Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Friday, October 03, 2003
Things Which Make Me Go Grrrr 1 (and trust me, there will be plenty more over the coming months):

Like most of the things which are turning me day by unrelenting day into a queer version of Victor Meldrew, ATMs, or Automated Teller Machines, are a necessary evil in my world. I much prefer being in control and paying cash whenever I can (yes, I know, not very Patsy and Edina of me, is it?), so I can't live with them, and I can't live without them.

Surprisingly, the first, very basic, ATMs were introduced into the UK way back in the sixties. Most people, however, only became aware of them round about the time I did, at Uni in the mid-/late-seventies. There was definitely one in a prime location right next to the local student boozer, sneakily sited to ensure pissed-up undergraduates blew most of their term's grant on Stellas by the end of Freshers' Week.

We didn't call them ATMs in those days. Back then, they were known as cash-dispensers. The acronym is, I reckon, yet one more example of the American colonisation of our language, and you really don't want to get me started on that one, or we'll be here all day, swapping Anglo-Saxon expletives, and no-one will be home in time for tea.

To be fair, it's not the machines I hate. After all, unlike in my cash-strapped student days (when persuading the hole in the wall to hand me a few quid past my overdraft limit was regarded a major achievement), nowadays they willingly give me the money. And giving me money is good.

It’s the people congregating around them who make me grumpy. For starters, guaranteed to be lying in wait will be the local high street's representative of Beggars Inc., sometimes with mangy canine accessory, more and more often with equally mangy wastrel child.

Now, get real, my unfortunate friend. While I've every sympathy for your plight (what with the price of Special Brew these days), asking me for change for a cut of crack is a surefire way to wind me up. If I had any money to give, why would I be at the ATM in the first place? And do you seriously think I'm going to hand you one whole tenner, when all I really wanted was a fiver, just like you could get in the good old days? Ah, no, I see! The juxtaposition of my push-button wealth with your down-at-heels situation is meant to embarrass me into coming up with the readies. Well, you'll have to try a whole lot harder than that, matey. I've been guilt-tripped by experts, and nobody does it better than my mum.

And then there's the person waiting in front of me on Sloane Street. When it's her turn, she (sorry, ladies, but it is invariably a she, usually bottled-blonde, and of a certain age and bust-size) will rummage around inside the TARDIS-like interior of her Prada handbag, before whipping out her gold plastic and inserting it into the ATM, upside-down, and with the magnetic strip facing the wrong way.

On finally learning of her mistake, she will then make two unsuccessful attempts at keying in her PIN, before taking out the mobile, and calling Caroline for the correct number. And then, before drawing out any money, she will need to check her husband's balance, and print out a mini-statement, deciding just how much she really needs. Once she's taken her wad of cash (with receipt, of course), she will then spend the next few minutes, filing the money away in her purse, before selecting yet another gold card and repeating the whole procedure.

By this time, the waiting Stranger's spontaneously reckless Ab Fab moment has passed, and he realises his own decision to withdraw a couple of hundred for those Persol sunglasses in Harvey Nicks is not the act of a sane and responsible individual, and he slinks off home to N7, forever deprived the chance to swank glamorously at the Roof Gardens.

Guaranteed to push me right over the edge, however, are those queues of people lining up by the ATM, keeping a discreet distance away from the person currently withdrawing money, so as to reassure them mugging's the last thing on their mind. Very thoughtful and caring, I'm sure. If their line stretched down the road in an orderly fashion, I'd be even more approving. But oh no, they line up across the pavement, blocking the way of any passing Stranger, staring viciously at him when he asks them to let him pass, and forcing him to risk his life walking in the road of a busy Saturday-afternoon Oxford Street. May their PINs be forever rejected, and their cards be swallowed whole, before being greeted with the message: Sorry there are insufficient funds in your account.

And I really hate queues anyway, but that a grrrr I'm saving for another day.