Jokes about not being able to balance a checkbook were rendered dead serious.

One TGIF I have always meant to do is about that happy Friday-afternoon ritual of standing in line at the bank with your paycheck in hand. This can be a social hour (and it often may be the best part of an hour), an opportunity to practice patience, an occasion to catch up on your reading, or, in my case recently, to reflect on my lifelong relationship with money. This so thoroughly depressed me, with a parade of memories and associations of neurotic attitudes, that I had to bail on that train of thought and look around for some distraction. My checking account has resided in one particular bank for several years now, my account history riddled with an embarrassing number of small overdrafts. But jokes about not being able to balance a checkbook were rendered dead serious after a teller in an Orange County branch of my bank (a branch I'd never been to) accidentally deposited $1100 into my account on January 15th. The mistake lay there for the better part of four days, despite my asking two tellers at two different San Diego branches if my account balance wasn't a tad high. No, I was assured twice, that's the balance. If a mistake had been made, after all, it was likely to have been mine. My only real concern was for the $100 check I had written to the IRS well before the 15th, but that seemed just fine.

The following Saturday night, the 19th, I tried to buy about $20 worth of groceries with my new debit card, but it was declined. I called the bank's 800 number and was told that a deposit for $1100 was made mistakenly to my account on the 15th at the Orange County branch. Since the 15th, I had withdrawn money at the two local branches, from the same tellers I had asked to double-check my balance and who had assured me that it was correct. Now my checking account was overdrawn.

Monday morning I went downtown to speak with a branch manager, who called attention to my history of small overdrafts and, in passing, verified that a mistake had been made in Orange County. Her emphasis, however, was on my responsibility to maintain my check register accurately and that I had withdrawn money I did not have, even though that money had been handed to me by live human beings, not an ATM, and that on the last occasion, when I had asked again for my balance, neither the teller nor I had noticed the fine minus mark before the figure. Two bank employees and I had compounded the Orange County error. The manager did waive the overdraft fees, a small part of the $800+ problem. I was told I had six weeks to repay that amount.

In the meantime, the Treasury Department had taken its time processing my monthly IRS payment, and the check arrived at the bank only after the mistakes had been discovered and the account was in the red. I called Uncle Sam immediately and was told that usually, if you bounce a monthly check to the IRS, you are no longer qualified for the installment program. This leaves the government wide open to seize accounts, paychecks, and my toaster too, I suppose.

This was and remains horrible. When I had repaid $400, almost half, I again went into the branch manager's office. I was going to suggest the bank could share the consequences of the mistake with me, but her manner was peremptory. She had no comment for publication.

That is where the matter rests. I'm still on hold with the IRS, literally. I will resume my spot on the couch, the phone against my ear, listening to the "Blue Danube Waltz" and Mozart while staring at the television. I just saw a little girl on a commercial for a local credit union. She was praying to a debit/credit card for a bicycle.

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