When the biggest bank in town sends you a check for $5.87, and the check bounces, you know its gong to be a bad day.
The check was a refund for overpayment on a loan I had paid off. Nothing on the check indicated that it expired if not cashed within a certain time limit.
I carried the bounced check to the bank’s downtown office and presented it to a teller. “You own me $35.87,” I said, “including $30 for the bounced check fee.” The teller informed me that she was not authorized to pay the fee. She directed me to one of the bank’s vice presidents who was sitting behind a big desk on the other side of the lobby.
The vice president had an air about him that must be a requirement for someone in his position. He could smile, be polite, and put you down at the same time. “Mr. Conn,” he said, “We will be happy to pay you the $5.87, but where do you get the idea that we owe you an additional $30?
“Because your check bounced,” I replied. “And that’s my fee for a bounced check.”
We can’t pay such a fee,” he protested, his face turning red. “It’s not our policy.”
“Mr. Vice President, once I wrote out a check to his bank, and because of a miscalculation in my arithmetic, the check was returned. You charged me a $30 fee. Why was that?” I asked.
Because that’s our policy,” he explained.
“That’s my policy, too.” I answered. “Give me the $30.”
The V.P. looked at the check carefully. “This isn’t even our check.” He said “It actually came from a bank in New York. You’ll have to see them.”
“Who’s name is n the check?” I asked.
“That’s our name,” he kept explaining. “But the account number shows the money actually came from a bank in New York, and we are only acting as their agent.”
“Your name’s on the check; the check bounced; you owe me $30,” I demanded.
“This is highly irregular,” the V.P. muttered. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I can take this up with our board. Come back and see me next week.”
“Mr. V.P.,” I said, “I’m a very busy man. My time is valuable and I live 14 miles from this office. If I have to come back to collect later the amount you won be will be considerably more than it is now. I’ll have to add my expenses and collection fees to what you already own me, and I don’t think you want that.”
“I’m sorry,” he bluffed, “but I can’t help you.”
“Then perhaps I need to see the bank president,” I said. “Obviously you don’t have the authority to make a $30 decision.”
The V.P.’s face turned a brighter shade of red and the veins bulged from beneath his starched white collar. “I have all the authority I need,” he insisted.
“Then pay me what you owe me.”
“I’m very bushy now. If you don’t mind just wait right over there,” He motioned me to a chair at the far end of the reception area.
“I pulled my chair up closer to his desk. “I’m quite comfortable right here. I think I’ll just stay where you won’t forget me.”
For 10 or 12 uneasy minutes the V.P. shuffled some papers around his desk. He looked everywhere but in my direction. Finally he stood, “Mr. Conn, the bank closes in one hour. I have an important appointment so I must be going now, and I’m afraid you’ll have to go too.”
“I’m not leaving until I collect my fee.” I said.
“If you’re still here when we close I’ll call security to have you removed,” he threatened.
“Get some strong me,” I replied, “Because they’ll have to carry me out.” The V.P. turned and walked out briskly, leaving me sitting alone beside his desk.
Time passed slowly. Ten minutes, 20, then half an hour. I wondered if I was doing he right thing. There was no doubt in my mind that the bounced check fee I had demanded from the bank was justified. But I didn’t know how well it would sit with my congregation if I were arrested. I imagined the headline in tomorrow morning’s paper. “Local pastor arrested trying to collect bounced check fee from bank.”
Fifty minutes passed. I thought about justice – about big business taking advantage of the little consumer. And I thought about Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple.
It was time for the bank to close. I eyed the security guard as he security guard as he watched me from across the lobby. Then, through a reflection in the plate glass I saw the V.P. coming toward me. A check was in his hand. “Okay,” he said, “here’s your $35.87. I hope you’re happy.”
“Oh, no,” I responded, “not a check. The last time this bank wrote me a check it bounced. I want cash.”
“The V.P. took the check over to a cashier and returned shortly with $35 in crisp new bills and 87 cents in change. Justice had prevailed.