POST #3 :: Advice to a Check-Writer

You are your own man. Your casual disregard for minor yet critical technological advances in the flow of capital would be defensible in another setting. But I am standing here after a long day’s work, waiting to purchase the last ingredients for a hefty meal that will send me fat and satisfied to sleep, and you are in my way, and at the moment I might be willing to just come right out and say that I despise you a little for your idiosyncratic refusal to just get the hell on with things already. I may be a Luddite in many respects but we are not brothers, you and I. The first rule of the check-writer, it appears, is that he must forget that he is a check-writer. His long stream of grocery purchases must be tallied and bagged before he is reminded of the minor problem of payment. He is captivated by the process of scanning items and watching their prices appear onscreen. There is something of the Saturday-morning child about him. The cashier attempts to move swiftly but must pause several times to consult his special laminated book, struggling to identify the product codes for each indeterminate fruit the writer has chosen to purchase. The items will not scan. The cashier must waggle every milk carton and pudding cup before the uncooperative scanner like a bear struggling to clasp a salmon. Those of us behind you make a show of our growing impatience. There is a technical term used in finance and banking industries to describe the process of writing checks that are not, strictly speaking, backed up at the moment by any actually existing deposits of corresponding amount. They call this “kiting.” It is an elaborate process of illusory transfer and exchange. Massive securities firms (like, say, Goldman Sachs at a certain moment in history) have their own elaborate and extensive variations on the process, but the idea at the heart of it is exactly the same. Some firm that fails to deliver securities within the proper settlement period leaves the next party to the transaction holding the bag, and then that firm kites, shorts, delays, or otherwise engages in an array of other tactics for dealing with a situation when someone who is owed money doesn’t get that money because the money isn’t there to get and is then in the position of trying to figure out how to keep passing the illusory buck, paying it forward without any payment actually taking place, or at least being delayed as long as humanly possible. You can see how this might unleash a long cascading wave of problems. We in the aisle (and we’re committed to this aisle now, we know what happens when you try to aisle-hop, it’s just like the gridlocked freeway we only recently escaped in that regard) pretend to look here and there, suddenly captivated by the market’s ceiling, goings-on in the parking lot outside, the spectrum of breath-freshening gums, high-end items poised for the impulse buy, the latest headlines regarding movie stars’ star-crossed lives. We puff our lips, sigh, and appear to commiserate. With nothing left to me, I rearrange my small handful of items sitting idly on the register’s conveyor belt. Check-writer, you are forcing me to rethink my shopping choices. You remind me that I have still not gotten around to planting my own herb garden, despite how easy it would be. Eventually your checkbook will materialize and we will arrive at the debate about the date, the one piece of information few among us can declare with absolute confidence. Then the writer must write out to whom payment must be made (“to the order of”); and then the amount in numerical form in its appointed box; and then now again but in alphabetical form, forty-seven dollars and 12/100 dollars — with the long line at the end, to prevent some kind of alteration after the fact. Thoughts assail one trapped in line at the grocery store behind the check-writer, who exists in his own time, almost, one might say, outside of History. This must have been how the first man thought to place advertising on those thin plastic bars we use to divide your grocery purchases from ours. Maybe they are called dividers. “Can you believe, son,” he will later tell his young boy, dandling him on his knee, “they used to be mere grey bars of nothing! Nothing! A boring, pathetic piece of rubber, something you wouldn’t look twice at if you found it lying in the road. I wouldn’t deign to spank an unruly child with one of them! Frankly I would be embarrassed to have it nudging up against the foodstuffs meant for the bellies of my beloved children. ‘Twas a public service I rendered, son, a form of civic necessity. When you can take something bland and grey and flaccid and transform it into something that — well, something that reminds them of the name of the fine establishment they’re shopping in, or encourages them to explore a new variety of soda, or a cutting-edge diaper — son, when you have done that, you have made the world, in your modest way, a far better place.” That conversation or one like it must have happened. And then of course, as the check-writer considers once more the lower lefthand corner and its adorable Memo line (mercifully skipped), he concludes as one must with the personal signature at lower right with every last one of its atavistic, character-drenched flourishes. (By way of comparison, with the credit-card machines that demand my digital signature with the attached stylus after I’ve swiped my card, I find myself eviscerating my own signature a little more each time, making it even quicker, uglier, less comprehensible; and the machine, without fail or hesitation, accepts these meaningless scribblings every time.) Now, writer: tear the completed check gingerly from its place in the checkbook, enter its data carefully in your register lest you forget, fold and pocket the booklet while the cashier silently holds out to you your receipt and consumer-specific store-card-activated coupons that you are not quite ready to accept. Eventually you will pause to consider whether to take them in hand or have the bagman place them in your bags, as if an important difference were to be established there. Check-writer, we have spent some time near each other; there is some kind of intimacy here. Sometimes you’re not a global securities firm; sometimes, I should imagine, you’re just a man in a grocery store who’s hungry and whose gas tank in his rickety car is nearly empty, and you just managed to pay the rent at the last possible minute and you don’t expect another paycheck for some time, and your arthritis is acting up again and you have decided that food is more important than pain medication, and so you write your check hoping that the store won’t turn right around and cash it too quickly; otherwise all is lost. You know stores that still take checks need to cash them, which means the bank has to process them, which means that precious little rectangle of paper (a lie in miniature, like so much else) has a fair bit of traveling to do, and traveling takes a little bit of time; and time, the engine of commerce, has now also become its enemy. Consider the beauty of a kite caught high in the wind, connected to earth by only the thinnest of threads, buffeted by forces much larger than itself as it struggles to stay aloft. I have to admit that the sound your check makes as it’s torn from its brothers is small and satisfying. I think of perforated things. How something scored can yield a break with the right kind of force. Perhaps this is the closest you can come to an overt act of violence in your trade, the tearing of that check a sweet moment of release for all your pent-up miseries. I think we are both somewhat miserable at this moment, you and I. We must consider that the diligence and precision of check-writing summons something profound in you; it allows you to delay the dismal journey home by just a few minutes more, and maybe those few minutes are more precious to you than anything else you briefly possess. My card is out, ready to swipe, and the woman behind me is looking. At the store she frequents they don’t do things this way; the tiny chips or radio antennae embedded in her card mean she doesn’t even have to take them from her wallet. No swipe, no PIN, no signature, just tap and go: simply hold it near. To wave is to pay. Some kind of system is attempting to perfect itself here.

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