14 December 2007

On the Day of the Bank Robbery

It begins as any morning. You walk into the building grateful for the warmth against your frozen skin, get a cup of coffee and make desultory conversation with your sleepy co-workers. It’s Friday. Everyone’s slow to get going.

The bank opens and people stroll in, employees greeting you, customers focused on their own business. You stare out the windows, sleepy and daydreaming. A customer asks you for the daily rate sheets. You print one out, make small talk about the poor economy, smile. She leaves. You turn back to your desk, thinking about nothing much at all.

A moment later the security guard runs past you, swearing. He reaches for his gun, yelling back over his shoulder “Call the police!”

There is a long moment where nobody knows what has happened, and everything is silent. This moment is all you’ve heard it will be: the air seems thicker, somehow, charged, and the seconds pass like days.

Then the teller is crying, holding her hands up near her heart, palms out. “He robbed me,” she says. Her voice is barely more than a whisper, but everyone in the bank hears her.

Your body understands what’s happening before your mind does. The words mean nothing, but inside you, there is a great hollow rush of fear and shock. In one interminable second, you get flashes of other moments like this, all the times in your life you’ve felt violated and helpless and desperately vulnerable.

It is a terrible moment.

Someone springs into action, and time snaps back to normal. “Lock the doors! Write down everything you saw! Don’t talk to anyone!” Someone else makes a sign that says the bank is closed due to a power outage and hangs it on the door. Through the tall glass walls, you see a police officer run past the bank with a shining silver gun in his outstretched hands.

Someone else appears and ushers the teller away from her window, disappearing her into a back room. The doors are locked, the phones are turned off. The witnesses draw together in a hushed circle. The vice-president appears, breathless. “Don’t talk! Wait for the police!”

The tall windows collect flashing blue light as two squad cars fly past.

Another teller appears at the front door and someone lets her in. “What’s going on?” she asks. Everyone stares at her with wide eyes, unwilling to say the words. Finally someone mouths them to her. “Robbed,” say the lips.

People are posted at the doors and soon the building fills up with police. Some of them wear blue uniforms and heavy jackets. Some of them wear quilted plaid shirts and running shoes. All of them wear bullet-proof vests. You are grateful for their presence. They make you feel safe. You want more, you want a thousand officers in the room to protect you. You want the early morning’s distracted serenity back. You want to feel safe.

The security guard re-appears, panting. “He got away,” he huffs. “Goddamn him.” The police examine the security tapes, looking for a face. “Brown coat,” they tell each other. “Skull cap.” A man knocks on the front door. He has a friendly face. “I was in my car,” he says. “I saw him run past my car.” The police step out of the building and interview him.

The witnesses are separated, isolated, pulled to different rooms in the building. You are sent downstairs with the people who weren’t there, who were in the basement at the time, who hadn’t yet gotten to work. You gather around the table, whispering. Your co-workers listen to everything you can tell them. “I didn’t see anything,” you say.

An excitable old woman who works in the basement totters into the room. She wants to tell her story. “I didn’t even know!” she says. “What if someone had been hurt? What if someone had been shot?” She points at you. “You’re so pretty, he could have taken you hostage! You’re so lucky!” “Thanks,” you say. “That’s very comforting.” Everyone laughs uneasily.

You’re sent back upstairs while everyone else stays below. Alone at your desk, you watch a young police officer dust for prints on the revolving door. Another one roams the place with a giant camera, taking pictures of the scene, while a third talks on his cell phone behind you. Their numbers diminish slowly, but eventually you find yourself alone in the lobby of the bank with just one officer left guarding the door. The building is made of windows. You don’t feel safe.

Nobody can leave the bank, so they order pizza. Someone brings you a slice. You don’t know what happened to the teller. You ask if she was sent home for the day. “She’s gone,” someone says. They won’t say where.

The phone rings. You’re not allowed to say anything to anyone, so you let it ring.

People come to the front door and read the sign that says the bank is closed. They don’t understand. They bang on the glass until the police officer goes to the door and explains to them that the sign says the bank is closed because the bank is closed. They mutter and walk away. One woman asks, “Well, can I just come in for a minute?”

It is unclear how much money has been taken.

Finally, the last of the police presence leaves. The press begins to call, looking for an official statement. Your co-workers go back to their desks, and some of them try to work. The accounting department begins to count money. Nothing can come in or out of the bank until its holdings are accounted for, and so the bank stays closed, but they won’t let anyone leave.

The day drags on.

By mid-afternoon, everyone looks haggard. The excitement of the morning gives way to the aftermath of adrenaline and the weariness of confinement. The customers come to the door, read the sign, and bang on the door until someone goes to explain that the sign that says the bank is closed isn’t a joke or a lie. People call and ask if the bank was robbed, and you fumble for what to say. “No comment?” you offer. They know what you mean. It probably doesn’t matter, you think. The Sun-Times already knows.

The day drags on.

You wonder how the teller is doing. You see her hands again, held between her heart and the rest of the world. You wish you could tell her you saw her face in that moment, that you recognized the look of betrayal she wore. You want to tell her you were with her then, that she wasn’t alone.

You hope she’s okay, wherever she is.

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