The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through its many programs does a number of fine things in the world. Though I am admittedly no longer a church person, I was raised in this faith and continue — despite living in Bangkok, the Southeast Asian equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah — to subscribe its basic beliefs.
It therefore seemed fitting and proper that I donate a portion of the farm windfall to the ELCA. After all, someday I would be going to that great Go-Go Bar in the Sky (which features vintage Rock & Roll; the one in hell plays Hip Hop) and would have to answer for my undeserved riches. In late March I accordingly emailed them, inquiring how I could go about this.
In my message I did not mentioned a specific amount, only that it was the result of selling some Iowa farmland — which is not going cheap. Now one would think that an organization in perpetual need of funds like the ELCA would salivate over an opportunity like this and get right back to me. Instead it was almost two weeks before I heard from them.
Their tardiness made me angry. My no-nonsense Norwegian-Lutheran grandmother had instilled in me the importance of doing one’s chores in a timely manner. No screwing around. Maybe things in the church have become a bit slack these days. I mean, if it had been me in their position, dealing with a potentially huge amount of money, I’d have gotten off my butt and responded (in the immortal words of my fifth grade teacher), immediately if not sooner.
Somewhat reluctantly, I decided I could not work with these people. If I go to the trouble to contact an organization and offer to give them money, I’m not going to wait, hat in hand, while they take their sweet time get-ting back to me. They will either accord me some priority, or they will go without.
However, I am not a total Ebenezer. I have since added the ELCA as a beneficiary to a portion of my estate. (No point risking an eternity of Hip Hop.) But unless a wild Tuk Tuk driver runs me over, it’s likely going to be a few years before they see anything. They kept me waiting, so I am returning the favor. An eye for an eye.
Selling the Farm
Give these guys credit. The farm sale proceeds hadn’t been in my savings account but a few days when I received an urgent email from a Wells Fargo Customer Service Representative. He had some fancy-sounding, touchy-feely title and wanted me to call the local branch ASAP to set up an appointment with an Investment Banker. You see, I was undoubtedly in need of sage advice regarding my newfound riches and Wells Fargo would be more than happy to provide some guidance: Investment Man-agement, Estate Planning…why, there was even an Affluent Customer program that I might be interested in.
How thoughtful of them.
Keep in mind that this was a half year before the scandals came to light, which showed that Wells Fargo’s true expertise lay in forging customer signatures on sham accounts and then hitting them with fees. I, however, found my own reason for declining their generous offer.
A month before, when it had become clear that the farm sale was going to close and I would no longer need to be eating street vendor food every day, I visited the Wells Fargo website to do a little research. I had found a Vanguard no-load mutual fund I wished to put some of the anticipated money into. If I went through the company currently handling my invest-ments (Vanguard), there would be no fees or charges provided I could come up with a $3,000 minimum — an amount I was reasonably sure I could swing. Wells Fargo, on the other hand, was going to ding me $35 for each online trade. And this was only one of the many schemes they had to pry open my wallet: Account Maintenance Fees, Transfer Fees, Termination Fees…hell, I think they even had a Transgender Fee.
No surprise, however. Wells Fargo is a bank which makes a tidy profit nickel and diming customers (both real and made up) who elect to use its investment services. But the associated costs simply do not compare with a real investment company such as Vanguard.
I declined to respond to the Customer Service fellow’s email. The farm money was only in my account another week before I moved it out, and I really did not have anything pleasant to say to the guy anyway. I might be considered an Affluent Customer, but I am not affluently stupid.
Selling the Farm
The new bankbook I got back in March has proven to be a real pain. Spe-cifically, the bar code — a wide, black band located at the bottom of the front cover — cannot always be read by the machine that prints the trans-actions. In the past couple of weeks this trouble had gotten noticeably worse. With a heavy heart, I realized I’d have to make another visit to my beloved Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to ask for a new bankbook. It was not going to be an easy task, explaining what was going wrong and persuading them that I had a genuine grievance.
It was time to bring in Nicky.
Though there had a misunderstanding involving her birthday party last December, I’d let that slide and had continued to stop by Nicky’s place of business every once in awhile. She’d proven herself to be a very useful translator whenever I’d had important bank business to attend to, and I didn’t want to lose her services. You see, the Thais working at the local SCB branch seem to think the foreigners in this area are sloppy and rather obtuse. (Walk past the Soi 4 sports bars some night with the mobs of obese, beer-guzzling, bawling soccer fans and you’d come to the same conclusion.) If I have to deal with them — the Thais, not the fans — it would be far better to have one of their own with me in order to be taken more seriously. A kind of defense lawyer to present my case.
Nicky was initially concerned she might not fully understand was in es-sence a technical malfunction. Once we got to the bank, however, I easily brought her up to speed by twice putting my bankbook into the print machine and having her read the resulting error messages. To her edifi-cation — and my relief, since I wanted a realistic demonstration — the device first whined that it could not read the bar code, then complained about the book’s transactions being misaligned. A real mess.
Entering the bank, Nicky explained our problem to the “greeter girl” who had us take a seat out front. After a bit of waiting, we were then ushered not to one of the tellers, who had been of marginal competence the last time I had this trouble, but to one of the important-looking desks next to the teller stalls. The woman seated behind it was young, but knew exactly what to do. Although I had to sign my name in four places (the Thais are fanatics about foreigner signatures), in less than ten minutes’ time I was issued a new bankbook that worked perfectly.
As we got up to leave, the desk lady mentioned the importance of always keeping the bankbook in the shiny plastic envelope that it came in — much the same way the bar girls demand their customers use condoms. Though I unfailingly employ both means of protection, I bowed my head in humble subservience. Who knows, I may need that banker’s assistance again someday!
Nicky’s Company: Patpong Visa Service located on Soi 4 a couple hundred meters beyond Nana Plaza. Left side of the street, adjacent to a 7-11. Also does hotel and flight bookings and has internet.
Obtaining a new passbook should be a relatively straightforward affair. But I have learned that having a Thai perform anything halfway compli-cated for you may involve unexpected surprises.
I came to my bank fully prepared. Besides my old booklet, I also had a note from a Thai friend explaining what I wanted. Showing both items to a teller, it appeared she understood and after five or ten minutes of her bouncing from one computer terminal to another, I was presented with a bright new passbook in the distinctive shades of purple that Siam Com-mercial Bank (SCB) likes to use. Everything had gone smoothly and I started back home.
I was about four blocks from the bank when I realized I had forgotten to try my new passbook in the special machine that does the printing of the withdrawals and deposits. It is easy enough to use: you open your book, carefully slide it into a slot, and any new transactions are recorded. The device even has the smarts to turn pages when one becomes full. More than a little annoyed at my oversight, I turned around and marched back to do the test.
At first, nothing happened. While the machine’s screen continued to flash annoying SCB advertisements, my booklet lay passively inside it like a Soi 4 streetwalker servicing her fourth customer of the night. Finally, al-most as an afterthought, the machine informed me it could not read the book’s magnetic strip, and contemptuously spit it back out.
Of course I tried it again…then a third time. Along the way I employed my standard attempt at persuasion when confronted with a balky device, pounding it once with my fist. Loosing one’s cool is considered very bad form in Thailand, but it cleared my thinking.
Now the real fun began. I went back into the bank and got in line. When I reached a teller, I pointed to the magnetic strip on my book and waved my hand over it, trying to convey that it wasn’t working. The girl took the passbook, huddled with the one who had originally helped me, and together they fiddled around for a few minutes. Then they handed it back saying there was no trouble, that I didn’t get a response from the machine because there weren’t any transactions to print.
This simplistic — and incorrect — explanation shifted the burden of proof back onto me, someone whose level of Thai resembles that of a rather slow three-year-old. My only recourse was action. Stepping out to an ATM, I withdrew a pair of thousand-baht notes using my debit card. Re-confirming that the magnetic strip was still bad, I returned to the teller holding the two bills in one hand and my purple passbook in another, shaking my head. The point I was trying to make was that there was now a transaction pending, and I could not get it to print.
Yet despite the visual aids, I still was not getting anywhere. The tellers seemed to be tolerating me more than anything. With my audience slip-ping away, I suddenly had an inspiration. The security guard posted out front had been witnessing my struggles against the wicked print machine. After I’d punched it, he’d come over and had seen the error message re-garding the magnetic stip. This meant I had a Thai witness to back up my story! Getting his attention, I gestured for him to come in and explain to the girls what the problem really was. This finally got the point across and a seemingly magical operation was done on my passbook which — lo and behold — then worked smoothly when I went out and did yet another test. Re-entering the bank one final time, I thanked everyone: the tellers (cordially) and the guard (sincerely). However, it was my tenacity and resourcefulness that had actually made the difference. Some days you need that in a foreign country.