Last week I wrote about divorcing our bank after 36 years. I used the headline Divorce, (Bank of) America Style as a play on the old movie, Divorce, American Style. But I realized that divorce is such an emotion-laden word. I started wondering why I was feeling so much angst over a bank, of all things. I wasn’t this emotional when we stopped shopping at Macy’s, and that store stars in one of our favorite holiday movies, Miracle on 34th Street.
One September day all those years ago, as a freshman at UC Irvine, I walked into the Bank of America branch at Irvine Town Center and opened my first bank account. Want an indication of how the banking business has changed? One of my sisters preceded me at UCI, and her friend Syndi was a teller at that branch. In those days, banks would return your cancelled checks to you. Mine would come back with greetings from Syndi scribbled on them, the i in her name dotted with daisies.
I realized something that people who were customers of Seattle-First National Bank, or Continental Illinois, or BankBoston, or even NationsBank (which acquired Bank of America in 1998 but kept the name) probably never knew or understood. There is a mythology to the Bank of America name here in California. The story goes that A.P. Giannini (see photo), an immigrant who founded the Bank of Italy in 1904 in San Francisco, was one of the few bankers to get funds out of the vaults after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He set up shop with a plank set over two barrels and started loaning money to people so they could start rebuilding, whether they were current customers or not. He changed the name to Bank of America in 1929.
Even though he died before I was born, I had a closer connection to Giannini than I originally knew. Next door to where I grew up in Palo Alto, on the outskirts of the city limits, there was a rest home — what we now call a senior care facility. It was an old house with a wide porch and a water tower, and while I only thought of it as a dilapidated rest home, I later learned that it had originally been A.P. Giannini’s country home. Like many San Francisco millionaires, including Leland Stanford, he took the train south out of the fog to warmer climes on the Peninsula. I wonder if current CEO Brian Moynihan, who was originally with BankBoston, ever thinks about Giannini.
It’s silly to be emotional about a bank, especially one that is so unfeeling in return. But it’s not silly, I believe, to mourn the loss of a relationship that holds so many memories of so many milestones. A bank does that, you know — it gives you that first checking account when you cross the threshold into independence and adulthood; it’s where you deposit the paycheck from your first job, and all the other jobs after that as your career progresses; it helps you buy your first car and then your first house. It knows as many personal details about you as your spouse, and probably more.
Oh, well — there are lots of other financial institutions out there. It’s just that you never forget your first one.