Ordering the Checks We Don’t Write Anymore

by Jess Keefe

I write one check every month, and that single check goes to my landlord. Aside from the occasional voided-check-to-an-employer, that’s basically it. Most everything else is auto-debited, or credit card-ed, or PayPal-ed. So it always comes as a surprise when my shoebox stash runs out every two years or so, and I’m faced with the sad chore of reordering checks. (Sad chores comprise most of my daily activities. My phone contact list is full of bank fraud hotlines and emergency gynecologist numbers, not multiple 24-hour pizza places or contacts like “Dave?” and “Haircut.” Ordering checks. Tweezing errant facial hair. Buying better chairs. This is my life.)

So after weeks of putting it off (“Do 1 Thing”-style), I finally sucked it up and navigated the musty catacombs of my bank’s website until I found the section for ordering checks. I triumphantly clicked through, thinking I’ve done the hard part. But once I’ve landed on the page, I’m faced with an endless amount of check options: baseball team logos and American flags. Looney Tunes and Precious Moments. Zebra stripes, flowers, ladybugs. Snappy slogans ranging from the meaninglessly vague (“Make a difference”) to the bafflingly specific (“Horses are my life”). Browsing the selection of checks feels like being in a suburban Roy Rogers at 6 a.m., milling among the masses wearing sweatpants; it’s disorienting, depressing.

In an attempt to delay the extinction of checks, banks seem to be taking a stab at rebranding. The whole thing just smacks of clear Mountain Dew or a new logo. Hello Kitty stares up blankly from her pink background, as if to say, “I’m relevant to your interests! Buy me!” You have to dig pretty hard just to find normal-ass check options. They’re buried in a sea of Notre Dame mascots and drippy seagull illustrations. Even the “Refined” section, where you might expect to find conservative, Jack Donaghy-ish options, contains design schemes featuring sappy Thomas Kinkades and random Bible verses.

Checks have become the beer-paunched school dance chaperone, wearing a G-Unit T-shirt over his Polo. They’re trying more and more desperately to be young, hip, cool, and this obvious effort only distances them further from it. That’s the rule.

But is this what we’ve been reduced to to prove our individuality? A Tweety-bird-on-a-motorcycle check that says “livin’ loud” at the bottom? Why does everything need to be some grand statement of personality? The whole experience has me wishing for just a handsome, old-fashioned check, like some sort of cane-wagging grump. All grand stamps and swooping calligraphy.

Checks have been at banking institutions for centuries. How long exactly has the check (or “cheque” if you’re fancy and/or nasty and/or British/Canadian) been around? A while. Some Wikipedia-ing reveals that checks have been around since the Achaemenid Empire. When was that? I don’t know, but you should be able to tell by the “ae” in the name that it’s Old. (Okay, I do know, it’s around 500 BCE.) We’re already witnessing the decline of so many storied institutions — print journalism, books, cursive — that checks sort of get lost in all the loss.

I can’t say I’ll miss them when they finally give up and die. I am, after all, a lazy product of my generation. Swiping is easier. Faster. Grunt. But I tremble at the idea of my future kids not getting the movie Blank Check at all (“Mommy, how did Preston buy that giant trampoline, he doesn’t have a LevelUp account!”). So I guess all I can do now is hope that someone in Brooklyn launches an artisanal revival of checks, stat (but no mustaches, please).

Jess Keefe is a writer.

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