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The Laurence Olivier of Market Street

The drama and the uncertainty at Check Cashiers, Inc.

"An honest woman can’t even buy a money order without police harassment.”

"An honest woman can’t even buy a money order without police harassment.”

While the monolithic banks of B Street are absorbed in fixing their depressed computers and in advertising unintelligible pie-in-the-sky programs, down at Check Cashiers, Inc., Mr. Average American is getting his spinach. The check-cashing emporium is an Everyman ’s bank on Market Street between Sixth and Seventh that is busy seven days a week with customers turned down or turned off by other financial institutions.

Neal, the manager of Check Cashiers, was, on this rain-soaked Saturday, by now confident that there was nothing new that hadn’t crawled out under the Market Street sun. He’d seen it all. He’d been played by the best of them — cussed at, spit at, threatened with dismemberment, offered the pleasure of experiencing involuntary defecation by pummeling. From a rogues’ gallery of experience and by virtue of a native cynicism he’d developed his own armor-plated Market Street style. He’d fabricated an authoritative presence that ranged somewhere between the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Father Flanagan of Boys Town. He was fused and charged for any brand of customer, from Thorazine zombies passing counterfeit Franklins to Pierre Cardin-ed lawyers wanting corporate lawsuits notarized.

As strange customers would approach him, from behind his carefully sculptured sphinx face Neal would size them up for possible criminality, and then greet them with a quarter-smile of cordiality, as if they were Adam on Day One. Instinctively he’d read the cut and character of the new customer, deciding which props to follow up with: perhaps aloof professionalism, or heavy promotion, maybe magnanimous compassion or nail-studded kid gloves if required. As with any theater performance, handling a check-cashing customer calls for a mastery of tone, eye contact, and timing. He saw himself as the Laurence Olivier of Market Street. He’d lately perfected a face for those types of customers that clawed at the bulletproof glass, kicked the trash cans, and smacked the doors. He called it his “Chevy Chase Special.” No matter what they do or threaten, smile, bob your head, bat your eyelashes, and say, “Whatever” or “Have a good one.”

Handling a check-cashing customer calls for a mastery of tone, eye contact, and timing.

Handling a check-cashing customer calls for a mastery of tone, eye contact, and timing.

This particular Saturday he predicted would be a quiet and gloomy one, despite the fact that Saturdays usually brought out the check cashers in swarms. The rain runoff was already rushing up over the gutters. Maybe a flood would keep all the crazies in their holes.

“That’s the second time that guy’s done that,” Dan, the teller, said suddenly.

“What?”

“Look at him.” A scarecrow with a World War I flying cap on, wearing a trash bag for a raincoat, was passing by in front of the windows again as if he were Al Jolson back for an encore. Grinning luridly, the Red Baron vibrated his head, popped his eyes to the heavens, flung out his arms, and let it rip. “Jusssst singin' in the raaiinnn . . .”

“Sing, baby, sing!” Dan shouted.

Neal shook his head, laughed, and went for a cup of coffee. When he came back. Little Miss Muffet was dripping at his window. Her clothes, hairdo, and suitcase suggested a sailor’s newlywed or a recently arrived refugee from Disneyland. “Hi! How are you today?” Neal greeted her.

“What’s that thing out there?” Miss Muffet inquired.

“Who? Al Jolson?” Dan cracked up.

“No, that bum!”

“Let me guess . . . ,” Neal began. At that moment Superbum careened in, auditioning as a survivor of a bomb blast. “Oh, him. Get outta here!”

“I ain’t talkin’ to you,” Superbum proclaimed, his eyes as ferocious as oysters in tomato sauce.

“Out!” Neal insisted. Superbum ignored him, stumbling toward Little Miss Muffet.

“Get away from me!” she demanded.

“You want the cops, guy?” Neal threatened, skewering Superbum eye to eye. Telling the world off, Super-bum swerved back out into the rain. The manager mollified the young lady with apologies and sympathy, asking her to fill out a check-cashing identification card.

“Neal, look who’s here,” Dan warned.

Walking in backward came the Bull Moose Loony, a nickname for their favorite customer. B.M.L. turned around, saw where he was, and yelled, “Who are you? You can’t get me — I used to work for the government. They say I was crazy!” He walked toward Dan’s window shaking his finger, Walkman radio earphones hanging off his glasses. “The CIA knows about you.”

Superbum was sneaking back in, hoping that B.M.L. ’s diversion would afford him a quick sally on Little Miss Muffet.

“Out!” Neal dodged over to Dan’s window to deal with B.M. Loony. “Yo. You want something?”

B.M. Loony recoiled, looked around, focused on the manager, and contorted his sunken, emaciated face into a snarl. “I know you! You stole my check!” Loony screamed at the top of his lungs. He tore off his light blue windbreaker, balled it up, and threw it at the bulletproof glass. You could have slipped a softball into Dan’s mouth unnoticed. Superbum was slinking along the wall. “You stole my check! We’ve got people to take care of you — oh yes we do!”

“Sir? What can we do for you?” Dan ventured. Superbum was ready to pounce on Miss Muffet.

“You go back to the country where you came from,” B.M. Loony instructed Dan in no uncertain terms.

“That,” pointing at the manager, “is an enemy agent, mark my words!”

The young lady was howling; Superbum had keeled over on top of her. The manager grabbed an old police billy club and banged it on his window. “I’m going to crack this over your head if you don’t get outta’ here!” Little Miss Muffet took inspiration and started whacking at Superbum with her pink plastic umbrella.

“They think I’m crazy, but I still have my CIA credentials,” B.M. Loony was explaining to Dan.

Horrified, wine sloshed. Superbum tried to escape on his hands and knees. But the young lady was just getting warmed up, laying it on the prostrate bum as if she were revenging every leer and proposition she’d ever suffered.

Bull Moose Loony couldn't handle the scene. “Don’t hit me,” he whimpered, fearing he was next in line for attack. “1 promise I won’t do it again. Don’t hit me!” Arms protecting his head, he monkeyed out into the rain. Little Miss Muffet, spent of violence, perplexed by the behavior of the cringing Loony, ceased her machete job on Superbum, who scurried away as fast as his hands and knees would take him.

Dan was laughing so hard he put his head on his arms. Out on the sidewalk Superbum lifted his head like a battered periscope, B.M.L. standing over him. From their cashiers’ cages, Dan and Neal could see the Bull Moose take out his wallet and throw a few balled-up bills down on never-miss-a-mark Superbum as if they were hand grenades.

As the manager was attempting to consummate his transaction with the nerve-blown young lady, a seven-foot-tall woman glided in carrying two pails of pennies. Enveloped by a flimsy cotton house dress, oblivious to the wet and cold, the Amazon queen beamed them an all-embracing smile of timeless innocence. She deposited her two pails on the outside counter in front of Dan’s window as if he were a leprechaun tired of chasing fraudulent rainbows. Thanks for the pots of gold, he explained cordially, but we don't accept unrolled coin.

“Nuttin’ to it,” she exclaimed. “I gut da penny whoppers!” She pulled out a fistful — a most impressive fistful — of penny w rappers to make her point.

The manager saw it was time to intervene before she might pour one of those buckets into Dan’s cash tray and overwhelm him in a tidal wave of Lincolns. “In order for us to accept rolled coin, you’ll have to write your name and phone number on each roll,” he told her.

“Shoere! Right away! I go over der and roll dem up!”

“Be my guest,” the manager consented with utmost sincerity. “We close at 7:00 p.m.” And now back to normality, he thought wishfully as he went to catch up on a few things. Only seven more hours of this to go.

“Hey! Anybody working around here?” a voice demanded. Neal approached his window with studied nonchalance. “You! I want a money order.”

“You want a money order,” Neal echoed, blinking his eyes to make sure that what he was seeing was in fact — a kangaroo? A grotesquely porcine female sumo wrestler had planted herself there, clasping cross-armed the smiling head of Howdy Doody into the warm embrace of her considerable bosom. Neal backed off quickly. A warm, wet stench of brewery in rigor mortis gushed in through the cash tray into his face.

“That’s my husband. I go through these Filipinos like crap through a goose,” she growled, a menacing mustache flashing around her angry teeth. Sure enough, within Mother Kangaroo’s double-nelson death lock was a mini-Filipino man, smiling gleefully, only his head visible above the counter. “1 kill ’em off like Hies. Screw ’em to the grave. This is my third.”

“Really?” Neal saw his teller, Dan, returning from his break. Convenient timing, he thought, and said to Dan, “She wants a money order.” Neal retreated to a customer at his window, a very nervous and hungry-looking fellow. Since it was the customer’s first time here, Neal gave him a card to fill out and went to verify the check, phoning the check’s issuer. When the owner heard check number 2802, he nearly jumped through the phone. Number 2802 was one of a series of stolen checks. He yelled at the manager to hold the guy; he was calling the cops and would be right down. Adrenalin pumping, Neal dialed 911.

“Hey! What’s the problem?” The check bearer was getting antsy.

‘‘No problem at all. I’m just waiting for verification of funds,” the manager prevaricated suavely. “Just fill out the card and I’ll be glad to cash your check.” He wondered how long it’d take for the police to arrive. Five men and a woman walked in. “May I help you?” Maybe they’ll want something I can refuse, he hoped. The woman explained that her entourage consisted of tuna fishermen, each with a $5000 check from their just-completed trip, and could they cash them? “Sure. . . . Ah, of course ...” Neal was dumbfounded. “May I see the checks?”

“Hey! What’s happening? I can't wait here all day,” the would-be felon protested.

“I’ll be right with you, guy. You got the card filled out?”

“Yeah. Here,” he spit out, dancing from foot to foot, his eyes bouncing around like pinballs.

“I’ll call the bank again. Just a minute.” The female translator had returned with the five $5000 checks. Neal stared paralyzed at the $25,000 of crisp yellow paper. His mind became a cash register of off-the-scale check-cashing fees. Two percent of $25,000? There was a commotion in the lobby. An army of what appeared to be joggers or the British entry to the World Cup competition had rioted in out of the rain.

“Hey! What’s this sheeit?” said the nervous customer, obviously afraid that he was being stalled. He was.

“I’m calling the bank back now. Hold on.” Still holding the five checks like a royal straight flush in spades, he went to the wall phone and dialed 911 again. The phone rang and rang and rang. He turned around. The forger looked ready to bolt, Mother Kanga had put Howdy Doody on the counter in front of Dan and was French kissing him, Mrs. Pennython was hard at work, the Miller’s High Life extras were chucking a rugby ball around, and the fishing council was looking very surly. As 911 answered on the fifteenth ring, someone grabbed the perpetrator and threw him against the lobby wall. Apparently the owner of the stolen checks had arrived. The fishermen’s translator was at the window asking, “Are you going to cash these checks or not?”

“What about my money orders?” the woman with the lengthy list asked Neal.

“Right away.” Imprinting ten money orders would be therapeutic, he decided. He’d just ignore everything else. He couldn’t find a pen.

“How much is it going to be to cash these checks?” the translator petulently demanded to know.

“Well, for you? I’ll give you a break: three percent only.” She went back into a huddle with the fishermen. The arresting officer was still standing there smiling sympathetically, waiting to write his report. The supervisor came back on the line. The checks were cleared for covering funds through Puerto Rico. The owner instructed him to set a five percent fee. “I just told them three percent.” The translator was back. The fishermen wouldn’t hear of three percent. Only two percent. Neal relayed this to his supervisor, who put him back on hold, while he called back to the company owner in St. Louis. The translator informed him that they were leaving, forget it. “No! No! Wait. We’ll give you two percent. Wait!”

“You gonna get my money orders, or not?” The woman with the multiple orders persisted.

“I’m getting them. Give me half a second.”

“I’ve been standing here ten minutes already!”

He ignored her. He had to find a pen. One of the fishermen was walking out, the others arguing with the translator. He looked at his hand — the five checks were still there. He put them down next to the money order imprinter. There was a pen in his hand. He’d been holding it there for the last half hour, under the checks. The five checks all had his thumb mark on them as if he’d been trying to emboss them.

He told Dan to call the fishing corporation offices in Nevada and verify the issue of the checks. He reached for a money order blank and knocked the whole box on the floor. The supervisor was back on. The manager grabbed up the first blank off the floor and slipped it into the imprinter. The owner would only agree to 2.5 percent. Final offer.

“I got the tuna company in Nevada, Neal, but it’s Saturday and the bookkeeper’s not there, of course,” Dan explained, shrugging his shoulders.

“Call them back and get the bookkeeper’s home number. Come on.

Dan! It’s a $500 fee! ” He looked at the money order he'd just run through the machine. He’d imprinted it for 0.00. The Halloween clown, dog, and friends were watching TV in the corner. While Dan called Nevada back, the manager phoned the armored car company and finally ran off ten money orders. The armored truck would arrive any minute, they informed him. The rain was causing delays, sorry.

Dan was walking toward him with a wide-angle grin on his face. “We did it, Neal! Got the bookkeeper out of the tub.”

“All right! Now all we need is $25,000.” He called the fishermen’s translator back for his victory presentation. “We’ve done the impossible, I want you to know. We’ve cleared the checks and we’ll cash them for you — at 2.5%. Our owner will absolutely not agree to a penny less.”

The fishermen collected around his cash window. The translator explained the terms. They shook their heads. “No, they want to go somewhere else,” the translator announced.

“What? Watta ya mean, go somewhere else? There’s nowhere to go. Jesus Christ, lady! You bring me guys from five different countries, we burn up the phone lines through three different states and Puerto Rico for a whole hour — and you want to go somewhere else? Anyone else will charge you five percent or tell your buddies to get lost! Now cash these.

“I’ll be right with you. Dan, give them cards to fill out, then —" He saw two San Diego police officers dash in and seize not the felon, but the outraged victim.

Mother Kanga, meanwhile, was howling at Dan, “Do you know what those Goddamned cops did to me? They busted me for having a toilet in my closet. The neighbors snitched on me!’’

The paperhanger was hightailing out the door. “Get him,” the manager yelled at anybody. Strapping Number 28 of the rugby team took off into the thundershower after the runaway, dragging him back by the coat collar a few seconds later.

"Get your honky paws off me!” the outraged citizen howled. “Hey! You, cop! Arrest him. This is ass-salt and battering! Get this honky off me!’’ Number 28 held his prey at arm’s length like a succulent but pesky lobster he was picking out for dinner.

"An honest woman can’t even buy a money order without police harassment,” Mother Kanga growled out as her parting line, carrying Howdy Doody under her arm. One officer was frisking the suspect, who continued to shout a command performance of indignant innocence. The other officer was constraining the red-faced owner of the stolen checks. Dan was swamped in passports and dialects from five South American countries. Number 28 came to the window inquiring if they exchanged Australian pounds, and as an afterthought asked, “Aye? What’s an ’onky?” Two of his teammates, in the meantime, were helping out in the pennython.

“Neal, how am I going to verify these checks?” Dan was perplexed. “The bank’s in Puerto Rico and the company office is in some coyote hole in Nevada.”

“Great. There goes $500 in fees. I’m calling the supervisor at home. I don’t care.” Neal rang the supervisor of the company, who was equally ignorant of what should be done. He put Neal on hold while he phoned the corporate owner of the check-cashing chain, who lived in St. Louis. One of the police officers wanted a blow-by-blow report. Neal let him into the cage, and put him on hold. A1 Jolson was back singin’ in the rain. A line of wet and impatient customers had congregated at the manager’s cash window. The supervisor came back on the phone, saying that the owner himself would call Puerto Rico. Neal put his supervisor on hold while he called the armored car company, which was already an hour late with its afternoon cash delivery. Cradling the phone receiver between his ear and his shoulder like a life-support system, he went to help the next customer, who gave in a list of ten money orders. Why not twenty? Neal thought. The fishermen’s translator announced they were tired of waiting. “Hold on. We’re getting the okay now.”Sure. The rugby team had vanished. The perpetrator was handcuffed in the back of a squad car in front. A Halloween clown with a two-foot-long wig marched in carrying checks or get out! You’re wasting my time.” The customer is always right, goes the saying. Dan and the police officer applauded. The fishermen looked like guilty children. Three sentences in emphatic Spanish and they all lined up to cash their checks.

Neal told Dan to count out the money as slowly as he could. In the meantime he dispensed with a few more customers and gave the officer his report. Stumbling around, nodding out from some drug, the Halloween clown unpacked his life’s possessions all over the counter and presented a crumpled, wet social security benefit check. On the verge of receiving $300, he bummed for a cigarette as if he were offering the manager the privilege of participating in the Socialist millennium.

Handing out strapped bundles of fives and ones, Dan reassured the last two fishermen that their money was on the way and that they should be patient. No customers were left to be helped, and Halloween clown was nodding around with his cash in hand as if he wasn’t sure why it was green, so the manager ran to the comer with his sandwich to hide from the world and have breakfast at 5:00 p.m. While he sat there wolfing it down. Bob Bum, a harmless soul on crutches, rolled his Vons shopping cart/mobile home over to the pay phone in the comer outside the cage. He sighed, took off his bright new baby-blue golf cap, and related his woes to Neal, who grunted sympathetically between bites. With stoic sadness the aged street baron informed his friend the manager that he was at last ready to call by ‘‘trunk line” his beloved Cousin Paul. Neal watched him put a dime in the pay phone, push the coin return, put his dime back in his pocket, and then dial an eleven-digit number.

“Paul? That you? Hi! It’s Bob here. What? Yes, sure am...."

The only Cousin Paul at the other end was a dial tone. Neal reflected that after a day like this, reality itself seemed to be a questionable concept. The Amazon queen had a small copper mine stacked on her counter. The dog was glued to the TV show while the Halloween clown was making the fishermen very nervous and arguing with Dan that the manager had cheated him. In scooted the armored car guard like the Mad Hatter himself, except that he was too much in a hurry to apologize for being two hours late.

As fast as Neal and Dan could count the money, they dispensed with the blessed fishermen. The lobby had filled up again, mostly with off-duty cops cashing their paychecks. It was like knocking them off a log: the easy, normal calisthenics of check cashing. The sidewalk was suddenly ablaze with flashing lights and whooping sirens. A woman in a mink coat, wearing half of Tiffany’s on her hands, was the manager’s next customer. Everyone had turned around to see what was going on. Maybe the body snatchers had come up out of the street. Why not? A day like that had to have a coup de grace. The beminked lady was ignoring the pandemonium. She haughtily ordered 500 new one-dollar bills. Neal explained that they didn’t have any ones left, let along new ones.

“Well, why not?”

Neal was spared the task of giving a lengthy explanation when all hell suddenly broke loose in the lobby. Two uniformed officers rushed in crouching, guns held in both hands, ready to blast. “Everybody freeze!’’ they commanded. Two other officers ran up to the customers at the two cash windows — the mink lady and an off-duty cop — ordering them to spread their legs and put their hands over their heads.

“Give me a break! I’m a detective.’’

“I said, ‘Spread ’em!’ ’’ The officer, gun drawn, kicked his colleague's feet apart and frisked him.

“What’s the meaning of this outrage?’’ The mink lady’s indignant question was straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Margaret Dumont couldn't have done it better. "Get your hands off me!’’ she said to the officer who was patting down her mink as if he were beating a carpet. When he stuck his hand in her pocket, she pivoted, bringing her left arm down in a home-run swing, catching him square on the side of his face with her palm. Half the lobby winced from the noise of the blow.

The officer stumbled in shocked surprise and fell on the customer behind him. Lying on his back, he drew his gun. “Hold it, lady!’’

She ignored him and marched out, gathering her mink about her. Just out of curiosity, the manager inquired of the police what it was that was happening here. They’d had a report of a 411 in progress, an armed robbery attempt. False alarm. Guns were re-holstered. The lady in mink didn’t return.

The last hour before closing passed without further incident. Superbum was still lurking about. After a lengthy but fruitless struggle with the cigarette machine, the Halloween clown and company decamped back into the streets. The Amazon queen cashed in 128 rolls of pennies and Bob Bum kept up his marathon “trunk call’’ to Cousin Paul the dial tone. At 6:55 p.m., five minutes before closing time, twelve members of the Pirates of Penzance cast trooped in. Their costumes were superbly done. Those funny little flat sailor-boy hats with snake-tongue tabs hanging off the backs. H.M.S. Something embossed in gold on the front. Not actually Gilbert and Sullivan, but close — twelve sailors off one of Her Majesty’s seagoing vessels. Among them they wanted to cash a few thousand in travelers’ checks. Dan and Neal gave them what money was left, and a welcome to America’s Finest City.

The manager and his trusty teller were about to call the game on account of rain, but then the Halloween clown spun into the lobby, howling. Through his slow-motion sobs, they understood that he’d lost his money somewhere. They were too tired to kick him out. They watched him bawl and stumble around the lobby. Neal even offered him a cigarette. Suddenly the clown shouted, “I know where it is!’’ and took off into the night.

As Neal and Dan were locking up the lobby they found one last guest — Superbum snoring in the comer under the counter next to the trash can. Loving supplications and tender caresses would not arouse him. They each took an arm and dragged the Thunderbird-saturated trooper off the battlefield out onto the sidewalk. As they were about to abandon him to the elements, Superbum exhaled a rasping, side-busting laugh and bade them farewell. “You’ll have a nice day now.’’

“We’ll try.’’

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