A Safe Place

In my line of work you see a lot of things. Sloppy construction. Intricate detail. Marble counters and mahogany doors. I come in at the end of a building’s life. Usually it’s a long life, one often ended as the tide of gentrification approached block-by-block until the “highest and best use” for a piece of property is a fifteen or twenty-five story condo with a rooftop pool and a basement gym. Parking for the Benzes and BMWs and Range Rovers.

I liked department stores and restaurants. Places where people came and went, bought and ate. The gifts bought for a wife after a forgotten anniversary. Dinners at a restaurant neither could really afford but that would be the setting for a lifetime of memories with the appearance of a surprise ring to a stunned secretary.

Banks. Banks were my favorite. The detail. The Art Deco walls and columns. The counters with their grates, all assuring customers that their money was safe and in good hands. The railings behind which a bevy of managers and assistant managers and managers-in-training busied themselves. The changed names. Manufacturers Hanover to Chemical to Chase. Old signage of forgotten names stacked in a forgotten storage room.

The safe. Big, secret objects. The door. Thick door. Beyond thick. How could anyone imagine breaking in, countless heist-movies notwithstanding. Always an inside job. An innocent-looking assistant manager. A teller pining for a young buck who whispered soft things in the alley out back during lunch.

This was different. I’d been to this branch before. Suddenly I was five or six. With my Mom. She held my hand as she brought me to the railing. Looking over, she said to the woman nearby that she was “looking to have an account opened for this little man.” I probably wore my Sunday best. My Mom wore a nice dress. Black shoes and a coat with a belt and a small hat.

The woman. I can’t recall anything about her so I’m projecting. She wore a sedate gray suit with a white blouse and had two-inch heels. Her hair in a tight bun. Lipstick probably. And she smiled. She would have smiled as she opened the gate to lead me to a “bank officer who can help you both.”

My Mom’s hand tightened. I was shy. If I noticed the patterns that crossed the ceiling I don’t recall. I more likely kept my eyes down and was pulled in.

I don’t know how much money was into “my account.” Enough to open “my account.” I followed the officer and my Mom. He went to one of the tellers. She waved us over. The counter too high for me to see anything but the top of her head. She leaned forward, looking over the counter and down at me.

“Is this your first account?” She must have said that. To my five- or six-year-old eyes she was very sweet and very pretty. She wore lipstick. I’m sure of it. In retrospect, I wondered if she had a young buck who whispered soft things to her in the alley out back during lunch. No. Not her. She was too clever. No. She’d have worked her way up and probably right now was sitting in a corner office in a midtown building, still very pretty.

Then she leaned back to do what needed to be done. My mother’s hand tightened and she gave me a light kiss on my hair. I stared at the marble facing of the counter.

“Young man.” The pretty teller. I looked up at her and she down at me. “Welcome to Manufacturers Hanover”—that may have been the bank—“Here is your passbook.” My Mom nodded. I reached and took the book. “Thank you.” She smiled. My mother smiled. The officer, who was next to us, smiled. For them, the teller and the officer, it was just another day. For me and my Mom it wasn’t.

I walked with my Mom. My right hand in hers. My left clutching my passbook with its single entry. $5 or whatever. I remember as if it was yesterday, though, that special moment of being my Mom’s only child—I am one of five—and that she was proud of me and I was happy that she was proud of me. I released her hand so she could go through the revolving door first. When I rejoined her on the street, she took me for an ice cream.

July 3, 2019