ATM: All (it) Takes (is) Money

Posted on December 10, 2016 under Storytelling with no comments yet


“ I know a heartache when I see one.”

Jennifer Warnes

The human race is always in a state of transformation. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era where machine power replaced human hands. Almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. Time marches on relentlessly and the speed of change in 2016 can cause severe whiplash as information technology transforms the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the business world where millions of transactions take place every second of the day.

And yes, sadly, to an older generation of people like myself, we are quickly becoming a cashless society. Most of in our 60’s  ( and older! ) had no money as kids so when we finally earned some dough pumping gas, mowing lawns or collecting beer bottles, it felt awfully good to have a few coins jingling around in our pockets. Most of us still carry a bit of cash with us even though we can conduct almost any transaction with a plastic card or a click on our smart phones.

On November 8th. 2016, India decided to go cashless… overnight! The demonetization story is well documented and the fallout from this drastic action is still being felt. Finding ways of accessing cash has become the new national sport, even though most people didn’t think that this was cricket. For days on end, the ATM machines were under lockdown. If you have an Indian bank account, you can stand in long lines and get cash inside your bank. With no access to an ATM and no Indian bank account, I decided to be creative.

I did an e-transfer of funds from the Credit Union back home to a colleague at work. He could then go to his bank ( and stand in line! ) and get me some rupees. I discovered that this was not possible. My good friends at the Bergengren came to the rescue and told me that the money could possibly be transferred by wire order but that it might be complicated. When I reviewed the procedure, which would have included me and a valid Indian bank account holder going to his bank ( and standing in a long queue ) to execute the transfer, I thought I would have better luck finding gold bars on the side of the road.

Undeterred , I moved to plan C. I had taken a small amount of U.S. cash with me on the trip because the American greenback is always a safe bet when travelling globally. Except in India. A friend was going to the airport to pick up a passenger so I gave him the cash and asked him to go to the foreign currency exchange counter. Not surprisingly with the cash crunch, they were unable to complete the transaction. With another week looming and down to my last 200 rupees ( $4.00 ), I did what an self respecting person would do. I asked the people at my office for a loan. They hastily rounded up enough cash to keep me going for a few days.

I don’t like owing money which is surprising because I am like most Canadians who have lived on borrowed money all of our lives. ( Mortgages, car loans, lines of credit , credit cards ). On my way to purchase supper in one of the small neighborhood restaurants ( cash only ), the words of Robert Service echoed in my head. “ Now a promise made , is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code..” Now I wasn’t exactly horror driven but I didn’t want the IOU hanging over my head. And just like a mirage in the desert, I was certain that I saw a lineup at an ATM. The other day, I showed up at a kiosk and there wasn’t anyone in the lineup. A woman exiting the ATM said , “ No crowd… no cash.”

It was 4:45 p.m and it was still a balmy 28 degrees. I did some quick mental arithmetic ( thanks to my grade 9 math teacher, Kathleen MacDonald ) and I figured that , barring something unforeseen, I would have some cold hard cash in my hand in about an hour. I also thought about the book I was going to write and I knew that one way or the other, I would get a story out of the experience. I thought about all of the possible outcomes including card failure , heart failure or the machine running out of cash, which happens routinely.

Blessedly, we were on the shady side of the street so heat wasn’t a factor. The traffic noise on the street was fairly typical. The chatter in the lineup brought the decibel level up a few notches. And, lo and behold, the bank was undergoing renovations and there were skill saws running the entire time I was in the lineup and even a bit of jackhammering providing cool rhythms. I tried a little T.M which is not to be confused with ATM. When I found myself getting a little restless, I hauled out my iphone and read a few chapters of Joseph Boyden’s excellent small book called “ Wenjack.”

Things were moving along nicely. Some very sweet Indian people encouraged me to move right up to the front of the line. If I wasn’t retired , with time on my hands, I would have crawled over broken glass to get to the front of the line. I respectfully declined. As it turns out, that may have been one of the smartest decisions I have ever made for moments later, a “ Johnny come lately” showed up and simply crashed the queue. He chose a spot in front of me.

When a lighted match hits gasoline, it causes a chain reaction and sparks fly. Bedlam. Everyone in the line ( except me ) went into a blind rage. Voices were raised and arms flailed but thankfully no punches were thrown. A burly bank employee showed up , quelled the angry masses and restored order. The interloper was removed from the lineup.

The sun starts to set around 5:45 in this part of the world. This coincides with the appearance of mosquitoes. One thing I’ve noticed about Indians. For whatever reasons ( I think I know them all ), they always wear long sleeve shirts and pants. I was standing in line in shorts, a t-shirt and running cap which has small holes for ventilation… and just the right size for a mosquito to crawl into. Now, my arms were the only ones flailing as I waged war with a battalion of insects. I was tantalizingly close to the front of the line. This was not going to deter me from my quest.

Have you ever met a lottery winner just after they received the news of their new found fortune? Me neither. But I’ll tell you what’s a close second : watching people exiting an ATM clutching precious cash. I was almost salivating at the prospect of having cash to call my own. And then something strange happened. To get to the ATM you have to enter through a glass door which is manned by a bank official. He is there to help people complete their transaction. Not surprising as it has been so long since money was available, that most people have probably forgotten how to use the ATM.

Do you remember the first time you asked a girl to waltz with you at a high school dance and she turned you down? Do you remember applying for a job that you were certain to get only to find out that your arch enemy got it? Heartache.

When five minutes elapsed ( it takes only 30 seconds to get cash ), I knew there was a problem. I was ushered in by the bank official and he asked me to try my card. Presto! Out came 2500 in crisp new currency. The guy in front of me tried his card again. It didn’t work. Cue the music, “ I know a heartache when I see one.”

One hour and 15 minutes was all it took to get the equivalent of $50. Canadian dollars.

I was feeling absolutely giddy. ATM’s don’t normally have this kind of effect on me. Rather than eating my customary supper of rice and dal, I thought I would splurge and eat some North American cuisine. I walked briskly, nay joyfully to McDonald’s and had nuggets and fries. I almost asked for a kid’s toy, I was so pleased with myself. Just for badness, I tendered my new 2000 rs note. “ Sorry sir. We can’t make change.” Yes, even when you have money, there is no certainty that you can use it.

It was now dark, when I made the 25 minute trek back to my residence. I had to go past the Syndicate Bank, the scene of my joyous reunion with cash. The lineup had tripled.

I woke at 3:00 a.m. No, it wasn’t the pack of barking dogs that roam the neighborhood every night around this time that woke me from my reverie. No, I had an itch. Make that two. Three. Five. Ten. I got out of bed and turned on the light. Every part of my body that had been exposed , while standing in line at the bank ( including my bald spot ), was covered in welts.

I looked at my night stand and saw my new found stash of rupees.

Sometimes a person will go to great lengths to satisfy an itch.


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