Monday, January 4, 2010

December 28, 2009

On December 28, 2009 - one day before Ariana Huffington urged everyone to move their money to a local bank - I was (for the first time ever) appreciating the convenience of my own evil, bailed-out bank.

Prior to this enlightening experience on the 28th, I probably would have looked past the awful George Bailey references and agreed with the advice from Huffington & Co. When I moved to DC in 2008, I reluctantly opened an account with one of the big banks. I would have preferred to keep my money in a local bank (as I did for several years in Iowa) but the big bank was two blocks from my apartment and had branches and ATMs back in Illinois in Iowa. I hate paying those $2.00+ transaction fees, and this way I would have a better chance of avoiding them when I went home to visit family. I support local businesses, but only on a very passive and convenient level. There's a local grocery store near my apartment and I would much rather give them my money than one of the national chains, but it's not practical to spend a couple dollars more for a gallon of milk that's going to expire in two days. I can't afford to put my money where my principles are. But the Huffington Post article is right. If enough people with enough money made a point of changing their habits and moving their money to a local level, it would make a difference. Businesses go bankrupt because of people like me who are just trying to save $2.00 at a time.

It may have been easy a month ago to jump on board with the HuffPo article, but the day it was published, I was still deep in thought and beginning to accept the benefits of our global, technological society. Here's what happened.

At 3:30 p.m. on December 28th, my dad was driving me to Chicago to catch a flight back to DC. We left a little earlier than normal, just in case the underwear bomber succeeded in beefing up airport security to level: overkill. It was about two hours before takeoff, we were twenty minutes from the airport and I received a call from a friend who was in Italy for the holidays. She had gone to visit friends and was flying by herself. I was not expecting to hear from her before we were back in DC. I answered the call and chaos and drama poured out of the receiver. She was frantic. She had left Italy and was stuck in Munich. She couldn't get in touch with her family or her friends in Italy. She was being told she had to leave the airport and stay at a hostel, but she had no credit card other than her debit card connected to her checking account. She was not expecting to pay for a hostel two days before payday so she didn't have enough, but had nowhere to go and no money for the next 13 hours before her flight left. She was stuck in a country where she didn't understand the language and she didn't even seem to know why she was calling me, she was just making her way through her contacts list because she didn't know what else to do.

As the panic spewed from my cell phone, I looked at the clock and then looked over my dad's GPS. I knew that she and I had the same bank, so I picked up the GPS and typed in the name of the bank. There was a branch 7 miles out of the way, but we could still make it there and make the flight. I interrupted her desperation.

Frantic Friend: "I don't even know what to do and there's like one person in this whole airport I can talk to about it and they're telling me I have to leave and I don't know what to do and I hate this place and I'm never going to travel again and this is the worst day of my life and I..."
Me: "Listen. We're a few miles from a bank. Can you send me a text message with your checking account number and my dad and I will go there and put some cash in for you?"
FF: "Huh? [sudden cheerful, hopeful tone] Uhhh, I think I can send a text from here!! I can try!!!"
Me: "Okay, send me the text. We're going to head toward the bank and try to get you some cash right away. Stand by and I'll call you back when we get there."

We hung up, she sent the text with the account number and I ran into a Bank of America branch in a town that I would otherwise never have known existed. It ended up being the easiest bank transaction I have ever made. I filled out a deposit slip and explained the situation to the teller. I asked her when she would be able to access the money with her debit card. The teller said that since it was cash, she would be able to use her card right away. I handed over some cash I had gotten for Christmas that I really wasn't happy carrying around anyway. The teller verified the name on the account, made the deposit, handed me the receipt, and we were out of there within five minutes. I called my friend back.

Me: "Okay, it's done. You should have enough to pay for the hostel and get you home."
FF: "Ohmigodthankyousomuch. Bye!"

So, Dad and I get back on track to Midway airport and I arrive with plenty of time to spare. The rest of the afternoon in the car and in the airport, I could not stop thinking about how simple it all was and how difficult and painful it would have been even just a few years ago. Before cell phones, before GPS, before greedy national banks... who knows how long she would have been stranded or where she would've turned for help. What would have been a huge ordeal a few years ago, can be fixed in this day in about twenty minutes if you have a cell phone and a resourceful friend. It really is quite impressive.

When I finally made it back to DC, I logged onto my friend's facebook to see if she had made any updates about her trip or to see if I could find any information about how things worked out after I had talked to her. She had only posted one update in the previous three days. On December 28th, half an hour after she called me to tell me about how horrible her life was and how her holidays had been ruined, she posted this facebook status update:

I love Munich! The airport is awesome, have a overnight flight, finding a hostel to stay in. :)

There was no mention of the dilemma that had consumed her just minutes before. In fact, there has been no mention of it between us, nor do I think she told anyone what happened to her on that fearful day in Munich. As far as the rest of the world knows, there was nothing but smiley-face emoticons the entire trip.

What a difference $180.00 makes!

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