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Money Changing HandsGregg Shapiro

When you tell people that you work as a teller, at a bank in downtown Boston, they usually have one of two reactions. The ones your age ask you if it makes you nervous, handling all that money. Do you ever think about helping yourself to any of it? they ask. What happens if your drawer is short at the end of the day? What's the combination to the vault?

The older ones, the professionals, look at you funny, as if your nose were bleeding or your lower eyelid was twitching in code. You have a pierced ear, they say. You wear ten black rubber O-ring bracelets on your wrist, like Madonna, they say. You have a new-wave haircut, complete with close shaved sides and a skinny, braided tail, they say. Shouldn't you be waiting tables at Quincy Market or singing for change in the T station, they ask?


On your first day on the job at a bank in Kendall Square, a job you held on to for two excruciating months in 1984, one of the indistinguishable Cambridge women that you worked with pointed out ground zero to you. Draper Labs, she said, pointing through the double-paned, bulletproof glass of the drive-up teller's window. And over there, she motioned in the general vicinity of over there, M.I.T. They ever drop the bomb, she says, they'll drop it there first. They ever drop the bomb, she says, we're ash.

On the day that you interviewed for this other job at this other bank near Downtown Crossing, you left early from the job you hated at the bank in Kendall Square. I have a doctor's appointment, you said to the dyspeptic branch manager that morning. I have to have my head examined for ever taking this job, you said to no one in particular, as you boarded the bus that took you over the Longfellow Bridge into Boston for the interview.


The vice president of the bank in Boston, a middle-aged woman with the blackest hair you have ever seen on someone not Asian, interviews you with a curious mixture of genuine interest and outright indifference. There are framed photographs of two black teacup poodles with red ribbons clipped to their ears on her desk. You can't help but wonder if she dyes her hair black to match the dogs' fur.


Much to your delight, all three of the tellers on the all-male teller line of the Boston bank are gay. You are the fourth. Now you can all play bridge.

Over time, you learn that two of the bank's loan officers are also gay, as is the older man in bookkeeping. There is a closeted customer service rep, who is convinced that no one knows he is gay. Even the president of the bank, a former Jesuit priest, has been known to eat forbidden fruit.

After the bank's Christmas party, you go, with the other tellers, to a charming piano bar, around the corner from the swank hotel where the party is being held. You are all dressed up, having come right from the party, and you discover that this is where all the other tellers from all the other downtown banks have come after their Christmas parties have ended. When you tell a teller from a bank on Franklin Street where you work, he throws his head back and laughs, like an actress. Oh, he says, you work at the gay bank.


The decor of the bank is colonial. Early-American-blue walls, blue carpeting, wood trim painted white. Brass wall sconces and chandeliers illuminate the intimate lobby. It's a historical building, safe from unsightly, protective Plexiglas at the teller windows.


Money changes hands, from the teller to the robber. No time to set off the silent alarm. No time for a password. Time both stands perfectly still and jerks forward. You look at your hands as if they have come unattached from your body. They are the hands of a grave-digger, a concert pianist, a nail-biter. They are as unsteady as a newborn animal, as defined as the hands in an Escher drawing. You are sure they will be useless after this. You will never write another poem, slide another record album out of its sleeve, button another shirt, masturbate, again.


He is stuffing the money into the pockets of his black leather jacket. "Okay," he says, "that's enough." He smiles, showing a gold tooth. He smells as if he stopped at the fragrance counter in Filene's on the way to the bank and was accosted by dozens of cologne spraying clerks. He winks.


No witnesses. The other tellers are pre-occupied. Playing cards, filing their nails, doing crossword puzzles, reading romance novels. You suddenly realize that you have never been adequately prepared for a moment such as this one. You rely on your wits, which are vibrating like microwaves one minute, fraying like a shoelace the next.

When it's over, you wonder if you will be able to describe this man, this event, and do it justice. You focus on how alone you felt, even though you weren't. The sound of your breathing in your ears, making it hard for you to understand the bank robber's instructions, as if he were giving you directions through two enormous sea-shells connected by a strand of pearls. What about eye contact? With the head-teller? The mask-less robber? His accomplices, standing guard in the bank's lobby while eating soft, mustard coated pretzels?

You worry that he won't be satisfied with all the money from your drawer. What if he asks you to empty your own pockets onto the counter? You imagine that everything of value in your pockets will be reduced to small change, a cat's eye marble, penny candy wrappers, a yo-yo, a ticket stub, a comb, the orthodontic retainer you were certain you had lost in a movie theater years before. Your sleeves have crept up over your wrists, exposing your favorite wristwatch, the one your parents gave you for your twenty-fifth birthday, and you wonder if you are willing to die for it, for anything at all.


When it's over, you stand over your reflection in a toilet. Somehow you imagined yourself vomiting pennies.


At home, the night of the hold-up, your eyelids are heavy as half-dollars. Your lover comes home from the office with flowers that he bought from a street vendor. He is not sure if this is the appropriate gift for someone who has faced his own mortality. The smell of the flowers makes you alternately nauseous and ravenous.

You try napping, but the hold-up replays itself over and over again inside your eyelids as if they were giant drive-in movie screens. Your lover crawls into bed beside you, tries rocking you to sleep in his arms, then suggests that he suck you off, not sure if this is the suitable offer to make someone who has faced his own mortality.

There is a knock at the front door, and you are visibly startled, convinced that the bank robber and his cohorts have come to dispose of you. Or maybe it is one of the detectives, that you spoke to after the robbery, the one you thought was sexy in a law-enforcement-officer kind of way, coming by to make sure that you are all right, safe, being looked after. You don't verbalize either of these thoughts, certain that your lover will think you are either paranoid or cheating on him.

It is neither the bank robber nor the detective, but Dan, a neighbor. Your lover called him right after he hung up with you, right after you told him about what had happened at the bank. Dan reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a long, fat joint, rolled in rolling paper that is printed to look like currency.

Dan and your lover are always getting stoned together. You haven't gotten high for awhile, maybe a year, and while it seems appealing at the moment, you decline. Well, there's more where this came from, Dan says, friendly as a neighborhood drug dealer.

Within minutes the joint is a roach. Then they are hungry. You're not sure if it's a contact high or the hour, six o'clock, but you are hungry too, and grateful that your appetite has returned, the earlier nausea subsided.

The three of you walk from your street on Beacon Hill to a seafood restaurant on the waterfront. You are glad that it is summer, and that you can still get away with wearing sunglasses at this hour. You changed clothes three times before leaving the house, not wanting to wear anything that would call attention to yourself, not realizing that three gay men, giggling and cruising while walking through the North End in the early 1980s, was automatically a reason to stare.

After dinner, you and your lover go back to Dan's apartment, across the street from your own apartment, where you finally relent, and join them in the third joint of the evening (they smoked the second one on the walk from the restaurant back to Beacon Hill).

In much the same way that you have trouble recalling the specific events of the hold-up -- What were his exact words? the sexy-in-a-law-enforcement-officer-kind-of-way detective had asked you. You told him that you didn't remember, that the gun pointed at your chest had confused you -- it is a blur as to how you and your lover and Dan ended up in Dan's bed together. Was it the pot? Your weakened and defenseless state of being?

You and your lover have been together for a couple of years, and you have somehow managed to keep the sex interesting, varied. You are not sure if this three-way was planned or spontaneous. Was it your lover who wanted to get Dan into bed or vice versa? In your mind, you don't even figure into the equation.

When your lover reaches between Dan's legs, he subtly brushes his hand away. When he puts his hand on your stomach, Dan slaps his hand. It is then that it becomes clear to you that Dan has engineered this, that it is you he is interested in, and as your lover gets out of the bed to fire up another joint and observe the action from the doorway of the bedroom, you feel sad. You extend a hand to him, as if you were drowning in quick sand, and he had the power to rescue you or be pulled under with you, but he just turns away. You hear him in the kitchen, and imagine that he is standing, naked, in front of the open door of Dan's refrigerator, the stoned and scorned man's equivalent of a cold shower.


For weeks you dream about a man with a gold tooth, standing at your refrigerator, eating lettuce. You give up greens, start eating meat again. You feel better than you have in years.

For weeks, you think you see him everywhere. In a stretch limousine, on the subway, on the street. You are sure you saw him selling "sense" in the Common. You consider shaving your head, wearing a hat, spending a lot of time at a tanning salon. When a friend who hadn't heard about the hold-up gets angry because you ignored him when he called out to you in front of the old State House, you wonder if it's worth losing his friendship or telling the story for the millionth time.

Everyday you take a new route home. You feel better than you have in years.


Your co-workers make you a hero. One of them suggests a parade in your honor. You will sit in the back of a convertible, waving a white-gloved hand. Money falls from the sky like confetti.


It doesn't take long for you to realize that the only ones who understand you are other bank tellers who have also been victims of a hold-up. You think it would be a good idea to form a support group. The sense of violation that you feel is akin to losing a vital organ. You wonder if this is the bank teller's equivalent of rape.

After a few weeks, you jump less when the front door of the bank squeaks open and a customer enters. You still eye the vestibule suspiciously, like the old man looking out his window, waiting to yell at the neighborhood children playing on his overgrown front lawn. However, air doesn't catch in your lungs -- half-hiccup, half-heartbeat -- and you get back to the business of deposits and withdrawals. You keep the cash in your drawer low, make frequent visits to vault.


Six months later, another bank robber sidles up to your window. This time, you're ready.

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