On Friday, September 1st, I returned home from my speaking tour. A reader of my Internet pages had mailed me a bottle of wine. I also received two Late Show with David Letterman baseball caps his producers had sent before they had decided not to have me on. My homecoming coincided with my Hard Copy air-date. I plugged a videotape into the VCR and sat down on the couch to watch. Listening to Hard Copy, I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded as if Dr. Seuss had scripted their narration. "He deposited it for yuks not bucks!…The bank made a Gargantuan, Godzilla-sized, goof up."
** [See Patrick's Hard Copy appearance - It's a Bonus Feature on the DVD!]
Hard Copy did a great job with the story. It was the only show that included mention of the laws that were in my favor. They ended the segment with a viewer phone-in poll. "What do you think Patrick should do with the money?
7,000 people paid fifty cents each to vote I should keep it. 2,000 people paid to say I should give it back. And 1,000 people paid good money to vote, ‘Not Sure.’ Why did they spend the money?
I was replaying the segment when the doorbell rang.
Every time the doorbell had rung during the past two months, I had thought that it might be a court server with legal documents. At the bottom of the stairs stood a thin, plainly-dressed man holding papers.
"Are you Patrick Combs? I have a court summons for you."
I signed where he pointed. He handed me a manila envelope, as thick and heavy as a double issue of a women’s fashion magazine, but not as heavy as the feeling crushing my body.
"I’m just making a living. I saw you on TV last week and I wanted to tell you that I support what you're doing. I hope you win."
His sincerity, although ironic, eased the tension in my neck. "Thanks, that means a lot."
I returned to my apartment, planted myself onto the couch, and slid out the white papers. I fully expected to see the words fraud, felony, stolen funds, criminal mischief, and possibly even bank robbery. My weak feeling poured through me like molasses. I had never been in legal trouble before. These papers could start a battle that could destroy my reputation. A court case could also devour money I didn’t have. I began reading, and braced myself for the worst.
Page after page, the words I dreaded were nowhere to be found. No fraud charges. No robbery. The papers merely set a court appearance and pleaded for a judgement that restricted me from cashing the cashier's check. A different court appearance would be pursued later to decide the money’s rightful owner, the papers said. They repeatedly mentioned my bank balance (negative one hundred and seventy five dollars), pointing out the near impossibility of recovering spent money from a motivational speaker so poor. In other words, they had nothing. I was in the driver’s seat.
The documents I had expected to make me cry actually made me laugh out loud. First Interstate Bank of California was abbreviated throughout as FICAL. An acronym pronounced as fecal, not fical, I thought. This is a fecal matter.
With only one week until my court date, I needed to decide what to do. Maybe I could find my answer in the day’s batch of e-mail. Among the usual parade of mostly praising e-mails, one stood out:
"Back about twenty years ago in Chicago, some auto dealership printed a coupon in the local newspapers saying that if you bought a car from them and brought in the coupon, they would knock $500 off the cost of the car. They failed to limit one per customer. As a result, one woman collected enough coupons from
the neighbors’ papers and her own purchases to buy the most expensive car on the lot and pay for it with newspaper clippings. And you know what the courts found? Vendor emptor: the car was hers because the dealership failed to anticipate where their incompetence could lead."
The e-mail gave me a legitimate shot at winning in court. Yet the thought of doing so made me mad. I didn’t want to be like the Chicago woman, taking advantage of a loophole, and yet my bank was painting me into a corner. Could FICAL be any stupider, preferring to go to court rather than give me a simple letter? It pissed me off.
The document had a name and number for FICAL's Senior Counsel, a Mr. Bernard Meyers, so I went to my desk and called him. I was determined to get my letter. Meyers answered and knew exactly who I was.
"Mr. Meyers, I don’t know what you’ve been told about me or what your impressions are, but I’m an easy guy to recover money from. You don’t have to drag me into court to recover the money. Would you like to give the old fashioned way a chance? Will you meet me to discuss this matter?"
"I’d love to."
"Good. How about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow at my office, say one o’clock. How’s that?"
"Excellent. I get a good feeling about us resolving this."
"I’ll see you there."
"Mr. Meyers, one quick question."
"Did you see me on TV saying I’d give back the money in exchange for a simple letter?"
"I don’t watch much TV, Patrick. But maybe you’ll tell me more about that letter tomorrow."
Mr. Meyers worked on the 25st floor of a skyscraper owned by First Interstate. As much as the sensible part of my brain knew, I was perfectly safe walking into my bank’s building. Another part of me felt like a fugitive entering an FBI office on a promise of temporary immunity. I entered the building chanting to myself, Today, I’ll clean up this fecal matter.
I exited the elevator, checked in at the lobby desk, and soon met Mr. Bernard Meyers. Our meeting was a poker game from the minute I walked in. I saw him quickly size me up, with my jeans and white-collar business shirt. He was sporting the suspenders with no jacket look. He was wearing expensive-looking clothes; even his suspenders were dollar-green. He was balding but fit, and wore wire-frame glasses that made him look smart but friendly. He invited me into a small conference room, and offered me a cup of coffee or tea. I accepted the tea.
He smiled while he asked me if I preferred milk, sugar or honey. His movements gave nothing away except calm. As he prepared my tea, he looked at me in brief stares of scrutiny and suspicion.
We got down to business. I took charge with an explanation of my experience. He listened with complete presence, and without a sign of emotion. Nothing I said impacted him. He seemed neither surprised nor impressed. His confidence suggested that he held winning cards, despite what I was saying.
But then I saw it. When I began detailing the laws in my favor and handing him photocopies, Mr. Meyer’s cheeks twitched -- both of them -- like JELL-O, but jiggling for only an instant. It was a twinge of anger. He instantly covered it with a smile, but it was too late.
"Mr. Meyers, all this bank needs to do to get the money back from me is give me the letter I asked for at the start."
"What kind of letter?" "
"I’m asking for a letter that states the truth of how this matter unfolded. That way, if in a future job interview - say at a bank - I was asked, ‘Say, aren’t you the guy who tried to bilk a bank for $95,000?’ I could present them with the letter and clear up the wrong impression."
"Assuming they’d want to hire you otherwise," Mr. Meyers responded, spoken as a normal clarification, but with a slight smile.
"It needs to detail how we got to this point - all the mistakes involved, my attempts to cooperate."
Bernard began taking notes on his yellow legal pad.
"And it needs to have legal assurances that will safeguard me from any future legal action by the bank."
"Our only interest is in the return of the cashier’s check. We won’t pursue any legal action if you return it."
"I believe you, Mr. Meyers, but I’d need it in the letter just in case you change jobs a year from now and someone else wants to be unreasonable."
Bernard made the note. "I can produce a letter for you, Patrick, and hopefully we can resolve this without wasting your time and money in court."
"Excellent, Mr. Meyers. I’m confident about this, too," I said.
Bernard forced a rapid and shallow smile onto his face, then looked down to begin another note to himself. "And we assume you'll be closing your account."
I didn’t get it. I was feeling too good about our progress. "No, I wasn't planning on doing that," I replied.
Bernard looked at me as if I hadn’t heard him.
"Does First Interstate want me to close my account?" I asked, catching on.
"First Interstate isn't asking you to close your account, but it would please First Interstate if you would," he said carefully.
Inhuman until the very end - I couldn’t believe it.
I left the office, happy to have the end in sight, but it actually took a month and four drafts to get the letter right. First Interstate had a real hard time admitting their mistakes on paper. Then, adding insult to injury, Meyers sent me a letter stating I must pay $266.00 to cover what it cost to file their lawsuit in court. I flatly refused. They let it go.
On October 1st, four months after my first request, they finally faxed me the letter I wanted. It doubled as a settlement agreement we would both sign. It contained everything I’d asked for: a detailed account of the banking error, letters of apology sent by First Interstate to those who received bounced checks because of my frozen account, proof that my credit rating was undamaged, a complete dismissal of all charges and damage claims, and the right to continue speaking and writing about the experience. Many had told me the bank would never meet all my demands. They were wrong. Now it was my turn to return the money.
I wished there was a way to get the money to go to charity but I couldn’t see it. The more e-mails I’d received cheering for me to "give it to charity" and "stick it to the bank," the more I saw my Robin Hood idea as wrong. I didn’t want to ‘stick it’ to anyone. I merely wished to stand up for myself. Taking the bank’s money and giving it to the poor was not the way to right the bank’s wrongs. Shamefully, it had taken me a long time to fully grasp this concept. Giving it to charity would be like laundering the money, making it clean by giving it to the needy. It wasn’t mine to give. I didn’t believe in the karma of finders keepers, losers weepers, nor did I believe in sticking it to my enemy. I simply believed that I had rights and that I oughta stand up for them. The bank had finally come around. It was my turn to put the money where my mouth was.
Most reporters had told me to call again with updates. I phoned the woman at the Associated Press. She interviewed me about my decision to give back the money and sent the story out to the wire. My meeting with Mr. Meyers to sign the agreement and return the money was set for the next day, Tuesday, October 4th, at 1:30 p.m. He told me to come straight to his office.
That night, at 3:22 a.m., I sat straight up from a dead sleep. I had a better plan for the money. Take it to Vegas and bet it all at 50/50 odds on the roulette wheel. If I won, I’d have ninety-five thousand to give to charity and ninety-five thousand to give back to the bank. It would be such an audacious move I could probably sell tickets to the event, or make it a pay-per-view event. Most certainly, every news agency interested in my story would show up to film it. If I lost on the roulette wheel, maybe there’d be no real consequences, because my ticket sales would net at least enough to pay the bank. I lay awake an hour making my plan before drifting back to sleep.
End of Part IX