SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Approach bureaucrats expecting the worse
Scripps Howard News Service


May 30, 2006

When I was growing up in the South the local lore was that if a snapping turtle chomped onto you, it wouldn't turn loose until it heard thunder.

That seemed the ultimate in tenacity until I got older and encountered the species Officious Bureaucratus. A bureaucrat defends his territory fiercely, using every regulation and policy and precedent in his arsenal. His turf is pathetically small, but it's all he's got.

One of the great joys of working at home, alone, is that I rarely encounter bureaucrats. I forget just how frustrating they can be.

It all came flooding back when I took our 16-year-old son to the bank. He has an (extremely) part-time job as a stagehand, which means he occasionally gets a paycheck to fritter away. A checking account, I thought, would help him manage his money and would be a good lesson in dealing with the business world.

He got a lesson all right. He got to watch steam come out his father's ears. He witnessed a bank official, a woman who displayed the purse-lipped smugness of Dana Carvey's Church Lady, run circles around his dad, citing "bank policy" at every turn.

"Sorry, but it's bank policy to not give checking accounts to anyone under 18."

"But that's not what I was told when I inquired about this earlier."

"Then you were misinformed. That's bank policy."

"His mom and I have accounts in this bank. We can co-sign or whatever ..."

"Sorry, but it's against bank policy. Unless you get special permission from the branch manager. And she's not here today."

We went around like this until my glasses fogged up. Finally, I told her we'd just cash the check, please. Learning to manage a checking account would have to come later.

"Sorry, but we don't cash third-party checks."

But I do this all the time. Every "college fund" check and birthday check the grandparents send to the kids, I co-sign the back and deposit or cash it for them.

"That's against bank policy."

Finally, the Bank Lady called my regular branch and someone there persuaded her I wasn't a bunco artist. She prissed off to get my kid his money.

While we sat stewing, I wondered what we'd done to set off this apparatchik response. Had we failed to fill out the proper form? Was it the way we were dressed? I looked my son over. Shoulder-length hair, Motley Crue T-shirt, holey sneakers ... the usual. I was dressed in denim head-to-toe, the prison-farm garb my sons smirkingly call a "Texas tuxedo." If we'd come into the bank wearing suits and fresh haircuts, would we have sailed right through?

Then I realized I was blaming the victims. It shouldn't matter how we looked. We were polite, we had proper documentation and we didn't smell bad. We weren't trying to rob the place. We were trying to cash a check. Isn't that what banks do?

By the time we got out of there, I was ready to close all my accounts, just so I'd never again have to deal with this distaff David Spade telling me "no" in every possible way.

But that's a hassle, too, rearranging all those bills that are paid automatically and all the computerized banking my wife does. So I calmed down, more or less, and wrote this parable instead.

Here's today's lesson: If you encounter a bureaucrat on her home turf, treat her like a snapping turtle. Approach warily. Stay out of chomping range. And pray for thunder.


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Bank Job."
Contact him at ABQBrewer(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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Ketchikan, Alaska