"What is this?" she asked.
"It's a bankbook."
She eyed the book with a disdain born of years of civil service lassitude.
"This thing is old," she said.
I gave her an eager smile. You want something done by an underpaid clerk, you better be nice. I said in a chipper voice: "Well, yes, it is. It was opened by my father, you see. He was a fireman?a city employee?and he invested here. He forgot to tell us about this money before he died."
I dug into my bag and held up a piece of paper.
"Look at this. This is his original death certificate. It even has the New York City seal on it. I'm telling you this because I want the money he left in your credit union."
The woman leafed through the bankbook and sneered, "The last entry was in 1972. This is ridiculous. He probably owed more in banking fees than he had in the account."
That was it. She wasn't going to help me, so all bets were off. I started imitating an off-duty cop and got down to business.
"I don't think banks had such fees back then. That was a more honest time. He had $193.82 in this account in 1972 and I am here, as the widow's son, to get the moneys owed her. Give them to me."
The bankbook was placed back in my hand as the clerk said, "Well, we don't have it."
I wasn't going to budge. "What do you mean you don't have it? Where is it? Don't you have a vault?"
She just shook her head and told me to contact New York state, as inactive accounts are sent to the comptroller's office.
My mother had gotten me into this a few weeks earlier. She'd handed me a dog-eared bankbook she'd dug up in some forgotten dresser drawer in the Bronx and asked if I would go down to the bank and retrieve the money my father had forgotten about. She put the bankbook and his death certificate into an envelope, figuring I would need to offer proof that the poor man was truly dead. Now, my father was a thrifty man. It wasn't like him to forget about a bank account. But get its contents back I would.
When I got home I pulled out the death certificate and read it with a morbid curiosity. It stated that my father died at 8:15 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1989. That much I already knew. What caught my eye, though, was the phrase: I last saw the patient alive? after which, in longhand, was written "January 28th, 1989 at 8:15 a.m." The notation was signed by a doctor.
That was a mystery, since I knew my father had expired in front of a nurse. There was no doctor present. The nurse told us that the old man had taken a deep breath just before he'd gone to his death. So the sawbones who signed off on my father's death certificate had made a mistake. Either that, or he was a liar. Maybe he was even a murderer.
This was getting deep.
Then I leafed carefully through the bankbook. I felt like a scholar inspecting a mysterious medieval codex. The book was a document from a lost era of working-class thrift, when people proudly brought their books into their banks to get them stamped as they saved dollar by hard-earned dollar, laying their money up against their children's futures. My father opened the account in 1960; every January he would drop $500 into it. There were a couple of small deposits of $40 or so, and he never withdrew any of it. By 1972 he had accumulated $3693, and in January of that year he took out $3500. That was the year he purchased the Bronx home my mother still lives in. Maybe he was keeping the rest in the credit union as some kind of emergency fund. He died before he ever got to it.
After excusing myself from the presence of the credit union's information clerk?who, if hell ever needs a receptionist, would make a fine candidate?I did some research, and found a website that listed all the funds New York state is holding from forfeited moneys. Someone's fortune is sitting in a bank account somewhere while the state patiently waits for the heir to get hip to the fact that he's owed the money. New York state is more than willing to give you back the cash, as long as you can prove it's rightfully yours. But don't count on years of accumulated interest, since the state only pays back the principal. I found my father's bank account on the website?and, as a bonus, I also saw that he had a check due him from Prudential Insurance. The rub of this is that the state doesn't let you know how much is owed. It could be $50, or it could be $50,000. But it's a site worth visiting. I also found three bank accounts that belonged to a dead uncle of mine, and a few of my old friends had some delinquent accounts.
I called up the pertinent relatives and friends, and explained to them what to do. As of yet, no one's gotten a cent. The state takes up to a year to process the forms, but money is money. Every day my mother hits her mailbox waiting for that check. We will claim my father's fortune.