On a Local Bank Robbery (from the Basement)

What is the crime of robbing a bank compared with the crime of founding one?"

- Bertolt Brecht, German playwright, poet, and, on this topic, dumbass.

I recently had the opportunity to interview a gentleman who, earlier this week, was involved in a bank robbery (on the victim end, of course). I'm not entirely sure why I thought this event would be apt for illustration, other than the obvious "holy shit" factor. Even though accounts of bank robberies are nothing new, these things always seem more relevant when it happens to people you know. Still, I wanted to accomplish a few specific things with my request for an interview, beyond my usual shameless rubbernecking. 1) I wanted to offer him some sort of processing outlet, in case he was in need of catalysis. 2) I know the gentleman well and knew he would be capable of garnering energy out of this event and redirecting it towards a greater understanding of the human condition.

I asked five questions, and received an expository account that stands up well without my grubby queries interrupting the flow. Below is, in its entirety, a man's email regarding a bank robbery from his point of view:


We're a contractor who works closely with the bank, and part of our contract is getting space in one of the branches. This might sound weird, but I assure anyone who's reading that there are lots of businesses out there working in various offices and looking and sounding very much like employees of companies who do not - directly, anyway - sign their checks. So we're vaguely aware of things that go on in the actual main lobby of the bank above us. Being lucky enough to have a window near me, I am also more acutely aware than most of the musical taste and smoking habits of the drive-through customers.

When customers bring in cake or lunch for the bank staff, they're kind enough to share it with us, and when my grandmother made me a birthday cake, I brought the uneaten portion in to share with them. We become friendly with the staff, and we go to work in the same building every day, but most of the time I'd say someone who saw us working would be stunned at how separate we are from the vast majority of bank staff as far as psychological distance. The bottom line is we're not bank employees, and our job is different enough that there's really no reason for them to come down to the lower level where we work, except to use the bathroom. So we're always there, never really involved.

When something big falls upstairs, we hear it. When someone comes in with heavy boots, we hear it. If a bank employee is in the break room having an animated discussion, we hear it. And when two large men with guns burst into the building and start yelling at everyone to shut the fuck up, we hear that, too.

There's only two of us working most of the time, and my coworker that day was someone who had previously worked for the bank. We looked at each other when the noise happened, and said "what was that?" though I suspect we both had a pretty good idea. Certainly, the dead silence that followed the yelling was an obvious clue. We actually tried to keep working for a minute or two. I think we made another call each, maybe trying to distract ourselves and maybe trying to pretend it wasn't happening. We didn't go upstairs, though I did go over to them a couple times. At one point I heard the guys asking for a bag to put the money in. I thought about going up briefly, but decided that either we were right and it was a robbery or we were wrong and it was a crazy person, and in either case there was nothing positive a sudden curious person coming up the stairs would add to the situation. All I successfully heard clearly was one of the employees saying something about a bag. When it was painfully clear that it was over, I said, "I think something interesting just happened upstairs." My coworker agreed, probably thinking that was an idiotic thing to say.

There are entire procedures that take over afterward. They lock the place up, police come in, they tell you not to touch anything. We came up the stairs to find a manager putting up "sorry we're closed due to an emergency" signs on the windows; she told us, matter-of-factly, "well, we just got robbed." One teller was on the phone, two others were hugging each other. No one seemed to even notice us. One of the police looked at us and asked gruffly who we were. My coworker said "We work downstairs. We'll get out of your way," but the cop had stopped listening. We went back downstairs and I told my colleague to go home as soon as they let us. It occurred to me at that point that my boss was planning to come in to meet us, so I quickly called him and advised him that might not be the best idea. He said to call him back in an hour and let him know what was going on.

What followed for us was half an hour of nervous down time. We weren't going to do work; my coworker was visibly shaken up and decided to eat some pretzels; since we were on our second pot of coffee and the coworker hadn't eaten, it was actually a really smart thing to do. We spent most of the time talking about bank robberies.

I don't know how to be comforting to people I don't know well. I'm good with tasks, organization, leadership and direction, but not comfort to strangers. I've met people who can reach up and hug anyone who's having a bad day and tell them it'll be all right, and I envy that, because I always feel if I tried to hug a coworker in a time of distress, they'd look shocked and possibly take a swing at me. So I asked my colleague about banks and robberies.

I really thought banks never got robbed anymore, because it seemed to me a pretty high-risk crime and, I had always assumed, not necessarily that lucrative (John Dillinger's reasoning notwithstanding). I was wrong about that; apparently a teller might have a few thousand dollars in the second drawer alone, and this bank had been robbed a few years ago.

Some other things I learned: Banks do intense teller training for stuff like this. You're supposed to do whatever the guy with the gun tells you (no kidding), and there's a decent amount of time devoted to what to do in a robbery, but some people freeze up totally anyway. Obviously, it's a teller's worst nightmare. The fact that community banking is so heavily female as an industry, and bank robbery is so heavily male as a profession only makes it seem more scary, at least to me, though I guess that's a little sexist.

My colleague told me about other robberies and the training. I told stories about some friends I had who worked a convenience store that was constantly being robbed, and about the time a guy robbed a bank and then ran away and hid in my middle school while we were all in class. I don't think it helped my coworker feel better. We talked about how stupid criminals are, which provided a few smiles. As the recovery process would unfold, jokes about how dumb criminals were came to be the single most effective way I had of relieving tension.

After a while, they let my colleague leave. I called my boss and suggested I meet him at his office, rather than vice versa. He agreed, so I printed out what I needed to and shut my computer down. I walked back up the stairs to a lobby now teeming with police, regional managers, and various other people. I wanted to say something (more honestly, I was ready for someone to say something comforting to me), but it was clear there was just nothing to do but get in the way. So I left, and went over to meet with my boss, which I did until well after six. As meetings with my boss go, it was fairly standard and productive.

I remember opening a piece of dark chocolate. I don't like sweets normally, but dark chocolate is a favorite, and I had it handy because the aforementioned colleague had given it to me as a birthday present.

I was listening to some podcast, which I turned off and put on Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. I have made many jokes aboutit since then, particularly about how stupid most criminals are, but I wouldn't describe any humor responses I had as 'laughing.' As any student of comedy knows, making an introspective person actually laugh is not an easy task.

The first laugh came the next evening when I was watching DVRed Daily Show episodes.

As I mentioned, criminals are mostly dumb. These guys didn't bring a bag for the money. The guy who robbed the branch a few years ago forgot his belt and thousands of dollars fell out of his pants on his way out. The reason I point this out is that the vast majority of bank robbers in popular culture now are smart, charismatic heisters like Mamet's Hackman, Depp's Dillinger, Clooney in Ocean's Whatever and Timothy Hutton in Leverage. They've got adorable character flaws, perfect smiles, and elaborate plans. I love Leverage, actually, and I think I still will, but I wonder if some of the shine will be gone.

Not because real bank robbers are assholes; I already knew that.

In every heist flick, there's a scene where innocent people get all scared and run away or lay on the ground while the good bank robbers fake rob a bank or really rob a bad guy's bank. No one ever gets hurt, so we all think no harm, no foul. But that's really damn wrong. Just knowing that I'm in a building where the sheer amount of cash might inspire people to wave a gun around has totally changed the way I go to and from work every day, and the people who had the gun waved in their faces have it worse. A regional manager called it a violation. People quit their jobs because of these things. There's a lot of harm, and now, those scenes where everyone has to get on the ground but we know they won't get hurt will seem a lot worse. It's like that Brecht quote at the top; it's really only cute if the costs are low, and you can only agree until you experience the costs.

Here's the thing: A true feeling of powerlessness doesn't come from a moron with a gun, it comes from not having any choices to make.

I'm certainly no hero, but I always fancied myself relatively cool under pressure. We always assume there are decisions or actions to be made under various forms of duress, but a lot of the time there really aren't. Having a beer after it was over (and other conversations), the most common question I got was "So what did you do?" But there's no answer to that, because we couldn't do anything.

Going upstairs for either me or my coworker would have been unfathomably stupid and counterproductive. Someone asked if we could have called the cops or hit an alarm. Think about that for a minute. Assume for just a moment that we could have, and that the cops had gotten there in time to catch the robbers. Well, you then have morons with guns stuck in a building with innocent people on the inside and cops with guns on the outside. Does that sound better than the fact that a few grand of insured money got taken? One might say yes, because then bad guys would get caught and go to
jail which is what is supposed to happen to bad guys. That person is reasoning like a five-year-old. As someone who was in the building with the idiots with guns, I can assure you Bruce Willis was not coming to save us and lock them up.

All of which is moot, of course, because we couldn't have done anything. These weren't criminal masterminds; they were two schmucks who wanted money and knew they had to be quick. They didn't go to the vault, they just robbed the bank and the people in it and took off.

Something else lots of people said that surprised me: "Well, it's getting to be that time of year." This was confusing. Bank robbery has a high season? Apparently it does, and it's the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So there's a Season like baseball, tourists, or hurricanes, except instead of damaging circular winds you get drugged out dickheads exercising their Second Amendment rights my workplace. It's a little funny that it so closely coincides with hunting season.

Not ha-ha funny but, you know, funny.

The next day, I thought about bringing in flowers or something. The teller who got the worst of it was a fairly diminutive and very pretty girl who never spoke to me at all on good days, but after 18 hours I was possessed with a need to feel like I was doing something - anything.

The bank brought in a counselor to talk to the staff the day after. The space big enough for a meeting is outside our office, where the table was set up with Panera. I was alone in the office for the morning, which felt more lonely than usual. The manager of the branch, who is the one person with whom I have anything resembling conversation and a friendship, came in for a second and I was absolutely floored by the surge of hope and joy this spurred in me.

He asked me if it was okay to close to door to our office while the staff met with the counselor outside.

Later, he would tell me that the robbers got about $8,000, from the drawers and the vault. Apparently some employees did hit their alarm buttons, and there are vast protocols to keep police outside from startling robbers (who are anywhere from very nervous to strung out), so it turns out we could have called the cops. Of course, it wouldn't have mattered, because the alarm had already been hit. He told me that, when this happens, we should stay down in our level and not come upstairs; I like to believe he told me this to make me feel better, and not because he was told to say it by his boss.

I asked him about the flowers idea, he said I could do whatever made me feel better. The thing, of course, is that I don't know if it will help me if I'm doing something for other people just to make myself feel better. I want to do something to help, and I can't. I couldn't during the robbery, I couldn't after the robbery, and I can't now. I've never been one to want false comfort and I am insulted when people patronize me, but I really wish someone had told me that buying flowers would add a nice touch to a room, and I wouldn't have cared if it were true.

They say one of the differences between men and women is that men want to solve problems, and women most of the time just want to be listened to. Men are constantly confounded by the fact that we're being yelled at for offering what we perceive to be more than listening, and women are constantly wondering why we can't shut up and just let it be about them for a second without trying to fix it. In turn, we don't understand what's so bad about trying to fix it, and attempt to explain this with logic, which is an even more self-centered approach (i.e. "let me explain to you why you don't want what you want"), and then somehow we're camping on the couch. Well, I know I didn't get traumatized during the bank robbery. I didn't have a gun pointed at me by a potentially crazy person, and I didn't get yelled at, and I didn't even get my wallet taken. But, dammit, I wished someone would let me fix something. I wanted to feel like there's something I could do that would have been more useful than sitting downstairs listening to nice people I see everyday get threatened with firearms. I know it's weirdly selfish, at that point, to want to do something to help when I knew full well I couldn't, it was my version of being listened to. I wanted someone to tell me it's okay, to say I didn't do anything wrong, to offer
me a Panera bagel and time with a counselor, not because I'd take it but because it felt like I was so fucking useless that I wasn't even worth lying to.

Epilogue

In case hypothetical readers are wondering if the short time that's passed has given me any insight into how to cope with psychological trauma, I'm still not past beer, TV and video-games yet. And since that's not all that different from normal, I'm left with the conclusion that either I'm not really dealing with it, it's not real psychological trauma, or dealing with being helpless to stop a robbery at your workplace isn't that different from dealing with life normally. For a while I've viewed wrestling with life as the recognition of our lack of control over many situations, and maybe this is just another. Perhaps those criminals were a reminder that we are always stuck listening in some form of basement while good people get robbed and traumatized upstairs. Or maybe it's a message to be thankful that I have a life where violent thugs are a potential hazard every few years instead of a daily certainty. I think it's more likely, though, that, whatever their motivations and reasons, fuckheads with guns don't serve any purpose, and any meaning I might derive is no more genuine than the office's need for the flowers I brought in to the bank a couple days after it was robbed.

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