Sunday, May 28, 2006
Patron Saint of The ATM
I made history on Saturday when I went from civilian to sainthood in under two minutes.
It all started when I walked into my local Chase branch to do my weekly banking chores and saw a brand new Nokia cell phone sitting on the lobby table.
I turned to ask the two people on the ATM's if either one of them owned the cell phones and got a pair of negative responses.
I'm looking at this phone, and it was a beaut, all flat and shiny and much nicer than mine, and I'm thinking do I leave it there in hopes the owner realizes it's missing and returns?
Do I call one of the numbers on the memory list and relay the news of the missing phone to a total stranger--from a total stranger?
"Maybe you should turn it in to the bank," suggested an elderly lady at one of the ATM's.
Well, there's that. I scooped up the phone and went into the bank, where a young man with a hairdo just like mine buzzed me into the back office. I handed over the phone and he seemed genuinely surprised at my efforts to reunite the cell phone with its owner.
"Thank you," he said. "You're a good person."
Oh, think nothing of it. As a good Catholic boy, I just wanted to do the right thing and avoid a one-way ticket to hell. I went back to the lobby and began chatting with the little old lady when a man came rushing in and began looking frantically all over the lobby.
"Are you looking for a cell phone?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"I just turned it in," I said, pointing to the back office.
He thanked me, squeezed my shoulder and went into the bank. A young Middle Eastern man who had been using one of the ATM's told me what a good man I was, saying that he had lost his cell phone once and it had all his important business numbers programmed into it.
Many of us don't realize how much important information we carry around on our hips or in our purses. Cell phones are great, unless you lose them. Or unless some barf bag starts screaming into one of them while you're trying to relax. Then they're a headache.
Now I had yet to finish my own banking business when I began telling the elderly lady about the time I had my umbrella stolen in this very same bank.
It was some time last year, a miserable rainy day. I was out of work and depressed and I came into the bank to transfer some money into my checking account.
I put my umbrella down for a minute, just a goddamn minute, and went inside the bank. When I came back, the umbrella was gone and the only thing left was a patch of rainwater, like a body outline in a murder mystery.
I complained to two people in the bank, one right after they other, and though they were sympathetic, they said there was nothing they could do and I walked home in the rain, grumbling and cursing all the way.
"It was such a cheap umbrella," I told the elderly lady. "I would have given it to the guy if he asked for it."
I was about to deposit my check when I saw an official looking piece of paper on the floor. For a second I thought it was mine, so I reached down, picked it up, and found I was holding someone's check for $584.
Oy vey, what's going on here? Is this a bank or a lost and found? The elderly lady and I exchanged astonished looks and then back into the bank I go. The same hairless man buzzes me in and I approach him with the check in my hand.
"You're not going to believe this," I said, handing him the check.
"Oh, my God," he said. "You're a saint!"
Well, that's pushing it a little, but I did walk out of there feeling pretty good. I heard the young man telling his co-workers of my good deeds, and I figured I'd better get out of there before I found Jimmy Hoffa's remains in the wastepaper basket.
I've been telling all my friends and family about this. Mary, my father's homecare aide, said people are rushing around too much and I think she's right. So many times I find myself race-walking some place, huffing and puffing, even on my day off. With that kind of urgency, you're bound to forget something.
My aunt congratulated me and railed against the state of the world. She said I should have gotten a reward, but I really don't want that. You shouldn't do things in hopes of getting a payoff. We've got enough of that going on already.
No, I think a nice portrait of me hanging over the bank's door will do just nicely.
ATM's have been notorious homeless hangouts for many years. I remember being a cop reporter in Stroudsburg, Pa. and every now and then on a cold winter night, one of the night duty guys would be dispatched to a local bank to roust a homeless man out of the ATM.
These particular ATM's were the suburban kind, plexiglass booths located in the middle of parking lots, all lit up in the dead of night, so that anyone inside them must have looked like a captured insect in an alien naturalist's collection.
In New York, and, I would imagine other big cities, homeless people plant themselves inside the ATM lobbies and act as doormen (door people?) for the patrons. They rarely ask for money, but they usually have a coffee cup in their hands as you head out. You can guess the rest.
During the winter, a couple of the local homeless/drunkard types, converge in a bank lobby on 69th Street and when you walk by at night you can see them waving their arms in the air as they argue and debate the issues of the day.
At my bank's branch on 9th Street in Park Slope, this old black man used to sing gospel songs while you did your banking. I always slipped him a buck, as he literally sang for his supper.
I do a lot of complaining about my life, my luck, or the lack thereof. I go through a lot of "why me's" in the course a day and I get on my own case when I believe I should be better off. But I thank God I've never had to seek shelter in an ATM and I pray with all my heart it'll never come to that.
There you are, so close to so much money and not one cent of it is yours. You have to beg for loose change or the occassional single and hope nobody kicks you out into the cold.
I'm Off Duty
I went out that evening to catch a movie in Manhattan, and I fell into a heavy sleep while riding the subway home. I woke up just as the train opened its doors for my station. I staggered to my feet like a drunk and walked to the station stairs, only half-awake.
I saw a young woman pulling a large suitcase toward the stairs. I wasn't in the mood, but I asked her if she wanted me to carry it up the stairs, and, damn it, she pulled a fast one on me and said yes. I hate when that happens.
It's like when I offer women my seat on a crowded subway. Hell, they're not supposed to take the damn thing from me; they're just supposed to smile, say thanks, and remain standing so I feel good about myself without having to actually move my ass.
Anyway, I lug this thing up the steps and it weighs a freaking ton. I don't know what this woman was carrying, but it felt like it artillery shells. I got to the first level of the station, all too aware that there was yet another flight to go before we reached the outside world.
The woman, and an older lady I hadn't noticed before--the mother, perhaps-- both thanked me and as they took the suitcase. I guess I should have taken it up the next level, but even a saint gets tired.
And today while walking around Park Slope I realized I had lost something very dear to me. It was one of my mother's funeral mass cards, which I always carry with me.
One side bears the image of St. Martin de Porres, my grandmother's patron saint, and the other has a poem about motherhood.
"You only have one mother," it begins, "Patient, kind and true. No other friend in the world will be the same to you..."
I get a lot of strength from this card and I often hold in my hand when I'm troubled, or kiss it when I want to thank God for helping me out of a tight spot. The words are so simple, perhaps even mawkish, but they sum up my mother's devotion to her family.
When I found it was missing I became very upset. It doesn't speak well of my to lose something so important, and even though the funeral home must have printed up 100 of these laminated cards, I didn't like the idea of losing something with my mother's name on it. What kind of saint would be so careless?
I went back to one of the bars where I had been drinking, which was probably part of the problem, but there was no sign of it. As I walked back to the train station, watching the sun go down behind the 9th Street subway bridge, I got philosophical about the missing mass card.
Maybe it's good in a way that I lost the card. Maybe someone who really needs it will find it and take comfort from those words, find peace in the image of St. Martin.
Perhaps some homeless person seeking shelter in an ATM will hold it tightly in his hand when things look bad for him, the way I do when I'm upset, and find strength inside himself he never thought he had.
I felt like I was spreading my mother's goodness around the world, the way a gardner plants seeds. Maybe something beautiful will grow in someone's heart when they read that mass card.
I sincerely hope so.