My wife regularly buys books for me. Although she reads three to five books per week; I read only one
book in three to five weeks. So, typically it is a while between the time she gives me a book and the time I
finally get around to it. Such is the case with The Pastons, a pretty cool (involving) nicely bound book,
mostly private letters between various members of a noble English family in the 15th century.
Apparently, someone in the Paston family had put up a toll gate on the road that went through her
property linking the town to whatever it was that lied beyond, and that caused some real trouble with those
who wished to pass through there. So, I’m reading it, and I’m interested, and I’m getting more deeply
involved. I’m looking forward to seeing how things work out. I’m doing a pretty good job, setting a good
pace, because I’m wondering particularly about this toll gate thing—I am completely on her side by the
way—and when I turn page 96 I find myself suddenly on page 145. Upon further investigation, I see that
page 160 is followed directly by page 113. That ain’t right, even for a casual reader like me. So, I’m
concerned, and I start pawing through the thing with increasing concern only to discover that pages 97
through 112 are missing entirely.
So, I wrote a nice letter to the nicely-bound book sellers who sold the book to my wife (and who have sold
many nicely-bound books to her in the past), asking them if they would please replace the faulty book with
one of the same title which had a more traditional approach to page-related continuity. I told them I would
gladly return the other. I explained that I was concerned because Lord Hungerford just rode past
Sheringham…but I didn’t know what happened to him next.
Well, the good people at the nicely-bound book sales company wrote me back almost immediately,
sending me a terse little note saying they would need proof that I had purchased the book from them. Let
me say here what I thought when I read that note. “Christ, what idiots!” That’s what I thought. And I thought
that more than once. Every time I read that letter I thought it again, with increasing irritation. But, I calmed
myself before responding. This is a little trick I’ve taught myself after 30 or 40 years of doing it the other
way around, with limited success.
This idea of calming myself before responding to idiocy of any sort is kind of an accomplishment of mine,
though it has only really taken root since my marriage. For many years I mouthed (and touted) the concept
of calming myself before responding—I saw the wisdom in it—but never quite learned how to employ the
method. For many years I saw the lack of wisdom in responding to things without first calming myself, and
pledged that ‘next time’ I’d give calming myself first a try, just to see how that might work out, but didn’t. In
the heat of the moment, calming myself never really occurred to me, or if it did I didn’t feel I really had the
time for it, I couldn’t squeeze it in just then, before firing off a response. So, in this instance I made some
real headway in my maturation as a man striving to become a gentleman. Bloated with pride I told my dear
wife, “You might want to write this down: At age 50-something he decided to calm himself before
responding to idiocy.”
But, it goes far beyond just that. I also promised myself that I would maintain a good-natured attitude
throughout the ordeal that I was no doubt about to find myself embroiled in, no matter how long it took to
get it resolved. (I was growing by leaps and bounds.)
So, I wrote them back explaining that I had not, myself, purchased that book from them; that the book had
been a gift given to me by my dear wife a long time previous to me ever picking it up, and that I wanted,
out of kindness, if it was at all possible, to keep her out of the matter. Perhaps, I suggested, we could forgo
making my poor wife paw through stacks of paperwork and bank statements; perhaps they could
determine from their own records whether or not my wife had purchased such a book from them OR, by
that same process determine, as they seemed to suppose, that I was perpetrating some kind of an overly
complex scam to screw them out of a free, nicely bound, properly paginated copy of The Pastons. It was a
carefully crafted letter, an appeal for decency and common sense and minor justice of a sort, and all those
other things that we can no longer expect as givens in this rapidly disintegrating world.
It was not a strongly worded letter, it was neither overly clever nor too chummy, it was carefully constructed
(I thought) so as to keep fairly well hid what I honestly thought of their idiotic response to a perfectly
reasonable request. Can I say something about banks here? Just a single tale which comes unexpectedly
to mind. I’ll be brief because I know you must have bank stories of your own, and better things to do, as
Robert Frost might say, and better things to do.
One time, thirty years or so ago, I deposited $300 into a Wells Fargo savings account. I was flush at the
time. But, down the road a very short piece I had need of that money and I went into that bank to withdraw
it. I had a little book with a stamp and a bank employee’s signature saying I had given them $300. So when
I presented my little book and asked for the $300, the clerk counted out $298.56. I threw up both palms in
an overly dramatic gesture which meant, “Whoa! I ain’t touchin’ that.”
I explained to the clerk, who seemed less than concerned, that I had deposited $300 and I expected $300
back. She, without further pleasantries (neither eye contact nor the faux-smile which is always expected of
me in the hotel business) printed out something that showed my account number and the figure $298.56. I
then very quickly reached across the counter and recovered the little book with a stamp and a bank
employee’s signature saying I had given them $300, and I showed it to her. I said, “I put $300 in this
account and I want $300 out. That, to me, seemed perfectly reasonable.
So after some quibbling with her dug-in behind the safety of her counter, followed by a little remote
quibbling with someone of a sterner sort seated 18 feet away, who would not come out from behind her
desk, I eventually ended up sitting in a comfortable chair across a much larger desk from the Branch
Manager. He listened to something whispered in his ear by one of the others, eyeballed me, looked at the
paperwork, including the little book with a stamp and a bank employee’s signature, before saying, “We can
give you $298.56 right now and settle this or you can come back in three days.”
I said, “See you in three days,” got up and walked out.
But, here’s a question for you—wouldn’t you, if you had been that bank manager—wouldn’t you have
simply reached in your pocket and pulled out a couple of dollar bills and tossed them casually upon your
great big nicely polished desk? Wouldn’t you then have said, “Here you go; you’ve been a good customer.
If you ever find yourself on surer financial footing come back and see us again.” Wouldn’t you have done
that? I would have. I probably would have changed it up a bit, shouting, “Here’s your goddamned money,
now get out!” He didn’t though. More frightening still, the thought never crossed his mind.
Just to wrap things up, I returned three days later and the matter still hadn’t been settled. I was told the
accounting was handled in Los Angeles and it would be a few more days. (I actually wondered at the time if
Wells Fargo was giving me the run-around in order to screw me out of a dollar forty.) When I returned
again—couple of days later—they gave me my $300 without comment. Who knows what GRAND banking
machinations went into that excruciating decision concerning $1.44? I’m sure it involved lawyers and
accountants and board meetings, finger-pointing, firings, resignations in disgrace, perhaps a suicide or
two. Bankers are such goddamned idiots. Most of ‘em would screw their own grandmother out of a penny
for a day’s interest.
As for the nicely, but somewhat unpredictably bound copy of The Pastons, I think we went one more round
in written form before I picked up the telephone. The implication that I was perpetrating an elaborate scam
required the kind of huffiness only a stern voice over the phone can provide.
“I want to speak to someone there who is reasonable,” I said nicely to the woman who answered on the
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked with courtesy, but maybe just a bit surprised.
“I said, I would like to speak to someone there who is reasonable, you know, someone who is capable of
thinking straight, and who is in the position to accomplish something.”
To my surprise the woman then said this: “That would be me. How may I help you?”
As it turned out, she was correct. She was reasonable and she did think straight and she did have the
authority to make things happen. With very little effort on my part the thing was soon settled. I received a
good copy of The Pastons a few days later in the mail. I haven’t been able to work it back into the rotation
yet, but I checked, and when I turned page 96—breath held, eyes a-squint—I found myself on page 97.
Better still, from that point forward through the remainder of the book, the pages run in standard order.
So now I have two nicely bound copies of The Pastons, I’m thinking about giving the first one to someone
as a gift just to see what happens. It’s basically a new book; hardly been touched.
Sylvie suggests I simply turn it into a book-safe.