Viewpoint: Small talk at the ATM

The other day I pulled up to the ATM at a local First Megabancorp branch to make a deposit, my faith

I’ve noticed some changes now that the banks have been saved. Have you seen those slick new ATMs where you don’t need to use envelopes for deposits? You just enter the amount on the screen and put your money in a slot marked, Oh Thank God!

I find this disturbing.

The other day I pulled up to the ATM at a local First Megabancorp branch to make a deposit, my faithful canine companion Max riding shotgun beside me. (Does anybody know if the government allows us to use the word “shotgun” in connection with a bank now? I haven’t checked the new security rules yet.)

Talk about a slick ATM! It had bright, cheery, fun-loving colors set against a sober deep blue background. OK, maybe there was an excess of exclamation points on the screen. But what caught my eye was an animated, goofy-looking character identified as my concierge. Concierge banking for the masses — what a concept. I wondered if he expected a tip, with all the new fees banks are piling on these days.

Voice from within

Anyway, I put in my card. Imagine my surprise when he called out, “Hi Gary, I’m J.P. How are you? Crazy weather we’ve been having, isn’t it? But you know what they say about the weather in upstate New York: If you don’t like it wait a few minutes and it’ll change. Ha ha ha! Hmm, I detect another person in the car. Is that your wife, the co-holder of this account? Hello Janice, how are you? You’re looking terrific today, if I may say so. Yes, indeed.”

I glanced over at Max. He sneezed at me, his way of saying, “Huh?”

“Sorry pal, that’s my dog.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry Gary, it’s just that I’m so excited to be talking to someone who actually wants to make a deposit! All day long it’s been people withdrawing their money. All day long, heck, it’s been all week. All week, nothing, it’s been going on for several weeks. Several weeks, heck — ”

“OK, J.P., I get it,” I said.

As I made the deposit, it began to dawn on me that not only could J.P. talk, he needed to. This made me think the worst. I mean, a bank representative who actually wanted to talk to me? Wow. I thought I recognized the voice, too.

“J.P., I’ve got to tell you, some of the items on your screen are a bit unsettling. What’s going on here?” “Oh Gary, you’ve no idea. I hardly know where to begin.” The security camera lens began to mist up. “This used to be a small local bank . . .”

Swallowed up

He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know. I grew up in the neighborhood. As a kid, my first bank account was at that branch, back when it was part of Elm Tree Savings & Loan. Elm Tree was eventually bought out by Marble Lobby Bank, which in turn was swallowed by Metroland Moneyhouse, which itself was gobbled up by Eastern Seaboard Bancorp. You remember Eastern, right? They were trendsetters in bank marketing. They were the ones who first hit upon the revolutionary idea to create a hip, modern image by ditching the stodgy, old-fashioned word “Bank,” and replacing it with the ultra-cool “banc.” Very Euro chic.

Didn’t help them in the end, though. They were gobbled by First Megabancorp.

J.P. was on a roll. “And because customers kept telling us we no longer cared about them, First Mega had the idea to program into an ATM the familiar personality and voice of someone who knew the customers personally. Who cared about them. Who’d served the community at this branch for 37 years before retiring. Me.”

That was it! J.P. was the voice of John Morgan, the former branch manager here who’d helped me get a college loan years ago. Nice guy, crisp white collar, a hint of Aqua Velva. Now here was someone who knew the banking business cold and who you could trust. A bit neurotic, maybe, but a good guy and a big help.

“The financial crisis hit as they were programming me, and they got distracted,” he said. “All of a sudden they had to drive to Washington, D.C., for some reason, so they rushed it and just slapped me together. They never even had time to install the emotion-inhibiting algorithms. ‘Good enough for government work,’ they joked. How insulting! I’ve been stressed ever since, every day a test of my ability to persevere.”

Forced to sell

I asked him why. He said he was torn — he wanted to help people as he’d done as a human branch manager, but because he’d been retooled as a marketing initiative, he was compelled to sell the bank’s offerings whether he thought that was a good idea or not.

“How can I sell products and services to people who’ve lost their jobs? Whose homes are worth quarters on the dollar? Who can hardly pay their bills as it is?” He raised his voice and it began to distort. The camera lens misted into dense fog. I glanced through the nearby drive-up teller window and noticed someone walking toward J.P.’s back panel. He had a screwdriver. Or maybe it was an ice pick.

“But people know what they can afford, J.P.,” I said. “They won’t sign up for anything they can’t handle. It’s just marketing, people expect it.”

“You don’t get it,” he said. “People can be convinced to believe anything. Maybe not everybody, but an awful lot of them. They’re lemmings, Gary. Lemmings.” The fix-it guy with the screwdriver ice pick removed J.P.’s back panel. When J.P. spoke again, anxiety tinged his voice.

“Sure this place looks nice and inviting, but the books — our books — HEY!” he cried. The fix-it guy was fiddling with J.P.’s innards.

I heard panic in his voice. “Listen to me. Publicly our management says things are going well — YEOW! — and it’s just a matter of confidence and trust — OUCH! — but privately, they’re worried the assets aren’t there to back up the. . . the . . . the . . .” The screen went black. Mr. Fix-It threw up his hands and mouthed “Sorry!” at me.

I looked at the deposit receipt in my hand. It was very colorful, with a skillfully crafted image of the check I’d deposited. The slogan at the bottom said Yes, We Can Serve All Your Needs! in an attractive, cheery font. There was even a Smiley Face.

Max and I looked at each other. This time, I sneezed. We drove off.

Gary Dagastine lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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