Wednesday, April 14, 2010



There was a knock at the door . . .


I heard it again as I rolled over in the damp and dirty sheets of my bed inside the Changchun Mansions in Hong Kong.  We had arrived in this hell hole [the building, of course; the city of Hong Kong is awesome] two days earlier painfully exhausted and desperate for any type of lodging whatsoever.  While the room we ended up in might have been the cheapest in all of Hong Kong, it was proof that you get what you pay for.

The room was small, with barely enough space for two beds, and uncomfortably humid.  This wasn’t the warm and sticky type of humidity you find on a hot summer day, but the damp and cold type of humidity that makes you feel like you’re coming down with the black plague or about to descend into a deeper level of hell.  The crown jewel of this room was the bathroom that made even the dingiest of our previous lodgings look like a five star hotel.  Not only did the door leak water all over the floor of our room when we showered, but the toilet was so abysmal that we felt it necessary to only use other bathrooms around the city.

Needless to say, we did not spend too much time hanging out in this room during our stay.

At around midnight on our second night, however, I was fast asleep in the room when the knocking at the door started.  At first I hoped that it was just another door near ours; but as it continued and I heard the Indian accented voice on the other side, my roommate got up to see what was going on.  Apparently the guy was looking for cash because we still hadn’t paid him for that night in the room.  We didn’t have any cash, however, and told him we would pay him in the morning.

This was apparently not good enough for him because within the hour he was back at our door:


Knowing that it was my turn to deal with this guy, I got out of bed and walked to the door.

“Hey brotha, could I get the money?” he said.

“I’m sorry man, we don’t have any money with us right now.  We’ll get it for you in the morning,” I calmly told him, hoping that he would go away.

“You could get money now,” he told me, “there’s a machine in this building.”

“I’m sorry, but I lost my ATM card.  I’m going to the bank tomorrow, and I’ll get you money,” I told him, trying to explain that I couldn’t just go to the ATM machine because my card was gone, something that he clearly did not understand.

“There’s a bank outside, I can show you,” he told me as I finally got a little frustrated with the situation.

“Look, I’m not wearing any pants right now, I’m going to go back to sleep and I promise that first thing in the morning I’m going to the bank and I’ll get your money,” I sternly said to him leaving no other options (well, I suppose he could have just kicked us out, but what sane person was going to pay him what we were for this shithole). 

I closed the door and went back to sleep, and he didn’t bother us again for the rest of the night.

When I woke up the next morning, I knew that I had to find cash.  The ATM card that I had lost said MorganStanley SmithBarney on the front, and I figured the best way to get cash would be to go to the MorganStanely SmithBarney offices in Hong Kong and ask to make a withdrawal from my account.  I figured they had to let me withdraw money.

But first, I decided to get breakfast. 

With about 60 Hong Kong Dollars (like $7) in my wallet I considered going to Starbucks or McDonalds where I could get a quick and cheap breakfast, but I decided that I wanted to get a bigger breakfast before I went on my cash hunting adventure.  With free WiFi and one enormous breakfast on the menu that included eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast; I decided to go to PJ Muphy’s Pub where I would be able to charge the meal to my credit card.

After eating my meal, and getting sufficient directions to the MorganStanley SmithBarney offices on my computer, it was time for me to pay.  I handed the waitress my Credit Card, and she came back a couple minutes later: my card had been denied.

While somewhat frustrating, this didn’t come as a complete surprise.  My card had been getting declined every so often over the previous couple days.  It would work at some places (like Starbucks), but then not work at other places (like the three banks where I attempted to get cash advances the day before).  In hindsight, I probably should have eaten at a restaurant where I could pay for everything in cash, but the meal at the pub was so good that I couldn’t really regret the decision that I made. 

At this point I had to explain my situation to the waitress, and hope that she would let me leave and get cash from the bank.  My meal cost about 120 HKD (like $15), and I had no other way of paying for it.  After running my card a couple more times, she agreed that I could leave to get cash, but I would have to leave my backpack.  With no other choice, I gave her my backpack (computer and all) and walked outside.

When I emerged from the bar, I was standing on the street next to Changchun Mansions when our Indian friend from the guesthouse came up to me.  He had been standing in front of the building amongst a crowd of Indian guys trying to hawk everything from suits and fake watches to cell phones and guesthouse rooms when he asked me,  “Hey man, do you have the money?”

“I’m going to the bank to get it right now,” I told him as I walked through the crowd of Indians that tried to offer me things I didn’t need.  “I’ll get it to you as soon as I come back,” I said as I walked across the street to catch a cab to the International Commerce Center where my financial institution was supposedly located.  Ironically, I felt assured that my backpack and computer were behind the bar at a pub instead of inside that guesthouse. 

20 Hong Kong Dollars later and I was standing in the lobby of the International Commerce Center speaking with the person at the front desk of what appeared to be Morgan Stanley’s Asia offices.  The building was pristinely new (I later found out that they were still finishing the upper floors) with a massive main floor lobby that must have stretched up eight floors and opened up into a high end shopping mall below. 

As I stood there talking with the woman at the front desk, plenty of men in business suits walked past me and into the elevators leading up to offices and conference rooms.  None of them really noticed me as I explained to the woman that I had an account in America with this institution, and all I wanted to do was make a withdrawal.  As one might imagine, I wasn’t having much success.

Apparently there is some sort of “one company, two systems” approach used by this particular financial institution (Is it Smith Barney?  Is it Morgan Staney?  Is it CitiBank?  I honestly have no idea, as the card I hold lists all three names) and my account could not actually be accessed from their end.  The woman at the desk essentially told me that there was no way she could help.  Pleading, I told her that I had a financial advisor with them.

“Oh really?  What is his name?

I told her the name of my financial advisor and watched as she typed it in.

“Oh he’s out of Scottsdale,” she said, confirming to me that this institution had some sort of connection to the one that holds my money.  “No, we can’t help you,” she continued, before I could say anything in response.

I stepped away from the desk and walked around the lobby for a while trying to regroup from this rejection.  Here I was in a foreign city half a world from home, my laptop being held as collateral at a pub a couple miles away, with roughly $4 in local currency and a credit card that didn’t seem to work when I needed it to being the most valuable things in my wallet.  You might say I had reached a new level of broke.

Things probably could have been worse though (like, say, if I was strapped in a chair Clockwork Orange-style, being forced to sit through The Curious Case of Benjamin Button again).

I walked around the mall for a little while thinking of ways I could get cash, and had the idea that I could open up an account with this branch of the bank, and somehow transfer funds from my other account in America.  Thinking this was a great idea, I went back into the skyscraper-proper and asked the woman in the front desk how I could open an account:

“I’m sorry, it takes a minimum of $100,000,000 to open an account with us,” she told me, as I stood there with a baffled look on my face.  How many clients did this company actually have? Seven?  I finally asked the woman if there was any way she could get me the number of my account through her computer so that I could try to get another bank to transfer the money.

Like the rest of my suggestions and attempts at these offices, this one was also denied.  Knowing that I was in a bind, I realized that I was out of options.  It was time to use the lifeline that no 23 year old ever wants to use. 

I had to call my parents.

Calling for help is never easy.  It’s only natural for people to think they can solve their own problems and for people to want to solve their own problems.  Calling for help is even more difficult for a young adult trying to prove that he is an independent person that can solve problems on his own.  I hate having to call for help.

Making things even more difficult was the fact that my only means of communicating with my parents (my computer) was being held for ransom by an angry waitress at a pub across town.  Without enough cash on me to use an Internet bar, I had no other choice than to spend half of my money returning to the Pub next door to Changchun Mansions where this story began.

I exited the cab a few blocks down the street from the pub (a savvy move that saved me about 25 cents), and started walking towards it with the feeling of anger in my step.  I had been convinced that I would be able to get cash at that bank, and I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen.  Just then, I remembered one crucial element that I had entirely forgotten about: getting back to the pub would require again walking through the crowd of Indian peddlers. 

Before I even got to the crowd, my Indian friend was again standing in front of my with his hands on his hips expecting me to pay up.  “You have my money,” he said angrily, “my boss is coming in a few minutes, and I need to pay him for your room or you’re out.”

As I continued to walk past him I sternly (and a bit loudly) remarked, “There was a problem, I don’t have it yet, but I’m working on it right now.”  He tried to follow me, but I didn’t stop.  He was frustrated and angry, and I was angry and frustrated.  Hoping he wouldn’t follow me into the bar, I walked inside and immediately retrieved my laptop, found a place in the corner, plugged in my headset, and made the phone call.

Luckily, I was easily able to connect through Skype, and my parents were home to hear about my troubles.  I told them about how I needed cash, and about how I tried to go to the offices of the bank, and how I couldn’t pay my bill for breakfast, and about the Indian guy that was yelling at me on the street, and how I really didn’t know what I could do at this point.

The first thing we decided to do was call my financial advisor.  Since he lived in Scottsdale it still wasn’t too late to call him and we were able to have a three way conference: Hong Kong to Northbrook to Scottsdale.  While he was talking to my parents, the waitress came over to my table and asked me if I had retrieved the money to pay for the bill.  She was concerned that if I didn’t pay by the time her shift ended, she would have to pay the bill out of her wage.

“I’m talking to my money person right now,” I assured her as the conversation back in America continued.

Apparently my account was through SmithBarney, and the offices I went to belonged to MorganStanley.  The companies are somehow the same but somehow different.  There is also some sort of further separation from the United States to Hong Kong.  It was all far too complicated for me, and I started to make jokes about my predicament while a new strategy was explained to me.  I should go back to the office and just demand to see more important people until they gave me money.

I was pretty sure that I had already tried that.

After talking with my financial advisor, I further discussed the situation with my parents.  Having already been to this office on the other side of Kowloon, I was pretty sure that the new strategy would not be very successful.  I then mentioned how I was confused about why my credit card sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t work; and my parents figured it would be best to call the credit card company and ask.

Once we got the credit card company on the line, we figured out that they had disabled my credit card simply because it was bouncing around random countries from Indonesia to Singapore to Macau to Hong Kong.  They asked me to go over some charges:

“One hundred and seven dollars from a bank in Indonesia on February 20th?” she asked.

“Yes, that was me,” I said.

“Two hundred and seventy dollars from the Casino Grand Lisboa in Macau on February 22nd?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, embarrassed and ashamed for how much money I had lost a couple nights earlier, “That was me.”

“Fifteen dollars and forty cents from PJ Murphy’s Pub in Hong Kong?” she finally asked.

“YES,” I exclaimed, “That’s it!  That’s where I am right now!  Let me pay that bill!!”

She typed away at her computer and told me that I would now be able to pay the bill.  I then told her that I would shortly be getting a cash advance from the bank down the street, and she said that it would work for that as well.  As I finished the conversation with the credit card person I was laughing at the fact that all of this hassle had essentially been over fifteen dollars.

When I finally paid the bill at the pub and saw that the credit card had been accepted, I felt a huge burden fall off my shoulders.  A level of relief overcame me that can only be described with lazy clich├ęs and descriptions.  Somehow, I seemingly made it out of this disaster.  I sat back down at my computer and talked to my parents a little while longer, but it was getting late in Northbrook, and I still had one thing to do.

I emerged from the pub for the second time that morning with a new sense of purpose.  Card in hand, I was going to walk to the bank a few blocks away and get the cash advance, but before I could walk ten feet the Indian guy was standing in front of me: 

“Look man,” I said, “I just got off the phone with my bank, and I am going to get your cash right now.  If you want to come with me, you’re more than welcome to, otherwise I’ll be back in ten minutes,” I told him.  I was no longer frustrated or angry at my situation, I was calm and happy.

Luckily, he didn’t follow me to the bank (that would have been weird), but if he had followed me he would have seen an even greater level of relief come across me when the bank teller handed me the cash.  As I walked out of that bank, I finally had enough money to last me the rest of my trip, and the first thing I needed to do was pay the man.

I walked back to the Changchun Mansions with a hop in my step, and approached the man with a huge wad of cash in my pocket.  “Could we do this inside?” I asked, making him think that I didn’t want to show others the cash, when in reality I just wanted to make sure that he actually had a key to our room and really was the right guy I had to pay.

We went back up to that disgusting room and I was finally able to pay him for the night before, and the two nights that followed.

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