Annotated by the Author: ‘She Helped a Customer in Need. Then U.S. Bank Fired Her.’

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Annotated by the Author: ‘She Helped a Customer in Need. Then U.S. Bank Fired Her.’

To understand how some companies have lost their souls, consider what happened after U.S. Bank stiffed a customer before Christmas.

Nicholas Kristof: One challenge here was how to mix the particular story with the larger picture. The only reason to write about Emily James being fired was to make a larger point about irresponsibility in corporate America, but if I began with that it would seem tendentious and dry. So I decided to start with a quick phrase about the larger picture — how some companies have lost their souls — and then get into the story.

Marc Eugenio had deposited a $1,080 paycheck into his account at U.S. Bank. The bank put a hold on most of the sum, and he spent many hours in a branch office over two days, trying to get access to the money so he could buy presents for his 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

Confirming that the amount was $1,080 was surprisingly difficult. One person told me that it was $1,082. It’s only a $2 difference, but it’s the kind of fact that you have to get right. If you’re not right on the details, you’re not trusted on the big picture.

I could also have spent many hours going through the details of the hold and his interactions with the bank. My first draft went through the play-by-play that explained the hold, the fact that he was then given access to $200, and so on. In my first draft, I spent several paragraphs on this, but then my column was way too long. So I cut these details, figuring that they were not central to the narrative: Distressed customer, employee tries to help, employee is fired.

On Christmas Eve, Eugenio found himself parked at a gas station in Clackamas, Ore., a Portland suburb, both his fuel gauge and his bank balance on empty. A bank employee had told him that money would soon show up in his account — perhaps a ruse to get him out of the branch office. For hours Eugenio then tried his debit card at the gas pump, so he could buy a few gallons and get home to his wife and children.

“Both his fuel gauge and his bank balance on empty”: This nice line came from my editor, Bruce Levine. Writers sometimes distrust editors, but I think of them as my rescuers. If they misunderstand a line, readers surely will as well. And Bruce here gave the sentence a poetic touch.

“I was stranded,” he told me. “I could have walked home, but it would have been five miles in the cold.”

That’s when Eugenio found an angel.

I wondered about using this term, “angel.” I certainly wouldn’t have in a news article, and I worried that it might seem over the top. But in the end I decided that in a single word it conveyed the role she played.

He telephoned the bank’s toll-free number and spoke with Emily James, a senior officer at a call center in Portland. She spent an hour on the phone with Eugenio, trying to get some money released so he could at least get home. She soon realized that he had been misled, and that money wouldn’t reach his account any time soon. Feeling bad for a customer stuck on Christmas Eve, James offered to drive over from her call center and personally hand him $20.

“Feeling bad” was originally a grammatical error: I had written “feeling badly,” which is incorrect, and it slipped by editors. A reader pointed out that it should be “bad,” not “badly,” and we corrected it.

“No, no, no,” Eugenio told her. He couldn’t impose. But she suggested she could use her break, and she received permission from a supervisor to drive 20 minutes to Eugenio. She later recalled that when she arrived, she wished him Merry Christmas and handed him $20 of her own money.

This was a writing challenge. Emily had said that the $20 was hers, while the bank and said that it was the manager’s. It didn’t much matter, but I wanted to be sure to make clear that it wasn’t the bank’s money without getting into the weeds. So I attributed the sentence with the “she later recalled” to signify that this was her version. I thought it would be too much to say something like “$20 of what she says was her own money.” But ideally I would have put the attribution later or made it clearer that this was one account rather than a definitive version.

“Twenty dollars wouldn’t break me,” she explained to me, “and it would enable him to get home to his family.”