A few days ago I visited the bank. You were probably there as well. In fact, it seemed as though half the world was at the bank at the same time, although it couldn’t have been half the world. To be bluntly literal about the visit, a dozen people were standing in line when I arrived, and a dozen people were in line waiting when I left. So I only saw two dozen customers standing in line at the bank. When, when you are waiting to be served, a dozen people seems like a lot of people.
These customers were a diverse group of people. Some were male and others were female; beyond that, I did not inquire about gender identities. I figured it was none of my business. One boy was seven years old; I know this because another man asked him his age, and I heard his answer. The man in front of me was probably around eighty years old. He was tall, slender, white haired, with good posture, and he wore a cap that said “Disfunctional Veteran,” which I thought was cute. One man in line resembled
Willie Nelson. He had the long hair worn in a pony tail, the beard, the casual clothing, and even the raspy voice which probably came from years of tobacco and bourbon. Some of us were white, others were black, and others were Hispanic. I don’t remember now if anyone in line was of east Asian heritage, but I know that I have seen such people at the bank on other occasions.
Banks increasingly want people to use their online services. These services were advertised prominently in the bank lobby. Probably for this reason, the bank had only two tellers serving customers, although other bank employees were also in the building. I do most of my banking online. My employers deposit my pay directly into my checking account, and using my computer I send money automatically to pay most of my bills. I have become accustomed to using a credit card instead of cash for groceries, gasoline, restaurant meals, and other purchases. But one of my employers writes me a check every week, and I like to have some cash in my wallet for certain purchases. I visit the bank once most weeks, although occasionally I will skip a week and bring two checks to the bank the following week.
Sometimes a banker will speak with people standing in line to ask what they want to do. If they are depositing a check and do not want money back, he can deal with them electronically. It takes him longer to do this with his little machine than it takes the tellers, but if several people are in line, using his services still saves time. While I was there, he was able to help one customer in this way. He then found another woman who only wanted to deposit a check, and began helping her. I figured he would get to me next. I could use his services to deposit my check and then be on my way. Things did not turn out that way.
Often people who visit the bank in person have complicated financial matters to resolve. They may have lost their credit or debit card, or they might have a check to cash but they are not customers of the bank. They might want to challenge a charge that has appeared on their account. Some have money to deposit from a business, and others have money to disperse through a business. Some customers are merely befuddled by the banking business. They may be elderly, or they may be native to a different culture. We all stood in line, waiting our turn. Many stood quietly, saying nothing. Others tried to engage in conversation with those standing near them. Some complained about the length of their wait. Willie Nelson in particular complained about the time he was standing in line, repeatedly assuring us that he was going to change banks in the very near future.
Another man who had been complaining about how long he was waiting reached the front of the line and began speaking with the teller. He soon realized that he had left some needed papers in his car. He first sent his seven-year-old son out to the car to find the missing papers. When the son returned without those papers, another customer jumped out of line to help. He was able to retrieve the missing papers. Willie Nelson got to the front of the line, and it turned out that his check could not be cashed because it was dated for the following day. After several complaints (including the fact that he was going to change banks), he left. The man who jumped out of line to help another customer reached the front of the line and complained to the teller that this was taking so long. His transaction also entailed complications, which ended up requiring the help of another banker. He told her also that he had been in line for an hour. “We appreciate you spending your time with us,” she replied with a smile. Several of us behind him in line exchanged grins at her retort.
Willie Nelson returned after making a telephone call from outside the bank. Somehow, he had gotten approval for his transaction over the phone. He went straight to the teller—interrupting the helpful customer who had been waiting for an hour—and was quickly given the help he had requested. Meanwhile, the woman who had only wanted to deposit a check was returned to the front of the line. The banker with the little machine had been unable to process her transaction. When she was put in front of us (right after Willie Nelson had returned and gotten immediate help), the disfunctional veteran standing in front of me gave up and left the bank.
All this happened on the Thursday after Memorial Day. I never go to the bank on Mondays; Mondays are their busiest day. When they are closed on Monday (as they were for Memorial Day), I do not visit on Tuesday. Wednesday I had planned to stop at the bank, but a traffic tie-up in front of the bank, complete with a police car with flashing lights, had kept me from entering. So I was there on a Thursday, with half the rest of the world also standing in line with me.
Like many of the other customers—including Willie Nelson—I asked myself why I was there. Why couldn’t the deposit of that check have waited until the next week? My answer to myself was that I was there to observe people. I was watching them, listening to them, learning about people from them. I knew that I would write about this visit to the bank. I might not earn twenty dollars for writing a thousand word essay about my visit to the bank, but my practice in observing and remembering and writing remains part of my identity as a writer. Other people lost their temper. I remained calm, assuring myself that the hour was well-spent, confident that these sixty minutes would somehow contribute to my full and complete and meaningful life.
And now you have benefited from my hour at the bank. J.