WOSTER: Remembering a world of counter checks and generous merchants
Picture this scene: You own a modest service station on the corner of a quiet street in a St. Paul suburb and a college kid pulls up to the pumps in a not-too-clean 1957 Chevrolet four-door sedan (six cylinder, stick shift on the steering column) with South Dakota license plates, gets out and shuffles inside to ask if he can write a check to buy gas to get home to Brookings.
You stare at the kid as if he’s from another planet, right? Well, he looks a bit that way, for sure. He maybe hasn’t shaved that morning, looks like he got only a few hours of sleep and didn’t make much of an effort to comb down the cowlicks in his washed-out brown hair. He maybe slept in the cotton slacks and button-down Oxford shirt, he has no socks and only one of his loafers has a penny in it. While you’re taking all this in, he’s explaining that, yes, it’s a personal check, but it’ll be written on the First National Bank of Brookings, and he’s good for the money, no problem there.
He’d pay cash, he says, but he’d been in the big city visiting his girlfriend at the College of St. Catherine’s and, dang, things are sure expensive in this town. All he needs is a fill of gas — and maybe enough for a cup of that coffee that’s maybe been simmering on the hot plate over in the corner since Eisenhower was in office. He understands, he says, that he’s asking you to take a chance and trust somebody you’ve never seen before and probably never will see again. He stayed at his big sister’s place in Cottage Grove last night, he says, but she and her husband were on a trip, or he’d have borrowed gas money from them. He doesn’t know anybody except the girl way over at St. Kate’s, and the needle on the fuel gauge is pegging on the E.
Even though the price on the pump is 32 cents a gallon for the regular fuel, the car probably has a 20-gallon tank. You’re staring at this creature from outer space, calculating 20 gallons at 32 cents for each gallon is $6.40 and maybe call it an even $7 with a cup of the coffee added. You know your friends will call you a sucker when you tell them later how the check bounced, and the address the kid gave you for his sister’s place (speaking of trusting people, the kid just told you where his sister lived and that she and her husband weren’t home) probably will turn out to be an empty lot or an abandoned warehouse.
“Oh, go ahead, kid,” you tell him. “Make sure you sign your name so I can read it, add your South Dakota address and a phone number where I can reach you if the check comes back and go on and fill your Chevy. I’ll pour a cup of coffee.”
Sure, you already guessed that I was the kid, naive as all get out and a babe in the big city, having just spent my last dollar and trying to get back to campus with just enough pocket change to make a phone call, if I could find a pay phone along the way. I never did ask the station owner his name.
I should have set aside enough cash to buy my tank of gas for the trip home, of course. I knew that even as I was shelling out the last of the folding money. In my defense, it was a time of fairly easy check-cashing back where I lived. They had things called counter checks in those days. They were check blanks with no bank name. Say you were drinking in a local bar and ran out of cash. You’d ask for a counter check, fill in an amount, write the name of your bank and sign your name. Just like an ATM machine, except the merchant provided the checks.
What an insane system. It was built pretty much on trust. Can’t imagine it happening these days, but it got me home from St. Paul.