You Can Bank On It

Although I live full-time in Mexico, I return to my home in Orange, California, every six months to stock up on prescriptions, get whatever vaccinations need boosting, and spend a few weeks driving my family crazy. My first task upon returning to California is to check the drawerful of mail that my daughter had set aside during my absence. Occasionally, there are pleasant surprises, such as a dividend check from some forgotten investment that has changed names three times since I bought it. But this year, buried deep within the stack of ads for retirement seminars and hearing aids, I found a couple of unpleasant surprises.

The first was a four-month-old delinquency notice for my property tax. I quickly ran outside to see if there was an auction sign planted in my front lawn. Not yet. The problem is that I had paid off my mortgage last year and forgot that the bank would no longer be automatically paying my property tax from an escrow account. That little mishap wound up costing me a $135 penalty. Also, my credit rating plummeted from 835 to 450. I guess I won’t be buying that Tesla this year.

My second surprise was a two-month-old letter from Wells Fargo Bank telling me they were closing my branch in the historic building on the plaza in Old Town Orange. I had only one week left to remove the contents of my safe deposit box, or they would be shipped off to the state agency that handles unclaimed bank accounts. I could just picture myself rummaging through an Indiana Jones–style government warehouse trying to retrieve my house deed and baseball card collection.

I had been using Wells Fargo Bank since I moved to California in 1987. I loved their connection to the Old West. Wells Fargo has the only cowboy-themed advertising on TV since the Marlboro man was outlawed. I especially like the ads showing an old stage coach racing across the plains. I wonder where that coach is racing to now that my bank is closing.

Why would they be closing their oldest branch in Orange County? This one was what a bank was supposed to look like: a century-old building, neoclassical architecture, Corinthian columns, marble walls and floors, a vaulted ceiling. Picture the bank in Mary Poppins, where a bunch of tottering old men are trying to convince the little boy to invest his “tuppence” coin rather than spend it on feeding the birds. They sing the praises of watching his investment grow by virtue of compound interest. Of course if he got the interest rate I’m currently getting from Wells Fargo, his two-penny investment would have grown to 2.01 cents by the time he retired. He’d have to take out a loan to buy that handful of birdseed. Good luck doing that with a credit rating of 450.

When I asked the teller what happened, he said Wells Fargo was closing seven branches in Orange County because they were having trouble hiring enough people to staff them all. Red flag there. One of the top five banks in the nation can’t hire enough people to staff its flagship location?

And what will be moving into that historic building? What else . . . a cappuccino shop. There are only three coffee shops at that intersection already.  Somehow they have no trouble finding staff. Maybe I should close my meager bank account and invest in Starbucks.

As he led me into the safe to empty my box, the clerk looked amazed when I gave him my key. It was for box number 12.  He had never seen such a low number. I told him I’d had the box for 35 years. I figure only Mr. Wells and Mr. Fargo had lower box numbers.

Although he had been closing out boxes for the past couple of months, the clerk couldn’t tell me if the nearest surviving branch had any boxes available. He gave me a card that had a QR code on the back that would connect me with the Wells Fargo appointment center. When I scanned the QR code, it took me to a link that allowed me to choose the branch I wanted. But when I tried to select a date and time, the page froze up. Funny, I never have that problem when ordering a latte using the Starbucks app.

So I showed up at the new bank unannounced. Mary Poppins would not have been impressed. It was in a mini-mall, and looked like a re-purposed 7-Eleven store. When I told the teller I wanted to rent a safe deposit box, she said I needed to make an appointment. I told her I tried, but all the appointment center staff must have gone to work for Starbucks. 

She lined me up with an assistant manager who looked younger than my grandson. Nobody looks as mature and distinguished as the bankers in Mary Poppins anymore. This guy looked more like the kid who wanted to feed the birds  Despite his youthful appearance, he managed to get me the last box they had available, number 1,214. So much for seniority.

I asked him if I should be concerned about all the branch closures and layoffs. He tried to reassure me, but I don’t think his heart was really in it. As I was leaving the bank, I thought I’d get some money out of the ATM. But both machines said “No cash available at this time.” Very reassuring.

Oh, and by the way, a few days after I returned to Mexico, I decided to drive into Chapala to see what progress has been made on the recent street repairs. On the way into town, I passed my lawyer’s office and was shocked to see it is no longer occupied. His sign on the wall had been painted over, the gate was locked, and there was no note indicating where he might have moved. That was the office where my Mexican house deed and my will were stored. 

I managed to find a month-old posting on the chat room. A woman had seen people removing boxes from the office and was told my lawyer had retired. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was way too mature and distinguished looking. Unfortunately, the Web posting gave no indication of where the boxes were going. 

I wonder what the Indiana Jones–style government warehouse looks like in Mexico.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit:

Larry Kolczak
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