Friday, April 08, 2005

Take Mr. Jefferson to Best Buy

This story is a month old, but it just came to my attention today.

Reported in the Baltimore Sun on March 8 and on WorldNetDaily yesterday, this is either a tale of the ignorance of retail cashiers or of the hysteria of post-9/11 America. Or both. Most likely both.

The gist is this, from WorldNetDaily:

A man trying to pay a fee using $2 bills was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail after clerks at a Best Buy store questioned the currency's legitimacy and called police.
Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker provided a few more details when he broke the story last month. It seems that Best Buy customer Mike Bolesta was told that the installation fee for his son's new car stereo had been waived because of a mix-up at the store. But soon afterward, he was threatened with legal action if he did not pay the fee. A bit miffed, Bolesta decided to pay the whole invoice with two-dollar bills -- you know, the ones with Thomas Jefferson's portrait on the front and, in the Bicentennial version, an engraving of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back.

These bills might be rare in Baltimore, but in Charlottesville they are readily recognizable. Mr. Jefferson's home at Monticello routinely gives them out in change to the tourists who visit there.

Bolesta uses the $2 bills in his business. Olesker continues the story:
With his Capital City Student Tours, he arranges class trips for school kids around the country traveling to large East Coast cities, including Baltimore. He's been doing this for the last 18 years. He makes all the arrangements: hotels, meals, entertainment. And it's part of his schtick that, when Bolesta hands out meal money to students, he does it in $2 bills, which he picks up from his regular bank, Sun Trust.

"The kids don't see that many $2 bills, so they think this is the greatest thing in the world," Bolesta says. "They don't want to spend 'em. They want to save 'em. I've been doing this since I started the company. So I'm thinking, 'I'll stage my little comic protest. I'll pay the $114 with $2 bills.'"
At Best Buy, however, the Jefferson dollars might as well have been euros or rupees -- or Monopoly money. The staff thought they were fake, and brought in the feds to settle the matter.

Olesker continues:
He remembers the cashier marking each bill with a pen. Then other store personnel began to gather, a few of them asking, "Are these real?"

"Of course they are," Bolesta said. "They're legal tender."

A Best Buy manager refused comment last week. But, according to a Baltimore County police arrest report, suspicions were roused when an employee noticed some smearing of ink. So the cops were called in. One officer noticed the bills ran in sequential order.

* * *

Bolesta was then taken to the county police lockup in Cockeysville, where he sat handcuffed to a pole and in leg irons while the Secret Service was called in.

"At this point," he says, "I'm a mass murderer."

Finally, Secret Service agent Leigh Turner arrived, examined the bills and said they were legitimate, adding, according to the police report, "Sometimes ink on money can smear."

This will be important news to all concerned.

For Baltimore County police, said spokesman Bill Toohey, "It's a sign that we're all a little nervous in the post-9/11 world."
I like Best Buy. I've bought lots of electronic equipment there, and lots of DVDs and CDs. Despite the stupidity of their Baltimore branch, I expect I will continue to shop at Best Buy. (The new one here in Charlottesville is an amazing beacon of free enterprise, especially when you see it at night while traveling west on the 250 Bypass.)

Still, I think the next time I plan to buy something at Best Buy, I'm going to fill my wallet with two dollar bills and pay in cash.

I urge all Best Buy customers to do the same. Take Mr. Jefferson with you on your next trip.

1 comment:

Steve Foerster said...

I once had a foreign-born clerk at the Merrifield Taco Bell question one I tried to spend, but his manager told him they were for real. Good thing I didn't end up being thrown in the hoosegow by the Fairfax COunty police!

Speaking of that, my question for the Baltimore cops is how they can explain with a straight face that the "post 9/11" environment was why they chained a man to a post and cast him in leg irons for their suspicion he was trying to pass phony currency. I could see an overreaction to a suspected terrorist, but for a counterfeiter? Sorry, that doesn't fly.