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Check Please!

One of the little towns I grew up in had a Detroit Edison office. You'd go in there and hand the man behind the counter your busted toaster; a week or two later you'd go and pick it up again, perfectly repaired. You'd go in and hand him your burned-out light bulbs; he'd hand you new ones, right on the spot. The charge for all of this was exactly nothing.

Oh, you paid all right, on your electric bill. But repairs or replacements on small electric items was included at no extra charge, no pun intended.

I suppose the practice of repairing small appliances for free went away in the 70s, when appliances became cheap in price and construction, too cheap to be worth fixing, and most of them were stamped or glued together to be maintenance-proof anyway. I do remember that free light bulbs went on for a while until an Honest Businessman sued Edison for anti-competitive practices because he couldn't make his penny of profit on a light bulb when Edison gave them away for free. I suppose he has a point- it's hard to compete with free. Too bad he had to spoil it for everyone else so he could get his penny, though. Honest Businessman!

Even then it struck me as strange that Edison would have an office in that little town just to fix toasters and hand out free light bulbs. But thinking back, I realize the main reason they had an office was to collect electric bill payments, in cash.

My family was on the cutting edge of technology. Dad paid our bills with a household checkbook. I grew up thinking that was the nature of the world. You paid things The Check is In the Mail way, and people always had. Not so.

Apparently the household checkbook wasn't all that common until the 1960s. Even when I was a kid, a lot folks, old-timers mainly, did everything in cash. They would go to the gas company or electric company office in town. Or if there was no office, they could pay at some of the banks; I remember seeing signs in the banks that they accepted payments for this or the other utility, loan company, and so on.

I was thinking about that today when I was writing some checks to pay my property taxes on the vacant lots next to the house. I am almost up to Check Number 4000. I've written a lot of checks in my career here. But now I write probably one or two a month, no more than that. Instead, I pay via my bank online. They will transfer the funds electronically or, for the real hold-outs, print a check and mail it for me. But there are some people I only pay once, or once in a great while. It's not worth it to me to enter their information into the system. For these people, I still write a check and send it Snail Mail.

With the death spiral of the Post Office, I may soon not be sending anyone any checks at all. I daresay many, perhaps even most, of the people around this country today never wrote a check and never will.

It's surprising, when I think of it, that something that seems to have been an eternal and indispensable feature of the universe was just a blink in history's eye.
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