I found out I was worthless when my lunch check came back with the message “card declined.”

It was supposed to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon, New York style.  I had a ticket for “Atys,” a four-hour French Baroque opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is some people’s idea of fun. En route I would, as usual on BAM excursions, eat at Junior’s, the temple of New York cheesecake a few blocks away. A bloody mary, shrimp salad on toast, a slice of raspberry swirl to go for intermission – what more could I possibly need to hold me through four hours of French Baroque?

As it turned out, $17 plus tip. The bill came to $28; I had $11 cash on me, and no other card but the debit card linked to my checking account at JP Morgan Chase, which has made thousands of dollars on me in my account’s 23-year history.  

I gave up credit cards almost a decade ago, having learned the hard way just how the credit economy was bleeding me and millions of others. What I paid in interest and fees over the years probably could have bought me the apartment on West 57th Street that I rented for 10 years, or supported me through almost five years of my current vie de boheme. So I stopped handing the banks any more profit than absolutely necessary. Even so, they hold the purse strings and the power. In America, money is power, and when your money is cut off, you are indeed worthless.

The manager at Junior’s kindly let me go to the Chase branch next door, which looks something like the Supreme Court building, and check my account on the ATM; as collateral, I left behind my slice of raspberry swirl, the only evidence of good faith I could think of. The ATM indicated a negative balance of $192, which made no sense, since my account has a $6,000 credit line. A call to customer service revealed that my account had been blocked, but because it was Sunday, the office that could tell me why was closed. I had never in my life walked out of a restaurant without paying, but now I bolted to BAM, where curtain was 20 minutes away. In the lobby I ran into a friend who handed over $40 in cash, no questions asked. At the first intermission, I ran it back over to Junior’s, paid my bill and ransomed my cheesecake.  Cash in hand: now $17 with the change from my friend’s loan.

On Monday morning, I told my story to one Chase representative after another, most of whom talked down to me as if I were a retarded 5-year-old. It took nearly three hours for the explanation to become clear: while I see my checking/line of credit as one account, Chase sees it as two. (“Don’t they have different account numbers?” a friend asked. In fact they do, but I had to click through several screens to find out, since the accounts share their last six digits.) At some point in the preceding 30 days, I had dipped into my line of credit, and in exchange Chase expected a “monthly payment” of $275 – a figure that showed up nowhere online. In those 30 days I had deposited more than $1,000 in checks, but since I owed Chase nothing when I deposited $800 of those checks, only $200 counted as a payment, leaving me technically delinquent  by $75. All I would have to do, Chase told me, was deposit that $75, and we would be friends again. By that time I had already transferred $1,000  from a money market account elsewhere, but that would take two days to land electronically. Adding insult to injury, when I called a direct number to thank an agent named Anthony who had actually been of help, someone called Corey answered – and simply laughed. I was later told that no one at Chase has direct numbers. Perhaps they do not have direct names, either.

So I had $17 to carry me through 48 hours in New York City. I made a large batch of my mother’s macaroni salad and settled in at my computer to wait it out, as cheaply as possible. 

On Wednesday, Day 4, the $1,000 landed. I took out $100  cash and tested the card on a restaurant check, which added up to just about the amount of a check I had deposited. So far, so good. I told my friend it was now safe to deposit the postdated check I had given her on Sunday to pay back the $40 loan.

Day 5: I woke up to discover a negative balance in my checking account and the credit line still blocked. An e-mail alert – the first I had received, since Chase had apparently been sending alerts to a defunct address, though it knows my current one when it wants me to answer surveys – told me I had incurred more  insufficient funds fees. I called and was told that my account would still be delinquent until a transfer from checking to line of credit posted at 11 p.m. In short, about $800 was in limbo somewhere in Chase’s computer. I could neither use the money nor get it to count for anything, and once again I had a negative balance.  By this time my friend  had deposited the check in her own Chase account, leaving each of us liable to a bounced-check fee of $35. I told her I would pay any charge to her account, but she said, “I’d rather bomb them.” (Another friend with better connections at Chase than mine pulled some strings in the Private Banking division, which was willing to report to her but would not talk to me. At least some fees were reversed.)

On Day 6, the $800 still had not posted to the credit line. By Day 7 it had, but – surprise! — the credit line was still blocked, leaving me with a negative balance of $182 and change. All I had to do, a  “customer service” agent explained, was deposit that much in my account, and all would be right with the world. By chance I was going to deposit two checks that day, adding up to precisely $183.

And that is how a $75 misunderstanding cost me a week of my life.

The most infuriating part was, I had done nothing wrong, except fail to understand Chase’s byzantine system. My anger and powerlessness left me too shaken to think of anything else, let alone do any productive work  – and a freelancer who can’t work doesn’t get paid.  I might have been less worried if I hadn’t been about to leave, on what could easily have been Day 10, for a month’s business trip in Europe when I would be relying on my debit card, which has seen me through years of international travel.

Everyone who has heard my story countered with a similar one — “Wait’ll you hear what they did to me!” — about a bank, a government office, an insurance company. The banks are squeezing consumers already squeezed by a recession caused largely by the banks themselves, which resumed making profits in no time thanks to a government bailout.  Chase now charges me $12 a month for not making at least $500 a month in direct deposits – which I’d be happy do to, except that none of my current employers offer direct deposit. (When I asked a local branch banker about that charge, he began, “Well, you see, in order to maximize profits . . .” before he read my face and realized that was the wrong thing to say.) Much of my income now comes from abroad, and direct deposits from sources like the Abu Dhabi newspaper for which I write and the university where I will teach this winter are classed as foreign transfers — $15 each. And then there are the fees for foreign transactions whenever I travel. (Not to mention that I can no longer earn airline points for debit card purchases, but  that’s the government’s fault.)

When did corporate profits become the driving factor in American life? When did they become more important than the services that businesses were founded to provide? Why do corporations feel  entitled to every penny they can possibly gouge out of consumers? No wonder the Occupy Wall Street protests are spreading across the United States. If I didn’t happen to be in Poland at the moment, paying cash for just about everything, I’d join them.

That lunch at Junior’s has taught me a few lessons. I’ve begun shopping around for a new bank, though the ones I’ve found so far seem no better, and some worse. I now realize I’ve been foolish to put all my eggs in one basket, and at the very least I intend to set up a small account at another bank for emergencies. I’ve developed a phobia about going out to lunch on a Sunday afternoon, and I will never again walk into a restaurant without more than enough cash in hand to cover the bill.

One thought on “Chased and confused

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