"Cashing In"

I forgot about my Post Office drop off, and ran for home, all twelve blocks, talking to myself. "This has to be a mistake. The check was fake. This can’t be happening. It couldn’t have been real. I’m rich. Holy mamma, God-above, I’m rich!"

Up the marble steps, down the hardwood hallway, straight to the phone hanging on the wall. I called my friend Michelle. She would do a small favor for me.

"Michelle, call wherever you bank and tell them what happened to me -- don’t mention my bank’s name -- and ask them how this could have happened. Then call me back!" She obliged. I plopped into my swiveling office chair, not sure what to do with myself besides stare at the little orange and white receipt. I felt a little guilty knowing that I was trying to hide the mistake from my bank, but that was forgotten when the phone rang.

"Michelle?"

"Hi. It's standard policy to credit your account for any amount you deposit, but it's only a credit when they do it," she said in her soft but exacting voice. "You can't touch a cent of the money unless the check clears," she continued.

"Oh."

"Sorry. The woman said you could have deposited a check written on the side of a cow, and they’d credit your account."

"Of course," I said. I looked at my watch. For twenty-two minutes and forty-five seconds I had let myself believe that maybe something incredible and lottery-like had happened to me. Now that hope turned to disappointment and plummeted to my stomach. "Well, hey -- it was fun for the day. I’ll have to print out a lot of those ATM slips and hand them out to friends for fun."

That night, my friend Gary took one look at the tiny bank receipt and said, "Holy shit dude! What’d you do, rob a bank?"

We were with other friends, tucked away in a night club. My ninety-five thousand dollar deposit monopolized our conversation. People fantasized about what they’d do with the windfall of money: a ’56 Thunderbird, a home, a charity, funding for a film, a sudden departure to Mexico. I knew what I’d do with it -- pay off all my credit cards, make my speaking materials better, and bank the rest for my monthly expenses.

Before crawling into bed, I phoned the twenty-four hour banking line. A pre-recorded woman’s voice spoke to me as if happy to say it, "Your account balance is...one hundred thousand, three hundred and fifty dollars, and thirty-three cents."

The next day, I interrupted my work to call again and again to see if the money was still there. Four times. Five. The next day, I called ten times. On Thursday, I called too many times to count. Eventually, I programmed the bank’s number into my speed dial. Each time I was certain that I’d hear, "Your account balance is…embarrassing." But to my astonishment, my balance remained over a hundred grand.

It’ll definitely be gone now, I told myself on Friday morning, as I stumbled out of bed and headed, still naked, straight for the phone. "Your account balance is…," read my automated significant other, "ninety-six thousand, one hundred and twenty-two dollars, and eighty cents." I pulled on some pants, threw on a t-shirt, and returned to my bank -- only this time I went in.

I approached a teller, a young woman with her blonde hair pulled back tight. "I’m thinking of buying a home this afternoon. If a little later today, I need a cashier’s check for $70,000, could I get the money?" My words poured out slowly and carefully.

She typed my account number into her computer and then looked up. "Yes, the funds are available Mr. Combs." It was too good to be true.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just knew I had to get out of the bank, fast. Once on the sidewalk, I felt set apart from everyone else: more fortunate, more at risk, perhaps even crazy.

I left the money right where it was, figuring that withdrawing it would somehow result in my getting thrown on the pavement and handcuffed. But for the next five days -- every day, every evening, every night -- all I could do was think about it. It was a severe case of money addiction..

Wednesday came and I boarded a plane to attend a four-day college conference in Orlando. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t call and check my bank balance even once the entire trip. The break would probably be good for me.

I returned home Sunday night. I was cool again, certain the $95,000 credit would be erased by now. I called first thing in the morning. My automated sweetheart said, "Your account balance is…ninety-six thousand, ninety-eight dollars and forty-four cents."

Another week passed. The money remained in my account. It was now exactly three weeks since I had deposited the sample check. I returned to my bank, once again dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. An older man with salt-and-pepper hair and wire-frame glasses was ready to help me. His name badge told me he was the branch manager. Calmly, I presented my situation to him. "I recently deposited $95,000. I don't want to spend any of the money if there is the possibility of the check being returned. How long should I wait?"

He asked to see my bank card and casually began keying in my account number. He put his fingers up to the monitor and scrunched his face. "Here it is, $95,093.35, deposited on May 21st." With that, he dropped his finger, looked up at me and said, "You're safe to spend it, Mr. Combs. By law, checks can’t be returned after ten business days -- that’s to protect depositors."

"Really? Oh, okay then," I said, backing up and on the verge of explosion. I hurried out of the bank, but not before I grabbed every brochure and pamphlet in sight. It was time to know my rights.

As soon as I got home, I waded through every line of the boring pamphlets, including all the tedious small print, but I couldn’t find the law he had referred to. But on the back of one of the brochures, I found a sentence that said, "For more information, contact The Office of Thrift Supervision." A phone number appeared on the brochure.

I called right away and a man answered the phone.

"Hello, Office of Thrift Supervision. Dan speaking, how may I help you?"

I told him what had happened -- skipped my last name -- and asked, "What law might my bank manager have been referring to?"

"That would be the Midnight Deadline," Dan said, with his voice trailing off. "But…"

"What?"

"But the more important question in a matter such as yours might have to do with negotiability. I wonder if the check you deposited…you say it was sent to you as junk mail and wasn’t supposed to be real?"

"Yes, it was a fake check."

"Hmm. I wonder if it was a true negotiable instrument?"

"What does that mean?"

"The law specifies nine, I think it’s nine -- it has been a long time -- eight or nine specific criteria that a check has to match in order to be a legally negotiable instrument."

"Uh-huh," I replied. I didn’t know where he was going with this.

"I can’t be exactly sure what they are, but perhaps the check you deposited was actually a negotiable instrument. That would explain why your bank accepted it."

I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d never even contemplated the idea that the $95,000 might have stayed in my account because the junk check was real. I’d only guessed it had been mistaken as real.

"Oh. I wonder what those nine criteria are?" I said it softly, trying not to appear too eager, but also hoping the words might hook him to say more.

"There’s a law book called Brady’s, I think, Brady’s Banking Law. It will list the criteria. Hastings Law Library probably has the book."

"Okay, thank you for your time."

I got off the phone, grabbed my car keys, and headed out the door. I was excited because this might change everything. If the junk mail company had accidentally designed a real $95,000 check, I wouldn’t feel guilty at all writing them a letter thanking them for making me rich: Dear Not-a-junk-mail-company- after-all, your get-rich-quick scheme truly worked for me! 95,000 thanks!

San Francisco supposedly has more cars than parking spaces. I circled many times around the park that is surrounded by stately City Hall, the Opera House, and the majestic public library, before I found a spot. Hastings was a modern-looking, three story, red-brick building with smoked glass. I’d never been to a law library before.

It looked like any other library on the inside. I pushed through the single waist-high security bar and asked at the desk where I might find the book Brady’s Bank Law. A clerk pointed me in the right direction.

I scanned the rows and rows of books and quickly found the book the clerk had mentioned. The full title was Brady on Bank Checks: The Law of Bank Checks, by Henry Bailey and Richard Hagedorn. It was a big, thick, black book devoid of any cover design.

I flipped through it, trying to find the law I needed, but I couldn’t even find the table of contents in the monstrous tome. The thousands of pages of small print at the bottom of every waiver and contract daunted me. The more I looked through it, the more I thought I was going to pass out from sheer frustration. As I continued reading, my frustration increased with every legalese-crammed page.

I glanced back at the bookshelf and a small pocket-sized book caught my eye. It was titled, Negotiable Instruments and Check Collection. The title was so perfect, it might as well have said, Law Book for Dummies. I sat myself down on the floor and flipped open the friendlier book. As if by magic, I found myself staring at a page that read, "The Nine Criteria for a Negotiable Instrument."

The first eight criteria went my way. The check must have a signature, a date, and the words ‘pay to’ -- all the things you expect to see on a check. The check I deposited had them all, as far as I could remember. But it also carried the words ‘non-negotiable’ in the top right-hand corner. Hopefully the ninth criterion would address this. I read on, looking for confirmation that the $95,000 fortune was indeed mine. It read: "The ninth issue is whether people can create an instrument that matches the first eight criteria, and then avoid negotiability by declaring on the instrument that it is not negotiable."

I took a deep breath. The roulette wheel was spinning to a stop, giving me a fifty-fifty chance at one hundred grand. I began reading the next sentence slower than any sentence I’ve read in my entire life, my index finger uncovering one word at a time. "Give me the word no," I said to myself, as I held my breath and slid my finger along the page, uncovering the first four words of the next sentence: "The answer is yes..."

Wham. Ugh. Game over. I was devastated.

Any fantasies I had about the $95,000 dollars fizzled. But then, I moved my finger a micro-inch further along the page, and I saw a comma and the rest of the sentence: "The answer is yes, except on a check."

It was unreal. I held back a yell and read more.

I reasoned each word carefully, but it sunk in quickly. Checks were different than other kinds of negotiable instruments. The get-rich-quick company had accidentally designed a real check. And I had deposited it. "Yes!" came flying out of my mouth. Granted, I needed to borrow money from strangers in the library so that that I could photocopy what I had just read, but I didn’t mind since I knew it would be the last financial favor I’d ever need.

A young woman was studying beside the copy machine. I got her attention and said quietly, "Keep up the studying -- it can really pay off."

I flew out of the library. On my '77 Ford Grenada, I found a parking ticket waiting to destroy my day, but it didn’t stand a chance. Twenty-eight dollars was now mere pocket change, a measly amount I could gladly contribute to the city’s upkeep.

On the ride home, I decided to phone my brother and ask his advice. Mike, a year and half older, lives in Boston. Our respective cities were almost perfect metaphors for our differences. Boston, older and conservative. San Francisco, younger and adventurous. I’d turned to my brother for advice many times, but in this case I was hesitant. He always came through with smart answers, but this time I didn’t want the wise older brother response. I easily imagined him saying, "Patrick, give the money back right away - and grow up."

Mike’s actual reaction surprised me. He guessed that the get-rich-quick company was out the $95,000 and would demand the entire sum back as soon as they noticed it was missing. "At night, with guns," he said. He added, "Patrick, get the entire amount in cash and put it into a safe deposit box at your bank."

My jaw dropped. "What?"

"Then they’ll have to ask you to return the money instead of being able to take it back without a word. Picture walking into the vault, going behind the curtain, and opening a box full with $95,000 cash. It'll be fun to look at. How many times in your life are you going to have $95,000 cash in a safe deposit box?!" In that moment, I was so in awe of my older brother.

The more I thought about his suggestion, the more I concluded that it couldn’t hurt, since the money would never leave my bank. I began calling First Interstate branches and asking about safe deposit box availability. I learned that the only safe deposit boxes available were possibly too small to hold $95,000 of cash, so I held off on renting one.

A few days later, I entered a First Interstate Branch to explore my brother’s plan further. I sat down at the desk of a bank official, a small Asian woman who greeted me in broken English. "Hi, can help you?"

"Could I withdraw a hundred thousand dollars in cash -- assuming, that is, I had enough in my account to cover it?"

She chuckled, "Nobody ever done that in fifteen years I working."

"But if I wanted to, can you get me that much cash?" I asked again.

She chuckled again, but this time nervously. "We have to tell IRS and order four days in advance. But nobody ever done that."

"Really?" I asked, stunned and put off by the IRS involvement. I did not want that.

"Yes, we no keep that much cash on here," she continued. "The largest bill in circulation now is $100 bill. No more $500 bills in circulation. We have to report to IRS any cash withdrawals excess of $10,000 -- some people bad guys, trying to hide money."

"Oh - not me. Thank you for your time. I was just asking," I said, excusing myself from her desk. I was reeling from her response. Her nervousness, the required procedures, the information that no one had ever done it -- it made my ninety-five thousand dollars seem like even more.

The next day, June 13th, I woke up and decided that if I couldn't look at the $95,000 in cash, it would be almost as fun to see it as a cashier's check. The decision to attempt the five-figure transaction felt dramatic. I decided I would go to my bank’s most impressive San Francisco location, the California Street Office, located in the heart of the skyscraper district. Cathedral ceilings, marble floors, towering columns, and gold trim made it fit for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I gave my clothing careful consideration and decided old jeans and a torn t-shirt would do just fine.

Inside the regal building, I became fully aware that I was the only one of the twenty or so customers that looked like a skate punk. I felt my confidence drop. "They won’t hand over a $95,000 cashier’s check to me," I thought. They’ll tell me they made an error.

I approached the customer service window and filled out the form for a fifty-dollar-a-year, small, safe deposit box. No problems. Then I went to a teller's window. I was so nervous, I couldn’t get myself to speak. Too petrified to ask the middle-aged woman on the other side of the marble counter for a $95,000 cashier’s check, I had to ask for a piece of paper. As I wrote $95,093.35 on it, I felt like a bank robber writing my demands on paper, as if my next move might be to command, "Don't even think of triggering any alarms." Instead, I squeezed out the words, "I'd like to get this amount in a cashier's check." Without saying a word, she began moving quickly to grab papers and forms, then rushed out the words, "You need to write me a check." She seemed bothered and I wasn’t thinking well. My heart was doing a drum roll.

"I've never gotten a cashier's check before. What are you asking me to do?" I said. My cheeks felt flush.

"Write me a check for the same amount," she said.

Finally understanding what she was asking, I began to write out the check. I had never written $95,093.35 out in words before.

The teller prepared the cashier's check. Time seemed to sit still, but then the teller slid the gray check across the counter to me. I reached to take it, but she would not let go.

"What are you going to do with this money?" she said. Her eyes locked onto mine, without flinching.

"I don't know," I said, knowing it was all over. She did not release her hold on the check.

"Are you going to invest it?"

Somewhere up there the Gods were having fun with me. "Would you like to speak with one of our investment counselors right now?" she continued. "They can suggest excellent uses for the money."

"No thank you," I said, releasing a small laugh. "But you should get a raise."

I couldn’t believe I had a cashier’s check in my hand for $95,000. I walked straight back to Customer Service and was escorted into the vault. The bank teller slid out the box that would be mine and pointed to the curtain I could go behind for privacy. "No need," I said, as I slipped the folded check into the metal container.

As I exited the building, a huge smile spread across my face. I walked the street, just below the Transamerica Tower, endowed with the strange feeling that I was taller, swifter, and stronger. I felt like I had superpowers and could easily have lifted a large automobile. As I headed to my car, I slipped the safe deposit box key onto my key ring - a skeleton-like key now worth $95,093.35.

End of Part II


1 Man Show

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