The next day, Thursday, I anxiously wanted to hear how Sharon’s write-up of the story had turned out, but she didn't call. Friday, several of my friends bought the Journal expecting to see my story, but it wasn’t there. At 3 p.m., I phoned Sharon. "She has gone home for the weekend." I was told.
"What the heck’s wrong with this lady, Hobbit? Does she want this story or not? Maybe we will give it to the Times!" Hobbit jumped off the desk, flicking his tail, annoyed.
Monday morning, I called Sharon again. She hadn't heard back from New York but she told me not to worry. "I'll call them this afternoon and get a reply. They should have answered by now." Hobbit slept through the call. She never phoned back.
Tuesday at noon, I called again. "Patrick, I was just going to call you. New York approved the story! They like it a lot," she said. "I’ll call and interview you on Friday." I thought our first call was the interview, but I let that fact slide.
"Hobbit, my furry-footed friend, just as sure as you’ll keep getting up on this desk, I’m going to be in the Wall Street Journal!" I said, kissing his fat, orange face.
Friday arrived, and Sharon phoned right on schedule. I had a tape recorder hooked to the phone so that Gary could hear how the interview went.
"Well, first let me tell that you that I tried to interview someone from First Interstate, but they refused to comment," she began. "Now, let me ask you, how long was it before you deposited this check that you believed was real?"
"I didn't think the check was real, and I never said that. I must admit I saw the words non-negotiable on it but…"
"You did?" She cut in with a voice cold and hard, like steel.
"Then why did you deposit it?"
"Because I thought it would never cash," I replied, trying to keep my cool.
"Then why would you waste your time?"
"It didn't seem like a waste of time to me. I had to deposit other real checks anyway."
"So tell me again - why did you deposit it?"
I couldn’t believe it. She was convinced I was a criminal. She maintained this grilling for an hour. "You weren't trying to defraud the bank? Are you afraid the bank will bring criminal charges against you? Again, why did you deposit the check?" It seemed she wanted me to slip up or finally buckle and shout out my guilt. I repeated the same answers I’d already given and tried to stay calm despite a rapidly beating heart and increasingly tough questions.
"Did you understand these bank laws before? Is that why you deposited it?"
"Do you think that someone at the bank should get fired for this mistake?"
"Have you been contacted by the FBI or any law enforcement agents?"
"Are you scared that you might go to jail for this?"
"Is this a success strategy you might recommend in your speeches?"
It only got tougher when she turned to her question of what I intended to do with the money.
"Sharon, I'm just waiting for a letter from my bank. They said they'd get me one."
"Yes, but what are your intentions - to keep it, or spend it? After all, you say it is legally yours?"
"My intention is to wait for the letter from my bank that they told me they’d send."
"Let’s say you get it. Then what will you do with the money?"
"Sharon, I’m not trying to avoid your question. I’m trying to stay focused on the more important question of what I’m going to do, and what I’m going to do is wait for a letter from my bank."
She wrapped up the interview with, "Okay, you’re not going to tell me, but I’m left to assume that you’d spend money that is legally yours."
"You can assume I’m going to wait for a letter from my bank."
I was drained and had a tight knot in my stomach. I tried to call Hobbit over from where he was sleeping on a shelf. He flicked his tail hard, which knocked a glass to the floor, where it shattered.
I phoned Gary and asked him to come over and listen to the interview as soon as he could, then I laid down and tried to relax. I wanted yesterday back. I felt doomed.
Gary arrived and listened to the tape. As he studied every word, his green eyes squinted and his right hand massaged his beard. "Wow - she really gave you a hard time! Oh my God, how did you not freak out? Who does she think she works for, 60 Minutes?"
Smiling, gasping, and his eyes wide with excitement, most of the time he looked as if he were enjoying his favorite television drama. Only when I spoke to him did he mirror my seriousness.
"Total disaster, right? Maybe I can get her to drop the whole story."
"No, no. Don’t do that. Maybe we got what we wanted."
"The friggin’ Wall Street Journal is going to print that I’m stealing money. When did we want that?"
"We wanted to keep her guessing about what you intended to do with the money, and you pulled that off - I don’t know how - but you did. Of course she wondered if you were good or bad, but we left her hanging."
He had a point.
"You didn’t say anything incriminating, so maybe the story won’t make you look bad. And maybe she just had to ask those questions, in case you were a criminal."
Gary’s analysis gave me back some hope, but by no means alleviated all doubt.
"I asked her if I could see a copy of the story before it ran."
"What did she say?"
"That’s not a good sign," Gary said, tossing a pen across the desk.
Sharon had told me the article would probably run late the following week, around the 28th of July. It seemed like an eternity to wait, but that’s all I could do, wait.
And check my mail. Every day, I reached into the small metal box that hung on the iron gate at the bottom of my stairs, fearing that I would pull out a lawsuit from First Interstate or a letter from the FBI. Sharon had told me to call if I heard anything from my bank. Worrying that the words "they’re suing me" or "I’m under arrest" would be the ending to my story kept a knot in my stomach.
Wednesday, July 26th came and I called Sharon to check in. "Oh, I'm glad you reminded me," she said. "I've still got to write it. Have you heard anything from your bank?"
As soon as I was off the phone, I pounded my fists loud and fast on the desk. Hobbit leaped up and ran for the hall. "What is she doing, waiting for me to get sued?" I yelled to myself.
The next day, Sharon left me a message telling me she’d written the story and it would run any day now. I was determined to have the paper at the first possible moment, so I phoned the Wall Street Journal for the location and time of the first newspaper drop in my neighborhood. Late that night, I walked ten blocks to the corner of 7th and Irvine to wait for the midnight delivery truck. There, in front of the corner drug store, shrouded in thick, moist fog, I found a blue Wall Street Journal newspaper box. I sat, paced, and squatted for an hour and a half. Finally, at 1:20 a.m., a large blue and yellow delivery van bearing a Wall Street Journal logo pulled up. The driver filled the box as I impatiently watched. When he pulled away, I dropped three quarters into the metal slot. They clanged to their resting place and freed the lid. I pulled out a fairly thin paper and searched its contents. My story wasn’t there.
The next morning, I phoned Sharon.
"It got bumped from the schedule. It happens. I’m not lying to you. I promise it’ll run soon. It’s a great story. Heard anything from your bank?"
It was aggravating. A lawsuit was going to show up in my mailbox any day now and the Wall Street Journal wasn’t going to run the story until it did. I decided to do something else to get my story out. A few months earlier, my friend Timothy, a man on the cutting edge of all things computer-related, had introduced me, over pizza, to a nineteen year-old named Justin Hall. Justin was pioneering a new technology called the World Wide Web. With long blonde hair swept behind his ears and flip-flops on his feet, he spoke modestly of his ‘personal Web page’ that was being read by twenty thousand people a day. It took me three slices of pizza to kinda-sorta grasp the concept of the World Wide Web. "If you ever want to make your own Web page, I’ll teach you the required HTML coding in fifteen minutes," he said.
I wrote out my check story. It took four days and came out twenty pages. Then I sought out young Justin. As he had promised, in fifteen minutes he showed me how to turn my writings into a Web site that I made ready in a matter of days. On Friday August 4th, I went to his apartment.
Justin stood in the door-frame of his brightly-colored Victorian home, dressed in a tie-dyed shirt that stretched almost to his knees.
"Justin, this is your chance to break a story before the Wall Street Journal does. What do you say? Will you put a link on your Web page to my story?"
"New media versus the old, eh? The Journal’s where I first read about the Web. Sure," he said with a mellow, peaceful smile. "It’s a cool story."
On Sunday, his site, Links.net, said:
"Funny story from my friend Patrick Combs. He got one of those "You may win $95,000!" sample checks in the mail, and deposited it at his bank. Pretty soon, he looks over his balance, and discovers he is $95,000 richer... www.goodthink.com. Read his story before it appears mangled in next week's Wall Street Journal!"
More than five hundred people read my story overnight. I was astonished at the technology. Fifty people sent emails.
"Stick it to the bank because they stick it to us."
"Return the money, in pennies, by way of a dump truck."
"Get it all in $1 bills and from a window high above the street across from your bank, toss it all to the appreciative throng below."
"OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!!! YOU ROCK!!!"
"Whenever you feel like you should give it back, just reflect upon how you'd be treated if the error were not in your favor. You'd be steam rolled for certain."
"Use the money to place, in front of your bank, a colossal bronze sculpture of a pig, rearing up on its hind legs to reveal an inscription with the golden rule."
"Give a $1,000 to me. Surely you can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and wanting enough money to get a car that girls like."
"You should seriously consider getting a life or some kind of hobby."
"Good luck with this matter. Your adventure is definitely going to keep me checking back for updates."
"A joke I believe you’ll appreciate from a new fan: A heart surgeon explains to his patient that he needs a transplant immediately. Fortunately, there are TWO compatible hearts available at that time. One heart had belonged to a 25-year-old athlete who didn't smoke or drink and was never sick. The athlete died in a car accident. The second heart belonged to a banker who enjoyed rich food, liquor, and cigars. The banker died of old age.
Surgeon: Which heart would you like to have?
Patient: I'm sure I want the banker's heart.
Surgeon: The banker's heart! Why?
Patient: Because I want a heart that's never been used!"
I was howling at my desk with laughter. Then I read two more e-mails that deepened my resolve:
"TV Nation did an expose on bank charges. Banks purposely manipulate the way they process checks and deposits. They process the checks before the deposits and they cash the largest checks first so that you might bounce more checks. Banks make a reported 4 billion dollars in profit every year from NSF charges alone. Please keep the money!"
"My first experience with America's junk mail, "get rich quick" scams was when I first came to the US from Hong Kong eight years ago. I remember the time when I got a "check" like yours. I first felt very happy, then felt very cheated after I was told by my friends it was "junk mail". Even now, when I go back to Hong Kong and China, when people ask me about America, among all the things I tell them about America, I also tell them "America is the land of junk mail and scams."
These letters inspired me to get Sharon’s editor on the phone to ask if they were going to run my story. "It’s on the launch pad. I can’t tell you when -- it’s policy -- and I can’t even tell you ‘it’ means your story," he said like an informant. "But if I were you, I’d wake up in the morning and buy the Wall Street Journal."
On went the album Tim by The Replacements, loud. I was going to be in the news and my bank was going to have to be nicer once it happened! I imagined Robert Gage - graying with a flat top, long jowls, and big shoulders - opening the Journal and sweating bullets at the sight of my story. He’d type me up an apology letter at two hundred words per minute, faster than the time it would take him to call me and say, "Let’s make a deal." Maybe radio and television news shows would call too. I might end up staring back at myself on the tube. And maybe, just maybe, because of a lot of publicity, I could get the bank to agree to let the money go to charity.
End of Part VI