This afternoon I stopped, during work, at a bank in Hanover to deposit last week’s paycheck. I stood at the counter, calculating how the deposit would affect both my checking and savings and trying to fill out the deposit slips accordingly. I was uncomfortable since this wasn’t my regular branch; I thought of an argument I’d had with a teller at another unfamiliar branch in the past over some petty discrepancy.
There was a lot of noise in the lobby, nothing severe — only the spontaneous, manic laughter of any workplace on a busy Monday afternoon; a lot of people talking at once, all of them women, middle-aged and speaking with cigarette-shredded voices and the peculiar Pennsylvania accent of that area. One teller was shouting through a microphone to a customer at the drive-through window in order to sound clear through the speaker on the other end. She was only doing this out of perceived necessity, but it was excessive and it left me unnerved.
I was fidgeting at the teller’s window in the moments it takes to make the deposit when a man approached the teller’s window next to mine. He was older, and although I didn’t look at him directly, I got the feeling that upon further inspection, he would appear much older than he actually was. Holding his hand was a little girl, no more than ten years old. He panted, worn out by the midday heat and, I sensed, a rather lousy day. Dropping his keys on the counter, he requested that his check be cashed. He wasn’t an account holder and the teller was obliged to request a second form of identification in addition to his driver’s license. When he said he didn’t have one, I felt the tension forming and anticipated trouble. The teller went through the various forms of acceptable ID — birth certificate, passport, armed service ID, vehicle registration — as if he wouldn’t know if he had one of those documents. I could sense his frustration as one by one he rejected her suggestions. It was as if each rejection were its own tiny badge of failure and he delivered each one with an increasing note of despair; not a strategy to elicit sympathy or in any way manipulate. It was the downtrodden voice of bona fide sadness. No, he’d never left the country. He’d never served. Nope, he wasn’t a vehicle owner. Birth certificate? He’d lost it years ago. “You can see, plain as day, by the picture on my license it’s me,” he said, raising his voice, but obviously pleading. “They let me cash my checks at the other place.”
I’ve been flat broke and desperate and I know as well as anyone how it feels to finally get my hands on a few dollars so I could get something to eat. I felt that failure sting, that feeling I thought I’d left behind forever. I saw not him, but myself walking out the door with nothing but a worthless slip of paper in one hand and my hat in the other. To say I sympathized with him would be a lie, it went beyond that. I identified with him. I was his kindred spirit. I hated him for it. I thought “Well for Chrissakes, go cash it the other place and make those people feel uncomfortable. Go force them to choose between professional duties and their loyalty to the human race. It’s not like you’re doing anyone a favor with your ‘business.’ No legitimate institution in the world makes their nut cashing checks for free.”
I waited, bracing myself along with everyone in the lobby for the outburst, but the denouement was nothing more than a futile snicker and a sharp gesture in which he snatched his keys from the counter and turned himself around toward the door in a single motion.
My teller finished making the deposit and smiled at me in a way that was more genuine than teller’s smiles usually are. There was a clear message of camaraderie and the relief that our privileged world had once again been defended from a familiar invader.
I followed the man and the little girl to the parking lot. He was still gripping her hand as if he were a child himself clutching a stuffed animal. From the angle, I could see the girl’s eyes as she looked up at him, inquisitive, careful and worried. “Did you just lose your cool?” she asked in her little girl’s voice. “Not quite,” he said in a voice even smaller.
If someone else would have witnessed this scene with me, what would I say later on? “That poor man,” I’d say, “This economy,” or something apropos of the time, or whatever.
Am I supposed to feel guilty for the things I thought back at the teller’s window, a hostile reaction that I happened to articulate using words? I didn’t ask to have unpleasant emotions stimulated, dragged from the garbage can inside me I haven’t had a chance to empty. The catalyst for my discomfort was external. I was fine before any of that happened. Then my precious, fragile mood was shot. If this guy reminded me of the possibilities—the way my life used to be, or could be in some alternate, but entirely possible reality—then shit. It wasn’t him I hated. It was myself. In America, you don’t have to be rich to live in the leisure class. I’m one of the group of fortunate souls who ranks noisy bank lobbies as one of my pressing issues.
I’m terrified of anything worse.
Maybe it was her innocent ignorance of the reality of the situation. Perhaps it was an innate gift or possibly a learned sensitivity from already having experienced a life no child should ever have to, but as soon as he uttered those words, I watched her reach out a skinny arm, and rub his back. She comforted him all the way to their car.
“Dear God,” I thought, “Please, don’t let me hear him cry.”