Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | July 24, 2010

MY CAREER AS A BANK ROBBER – SAN FRANCISCO, CA – 1979

It was September 27, 1979. I had only been working for the San Francisco Main Office of The United California Bank since August 17. Just long enough to be through with training and barely have my own teller window. Jeannette, a senior teller, had trained me and was a few windows down.  A kind and open young mother, we had developed a warm, if slightly guarded, friendship during the training period and I liked her quite a bit. As long as we worked together I continued to look to her for guidance and common sense. I would wonder, as I moved past her up the food chain, if she wasn’t being passed over for promotions because she was a black woman. As I would discover the longer I worked at that branch, there was a strain of racism running through it which would eventually come to a head, after I had moved north, with the forced resignation of the branch manager. But that is another story.

The bank sat on the corner of California and Montgomery streets in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, somewhat in the metaphoric if not literal shadow of the monolithic black Bank of America tower which rose from the granite expanse of A.P. Giannini Plaza. In a peninsular city where expansion was impossible and real estate therefore limited and ridiculously expensive, that empty expanse of Giannini Plaza spoke more about the wealth behind Bank of America than the skyward arrogance of its tower.  Although The United California Bank had the entire building across the street, and the branch on the ground floor seemed huge to me, it remained a sort of poor relation to the BofA, or at least to the BofA’s corporate ego.

The large square UCB Main Branch office was arranged inside  into a U-shape with the Montgomery St. entrance and elevator lobby in the middle and the branch itself wrapped around them.  Along the south wall the New Accounts department was closest to Montgomery St., then the long regular teller line, 8 maybe 10 windows, extended up the California St. side. Against the west wall were the operations clerk, bank officer and loan officer desks and offices, behind the wall at their backs were the lunch room, micro-fiche rooms and storerooms.  Along the north wall were the international and business tellers.  I had been trained to be an entry level, regular teller.

That September morning, just before noon,  my friend Tim came in to meet me for lunch. He was then working in the mail room at Crocker Bank, so we were both in the financial district. He and I had first come out from Ohio to California together in 1973. The day before had been his birthday and his wife Nancy had gotten him a small instamatic camera. He got there early and was just hanging around in the expansive lobby playing with the camera while I closed up my window and punched out. Then I met him in the lobby and we went to lunch.

As I left the building after work I found Jeannette outside waiting for me. She silently guided me a short way down the busy street and around a corner into an alley where we might not be seen.

“Michael,” she said, “I’ve done a bad thing. You got to be real careful now.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.

She told me that she had seen my friend in the lobby with the camera. She didn’t know who he was and got suspicious. She thought he was casing the joint for a robbery, so she turned on the security cameras. By the time I met him and we left together the entire security and management staff were watching every move we made.

I tried to imagine Tim as a bank robber and began to laugh.

No, the idea of Tim as a bank robber was too absurd to be taken seriously.  Tim was about as mild mannered as they come; barely an aggressive bone in his body. The only things that really seemed to get him excited were rock-n-roll and record collecting. I couldn’t help giggling at the idea of it.

This upset Jeannette to no end. “This ain’t funny, Michael.  This is serious.” She kept saying, and then she said, “I’m sorry, Michael. I didn’t know he was your friend.”

She made me promise not to say anything to anyone so they wouldn’t know she’d told me. Said she’d get fired if they knew she’d told me; it was a major breach of security. I promised I wouldn’t mention it and told her not to worry. Everything would be OK.  I assured her that Tim was not planning to rob the bank.

She was getting more than a little annoyed with me now. “This is serious, Michael,” she said again to me. “It’s not funny.”

Putting on my most serious face I thanked her for telling me. Told her again not to worry and headed up the hill to Vesuvio to sit in the corner window seat of the balcony to drink, watch the street moving below and write.  This had become an evening ritual after work and before walking through the Broadway Tunnel to my temporary home on the couch at Jim’s place on Van Ness at Green.

It was in Vesuvio, in the balcony, with my shot o’ rye and pint o’ dark, that it finally hit me why she had been so concerned: She had been trying to tell me that they thought I was the inside man on the job – but she just couldn’t spit it out.

As the realization settled in I found myself shivering in the warm night. It really wasn’t Tim who had to worry – after all he might never walk into that bank again – but I could get fired. I thought it over and decided I would go into the manager’s office first thing in the morning and explain it all as the silly mistake that it was, we would laugh about it and that would be the end to it.

But with further consideration I realized Jeannette was right. If I said a word or in anyway let anyone know that I knew what had happened, she would probably get fired. They would certainly never trust her again. I was very impressed at the gamble she had taken by telling me, with how much she trusted me, and I could not do anything to violate that trust.

I wondered if it had it occurred to her that I really might have been the inside man for a robbery?  That Tim and I really were bank robbers and had been planning this since I’d started working there such a short time earlier? Maybe her telling me would have stopped it or maybe her telling me would have put her own life in danger.  But, most likely the idea of me as the inside man on the job had been as instantly absurd to her as the idea of Tim robbing a bank had been to me; I was no more the bank robber type than Tim was.

The next morning, as hard as it was, I went in there like normal. Jeannette and I never spoke about it again and certainly never mentioned it to anyone else at the bank; we exchanged some looks over the next few weeks, but that was it.  We both knew that they were watching me real hard now, waiting for my next move.  I could see the new interest the guards were taking in me and the way the branch manager and upper level supervisors would stand in the doorways of their offices watching and whispering to each other. But of course, that anticipated next move never came. And nobody said a word to me. And after a while everyone seemed to forget about it. I was promoted and promoted again, given signing authority and assigned to periodically help count the vault. Not exactly the way to treat a suspected bank robber.

Almost two years later Jeannette had left the bank and I, as an operations clerk III, was now a back-up supervisor for the teller line. One day I was sitting in on a teller meeting that Carmen, the assistant teller supervisor, was facilitating. She was running down the policies and procedures regarding when and how to use the silent alarm and activate the cameras.  It was then that she told a cautionary story about a teller who set off the alarm because she thought a guy was shooting pictures of the teller line in preparation for a robbery, but it turned out that he was just a friend of the newest teller waiting to meet him for lunch.

I thought I saw Carmen slip a quick smile in my direction, but I was never sure.

And that was the end of my career as a bank robber.  And Tim’s as well, I presume.

First draft 11/15/02
Santa Rosa, CA
Revised 09/11/2009 – 07/24/2010
Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. Dear Friend,
    It,s with an uneducated opinion,I give you my heart felt critique. As you mature so does your
    vocabulary. You have developed an individual
    style and rhythem in the way you use the english
    language.Your words are like magnets leading
    me with anticipation to the next event. It is a very good story and I,m so proud to be on your list.
    Thankyou.
    Love, Annie


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