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by Nancy Rechtman

Once upon a time, businesses actually wanted our business. Do you remember when full-service at gas stations was a given? Each time you rolled in, the attendants not only washed your windows and checked your oil, but also gave you free glassware as a thank-you for stopping by. And it didn't take an entire month's salary to fill up your tank!

Banks courted us as well. In a heated effort to convince us that they were the most competent guardians of our piggy banks, they offered not only interest rates that added up to more than the cost of a handful of bubblegum each month, but gifts to tempt us to bank with them. They dispensed things like blenders, toasters, casserole dishes, flashlights and clock radios, all in attempt to get our business and keep it there. The tellers knew us by name, smiled when we came in the door and gave us little savings books which they would diligently stamp each time we had saved up enough money to make a weekly deposit, even if we were kids and could only hand them a dollar each time we eagerly appeared before them. We treasured those little bank books, watching our accounts grow, no matter how slowly - but it was tangible proof that our money was in safe and caring hands.

What ever happened to that world? Today, filling up a gas tank generally involves zero human interaction as we can pay at the pump, watching our life savings dribble into our insatiable vehicles. We are lucky when there is water and a squeegee available to wash our own windows and we try to remember to occasionally glance at the little sticker on our window to remind ourselves of when our next oil change is due.

And the world of being rewarded for banking at a particular bank has long ago vanished, along with such things as the savings account book and the ability to receive your cancelled checks from your bank without paying a penalty. Two situations in the past year having to do with my bank have opened my eyes to the cold reality of the banking world these days.

The first was last year when I wrote a check to a government agency and wondered if it had been cashed as there was no way to find out from that particular agency if they had received it (what a shock). I called my bank after several weeks and was told that no, it hadn't been cashed. I called the following week again. And again, it hadn't been cashed. I called two more times over the next few weeks until I was finally told that yes, it had been cashed. The next month, when I received my checking account statement, there was a mysterious charge of unknown origins so I called my bank to ask about it. Oh, they said. Well, that's because you had the temerity to call and ask us about your account more than 3 times. What? Oh, yes, they assured me. If you look at your original agreement with us, you'll see in the teeny weeny unreadable print inside that we charge for such infractions. But, but, I spluttered. I've been with your bank forever - how in the world would I remember such an obscure piece of information even if I had been able to read it? That's your problem, they sniffed disdainfully. We warned you. I pretty much let them know what I thought of their policy and what they could do with it and finally, albeit reluctantly, they agreed to cancel the charge.

The next situation happened recently when my daughter received a check which was written, unknowingly and innocently by the sender, from an invalid check number. When the person who sent us the check realized the error, we were immediately notified. As I had only deposited the check the day before, I, as a good citizen, promptly called my bank and told them of the error. Well, they said, there was no way to stop the check at this point. We would just have to wait until the next statement where the amount would be deducted from my daughter's account. Along with a $10.00 fee. What???? Why would you deduct $10.00 from my daughter's account when we had no idea that anything was wrong with the check? Why would she be punished for someone else's error? Which, ironically enough, may have been due in large part to an error by the bank on the other end of this mess. Oh, our bank said. We have expenses and fees due to this error. What was implied was - we do it because we can. Imagine taking this logic one step further. Maybe we should fine someone who gets robbed because the police incurred fees in helping them out. Or charge an accident victim who innocently goes through a green light because a reckless driver ran through a red light and slammed into them. I was assured by the voice at the other end of this conversation that all banks would do the exact same thing. Really? Is this the new customer service? Fend for yourself and pray we don't charge you for it? This reminds me of the stories I heard awhile back about certain banks wanting to charge (read: penalize) their customers for physically walking into the bank to have a teller conduct their transactions rather than use the ATM. This is the brave new world of the 21st century?

I know that when I remember the way things were years ago that I am often doing so through rose-colored glasses. But there really used to be affordable gas, tellers who knew their customers by name and blenders and casserole dishes freely given out to let us know that we mattered. That having our business was important. Today, in our paperless, high-tech, de-humanized society, we crave any sign that we matter to anyone. Even if no one wants to give us flashlights and clock radios anymore, we aren't asking for much. Just the rarest and most human of interactions - service with a smile.

Please let me know your reactions to these columns as I would enjoy hearing what bugs you, too. You can reach me at

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Copyright Nancy Machlis Rechtman, all rights reserved. Small excerpts of the column may be republished as long as appropriate credit is given. To request permission to publish larger portions or the entire column, e-mail