I was there when the euro began, to the extent that I could be there without ever leaving Times Square, and now I have my own personal euro crisis.
This is different from the euro crisis that has European leaders bickering and everybody else worrying about an economic Excedrin headache. This has nothing to do with Spain’s borrowing costs, Greece’s bailout money, Germany’s austerity or the International Monetary Fund’s warning of a “sizable risk” of deflation.
Those are real problems. This is about a traveler’s check.
Eleven European Union nations began using the single currency on Jan. 2, 1999. That was a Saturday. On Jan. 4, the first real workday of the year, I decided to see who was buying traveler’s checks at a currency exchange in Times Square. I wrote six paragraphs — 191 words.
On a lark, I also bought a €50 traveler’s check. It cost $61.50.
I all but forgot about it as a new century dawned, New York was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the city went dark in the 2003 blackout and the Mets broke our hearts year after year. The traveler’s check ended up in a box in the basement and remained there until a couple of weekends ago, when I did some housecleaning. There it was.
As investments go, it was not the smartest. The conversion rate was $1.226 on Wednesday afternoon, so my €50 was worth $61.32, 18 cents less than I had paid. That was less disturbing than the numbers I got from a cost-of-living calculator. It said that $61.50 in 1999 dollars had the purchasing power of $84.71 now.
But I don’t have $84.71. I don’t even have $61.32.
Here is why. I decided to cash in the traveler’s check. I walked up Broadway in search of the Thomas Cook storefront where I had bought it.
It is a Travelex now (and a block south of where it was in 1999). Thomas Cook sold its foreign exchange business to Travelex for $631 million in 2000. “They downsized a lot here in New York,” Lorenzo Cesare, who was behind the teller’s window in 1999, told me later when I tracked him down by phone. “Business wasn’t like it was. Before, one person traveling to Europe would buy 10 different currencies. We’d make money on 10 different currencies. Now it was $100 worth of euros, one currency. They let a lot of my staff go, and the management changed above me. It just wasn’t the same.”
But cash the traveler’s check? The people behind the teller’s windows on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday morning said they couldn’t. They said they weren’t sure why they couldn’t, they just couldn’t.
I went to two other currency exchanges in Times Square and a bank branch on Eighth Avenue. The tellers in all three places said they could not cash it, either. (At Travelex, a teller suggested depositing it in a bank account, but he said the money would not be available for several weeks. Calls and e-mails to a Travelex spokeswoman went unanswered.)
A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department said this was a problem for the Federal Reserve; a Fed spokesman said it was a problem for state regulatory authorities because currency exchanges like Travelex are not banks, so they do not fall under the Fed’s jurisdiction. The New York State Department of Financial Services said it had jurisdiction over traveler’s checks in the state and would look into the matter.
It was easier to find out what had happened to the two people I had quoted in 1999. Mr. Cesare said he spent a couple of years with another currency company before joining a property management company. He started his own property management operation four years ago and also runs his own real estate office in Middle Village, Queens.
I also quoted Edward Maher, a baker who lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. He bought two €50 traveler’s checks that day.
“I spent the euros with no problem,” Mr. Maher said. “I don’t remember what countries I went to. Some took euros and some did not. England, that was an issue.”
He said that on more recent trips, he usually used his debit card to buy currency from a cash machine once he landed.
He also said he wished he had done that on a European trip last year.
“We went to an exchange place rather than an A.T.M.,” he said. “I was charged a 20 percent surcharge. It was put on the bill like a tip. I was taking pasta-making lessons. The girl who was teaching us said: ‘He ripped you off. You should have called the police.’ You live and you learn.”