ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

What I Found When I Lost $80,000

Life is a Long Lesson in Humility - James Barrie

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Over the past month, as I confronted the possibility that my bank had lost $80,000 in a botched wire transfer, I felt powerless. This was an unfamiliar feeling for me. It made me anxious and angry. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be in control of my life, at least most of the time.

The missing money was part of my mother’s estate and was supposed to be paid to my niece under my mother’s will. But as a result of an administrative error, the money remained in limbo for weeks, hidden in the dense thicket of electronic transactions passing between the wire departments of the Canadian banks.

I felt the first presentiment that things would not go well when I contacted the bank to make an appointment. Ms. V., the bank representative assigned to the estate account, told me that she would not give me an appointment.

“Any teller can help you”, she said. “Come into the bank any time. There is no need for me to meet you.”

Given no choice, I gathered up all of my papers and walked to the bank where I opened the estate account. As co-executors of the estate, my brother and I have been conscientious guardians of this account for four years.

I thought of all the time we had spent cleaning out our mother’s condominium, filling bags with linens and kitchenware for U Got Junk.

We had found homes for hundreds of books, including my dad’s medical textbooks, published in the 1940’s.

We eventually found a buyer for my dad’s prized stamp collection. (The stamps issued by countries that vanished during WWII were a real draw for dealers.)

We corresponded with insurance companies, mutual funds and investment dealers. We waited months for probate to be granted and spent years filing a confusing series of tax returns.

We had finally reached the end.

As anyone who has attended a bank recently knows, the pandemic has made banks unwelcoming spaces. At the branch I attended, all of the chairs had been removed. The signs put up two years ago, cautioning customers to physically distance, were still on the walls, looking faded and wrinkled.

The customers standing in line to see a teller were for the most part older and poorer than the general population of the downtown Toronto neighbourhood where I live.

They stood patiently inside the blue ropes set up to ensure that there was an orderly flow of customers to the three tellers standing behind the counter.

Most of the people in the line were clutching some papers or a passbook. One lady was in a wheelchair.

These people didn’t look like they had the choice of doing their banking on shiny little laptop computers. From the conversations I overheard between the tellers and the customers who reached the front of the line, it was obvious that many of these customers were not fluent English speakers.

When it came for my turn to talk to a teller, I handed her a document setting out directions for payments from the estate account to the beneficiaries named in the will. The document apparently contained larger amounts than this teller was accustomed to seeing. She stared at me as though I had asked her to lace on a pair of skates and execute a triple sow cow from her place behind the counter.

“OK”, she gulped. “OK. Let me go and get Ms. V.. I’m sure we can help you.”

About two hours later, I left the bank with two bank drafts and a receipt for a wire transfer.

It had been a slow process and it wasn’t finished.

I had to return to the bank the following day to authorize the rest of the payments.

On my second visit to the bank, I dealt with another representative since Ms. V. was on her day off. This two-stage process involving different bank personnel, was a bit disorganized.

A mistake was made.

It was about two weeks later that I discovered there had been an error. I was sitting in a cafe, when Ms. V. called.

“Hi”, she said. “How are you doing, Alex?”

I dreaded to hear why she was calling. Nothing about the administration of this estate had been easy. Every step in the process had involved some misstep.

“I would like your help in dealing with your niece”, she said. “She keeps calling the bank, asking for her money.”

“Doesn’t she have her money?” I said. In my own ears, my voice had risen two octaves above my usual speaking voice.

“No. There isn’t enough money in the account to pay her. We think that one of the wire transfers went out twice. We’re looking for it.”

Ms. V.’s tone was matter of fact. There was no hint of embarrassment or contrition.

To Ms. V. the problem was my niece. My niece should not be calling her. It did not seem to trouble Ms. V. that $80,000 was missing from the estate bank account.

By this point in the conversation, I had become so agitated that I had to leave the cafe. I could feel my face growing red as I bellowed into my cellphone. “I’m sure she will stop calling you as soon as you find her money.”

But Ms. V. held her ground. “I am going to have to end this conversation,” she said. “You are getting upset. Good-bye Alex. We can talk again when you feel calmer.”

Two weeks, many phone calls and many more e-mails later, the $80,000 was found and returned to the estate account. Working from the assumption that one of the wire transfers had been sent twice, I tracked the mistaken payment to my daughter’s account.

She was able to get personnel at her bank involved in reversing the mistaken wire transfer. I also escalated the matter from Ms.V. to the branch manager.

By the time the money was returned, I had enlisted the assistance of eight people to help my brother and me with our estate account problem. As a native English speaker with working experience in finance, I had the skill set to do this.

For a brief time however, I experienced how it would feel to be one of the people standing in line to see a teller on the day I first went to the bank.

I felt first hand what it was like to be patronized and disrespected by the public facing representatives of a powerful institution.

But in the end, after the money was returned and my equanimity restored, I felt very lucky. Nothing in my life until now, had lead me to expect bad treatment from banks. I had enjoyed the luxury of naivete.

To quote James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, a story about a boy who never grew into an adult and never had a bank account, “Life is a long lesson in humility.”

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