John's World: Unchecked Melancholy

October 25, 2013 07:40 PM
John Phipps

One of the most memorable times in my jumble of boyhood memories was staying the night with my older cousin, who by virtue of his maturity at age 13, was an idol in my mind. His family lived in town, a concept which was itself fascinating.

We awoke very early on Saturday morning and to my utter astonishment, Sammy told me we weren’t going to eat breakfast at home. We were going to the diner. I absorbed this news with all the panache of a 9-year-old who had at least seen a diner before. The idea of the two of us actually patronizing such an establishment alone was exhilarating, however.

Four blocks later we arrived at The Chuckwagon and settled into a booth. I told him I didn’t have any money, but he said to order whatever I wanted. Bacon, eggs and toast later, the skeptical waitress slapped down a little green slip standard in such fine dining establishments. What ensued was burned into my memory as the Epitome of Coolness.

Sammy strode to the register, casually grabbed a counter check pad (Ask your grandpa what this is.) and proceeded to write a check for the tab. I am not making this up.
He then unblinkingly returned the narrowed-eye stare of the waitress until she probably remembered whose kid he was and shoved it in the till.

There was a day when asking, "Will you take a check?" was a social status test

Sammy. Was. The. Man. My value system immediately incorporated a new symbol of manly sophistication. I had to get me one of those.

I began to notice checks more and tried to dope out the economic principles behind them. If you ran out of checks, did you still have money? This is not apparent to a novice. How could Dad write checks simultaneously from several checkbooks scattered about the farm? What was the purpose of the scrap of paper left when you tore out the check? (For Dad, apparently none.)

What was the mysterious second line of script for? When I discovered in school that was where you wrote out the amount, it only added a new field of questions: If 4 is spelled "four" and 14 is spelled "fourteen," what was up with "forty?"

The check had other functions than to buy breakfast and pay hired men. It served as a "wanted" poster pinned near cash registers after bouncing. For those who actually kept a running balance, it was a tablet containing the Deep Secret, which must be concealed by curving your arm around the checkbook and hunching over when writing.

Alas, its days were already numbered. My bank was the last one in Illinois to actually transport checks to the Federal Reserve for clearing. The president correctly anticipated a storm of protest when, instead of the actual check, a miniature photo was sent back each month. A few patrons still grumble.

About that time, a visitor from Denmark, seeing me write checks, likened it to using a quill pen. Banking has been all-electronic for Danes for decades. He said his cooperative could bill farmers twice monthly, and more astonishingly, get paid. He made it sound like a good thing.

But the cruelest blow is credit and debit cards. Card companies push
online payment with subtle bribes, and our check numbers have plummeted so much that my hand cramps after writing just two.

Our checkbooks gather dust until remaining artifacts of homemade commerce, such as rent payments, must be settled. If I could get my landowners to take a card, those too would stop, if only for the free miles.

Instead, money flows in and mostly out of my account via pixels on my computer screen. Automatic payments go out while I plod on oblivious until the 21st of the month, or my banker calls with that tone in her voice. I have become merely an electronic conduit via which seed companies get money from grain companies.

But there was a day, youngsters, when asking, "Will you take a check?" was a social status test. When you waited politely until someone did all the ciphering necessary to bring his balance up to date. Where a nervous signature on a massive land purchase check suggested you were on horseback at the time. Where the choice of icon on preprinted checks was a matter of serious family debate.

But just as checks once made cash-wielders look oddly anarchic, they are now a stigma of financial stagnation. The check is disappearing, without doubt. Soon the only checks left will be those still in the mail.

What do you get when you cross the intellect of an engineer, the heart of a farmer and the charm of a TV host? The ever-witty John Phipps. Contact John:



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