding an even weepier apology.  I, on the other hand, felt compelled to reassure the poor man by offering a vague "it's not you, it's me" excuse and insisting I only wanted something "simpler."  I think he took it well.

There were some charges on my credit card, so I told the lady to take them out of my checking account before closing it.  She then left me, ostensibly to retrieve the cash from the secret vault, but possibly to give me one last chance to repent my sins.  I waited.  I sat up straight, lest my slouching posture alert observers to my degenerate socialist nature.  I eyed the passersby for signs of concealed cans of pepper spray.  I clutched my Charles Schwab checkbook, hoping it might ward off the demons of financial insecurity.  I thought of the good old days, and I yearned.

Finally, the lady returned with my (woefully meager) balance, and I was free.  I was proud of my accomplishment, but felt suddenly vulnerable as I realized that I now lacked the ability to pay for anything except by cash or check.  And so, even as I stepped out into the cold autumn air of liberty, I eagerly leaped back into the warm embrace of another (significantly smaller) financial institution.

Ironically, my exit from Bank of America resulted in perhaps the best customer service they'd ever given me.  I worried that, having to deal with decent human beings rather than a faceless corporate "person," I might back down from this confrontation and consent to keep my money in the big machine.  But realistically, there was no confrontation.  They did what I asked, and I left with no strings attached (at least, no strings that I know of).

I felt a little guilty about the protests that had taken place on the branch's front drive back in October.  While Bank of America may be a perfectly legitimate target for populist rage, most of the people in that building were as much a part of the 99% as the people outside.  I don't feel bad about cutting the corporation down to size, but I'm also not entirely eager to see the downfall of large banks that offer employment and the possibility of assistance to ordinary people.  If we had some concrete assurance that the powerful financial institutions actually regarded their mission as one of helping others rather than merely enriching themselves, we wouldn't have any reason to occupy everything under the sun.

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