Back in San Francisco, days passed without a word from my bank. No fax. No letter. No call. No nothing. A team of their lawyers, I imagined, were working furiously, building a case against me, creating mounds and mounds of paperwork to send me to jail. On the other hand, there was a slim chance that they’d decided to write the money off as a loss, and for that reason I didn’t call them. If that was their decision, I didn’t want to mess it up. But more so, I worried more and more that the little I knew about bank check law would come back to hurt me, a lot.
My concern drove me back to the Hastings Law Library. Either my determination or a cup of coffee made the difference. This time, I was better able to decipher a lot of laws within Brady on Bank Checks that seemed to give me a legal right to the money.
I photocopied laws. I photocopied court cases, including one that held it illegal for a bank to cancel a cashier’s check. Then, just before my brain went to mush and my change ran out, a fascinating footnote caught my eye. It was about the law that makes the words ‘non-negotiable’ meaningless on a check:
1. The only problem with this approach is the use of blank sample check forms that bear language such as "void," or "non-negotiable" or "sample form" that is clearly intended to show that the particular sample or form is not intended as a valid check. Would potential liability exist if such a sample form is filled in without authority and passed to one who could take as a holder in due course? The 1990 provision might well be drafted to avoid such a possible problem.
It took me a couple of reads to realize that the author of Brady on Bank Checks saw my junk check snafu coming. I noted from the back of the book that both the authors of Brady were once professors at Willamette University. I called Willamette’s Law School as soon as I got home.
"Williamette Law School. How may I help you?" said a woman’s voice.
"I’m calling for Henry Bailey."
"I’m sorry, Mr. Bailey has retired."
"Oh, then could I please speak to Richard Hagedorn?"
"Mr. Hagedorn is on vacation for the week. Can I take a message?"
I didn’t have a week to spare. As far as I knew, the bank was going to attack me any day now. I was about to give up in frustration when an idea popped into my head.
"Is Henry enjoying his retirement?"
"Yes, he is," came the reply in a warm voice.
"As a matter of fact, he still keeps in touch with us on occasion."
"I bet he retired to the beautiful state of Oregon. I'm from Oregon myself."
"No, actually he retired in Providence, Rhode Island."
Within seconds, directory assistance was giving me a phone number for Henry Bailey in Providence, Rhode Island.
My orange cat sat on my keyboard, demanding my attention as I dialed the number and let the phone ring. Hobbit purred and drooled as the ringing continued in my ear. As my mind drifted onto the cat’s tenacious, never-ending attempts to be on the keyboard whenever I worked, I forgot I was even on the phone listening to ring after ring after ring. An elderly woman’s voice snapped me out of my trance. I asked for Henry Bailey. She said, "Just a minute," and then the phone connection was lost. I tried calling back right away, but there was no answer no matter how many times I let it ring.
I phoned again the next day and after twenty or so rings, an elderly man answered gruffly, sounding like an angry Sean Connery. "Who is this?!…What are you calling about?! …Who are you?!!" He bombarded me with questions but left only enough time for one-word answers. "Are you a lawyer?!…Are you a banker?!…Are you with the press?!…Then why are you calling me?!"
I tried to explain that I was calling because of a problem he had foreseen and footnoted, but he didn’t seem to care - until I mentioned the UCC code about the words ‘non-negotiable.’ There was a sudden focus and a calm in Mr. Bailey’s voice.
"Yes, I wrote about that problem in Brady and I published an article about it in Banking Law Journal. It was never like that in the 1962 code."
"I deposited an advertising check and…"
Henry cut me off before I could utter another word, and he was angry again. "Well, it sounds like you weren't being very honorable."
"I deposited it because I thought my bank would never accept it, but they did."
"Well, that doesn't necessarily make you a holder in due course. Did the check have a name on it?" he said, becoming almost civil again.
"Yes, sir, it had my name on it," I replied.
"Your name!" My answer surprised him. "Hmm. Well, did it have a signature on it?"
"Yes, sir, an authorized signature and an account number," I said with confidence, as I let my cat back down onto the floor.
"It did!" he said in bliss. "Well, these dummies deserve it! Was this check an advertisement?"
"Yes! That's exactly what it was!"
"Oh, this sounds good!" I could hear the delight in his voice. Henry Bailey was out of retirement. "How much was it for?"
"Ninety five thousand."
"Oh, this sounds really good."
He went on asking for details. When was I notified? Who notified me? When did I deposit the check? "Well, if your bank delayed that long, you need to get a lawyer, because you have a legal claim to that money. Your bank has to meet a midnight deadline." Then he cited a lot of court cases, and added, "Get a lawyer son because that money is legally yours. And don’t get one of those lawyers on TV - the ones who chase ambulances! You need a lawyer who knows bank check law."
I liked Henry Bailey, liked his fire. I offered him a compliment. "I appreciate your having co-written a law book so well that even I could understand it, Mr. Bailey."
"I didn't write it to be used by laymen. I wrote it to be used by bankers and lawyers," he shot back.
Henry had the last word. He said he was glad I had called to tell him.
Having received my advice straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, I felt certain about my legal claim to the $95,000. But still I worried about a legal fight with an angry bank. I figured that even if I did use the $95,000 to defend myself, it would be like firing a water gun against the bank’s fire hose.
After about a week of worry, I remembered my friend Scott Edelstein’s suggestion that I had a news story on my hands. Originally, I took his comment as flattery. Now, it seemed like a good defense. I figured the bank would not pick a fight with me if the news was watching. At the same time though, I worried a news story might make me look bad. I even imagined the headline - "Motivational Speaker Bilks Bank for $95,000." I knew already that some people found the idea of depositing the check in the first place as immoral. I couldn’t decide whether or not to tell my story to a newspaper.
I took my friend Gary for a pizza to see what he thought. We sat at a booth near the window that looked out onto Irving Street, where orange and white Muni trains rolled by regularly. He rushed pizza into his mouth, his eyes widening as I spoke of possibly telling my story to the media.
"They might paint you as a criminal, but they might not. Either way, this story could spread like wildfire," he said while swallowing a mouthful of crust. "I could see the whole city talking about this dude."
"Yeah, maybe, everyone loves this story. But what about my reputation?"
"The thing is, you’re not a criminal. You didn’t do anything wrong."
"Right. Right. But nobody’s gonna think that if the newspaper makes me seem like a criminal."
"That’s the risk you’d be taking," Gary said, before taking a gulp of his cola. "But most people don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, right?"
"But do newspapers think like most people?"
"I don’t know, but don’t bring fraud up and they probably won’t either."
I picked up my glass and took a gulp of cold water. "Inevitably, they’re going to ask me what I’m going to do with the money. That’s what everyone asks, so I’ve got an idea."
"Run it by me."
"How about I say that when the bank gives me the letter, I’m going to give the money back to the bank with the condition they donate every cent to charity."
"That’s a good idea, but I’ve got a better one. Ready for this?" Scott perked his eyebrows. Just then, our server, a young woman with a pierced nose and her hair tinted green interrupted us.
"Sorry to disturb you. You look like you’re plotting to take over the world or something - but do you guys want anything else?"
Quickly we declined and got back to our conversation, but now Gary spoke more softly. "You’ve got to leave the reporter guessing. Just conclude with the fact that you’ve got the money in a safe deposit box and the law in your favor -- reveal nothing else. That forces a story with an ending, leaving everyone wondering and fantasizing about what they’d do if it was them."
His idea was genius. But I shuddered over how easily it could backfire.
"A lot of people will assume I’m going to keep it, and hate me for it."
"Maybe, but with a story like that, a heck of a lot of people will be on your side."
I left the pizza parlor, walking west toward my apartment. I was in my own world, unaware of the people I was passing, swirling with fantasies about a big news story and fears about it backfiring. The fact that a paper might not even want the story didn’t cross my mind. By the end of the eight-block walk, I envied Gary’s position: able to live vicariously through me and getting to think up the wild ideas without having to execute them. As I unlocked my door, I doubted my willingness to phone a reporter.
Throughout the week, friends cautioned me not to call the news. Michelle said, "I told Amy that you might call the paper and she said, ‘This isn’t the kind of story he should be proud of. He doesn’t get it - the whole thing makes him look really bad.’" The insult made me feel awful. If that’s how an acquaintance felt, total strangers would probably judge me even harsher. This insecurity, along with the fear I had about my bank attacking me, made for a lousy week.
By Friday, I needed some kind of getaway. I crossed the city to Ocean Beach. It would end up being my best day of the entire year. I walked along two miles of coast listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town CD on my DiscMan. I saw the sparkles that appear in the sand moments before the ocean returns to the sea. Dogs ran past me, chasing waves. Hang gliders passed over my head. A state of peacefulness I had not felt since May 19th washed over me.
As I walked barefoot on the beach, I tried to decide what the check incident meant to my life. Was it the universe’s way of giving me the money I needed? A chance to change the law about junk checks? None of the possibilities grabbed me, but the more I breathed in the peaceful salty air, the more I realized I could trust my feeling that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I should call the newspapers. If people judged me differently after the article, it would be because they're different people with different values and different fears. It wouldn’t mean I was wrong.
It was July 13th. I decided to give my story to the Wall Street Journal. I wanted a paper with prestige, rather than something like the Enquirer. I figured that a highly-credible paper would be my best chance at looking legitimate.
I discovered the Wall Street Journal had a San Francisco bureau. A woman answered the phone, and I asked if I could speak to a reporter who writes features, explaining I might have a great story.
"What is it?" she asked. I figured that I would need to sell her on my story before she'd put me through to one of the reporters, so I launched into a brisk and upbeat telling. When I finished she said, "That's a great story! I'd love to write it. Hmmm, there's one consideration though. If we run this story, there's going to be a lot of people who will try to copy what you did. Let me think about that, and I'll ask my editor if I can take this assignment. Call me tomorrow. I'm Sharon Massey."
Hobbit was again sitting on the keyboard. "Hobbit, you handsome orange hairball, if the Wall Street Journal wants to give me a maybe, let’s give the story to the New York Times!" I was swept up in confidence and anxious to get a paper to cover my story. I called the Times but I couldn’t get past the receptionist, who told me she’d give my message to a reporter. Suddenly, I was motivated by a worry that my chance with the Wall Street Journal might slip away. I gathered my photocopies of the check and the laws, and I jumped into my car.
The San Francisco office of the Journal is located on the 11th floor of a skyscraper one block from where my cashier's check was locked safely away. I took the elevator and exited into a tiny modest lobby with a hanging silver Wall Street Journal logo. I asked the receptionist behind the desk if I could speak to Sharon Massey. She placed a quick call. "Have a seat and she'll be out in a minute." I sat down on the black couch and began looking over the current edition of the Journal sitting on the coffee table in front of me. I had never actually read the paper before. Seeing nothing but business stories perplexed me. I was trying to figure out what kind of paper it was when Sharon came around the corner. With a friendly smile, she extended her hand. I stood and gave her a small stack of photocopies. "I brought you all these -- the junk mail letter, laws, and my ATM slips -- so that you can see it all for yourself."
She stood there grazing through the papers, and I stood there worrying she wouldn’t go for it.
"This is a really fun story. I'm going to do it," she announced.
My reply came out before I could stop it. "Then I won't call The New York Times back."
"Don't talk to them. This is my story! I'm just waiting for our lawyers in New York to give me the okay on it. Don't give the Times my story. Promise?" she asked. It was the easiest promise I’d ever made. Only an hour before, I was worried they would reject my story, and now they were afraid to lose it. I went to the window, spread my arms out wide, and soared home. When I landed, I called a few friends and told them they’d be reading my story in the Wall Street Journal any day now.
End of Part V