Wit and wisdom from the automated age

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A facility for communicating with everything and everybody -- dogs and pet gerbils, children and octogenarians -- is a blessing I have enjoyed so long I suppose I have taken it for granted. Or did, that is, until I met Automatic Teller.

As I let my office late on that drizzly evening I had a sudden, inexplicable longing to taste a vanilla wafer. Satisfying this peculiar hunger would have meant a stop at a grocery on my way home . . . except I had no cash or checks.

However, recalling the plastic card that had been in my wallet only a few days, I stopped by my bank and approached the new electronic banking machine with a sense of childish anticipation; I would be engaging, for the first time, a new toy. Amid buttons, lights, slots and drawers, an illuminated sign instructed visitors to insert plastic cards only "in the manner shown" on the metal diagram below. Unfortunately, someone had defaced this illustration beyond comprehension, but on the fourth try my card vanished into a slot with a "rrr" and a "dong."

Recommended: Default

"Hellow, Dennis Mayes," blinked a small TV screen, "Welcome to the convenience banking of Automatic Teller."

This instant recognition so stunned me I did not know whether to feel flattered or resentful. "Uh . . . good evening, Automatic Teller. Kinda damp, isn't it?" I ventured and quickly glanced around to make sure I was alone on the street.

Automatic Teller disdained chitchat. "If you are ready, please enter your P.I.N."

Indeed, I was ready. But what in the world was a P.I.N.? Ah, yes. Personal Identification Number. Let me think; that is 4036. Or is it 3064? Naturally, it was neither. Automatic Teller exhibited commendable tolerance during the 20 minutes by fingers danced over his keyboard in search of this elusive P.I.N. -- far more grace than I displayed as rain dropped off my hair and down my back.

Finally, erasing that frozen expresion of indulgence, Automatic Teller informed me that, now I had entered my precious P.I.N., we could get down to business. "Do you want to withdraw or deposit?"

Would anyone stand half an hour in the rain to deposit? At that hour?

"Withdrawal from savings or checking account?"

Checking.

"Please indicate amount up to $350 . . . in multiples of $10."

I struck one and the zero.

Automatic Teller pondered, "I am sorry, I cannot complete your transaction."

What? Why not?

"Do you wish to cancel or reprogram?"

There was no decimal on the keyboard. Maybe I had entered 10 cents, not $10. How careless. With some fear I might blow a circuit should Automatic Teller misread my request as $1,000, I struck one and hit the zero key three times.

"Please wait. Your transaction is being procesed." This marvelous ritual was accompanied by an assortment of whirs and clanks as amicable as a hungry, purring cat around suppertime. "I am sorry, I cannot complete your transaction. Do you wish to cancel or reprogram?"

I wished to get my $10 and depart, but there seemed to be no way to communicate this simple desire. Or to ask Automatic Teller if he was empty. I abandoned entirely the idea of asking if he happened to have an umbrella in there. The TV grinned its cheery message at me with stoic patience, no doubt because it was shielded from the now-splattering rain.

We repeated the routine, Automatic Teller playing Hardly to my Laurel, three times before I conceded defeat. "Here is your card, Dennis Mayes," said the TV screen airily. The useless plastic slab was extruded. "Thank you for using the convenience banking of Automatic Teller."

In short, I reached home -- drenched --and went to bed still yearning for a vanilla wafer but settling for substantial insight into the matter of why "in the manner shown" had been defaced.

Next morning, I telephoned the bank's electronics department to report A.T.'s obstinacy. "Good morning," sang a young lady, "Automatic Teller's phones are busy." What! This blustering, clanking Wizard of Oz had his own secretary? "At the sound of the tone, please leave your message or phone number. This is a recording."

There was sufficient time to prepare the Gettysburg Address before The Tone spoke. "Pulling ol' A.T.'s plug, are you?" I inquired and hung up.

I thought of writing a letter of protest but could not confront the typewriter. With a loan from petty cash, I went downstairs and discovered that since my last visit to the basement coffee shop all the snacks on the counter had been incarcerated in a vending machine. I deposited coin, pushed cupcake "L" and -- in disbeliefe -- watched the wire coil of empty "M" turn over. My whimper was overhead.

"May I help you?"

Dashing to the counter where an actual woman stood, I exclaimed, "I've lost my appetite . . . but might we -- I realize this may sound proposterous, if not, indeed, unexplainable -- CHAT?"

"About what?"

"ANYTHING!"

Eventually, I may feel more kindly toward the keyboard banker. May. But I know with certainty I shall never again take for granted those joy ous communications vibrating from the human vocal cords

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