"The Waiting"

That night, I waited anxiously for the delivery truck in the fog and darkness, only to find nothing of my story. Nothing the next night either. Gary commented, "Maybe this is the Wall Street Journal’s way of getting people to buy their paper."

"I’m doing everything I can to get it on the schedule as soon as possible. Give me till Tuesday or Wednesday, please," Sharon told me, trying to ease my anger.

On Tuesday, I didn't go wait at the paper box, and didn’t find my story when I checked in the morning. On Wednesday, I also slept instead of standing out in the cold. Around 9 a.m., in went my coins and out came the brand new edition. My eyes searched frantically, as my hands flipped the pages, only to find a story about a summer camp that had e-mail capability. Furiously, I crumpled the pages into the trashcan attached to the lamp post. Then I kicked, kicked, kicked the hard plastic container until my anger dissipated to disappointment. They were never going to run the story.

Sharon sounded as defeated as I felt. "New York killed the story. I’m so pissed. I understand your giving it to someone else who will run it. I’ll keep trying, but there’s not much more I can do."

I put in calls to USA Today and the New York Times but neither returned my call. My news chances were over. I was a fool for having believed it was a story for the news, and I could feel it like a heavy weight in my stomach. For twenty-seven days I had deluded myself and my friends, who I would now have to tell, "Forget about it. It’s not going to be in any paper. No biggie." They’d be embarrassed for me.

Then there were the 2000 people checking my Web site daily for story updates. They were waiting on the Journal article also. Many thought the whole story was fiction. The write-up was going to be my proof. It would be a major embarrassment if the story didn’t materialize.

Besides e-mail, snail mail was the only thing left I had to check daily. While I waited on the Journal, I checked my small, black mailbox everyday, hoping not to find a letter from my bank, but one day I did. A cream-colored, standard-sized envelope with the orange and black First Interstate logo was hidden behind my phone bill. I sat down on the bottom step of the stoop and opened the letter, dreading what I might find. It was a single page on linen stationery, tri-folded. My fingers were already damp as I began to read.

Dear Patrick Combs:

We would like to thank you for maintaining your account here at First Interstate Bank of California. We sincerely appreciate the opportunity to serve you. I trust that we are providing the services you need and adding to your financial security as well.

To express our appreciation, we have arranged to provide a new benefit for all eligible checking account customers -- $1,000 of Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance. There is NO COST to you at any time. We pay the premiums.

Sincerely,

Michael A. Johnson, Senior Vice President

I laughed myself into the house over the form letter. Mr. Johnson was seriously out of the loop about my account, or seriously on my side. Maybe I would write him back. "Dr. Mr. Johnson, Thank you for your nice note. Indeed, First Interstate is adding to my financial security, and I'll take the accidental death and dismemberment insurance, if you feel I need it. Long live First Interstate." Or maybe just, "Dear Mr. Johnson, Are you threatening me?"

Later that afternoon, I received a phone call from a Hollywood producer. He had read my Web pages and was interested in my check story as a movie. "But I need to see how it ends. Whether you get to keep the money or you go to jail, from our point of view, both make for a good ending. And, if you do go to jail, we won't have to pay for the rights to the story - so keep that in mind!" Then he hung up. His call generated a laugh, but it also stirred me to wonder more deeply about how my story was going to end.

"Hobbit, I need to decide what to do next," I said, scratching him behind his ears. He was purring loudly, feeling good enough to drool. It seemed like my options were to call the bank or not call the bank. Calling them would require another attempt to get them to send me a letter that officially requested the money back. Been there, done that. Not calling them potentially allowed them to forget about the whole thing and write off the money as a small loss, as one of my friends said banks do at the end of every year. I didn't see myself calling them. I was either going to get sued or keep the money and decide what to do with it later. Hobbit rolled onto his side to have his belly rubbed.

The next day, August 15th, I received a voice mail. "The story is scheduled to run tomorrow. I won’t promise since you know how that’s gone, but it is on the schedule." It was Sharon’s voice. I’d heard it a million times before and would be a fool to believe it again. But I wanted so much for it to be true. Her voice seemed different this time - slower and more measured. Maybe that meant something. I really wanted it to. The prospect of the story being a disparaging article seemed less since Sharon’s voice was friendly. I really wanted to see my name in the Wall Street Journal.

At midnight, I stood again by the newspaper box, waiting for an hour, trying not to get my hopes up. The now familiar driver and I exchanged hellos -- he probably figured that I was an insomniac or a hyper-driven stock broker. I waited for him to pull away and then did exactly as I had done so many times before. Three coins in, one paper out. I spread the paper across the top of the blue Wall Street Journal box and began flipping black and white pages. Nothing on the front or in its inside sections. Nothing in the second section, I thought, flipping quickly, until I saw the words, "Prankster Exploits a Bank’s Gaffe And Turns Trash Into Quick Cash."

It was a fun article, not a fraud article. I ran with the newspaper in-hand more than a mile, to Gary’s house, whooping along the way. I let myself in with the key he had under a porch plant and burst in on him sleeping.

"We did it man! We got an article in the Wall Street Journal!" I yelled while turning on the light.

Gary jerked to a sitting position. "Holy cow! If I kept a gun by the bed, I’d have shot you."

"Listen. Combs recently performed an experiment that any medieval alchemist would aspire to: He turned a piece of junk mail into cold, hard cash. The only problem is, he performed the experiment on a bank, and the bank wants its money back. Mr. Combs, was one of 40 million Americans who recently received a fake check -- 40 million! I bet I'm not the only one who deposited it, just the only one who told."

"It goes on to summarize the story and then says I deposited it on a lark. I like that. Listen, it quotes me. I would have liked the bank to just call me and admit it erred, and maybe take me to lunch. And listen to this: First Interstate, citing customer confidentiality, declines to comment on the case. ACL President Mitch Klass is surprised by the financial uproar caused by his company's errant check, quote, no one has ever tried to cash one of our promotional checks before he says. I didn't even know it this time. We're going to have to check into this, no pun intended. What a liar. I called and told him!"

"It doesn't say a word about my intentions on what to do next. There's only a sentence that says, bank representatives ordered him to give back the loot. Mr. Combs refused. He says he would have returned the money if the bank had been more polite. So true. What do you think?"

Gary’s sleepy expression had turned to absolute delight.

"This is perfect! Just enough to make you really want to know how it’s going to end. People are going to eat this up!"

I ran through the dark and empty streets of San Francisco, shouting, dancing, and pumping my fists toward the few stars that could be seen through the orange street lights. At home, I blasted the stereo, posted the good news to my Web site, and read the story over and over till 6 a.m.

I slept until noon and only got out of bed because the phone kept ringing. On my voice mail, I found thirty-one messages. I sat at my desk in my underwear listening to them all. The first was from a man with a thick New York accent. "Patrick, I just wanted tell you I’m sitting here at my kitchen table laughing my ass off at what you did. Thanks for making my day. Hope you get to keep the money."

"This is KGO news radio…"

"I'm from the Associated Press..."

"Patrick, I'm with Channel 4 news…"

"I'm a producer at the David Letterman Show..."

"We'd love to have you on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno..."

The rest were radio shows. It was a response beyond my wildest dreams. Letterman, Leno, and the Associated Press made the top of my list.

The reporter from the Associated Press wire interviewed me by phone and said she'd write the story that afternoon. She loved what I told her and didn’t ask twice about what I intended to do with the money or why I made the deposit in the first place. At the end she said, "I suggest you refrain from doing any more interviews for the day. That way your story stays fresh and has a greater chance of being sent out on our national wire."

I took her advice and phoned no one else back, except Letterman and Leno. Both producers had me tell them the story in my own words. Each expressed interest in having me on their show as soon as their hiatus ended in two weeks. "If the Tonight Show contacts you, you’ll have to choose between us, and you should choose us," said Letterman’s producer. "If you want to be on with Jay, you can’t say yes to those guys," said the producer of the Tonight Show.

Next, I prepared for an all-day leadership workshop I was facilitating at Arizona State University the next day. It was my first scheduled speech of the new school year and the first I’d had since May when school had ended. It was hard to stay focused on my work. My mind was on being on TV, and my bank’s reaction. But now I felt safe. I had stepped out from a dark alley and onto a well-lit street.

End of Part VII    


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