Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Morning in Greenpoint: The Grand Opening of Washington Mutual Bank's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center

(Photo courtesy of the Flickr photostream of the very talented Steph Goralnick)
ironically, the new manhattan ave branch opened TODAY
After teaching our writing classes at a great metropolitan university this morning, we headed home to celebrate the grand opening of Washington Mutual's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center right in the heart of beautiful overbanked Greenpoint.

We first opened our first WaMu account while living in Fort Lauderdale back in late 2003, when we were working as the director of the academic resource program at Nova Southeastern University Law School. Jonathan, the assistant facilities director who was about to ship off to Iraq, told us about its free checking accounts and how wonderful the bank was compared to most depository institutions.

We realized that sooner or later we were going to have to declare personal bankruptcy again, and that the bank where we then had our checking account might not take too kindly to that, considering that it had supplied us with three of the 32 Visas and MasterCards that were coming close to reaching their maximum credit limits.

(For the record, that was Bank of America, which was formerly NationsBank, which was formerly NCNB, which was formerly Citizens & Southern, which was formerly Landmark Bank of Fort Lauderdale, the town's biggest bank where we parked our money when first moving there to teach at Broward Community College back in 1981.)

(For the record, our Visa affinity cards with BofA were from US Air, America West - now the same airline - and Alaska Airlines.)

So we did open our account at the Washington Mutual Plantation Banking Center on University Drive by Broward Boulevard. And we finally did go bankrupt in 2005, with our hearing before the bankruptcy trustee (341 creditors' meeting) in late June, just four days before we left Florida to move to Arizona. It was the second time around for us and we knew what to expect. (Florida, by the way, is truly debtors' paradise since its homestead exemption allows you to keep your house or condo, as we could keep ours in Sunrise Golf Village.)

But leaving the federal courthouse on Broward Boulevard that morning, we vowed then and there never to have another credit card again.

(You can read about our first experience with credit cards in "You've Got to Give Me Credit," which appeared in the November 1988 issue of the San Francisco slick magazine Processed World.)

Once we mended our profligate ways, we started accumulating some savings. But to open up a WaMu online savings account at our Phoenix address, we had to open up a second checking account because Washington Mutual's east coast and west coast systems weren't in sync.

So by the time we left Arizona to move back to Brooklyn for at least part of the year, we had three WaMu accounts, and we opened up a fourth one, a new IRA, this past April at income tax time. (We cannot close the IRA for another two years, on the day we turn 59 and 1/2. Fifty-nine and a half? How did the government come up with that regulation?)

Of course, we can be tri-coastal or whatever and always find a WaMu branch there. As our friend Tao Lin titled one of his poems in his bestselling collection, You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am, "Washington Mutual Is A Bank That Is Everywhere":

...I mean, look

at this poem. Where are you. I love life. November. Wonderful. The sun. A cloud

just said something. I don’t know what it said.

I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t care.

We were talking on the phone Thursday night with our BFF and Williamsburg landlady Nina about the financial crisis (she is a real estate agent on Long Island, so she knows more about it than we do) and saying that our dad in Arizona was telling us to take out our money from WaMu now.

Dad had asked if we remembered that his father-in-law, Herb Sarrett, would always tell the story of how, in 1932, he was depositing his last paycheck before being laid off from his job as a foreman in a ladies' panties factory in a bank on Church Avenue. "The teller was looking at me funny," Grandpa Herb would say. "She was trying to tell me something with her eyes, like 'Don't do this.' But it was Friday afternoon and the bank was going to close and I wanted to get home. On Monday the bank failed and I lost all the money in my last paycheck."

There was no FDIC back then. Grandpa Herb always would say that he had to "break up his home" and move his family back with his parents. Eventually his married sister and brother and all their kids moved into Bubbe and Zayde's house on East 42nd Street and Linden Boulevard along with his younger unmarried brother and sister. They all stayed there awhile.

Grandpa Herb made up a lot of stories, but Great-Aunt Minnie, who is still alive, confirms this story was true. Everyone stayed in the East 42nd Street house until the Depression abated. Later Minnie and her husband Uncle Irving became millionaires.

We remember their Gatsbyesque house on the water in Great Neck. As a 9-year-old, we'd go through it, counting the 24 different rooms, including 7 bathrooms. Still later they lost everything and moved into a little house in Kings Point whose owner of record was Grandpa Herb. Aunt Minnie's been doing okay for years.

People get rich and go broke. Banks expand and they fail. (See our 1988 story "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp,"originally published in the Lower East Side mag Between C and D, available in the Dumbo Books collection Highly Irregular Stories. In it, a financial crisis leads to a punk rock singer becoming Fed chairman.)

We told Nina on Thursday night that we expected Washington Mutual to fail by the end of the year, but that taking our money out of the bank would only cause it to fail faster.

Then we got off the phone and turned on the TV and heard the news, oh boy. The feds had seized WaMu - seized! - and sold its assets to JP Morgan Chase.

We like to go to Diamondbacks games at Chase Field in Phoenix with Dad and our brothers. The stadium is enclosed so the Arizona summer heat can't get in. Chase Field used to be Bank One Ballpark. What will happen to the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden?

But right now, it's Monday morning in America, and we're in Greenpoint and the new WaMu branch - not quite as close to Dumbo Books HQ as its Bushwick Financial Center on Graham and Grand, but there's no Duane Reade and no Starbucks there, as there is near the intersection of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues. Also no signs saying "Mowimy po polsku."

As a kid, we were enthralled by the bank exploits of our Great-Aunt Tillie (Minnie and Grandpa Herb's sister) and her husband Uncle Morris and our barber George and his wife Anna, who ran the beauty parlor in the back of his barber shop on Church and Troy Avenues.

In the 1950s this daring quartet didn't rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde and their gang; instead, they roamed the city on the opening days of bank branches, when they'd get free toasters and radios and savings bonds when they'd open new accounts.

It was thrilling for them, and for us to hear about it, to get free gifts just for moving their money around. They seemed to open up one new account every couple of weeks and Aunt Tillie had more toasters than anyone I knew.

Today WaMu's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center is offering no free gifts.

Entering the bank, we pass the ladder out front with workmen doing something or other and the celebratory shiny balloons in the window.

At the reception desk, there's a welcome sign in English and one saying "dzieƄ dobry." Monika, one of the personal financial representatives, says hi and tells us about their promotional 13-month certificate of deposit with a 5% interest rate. We ask about the minimum balance, and she has a little trouble finding it. She explains that she is new, but finally sees it's only $1,000. That sounds good to us, and we tell her we're in.

Since we decline her offer of coffee or a donut (only two Dunkin Donuts are left in the box by the time we get there, and they look a little forlorn), Monika takes us back to another personal financial representative, Slawomir, who's sitting at a desk next to the desk of Karen, the assistant manager. Carlos, the branch manager, is doing stuff around the floor and outside. The third ATM apparently isn't working.

Like most of the new WaMu branches and postmodern banks, the Greenpoint financial center has no tellers' cages inside, just individual posts where the p.f.r.'s can do transactions for you. It's sleek and cool.

People seem a little startled that we are actually opening an account. Slawomir said it's been kind of busy, but we are the first CD he's going to process. We slide our west coast WaMu card but it's not turning up our personal info. (The west coast bank is Washington Mutual Bank on our checks; the east coast bank is Washington Mutual Bank, FA, which we assume means "Federal Association" though it could mean "Financial Adversity.")

Karen says we need our east coast account so we swipe that card. Everything comes up. Nothing needs to be updated but our employer: it still has Nova Southeastern, which we left in June 2005.

Slawomir asks if we want a beneficiary, so we name our dad - Dad himself banks at Chase since it took over Bank One - and he enters the info with Karen's assistance. He explains that he's been in training for three months, but this is his first day on the job. We wonder what it feels like to get a job with a bank that has just failed.

He gets together a nice little folder for us, has us verify the info for the account, which will mature on October 29, 2009. Eighty years before that, October 29, 1929, was Black Tuesday, notorious for being the worst day in the U.S. stock market.

We go over to one of the posts where people can do transactions and transfer the money from our west coast online savings to our new east coast CD. We're done.

More comfortable, we broach the subject of the bank's condition with Karen before we go. "Um, so how is the transition going to work?" is how we put it. It's like talking about someone's father's funeral arrangements.

Karen says that nothing will change for about six months. The bank will still be WaMu, and of course, thanks to FDR's FDIC, the money is totally safe. We knew that and we tell Karen that's why we resisted our dad's telling us to take out the money.

She says the bank was doing okay until people took out something like fifteen billion in deposits over a couple of weeks. If no one panics, everything's going to be okay.

At least with checking and savings accounts and CDs and banks. At least if you have well under $100,000, as we do.

We're told that maybe after six months, they'll "eliminate redundancies." There's a Chase branch just up Manhattan Avenue so maybe they'll come over to this new branch or they'll go there. We said we're glad they opened up and that we'll be back.

Our first bank account, opened back in 1956 as a student in Mrs. Eisenstein's Class 1-1 at P.S. 244 in East Flatbush, was part of a program established between the school and the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn. The Dime has been Washington Mutual for years now.

Over the years, we have had accounts at many banks that have died: Anchor Savings Bank (our branch, at Ralph and Avenue N, is now WaMu), Manny Hanny (now Chase), Chemical (now Chase), First Union (now Wachovia...oops, just saw the news, we mean Citibank), Florida National Bank (see our story about it), First Nationwide Savings, CrossLand Savings (in Gainesville, Florida and Montague Street, Brooklyn), California Federal, First Atlanta, Republic National Bank, Goldome (our branch was on the corner of 86th and Broadway), Marine Midland, Jamaica Savings Bank, and more we can't remember...

We walk home to see if the financial rescue package has passed the House.

Our prayer for our new bank branch comes from St. Augustine: Lord, make it Chase - but not yet.

Photo courtesy of billyhc's Flickr photo gallery of Greenpoint)

Wasn't the New Deal wonderful! Aren't we glad it's coming back?


UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2009: This branch closed on February 9, 2009. Depositors were told to take their business to WaMu's Bushwick branch on the corner of Graham and Grand Avenues.

UPDATE, APRIL 2011: Above is a notice we got in the mail about the WaMu bankruptcy case in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware.


ebinezer said...

Could you anyone please explain was is exactly WaMu account. Being a economics student I have never heard about this term. Rest was very good. Thank You.


Richard said...

A WaMu account is a very complex financial instrument.

WaMu stands for Wealth aggregation /Monetary utilization and it would really take a big brain like Alan Greenspan to be able to fully explain how this derivative banking product works.

But we know that they are perfectly safe!