January 23, 2007

J.P. Morgan and his lowly gal

My bank and I aren't getting along.

To be fair, Chase bank -- or any bank, for that matter -- is at an immediate disadvantage. I grew up with relatives in banking. When I was a small child, my mom was a teller, at a bank where my grandfather worked for 41 years and retired as president.

From birth onward, tellers and officials at my grandfather's bank knew me by name. They still know me, and sometimes, on visits home, I go to the bank with my mom to say hi -- even though I no longer have accounts there.

That sort of familiarity has created, for me, a high bar for customer service in a financial institution. And in this category, I find Chase lacking.

Chase workers, however, aren't the first to disappoint. In college, I was forced to deal with LaSalle Bank in Chicago, an institution known around campus for its unwarranted charges, faulty (and few and far between) ATMs and general lack of enthusiasm for its student clients.

For a short time after college, I found a solace. When I was just two weeks from being a college and graduate school graduate, I walked myself down to Bank One and opened an account. I'd done my research. I'd talked to friends, looked at the account options online and even mapped out branches near my pending internships.

For months, my banking life was grand. I enjoyed free checking, a great online banking Web site and friendly customer service representatives. When I moved to a new city, the tellers at my new branch smiled and asked where I grew up.

Eventually, however, the merger between Bank One Corp. and JP Morgan Chase and Co. filtered down to we lowly customers. Bank One logos disappeared from branches. The online banking Web site changed its format.

As seems inevitable when big corporations become even bigger, new fees popped up. The next time I moved, I encountered trouble in paradise.

When I went to my new Chase branch, a customer service representative looked down her nose at me. Are these accounts based in Texas? she asked.

I wasn't completely sure what she meant. I opened the accounts in Chicago, but Chase is a national bank.

Well, she huffily informed me, they're based in Chicago. We'll have to move them here. Otherwise, we can't make any changes to the accounts, you know, if anything happens.

(Exactly what did she mean by, "If anything happens?")

I politely declined. I'd moved all over the country and encountered no problems. My Chicago-based accounts, I said, were fine by me.

Boy, was that a mistake.

Three weeks ago, I went to my local branch to close my savings account (since I wasn't meeting Chase's minimum balance, I was getting slammed with fees). This seemed a logical approach: I want to close my savings account. I'll go to my bank.

At first, it seemed I was right. At the bank, I sat with a customer service representative, who, even though my accounts were based in Chicago, filled out paperwork to close the savings account and stop any automatic transfers into it.

Ten days later, I checked my accounts online. My monthly transfer to my savings account, which was supposed to be closed, had occurred as usual.

With a call to my branch -- the same one were I had "closed" my account -- I learned that a customer service rep in Texas can't close a Chicago-based account. I would have to call a telebanking phone number to close the account.

(Exactly when were they planning to tell me this?)

Fine, I thought. Everyone makes mistakes.

Several days later, I went to my branch just after noon on a Saturday. OK, I could have gone earlier. But I didn't, and it's my bank, and they're open 'til 1 p.m. on Saturdays. So I thought I was fine.

Wrong again.

The first teller I saw told me my transaction was going to take a Very Long Time. I stayed quiet. So what? I was thinking. You're my bank.

Then, the teller huffed -- one of those short, exasperated sighs -- and informed me, as I already knew, that the bank was only open until 1 p.m.

I, dumbfounded, still said nothing. What did she want me to say? Gee, you only have an hour, I guess I'll have to come back another day?

Then, she added insult to injury, asking, Do you have an account here?

No, lady! I just thought I'd make your day miserable, just for fun. This week, I picked Chase. Maybe next week, I'll pick Capital One. I mean, seriously -- I had my checkbook and deposit slip on the counter.

Yes, I said. I have an account.

Another huff. She said she'd see if someone else could help.

Teller No. 1 returned with Teller No. 2. And what should Teller No. 2 ask, but, Do you have an account with us?

Now I huffed, at least in my head.

Yes. YES! Yes, I have an account with you. But I'm seriously starting to regret it.

Resigned to the fact that I was a customer, Teller No. 2 took my transaction in hand and went back to her station. Just 35 minutes later -- at 12:50 p.m. -- the Very Long transaction was complete.

OK, deep breaths. I was annoyed, but they executed the transaction. I'd get over it.

Today, however, came Strike Three.

I awoke to an e-mail this morning alerting me that my OverDraft Protection had been activated on my checking account.

That's odd, I thought. I had checked my ATM balance and online balance over the weekend, before spending any money, and I hadn't spent nearly the available balance.

I checked my balance online again. No erroneous charges. Just the few things I'd bought on Saturday. But, sure enough, there was the "ODP" charge.

So onto the phone we went.

The first customer service representative was, essentially, useless. My purchases from the weekend, she said, were greater than the balance shown on my account for Thursday.

That's true. But, I said, I had deposited money on Friday, and my receipt showed an available balance well above Thursday's balance. So did my online account record.

Oh, she said. Did you make the deposit at an ATM machine?

OK, first of all, it's an ATM. Those three letters stand for "Automatic Teller Machine." Saying "ATM machine," then, is equal to saying, "Automatic Teller Machine Machine." It's like chai tea or bento box -- which translate to "tea tea" and "box box."

Second, I could now see where this was headed. "Deposits made at ATMs may not be immediately available ... blah blah blah."

Here's the problem with that: My ATM receipt showed not one but TWO balances: My "present" balance, which included the full amount of my deposit, and my "available" balance, which included only a fraction of the deposit.

Now, I have two academic degrees, but neither of them is in personal finance. To me, that receipt says: "Here are the funds that are available, and here are the ones that aren't."

The customer rep on the phone, however, wasn't interested in this theory. I can't see your ATM receipt, she said.

Do you think I'm making these numbers up? I asked. I'd be happy to fax you a copy.

In the end, she said, she couldn't do anything anyway. She couldn't reverse the charges.

Someone can, I said. She got a supervisor.

The supervisor gave me the "funds not available" line again. That's fine, I said, but a receipt from a Chase bank ATM, as well as my online banking records, also maintained by Chase, had told me otherwise. How could I be faulted for overdrafting my account if machines controlled by Chase had told me I wasn't overdrafting it?

Believe it or not, she started in again on the line. And I started in on my rant, ending with the fact that I couldn't wait to cancel my accounts with Chase.

OK, she said. Have a good day.

And just like that, I found out how deeply my bank cares about my business.

Eventually, the supervisor agreed to reverse the charges. I'm happy to report my $7 has been returned to my account.

Any appreciation for my bank, however, has disappeared.

Sadly, I have little faith that other banks will offer better service. And Chase has a branch less than a mile from my house. For now, though I'd like to cancel, I'm stuck.

January 21, 2007

Food as sex

It's Sunday again, which means time for more Food Network fun.

Today's highlight: Everyday Italian, with Giada De Laurentiis.

I've long been suspicious of Giada. For starters, I know of no other chefs with waistlines that small. Does she eat anything she cooks?

Next, chefs don't wear flowy, long sleeves that could drag in their ingredients.

Finally, chefs definitely don't wear shirts that show so much cleavage. Isn't she concerned about hot oil?

Today, however, Giada cinched the deal, showing for once and for all that this is a thinly veiled show about sex, not cooking. For, as she mixed some meat (!) with her fingers, Giada said:

"My hands are always my best tools," and

"I like to feel it on my fingers."

January 20, 2007

A divided America

David Brooks makes an interesting point in his Thursday column, "The Elusive Altar," though I'm not sure he knows it.

Brooks uses his space to point out a downside to an earlier story from the week, about a study that shows more American women are living without husbands than with them. He highlights women from the lower rungs of American society who want to marry but cannot, and says that social ills, not female empowerment, have driven the marriage figure down.

It's not Brooks' position, however, that struck me, but the unsaid point that there's more than one America to look at these days.

Empowered, single women like me looked to the husband study and said, "Yes! We don't need them!" Brooks would argue that lower class women with children, perhaps living with the child's father, looked to the same study and sighed.

Meanwhile, we, a nation at war, resemble a nation of wealth. While high definition, flat panel televisions zoom off store shelves, a tiny portion of the country's families are sending their toughest sons and daughters to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. That small section of the country feels our victories and successes personally, while the rest of us sit back and discuss policy.

As oil prices go up and down -- but mostly up -- the nation's motorists and owners of homes with oil or gas heaters consider taking on second jobs. Oil executives, on the other hand, sit back and relax.

It seems we rarely are one "America" these days. Instead we are many Americas, all jockeying for position.

Perhaps we've never been a united front. But weren't we once better, at least, at pretending?


Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's communications manager seems to be making an interesting gamble.

According to this New York Times story, Sen. Clinton announced this morning, on her Web site, that she's running for President in 2008.

It's an interesting choice of days for an announcement. Saturday, of course, is not a hard-hitting day for politics -- or any other news, for that matter. Many politicos have left Washington, and the rest of America is outside, kicking a soccer ball.

On the other hand, newspapers will be forced to put this on their Sunday front pages. There, beside investigative projects, weekend round-ups and the common Sunday sob piece, will be Sen. Clinton's mug.

The Sunday play could roll talk into Monday, dominating water cooler chatter, assuming no big news breaks Sunday.

So unlike Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, who each announced midweek, Clinton could get a few days of attention instead of just one.

Sort of smooth, actually, if it works out that way.

January 19, 2007

Cravings of a virus-infested woman

Do sick people eat brownies?

I'm asking because that's what I'm eating right now, despite the fact that I've had the stomach flu for six days.

First, we thought it was a hangover (hungover people definitely eat brownies -- but as you're about to see, I'm not hungover). After 36 hours, many bottles of fluids and one hell of an abdominal cramp later, it turned out we were wrong.

So, all week, I've see-sawed between nausea and supreme hunger, with supreme hunger taking over when I can get the nausea suppressed. And boy, have the cravings been wild.

On Monday, it was Domino's pizza. Sadly, I was on the road, for five hours, without one Domino's in sight.

On Tuesday, I slept. No cravings there.

On Wednesday, the pizza craving returned. A large Domino's deep dish cheese pizza was ordered. It arrived. I ate. I wasn't satisfied.

In fact, I kinda got heartburn.

On Thursday, finally, I thought I was well. I even got excited about a friend's Friday birthday party, to be hosted a local cheesy chain restaurant. OK, not so excited, but I made an attempt. This friend isn't the closest of friends -- more one of those sociable people you know who always remembers you for a party. The last time I hung out with him, I watched his other friends slam shots and beers like it was going out of style. It was more than slightly frightening.

Still, food sounded good. I went on the cheesy chain restaurant's Web site and planned out my meal: spinach dip, burger, Key lime pie for dessert.

Then, today -- well, I'm not so well. I've been running a low-grade fever since 8 a.m. and spent part of the afternoon at work in the bathroom, eyes closed, willing my slightly nauseous stomach to settle. At 4 p.m., I wanted to go back to bed. On the way home from work, I bought canned soup and ginger ale.

Now, however, the nausea's gone again -- and so is the canned soup -- and I'm eating, of all things, a freshly baked batch of Pillsbury brownies.

Strange? Yes. Like me? Tons.

Cheers to the uncommon. And to Pillsbury.

January 7, 2007

For the love of Food Network

I will cancel my cable.

That's my thought as I walk past my TV each day. I resolve to call the cable company and cancel my cable -- and my high speed Internet connection. It would save me almost $65 a month.

But then I sit down on Sunday afternoons and watch Rachel Ray.