At 9 a.m., I woke, instantly realizing the ridiculousness of my late night plan. As I prepared to return the money, there were already a few messages on my voice mail. "Hey Patrick, Marshall and Maxwell in Baltimore. We read you're returning the money. What a disappointment." It sucked to hear. They had once called me their hero. But their change in attitude didn't really surprise me. I knew returning the money would be unpopular.
The other messages were from news agencies that hoped to meet me at the bank for interviews and footage. I returned their calls and invited them.
I wrote out two checks that I needed to give the bank: one for the $175 necessary to close my negative balance account, and another for $65 because I felt it was important to also return the interest that I'd accrued on the $95,000. Then, before watching the jury's verdict on O.J. Simpson, I couldn't resist writing in the top, right-hand corner of each check, "non-negotiable."
Then I glued myself to the TV. "We the jury, find Mr. Orenthal James Simpson not guilty." The verdict stunned me. The drama of it all made me heavy and tired. I dragged myself off the couch and out the door to First Interstate's downtown branch. Before signing the agreement, I needed to see for myself if First Interstate had left my check in my safe deposit box.
I walked into my bank. It was more awe-inspiring and beautiful than I had remembered. I had recalled the ivory columns, gold trim and marble floors, but I had forgotten the panoramic oil paintings of old clipper ships. Classy. And expensive. No lack of money here.
A smiling woman behind the counter asked how she could help me.
"I'd like to access my safe deposit box."
"Sure," she said, her green eyes twinkling.
"What is your name?"
Her expression fell dramatically. Like when a mime turns a smile into a frown by wiping his hand down across his face.
"I'm sorry. What's your name?"
"C-o-m-b-s?" she clarified.
"Just a minute," I heard her say.
She spun away from me and headed in a sprinted walk toward a woman on the other side of the bank.
The second woman took one look at me and picked up the phone. I waited. And took pleasure in the most important moments my bank had ever made me feel. Then, exactly three minutes later, according to the clock on the wall, two blue suits with dark-shaded ties came purposefully through the bank's glass door toward me. It was hard to tell them apart except the bulkier one wore gold-rimmed sunglasses. Grabbing on the edge on the counter, I panicked momentarily with the idea that these two might each grab an arm and escort me briskly out the front door and kick my ass in the alley.
"Mr. Combs, we didn't expect you for another hour, but nonetheless, it is nice to meet you. I'm Paul, the branch manager here," said the shadeless man with a friendly smile.
"I'm Jack, from First Interstate's Risk Management department," said the other.
While the two of them were distinctly calm, the woman who had made the call stood by looking visibly nervous.
"So what now, guys?" I asked, trying to discern their intentions.
"We understand you want to access your security box, so let's get you in there," the branch manager replied, still smiling.
The woman and two suits formed a circle around me and we headed to the vault without a sound. Except shoes clacking on the polished, marble floors. Maybe they were going to shoot me in the vault, I joked to myself. Tension crawled up the back of my neck.
All four of us just fit inside the vault of brushed, stainless steel boxes. Even the floors and ceilings were steel. I gazed around at all the boxes. I fantasized peeking in each one. Who knew what they contained? Money, gold, jewels, heirlooms, and stock notes for sure, but also family photographs, love notes, and quite possibly contraband like drugs, guns, and stolen company secrets. I wondered if my box held the most money.
"Mr. Combs? Patrick?"
I looked around for my box. Only one had two red dots covering the gold keyholes. The woman pried out the small inserts and inserted her skeleton key, then mine. She slid out the long, slim box and stepped back against the wall to give me room to open it. The sunglasses man, standing between me and door, made it clear that I was to open the box in the vault. I touched the lid, sure the bank manager was about to say, "You'll notice the check is no longer there. We confiscated it. You can take the matter to court if you wish, but it was within our rights." Or maybe he had put in one of those springy snakes that pops out when you open the top. Instead, my cashier's check was sitting exactly like I'd left it, folded in half. The guy in the e-mail was wrong. I still had the ninety-five thousand dollars. I picked it up to eye level and gave it a long look. So real. So pretty with its fine red- and green-lined background. I scanned it for an expiration date. None. I'm so rich, I thought, and slipped the check back into the box.
"Are you going to return the check now and relinquish the box?" the man behind the sunglasses demanded.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean not right now."
"I'm going to sign the settlement agreement first."
"Bernard Meyers says you must return the check and relinquish the box first."
My bank had yet to be nice to me about this check. It was too easy to picture them getting the check and then refusing to sign the settlement agreement.
"Then I need to speak with Mr. Meyers personally. Please point me to a phone."
I exited the vault and used a phone in the bank. "Mr. Meyers, I’m being asked to close out my safe deposit box and give back the check when we haven’t signed our agreement yet. Why’s that?"
"You have to do that before we sign the agreement."
"I'll close the box Mr. Meyers, but I'll only return the check to you, and after we've signed our agreement."
"Well, we don't want you leaving the bank with the check."
"Well, I'm only going to do this one way Bernard, so you'll have to trust me."
Bernard paused again.
"Okay, close out your box and bring me the check."
I returned to my safe deposit box, accompanied by Mr. Mirrored Glasses, took the check, and turned over the keys. Then I approached the branch manager.
"I've turned over my keys and relinquished my box."
"Good. Thank you," he said. "And now you'll be returning the check?"
The man from Risk Management was standing silently by my side. As far as he was concerned we were now attached at the waist.
"Yes, I'm headed over there now."
"Great," he said, noticing my eyebrows raised in a way that suggested I had a need.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Hopefully. First Interstate has a policy that I have always loved: a $5 service guarantee that if the bank makes a mistake, all the customer has to do to get $5 is ask. It has kept me happy on many occasions when the automatic bank machine was broken."
He looked at me, his eyebrows raised in question.
"Well, the bank told me the $95,000 was mine to spend, but I'm going to return all the money today, so could I get $5 for that mistake?" I found it hard to get the words out. I knew it bordered on being a smartass. However, the branch manager didn't blink an eye. "I'm sorry," he said with apparent sincerity, "we cancelled that service a year ago. You'll notice we took down the Service Guarantee sign."
"Oh, dang. Well, thank you," I replied, turning to leave. As I passed through the heavy, brass-framed glass doors, I couldn't help but think it was probably a smart, financial move for a bank as stupid as First Interstate.
I headed back to Bernard's office with ninety-five thousand in my pocket. The sidewalk under my feet, slate gray with sparkles, could have been a red carpet. Within minutes, I'd be giving up the hundred grand in my pocket. Maybe I would regret it. The bank wasn't going to be grateful. I wanted a little credit for holding onto the money, for negotiating its return, for coming forward nice and polite, but it wasn't likely to happen.
I turned the corner and stepped onto the brick plaza in front of the reddish-brown skyscraper. A man from the Associated Press, with camera equipment slung all over him, was waiting. We hung out in the lobby downstairs for fifteen minutes in case any of the other six reporters were going to show. None did. The O.J. verdict captured all the news.
At 1:29 p.m., the photographer and I headed for the 25th floor. We didn't make it to the elevator. A lobby guard, skinny and uniformed in a maroon blazer, stopped us. "You cannot go up with a photographer, unless you have permission."
"I'll call Mr. Meyers," I said to the photographer. "But I don't think he's going to go for it."
I used a pay phone. "Bernard, I'm downstairs with the check. I've got an excellent publicity opportunity. How about a picture of us making friends? There's a photographer from the Associated Press here with me. He wants to take a photo of me giving you the check. Is it okay with you, Bernard?"
Bernard gave a polite no. "Thank you for thinking of us, Patrick, but we'll decline."
"The photographer said to tell you it'll look bad for the bank if the photo is just of me with a caption that says, First Interstate Denies Any Photos."
"Well, he's welcome to take all the pictures he wants outside of the building, but he has to stay outside."
The photographer suggested we take some photographs on the plaza. He posed me in front of a large First Interstate logo adorning a polished marble wall. He crouched to snap, as I stood smiling. From my right, the thin and wiry lobby guard came yelling with his walking-talkie raised like weapon. "Hey! Get out! You do not have permission to take pictures here!" He leaped into the camera's line of fire, and the photographer went into rapid fire shooting mode. I held my pose and kept smiling. This would be a very funny photo. The lobby guard lunged toward the photographer who leapt backwards just in time to avoid a swipe from the walkie-talkie. "You can't hit me, man! You can't touch me! I'm on public property!"
The guard called for backup. The photographer kept shooting until I waved him to stop, and then told him I'd have to go upstairs without him. He said he had the photos he needed and left.
I strained my neck up. The skyscraper loomed large and unkind, as I imagined executives occupying the top floors who wouldn't show an ounce of gratitude for what I was about to do. Nevertheless, I would have my moment. Returning the money would be huge for me. I'd be able to tell my grandchildren, "Always do the right thing. I once returned a million dollars."
I entered the building and nervously rode the elevator to Meyers' office.
The familiarity of Bernard Meyers' face felt reassuring. Our last meeting had seemed friendly. We sat down again at a conference room table to settle our FICAL matter. Without much ado, he produced the agreement and we both signed it. Then, I gave him the $95,093.35 cashier's check. He said a quiet thank you.
"Thank you," I returned.
It was all but over. After four and a half months.
"Did you bring the check to close out your account?"
"Yes, and a check to return the interest earned while it was in my account for a month."
Mr. Meyers' eyes darted to examine the sincerity of mine.
"Thank you," he said again.
He took the checks from my extended hand. As he examined them, I held my breath. Bernard tilted his head toward the words "non-negotiable," then began shaking it side to side. "Patrick, Patrick, Patrick... This is a problem... This is a problem...What are we going to do here?"
My lungs released their air as my cheeks fought off a large smile. "Don't worry, Mr. Meyers. The words 'non-negotiable' on the face of a check doesn't invalidate it. It's still a perfectly legal instrument. That's my point."
"You are a piece of work," he muttered, looking at me as if he had a headache coming on. I handed him a copy of the law that backed my assertion.
"I hope you brought your checkbook because law or no law, if the bank were to reject these checks, it would really be a problem. A big problem," he said.
"I'll gladly cross out the words and initial the change. Just a friendly reminder that junk mail solicitors are your real problem."
"I'm looking into it. Now please cross 'non-negotiable' out with three lines," he said, as his face readjusted with relief.
Our settlement was done. But I held out one last hope.
"Bernard, I have one last hope."
"I really hoped that First Interstate would give me $5 since it made the mistake of telling me the money was mine to spend. It's such a tiny amount to ask for in light of how much I just gave back. Do you think there's any way you could help me get my $5?"
The right side of Bernard's face cracked into a warm grin. He produced a five dollar bill from his wallet.
"Here. I'd say you earned it based on tenacity alone."
Bernard's compliment and gesture thrilled me and reminded me about my last planned step. I reached into my bag and produced two copies of my book, Major in Success. "They're for your daughters in college. My way of saying thank you for helping me resolve this matter. I signed them."
Bernard's pleasant smile slipped back to looking disingenuous. "You are very thoughtful Patrick. It's a most gracious offer, but I must decline. Thank you, though. I have seen your book and although I haven't read it all, it does look very good."
We got up from the table and walked to the elevator lobby. The elevator arrived quickly.
"Patrick, I hope you won't encourage other people to deposit junk checks. It could get a lot of people in trouble. You didn't spend the money. Other people might not be so smart. Plus, it's problematic for banks."
"I won't. I assure you," I said sincerely. "Thank you again."
The elevator doors then separated me from the last contact I would have with a First Interstate employee. A week later, First Interstate would be bought out by Wells Fargo, and in large part, disappear. In the banking trade journal, Institutional Investor, the headline would read, "Tip to Wells Fargo: Offer a phony $10 billion check."
I rotated through the revolving doors and stepped out onto the brick plaza. Nobody stood waiting to interview me, to ask me how I felt. I would have told them I felt good, light on my feet and victorious for having in-hand a letter people said I couldn't get. But I also felt like something was missing, maybe because I'd just won a contest but gave away the prize. I had no ribbon, no cash award, no merit badge, nothing tangible to show for my victory. Nor did I receive any praise for having done the right thing. I felt inside the pocket of my jean jacket where only minutes before a check for $95,000 had rested. There was nothing there now but a five dollar bill and a clean conscience. A good feeling, yes, but I'd need a little time to fully appreciate it. A good conscience was a subtle feeling.
I proceeded to walk along the busy sidewalk wondering if this was how people felt after descending from a mountain they'd successfully climbed. Triumphant, but a little lost, needing some time to adjust to the flat-lands. The letter in my hand would go straight into a box in the garage, but getting it had been really living.
"My dog wants a sex change. Please help," read a cardboard sign in the hands of a man sitting against the wall, with a mutt at his side.
I stopped and laughed. "Good one! Hey, may the pup's dream come true," I said, pulling out the five dollars, and handing it down.
"Thanks a lot buddy," the man said smiling.
"My pleasure," I yelled as I continued on my way.
My car was parked near a cafe. At a nearby table on the sidewalk, a person sat reading the San Francisco Examiner. My eyes couldn't help but notice two headlines. One that said, "O.J. NOT GUILTY." Another that said, "95,000 of Fun, Coming To An End."
If you're one of those who thanks me for the entertainment with a tip, I barely have words that properly express my ... astonishment and appreciation. (May it come back to you ten-fold! It not only makes me feel great about the effort I put into writing it, it helps keep it free on the internet)... I send a full-color, perfect duplicate of the $95,093.35 junk-check to those who tip in the realm of a movie ticket ($7-$9). More than that and I do a Snoopy dance for you in the streets. Both are tokens of my ... astonishment and thanks.
PS - It's suggested as a bookmark -- any other use could be ... well, you read the whole dang story so you know. Viva La Revolucion!!