On Saturday mornings, plenty of folks still keep old-fashioned banker’s hours.
It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and Mount Pleasant Street is still getting used to the new day. Some trash blows around in the gutter. A couple of guys in the doorway of the 7-Eleven drink coffee and discuss the long Friday night they’ve just finished. A woman struggles up the street with two toddlers, a stroller, and a grocery cart in tow, heading to the Bestway supermarket. On a bench in Lamont Park, a homeless man stuffs his face further down into his jacket so that only his hair tufts out on top. It’s cold.
There aren’t a whole lot of reasons to be outside this early on a Saturday morningunless going to the bank is on your weekend to-do list. If that’s the case, then turn up the collar on your coat: This Saturday, the line at the Mount Pleasant Bank of America stretches all the way from the tellers inside to the store next door.
Washingtonians love to joke about the foot-dragging work ethic of city bureaucrats, but when it comes to banking, long lines are supposed to be a thing of the past. Since its invention in 1971, the automated teller machine has slowly inserted itself into daily life. Today, 273,000 ATMs speckle the American landscape, appearing in convenience stores, bank walls, and airports from Atlantic City to Los Angeles. Even more convenient are the 24-hour toll-free telephone lines and Web sites that followed in the ’90s, allowing customers to bank everywhere from work to bed.
Banks have encouraged customers to take advantage of these new products by making it harderand more expensiveto bank the traditional way. At Bank of America, for example, an express
checking account carries a $3 charge for every visit to a human teller. It seems to have worked. Fifty-four percent of American bank transactions are made via the new technologies.
But these developments haven’t affected the Saturday morning line at the bank’s Mount Pleasant branch. The line moves forward rapidly enough. In quick succession, a woman cashes her Friday paycheck, a man with a child holding on to his thigh deposits several greenbacks into his savings account, and a couple steps forward to withdraw money for rent. But what the line gains from speedy service it loses from the sheer volume of customers. Waiting time can be as long as half an hour. As each person leaves, another walks up.
More people sit in chairs along the wall, waiting for their turn on what’s known as “the platform.” There, three customer service representatives help people open new accounts, straighten out overdrafts, or discuss loans and mortgages. According to the sign-in sheets by the doorway, up to 120 people will be ushered into these glass cubicles this morning. The number of people who stand in line to see the tellers is even higher.
Ramon Fuentes stands quietly in line, staring at the ceiling and shifting from one foot to another. “They ought to make the place bigger,” he says. A construction worker with Miller and Long, Fuentes says he comes to the Bank of America every Saturday to deposit his paycheck. “The days during the week, we have work and we can’t come.”
This is true of many of his immigrant neighbors, as well. The conversations the tellers are having up ahead of Fuentes turn the bank into a veritable Tower of Babel. They conduct business with clients in Vietnamese, Spanish, French, German, Arabic, and Cantonese. Antonio Machado sits down in a chair against the wall to wait to open a savings account. Machado has been in the States for 15 years and speaks English just fine. Still, for important things like banking, he prefers the language of his native El Salvador. “People come here because [the tellers] speak Spanish,” he explains.
Multilingual service and Saturday hours aren’t the only reasons the Mount Pleasant branch of Bank of America has such long lines. Many of the branch’s customers are first-time account holders. Mount Pleasant’s large immigrant population includes a great number of people who lived as subsistence farmers or fishermen in their native Central America or Vietnamand who never needed a bank account before receiving their first paychecks in the United States. Others, who dealt with high inflation and rocky economies on a daily basis, are wary even now of leaving their hard-earned cash with someone else for safekeeping.
When Bank of America, which was then NationsBank, opened a branch in Mount Pleasant in June 1993, there were no other banks in the area. “The closest was on 14th and Park, the Riggs Bank,” explains manager Brahim Rawi, who has worked with the branch off and on since it opened.
“When we came in, we had to knock on doors,” Rawi recalls. “We went door to door telling people, ‘We’re NationsBank.’ You know, we had to let people know we were here….When we opened, we had a single product: savings accounts. Nobody wanted to open anything else. So we’ve had to do a lot of education.”
Today, he says, these same customers have an average of five or six financial instruments per family, such as credit cards, car loans, and mortgages. The bank holds educational seminars for potential customers at local schools and in the Mount Pleasant Street office.
Veronica Santos leans up against the counter containing deposit and withdrawal slips as she waits for her husband to move through the line to the tellers. Cashing his paycheck has become a Saturday ritual for them, and she’s taking a brief respite from the line to tend to her 2-year-old, now asleep in his stroller.
Santos is living proof that, for those new to banking culture, even the slightest misunderstanding can destroy the delicate trust involved in handling money. Santos came to America five years ago with her husband and is now carrying their second child. In her native El Salvador, she says, she never used the banks at all. They were risky, high-dollar affairs better left alone. Her experience with Bank of America hasn’t made her want to change her ways. Several months ago, she says, she and her husband opened an account at the bank. But they soon closed it because “the money kept disappearing.”
“We only withdrew money twice, but it was all gone. We had an account book and everything, but the bank wouldn’t admit their mistake,” says Santos. “Now we just cash checks on the weekend.”
Account holders who wait in line to deposit their checks could just stick them in an envelope and feed it to an ATM. They don’t. “For most people, it’s just a matter of getting used to it,” says a quiet man near the front of the line, who declines to give his name. “We’re not used to the ATM, so we don’t use it. I don’t use it because I might lose the card, and what if someone else uses it? This is more secure. You do your transactions from hand to hand, and you know where your money is.” He pulls a paycheck from the back pocket of his jeans and moves a step closer to the tellers.
Nearby, Oscar Martinez, who works in demolition, has another reason for waiting in line: He’s turned in-person banking into his most important money-management tool. “When I use the ATM, I always take out too much money,” he says. “I don’t like cards, credit cards, ATM cards, none of them. They’re deceiving. It’s better to come here and take out what I need and leave the rest.”
Ron Foster, a customer-service representative, comes out from behind the framed glass walls guarding his desk on the platform and calls for the next customer. Getting people to apply for direct-deposit accounts or to use their ATM cards is a high priority for him, he says, and he has already walked up and down the line several times today looking for people he could pull out of it.
“One thing that I’ve done on Saturdays, we have to prepare for people,” Foster says. “So I’ll go up and down the line, and I’ll ask people who have ATM cards, I’ll show them how to do it.” He pokes an imaginary ATM card into the air and punches imaginary numbers. “And they’re, ‘Oh!’” he says, mimicking customers’ surprise. “If I can get one person out of line that way, it helps.”
Other employees help people like Dolores Erazo with more daunting financial transactions. Erazo, a waitress with long curly hair and a confident swagger, wants to buy a condominium in Silver Spring. But she’s got a complex problem that slows down the line.
“They don’t take out taxes from my check. I work in a restaurant, so they don’t pay me by check. I get paid in cash, so I have no taxes to declare,” Erazo explains. She hopes to buy her dream home next year, but she’s confused about how to go about it when she’s never paid taxes: “Since they don’t pay me in check, and I don’t use the Social [Security number], then how am I going to declare?” Part of figuring that out, she says, involves her weekly conversation across a cream-colored desk in Mount Pleasant.
Rawi says that a clientele like this is bound to result in longer wait times. “A lot of times, customers come completely unprepared,” he says. “They don’t have their deposit slips filled out. But they don’t know how to write and read, so we will go up and down the line and help people fill out their deposits.”
On the other hand, Yankee attitudes toward waiting for anything kick in soon enough. According to Rawi, customers usually become bank-savvy within two years of opening their first account. “Sometimes they just want to see what their balance is,” says Foster. For simple transactions, waiting in line for half an hour soon loses its appeal.
Rawi and Foster hope that it’s only a matter of time before such customers start to use the ATM more and the tellers less. Longer hours would only encourage customers to use the tellers instead of doing their banking with the new technology. Bank of America considered enlarging the branch, but, short of taking over the store next door, this proved architecturally impossible.
Just the same, some remodeling is in the works. The bank plans to remove the partition that now separates the ATM from the rest of the branch, and replace the single existing machine with two outside the bank. The larger indoor space will help accommodate the long Saturday lines, says bank spokesperson Scott Krugman: “It makes a difference perception-wise for people to be inside the bank while they wait in line.” CP