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The End of the Traveler's Cheque

Daniel Torday


            When I was sixteen I traveled to Israel and I kept a single American Express Traveler’s Cheque—a $100 check—in my shoe. The left one. That seemed safest. My mother had taken me to the bank to sign $500 worth of checks with the same care with which she had sewn my name in every piece of clothing I took on the trip.

            Walking down Ben Yehuda Street, I wanted to carry a check. I refused to wear the fanny pack my mother had sent me with. I’d cringed when my mother forced those checks on me, and the fanny pack too, but her concern had spread like a contagion.

            The shoe would suffice.

            Before the days spent in the shoe, the bill was crisp and filled with those fibers that were probably cotton, and which signify seriousness and worth. Before the shoe, the bill had a value, which could be redeemed by my counter-signing it.

            When I took off the shoe on our third day in Jerusalem the check was wet, stuck to the insert in my New Balance. It gave me a feckless simple feeling of superiority: my mother’s insistence on Traveler’s Cheques and fanny packs had caused this.



            Sometime soon after he invented the Traveler’s Cheque, American Express CEO JC Fargo sent out a company-wide memorandum. He’d invented a check which any patron could sign in the United States and then counter-sign when traveling abroad. The memorandum read:

            “We want it kept distinctly in mind at all times and in all places and by all the company’s forces that this company is and does not intend on going into the touring business.”

            American Express was a big powerful bank and no matter how smart or how lucrative his invention was, JC Fargo felt a bank should do the business banks did: lending and making money. He did not feel that the Traveler’s Cheque fit in that conception of a bank. It wasn’t what he’d gone into banking for.

            It didn’t fit into his self-conception.



            Ten summers after I tried to carry a Traveler’s Cheque in my running shoe in Israel I traveled across Eastern Europe with an ATM card in my wallet. Even so, my mother convinced me to bring American Express Traveler’s Cheques.

            In Cesky Krumlov I kept them all in my wallet. It was a stuffed-full wallet with $800 worth of Traveler’s Cheques in denominations of $50 and $100 apiece. In Hungary I stayed in the Buda hills with my cousin and I left them in my bedroom. In the Carpathian Mountain town of Sighisoara, Romania, I snuck the checks out of my wallet and brought them to banks to get cash.

            None would cash them.

            By the time I reached Sofia after a sleepless twenty-hour train ride, I’d made a decision. I used my ATM card to get the cash I would need to get across the country to the Black Sea town of Sozopol, where we chased after iguanas like we were little kids and played British Trivial Pursuit with a group of Bulgarian nudists. Our first night there I paid for plate after plate of tsatsa, little fried silvery fish like sardines the Bulgarians snacked on late at night.

            I paid in cash from the ATM.  




            In 1915, JC Fargo died.

            In 1915, American Express opened Travel Agency offices around the globe.



            When I got back to the States from Bulgaria, first thing Monday morning I went to a Wachovia at the corner of 57th Street and exchanged $750 worth of American Express Traveler’s Cheques. They charged me $37.50 for the transaction.

            It was worth every cent.

            When I returned from my trip to Israel as a sixteen-year-old I took off my left running shoe. Stuck all along the bottom was the pasty, tattered remnants of a $100 Traveler’s Cheque. I think I must have forgotten all about it. The check was mashed up into little balls, unidentifiable as legal tender, pulped into that stuff we made papier-mâché out of when I was in elementary school.

            Had I forgotten it was there? Had I thought each time I put on that shoe: I do not intend to go into the business of being told what to do? I only remember I was gripped by a strange kind of feeling, and that I destroyed the evidence of that check as quickly as I could, all at once, flushed down the toilet instead of tossed in the waste basket, before anyone could discover the error of my ways.






Daniel Torday’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times, among other publications. He is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College, and Book Review Editor of The Kenyon Review.

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. - Henry David Thoreau


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