During the “Great Recession,” which was brought on by the banksters themselves who usually take the money and run, I wrote an article titled “Burn Down the Banks?” It was prompted by the financial crisis of 2007, 2008 and 2009, though I must admit I was also thinking of the branch of the Bank of America in Isla Vista, California, which was burned down on February 25 1970, a day that will always live in celebrity, not infamy, in my memory.
I sent the article to the editor of The Rag Blog and asked him to please publish it. He replied by email and explained that he could not in good conscience post an article that called for arson and the destruction of property. I pointed out in a follow-up email that the title, “Burn Down the Banks?,” ended with a question mark and that if he had read to the end he would have seen that I suggested that if a bank was burned down another one would be built in its place. That’s what the B of A did in Isla Vista. There are apparently now three branches near the site of the fire in 1970, though no bank at the old, infamous address.
The Rag Blog published my story.
I hate or at the least strongly dislike banks. After all, they take my money, and probably your money, too, invest it and make money for themselves, their executives and their stockholders. They’re not philanthropic institutions, though they’d like to be seen that way. I have known a few kind bankers—they are British and self-mockingly call themselves “wankers”—but most bankers I’ve met have been all too eager to take my money and hang me out to dry.
Recently, I had big trouble with Citi. I went to the branch where I banked and saw that it was boarded up and padlocked. Citi had and still has a policy called “Know Your Customer” (KYC,) but it didn’t seem to know or care about me. No one had told me the branch would close. The parking lot attendant explained that the nearest Citi branch was now in San Rafael and 40 minutes away by car. On the phone, I managed to withdraw almost all of my money and deposit it in a nearby branch of the Redwood Credit Union, where I found the tellers helpful and where the customers were almost all working men and women.
But I was unable to withdraw money I had in a Certificate of Deposit. Citi blocked me from access to my own account. When I tried to close it and take out my money, one banker after another came up with a slew of excuses about why that couldn’t happen. The bank, I was told, had to verify that I was who I said I was. I had to answer all their questions, such as “What is your mother’s maiden name?” “What was the make of the first car you owned?” and “What are all the names on the account?”
Who was the bank protecting? Me? No way.
The run-around went on and on for months. I called CitiGold and over the phone read the number on my Debit Card. That didn’t work. Finally, out of desperation I decided to fight the bank with another bank; fight fire with fire. I went to the one and only branch of the Redwood Credit Union in San Francisco—I had just moved to the city—and explained my situation to a young hip-looking banker named Jordan who invited me into his office.
Jordan picked up the phone and called a dozen branches of Citi in San Francisco. He struck out again and again. Then, he reached Steven Cai, a banker at Citi on California Street who asked me to come right in. I took Lyft from Market Street to California, walked inside, shook hands with Cai, went to the window and watched and waited while a teller withdrew my money, printed a check with my name and closed down my account.
It seemed magical. It works in magical ways when you have it and also when you don’t have it. I suppose that’s called reification.
I took a Lyft to the RCU on California and deposited the check. When I got back home, there was an email from Mr. Reives, a banker at Citi, asking me for the name and address of my attorney. Without that information, the account would continue to be blocked, he wrote. Apparently, Reives had no idea that I had already closed my account.
Years ago, when I lived and breathed and made a living on the black market, I didn’t have a bank account. I used cash and stashed my money, much of it $100 bills, under the sink in the bathroom and behind a stained glass window that was only accessible from the attic and that I thought was theft-proof. Indeed, it was.
Alas, the black market economy wasn’t for me. It didn’t suit my personality. I decided to go legit. I dusted off my Ph.D. and was hired to teach at a branch of the California State University. At the end of every month, a check with all the necessary deductions was deposited directly into the bank account I opened. I felt like a prisoner of the financial system. There was no way to hide my income from the IRS.
Shortly before I retired from teaching after 30 years, the administration at the university awarded an honorary degree to Sandy Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup, and a gangster bankster if there ever was one. Weill had given millions for the creation of a music center in his name and his wife’s name, which are now in big letters, visible from one hundred yards away…Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall. That’s what millionaires and billionaires do, all the way back to J. P. Morgan and the robber barons.
I intended to protest the honorary degree by storming the stage and denouncing Weill, though I didn’t have a clear plan of action. I sat in the front row at the graduation ceremony, along with the students, not with the faculty, and waited for the right moment. I wore a bright red shirt, which made me stand out. In the middle of the ceremony, an usher handed me a note from a colleague who sat on the stage next to Weill and the president of the University.
“Don’t do it,” the note read. “The campus police know what you’re planning and are prepared to grab you, roll you up in a carpet and take you away from the stage before you get anywhere near it.” My reputation as a radical had followed me to the campus and to graduation. Someone had read my mind. Maybe the red shirt gave me away.
I don’t know any way to get back at Citi. I can’t burn a branch down. All of them are mostly fireproof. I’m happy I have the money from my CD, but I’m still puzzled by the bank’s reluctance for months to write me a check. Banks work in mysterious ways. They’re secretive institutions. I’m also puzzled why Mr. Cai, who had never seen me or heard of me before I entered his branch of Citi, gave the teller, a lovely young woman, the okay to issue me a check.
Now, I’m at home singing to myself, Woody Guthrie’s line, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” I’m also singing the lines Pete Seeger and the Weavers sang about “the banks…made of marble/With a guard at every door.” The song ends with a prayer that the workers will “get together/And together make a stand/ Then we’ll own those banks of marble… and we’ll share those vaults of silver/ That we have sweated for.” That’ll be the day.