On Friday, February 16, 2001, I was twenty years old and working as a teller at a Milford bank. I had been working there for almost two years, I knew all of my customers and I knew my job inside and out. But that day is one I'll never forget. That day, I was robbed.
A hulk of a man wearing dirty overalls and a flannel shirt came into the full lobby that morning and asked my coworker for a job application. When she handed over the crisp white paper, the man mumbled thank you and sat in the lobby to fill it out. He stayed for about fifteen minutes, then left the bank after promising to return with the application. We chuckled as soon as he left the branch, wondering why anyone in their right minds would pick up an application looking so dirty.
As promised, he returned later that morning. He came to my window and told me he'd messed up the first application and needed another one. We joked back and forth as I searched for and located a new application. I handed it over to him, and again, he promised to return with the completed application. I told him that, in that case, I'd see him later. He shuffled out of the lobby, the application clutched in his fat fist.
When he returned a third time, I was alone in the lobby. The boss of my short-staffed branch was fixing the fax machine in another room, one teller was out to lunch and the other was letting a woman into her safe deposit box. The man came back and walked directly to my station, job application in hand.
"Did you mess it up again?" I said, already reaching for another replacement.
"No...Uh...I have this..." he replied, unsure. He passed the application to me.
"Oh. Well..." I turned over the paper, and there, scribbled on the back of the blank application was his nervous handwriting: Put you cash in the bag.
Time stopped for a second. My first instinct was that it wasn't really happening. This is a trick, I thought. We had just gone through a robbery training the night before. They're testing me to see if I do the right thing. I looked up at the man, his eyes shifting nervously from one lobby door to another. His huge frame curved over my station, imposing.
This isn't a trick.
I read the note again, my hands shaking. But I didn't think Reach in the drawer, Laurie. I thought My God. I can't believe he wrote "you" instead of "your." I wanted to pass it back to him and say "When you can figure out the error in this note, I'll give you the money."
Of course, the fear caught in my throat would allow me to say no such thing.
"I'm just reaching for my keys, okay? My drawer is locked. I have to unlock it, okay?" I spoke slowly and softly, barely moving until I had his approval.
"Yeah. Whatever. Just don't try any funny shit." He pulled a Grand Union bag from the pocket of his dust-covered overalls and slapped it on the counter. His actions implied threat, but his voice fell short.
My hands shook as I reached for the keys I kept in my pocket. I steered clear of the alarm button under the counter. Don't be a hero, the trainer's voice from the night before reminded me. Don't hit the alarm if you think it's risky. Worry about that later. I unlocked the drawer, and pulled it open, the screech of metal-on-metal as it opened startled us both. His eyes met mine for a second, deep brown irises surrounded by yellowy whites.
"Hurry the fuck up," he said, pushing the bag at me again.
I opened my drawer halfway, as he leaned over the counter to see. I could smell him, unwashed and sour. He invaded my space, craning his neck to see what I had in my drawer. I reached for the large stack of ones, hoping to get away with giving him as little as possible.
"Cut that shit out. Don't worry about the ones. Start with the fives." My hand recoiled from the singles and skimmed to the fives, my quivering fingers grabbing the whole bunch and carrying it to the yellow plastic bag resting before me. I watched my hand moved, but it didn't seem like I was attached to it. It seemed to move independently, like I was watching someone else's hand. If at all possible, push the note out of the way so that the robber forgets about it and leaves it as evidence. The training video replayed in my head. When I brought my hand back to collect the tens, I pushed his note onto the floor. My movements were slow, deliberate.
I filled his bag with the tens, and part of my stack of twenties. I hid my left hand so that he wouldn't see my engagement ring and want to steal it, too. I was scared, but I could tell that he was, too.
His threats were small and mumbled, like he didn't want to be delivering them at all. He reeked of desperation, not violence.
Before I could finish giving him all of my money, he grew impatient. "That's enough," he spat. He lifted the bag, bloated with cash, from the counter and stuffed it into the same oversized pocket it came out of, and did a slow jog out of the building.
"Karen," I whispered. She was in the vault to my left, still chatting with the customer at the safe deposit boxes. "Karen," I was shouting and whispering at the same time.
She stopped her conversation and looked at me. "Yeah?" she said, still smiling at something the customer had said.
"I was robbed." My arms were extended, palms up, perhaps to show that the money wasn't in my hands.
"Someone took the money from the counter?" She said, her smile gone.
"Where the hell do you get that from what I just said? NO! I was robbed!"
"Oh. My. God." She ushered the customer out of the vault and went to get the manager, while I stood in the exact same position I'd been in when I told her. Shock had set in.
My boss, Laura, ran out of the back room, her hands covered in fax toner. "What happened? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," my palms were still out. "I was robbed."
The safe deposit box customer left and Laura locked the door behind her. She was in crisis mode. "Call the police," she said to me from across the room. I looked at the phone, but all I saw were a bunch of buttons. I didn't know which ones to press.
My hands fell to my sides as I stared at the keypad, the tears welling up in my eyes. I was frozen. Helpless. I looked at her, my face saying What do I do?
Without me having to say it aloud, she knew. "Pick up the phone, and dial nine, one, one." And so I did.
I told the operator what bank I was calling from that I'd just been robbed. I gave her a brief description of the thief and she promised to send someone right over. Not a minute later a local cop showed up at the glass doors, pale and worried. He knew all of us, and feared that someone was hurt.
My coworker, Caryn, who'd been out to lunch came up from the basement when she heard the sirens. "What's going on?" she asked, her words frantic and scared.
"We were robbed," Karen said, busying herself with her assigned post-robbery tasks. She suggested Caryn do the same.
Because they'd been at the training the night before, my coworkers' minds were fresh with the steps to take in the event of a robbery. They blocked off all the areas where he'd been standing. They left the note alone. They started to fill out the description sheets. We didn't speak; we weren't supposed to, for fear that we would discuss the robbery or the thief himself and not remember things as they actually were. But I sat motionless on my chair, watching everything happen around me, but feeling like I wasn't really there at all.
FBI agents, State Troopers and officers of the Bank flooded the building. They blocked off our entrances and exits, they shooed away the local reporters who came to cover the news. They started reviewing the tapes, separating us and asking questions. Fingerprint dust covered the lobby; from the giant columns in the middle of the large and airy room to the podiums in the center, to the entire length of our counters, the black powder stared at us, reminding us of the whole ordeal.
We were allowed to call our families, to tell them they might hear we'd been robbed. We couldn't give them any details, only that we were all okay. After I called my family, my mom rushed to the bank. The police posted at the door couldn't keep her from coming in and making sure her daughter was alright. She burst through the doors and wrapped me in her arms. "You're okay, right?" she asked, her voice filled with fear, her cheeks covered in tears. Her face was red, her breath short and choppy. She was terrified.
"I'm fine, Mom. I promise." And I was, but it felt good to be in the safety of her arms.
No one but me was really shaken up before she got there, but seeing her all worked up and scared for her child got everyone emotional.
After I was questioned by the state and local police, the FBI agents took me downstairs to get my description of the perpetrator. They asked me to describe what he looked like, how tall he was, his weight. But I didn't know how to say it. I've never been good at describing the whole picture of a person. I don't know what two hundred pounds looks like. I can't distinguish six-foot-three from six-foot-seven. So I focused on his eyes, on his hands, the blister on his thumb. His ears. His mustache. His kinky hair. His smell. His clothes. And while it could've made for an interesting description in a novel, it wasn't what they needed.
"Do you think you'd be able to recognize him in a lineup?" The bearded agent asked me.
"Absolutely," I responded. And then the fear set in. "Will I have to, you know, identify him?"
"Yes. And you may have to testify." He said it so matter-of-factly, his eyes on the paper he was filling out in front of him.
Testify? I began to panic. And worry.
I shouldn't have told anyone I'd been robbed, I thought. What if he comes after me for telling the police? What if he finds me? What if he wants to hurt me? He said "No funny shit," maybe that meant "Don't tell the police."
I was released from questioning, but paranoia had taken hold of me. I thought I saw him out of the bank window. I was allowed to leave, but I was scared of being alone. I thought he might be in my car, or waiting to follow me home. So my boss drove me home, before driving me to our favorite restaurant - the one that didn't care to card me - to allow me to drink away my woes.
I was given the next day off - but I didn't spend it doing anything fun. I spent it, and the rest of the weekend, worrying. Worrying about what he'd do when he found out I'd told on him. Worrying about whether or not he could find me if he wanted to. Worrying that his family would come after me if I testified against him.
I didn't want to go to work on Monday, but I had to. I had to get back in the swing of things, I had to try to associate work with work instead of robbery. But there was no changing me from that point out. My whole attitude changed that day.
That day, every person who came into the bank was a potential thief. I began to make mental notes of what people were wearing, the shape of their faces, how much taller they were than me, the color of their eyes, skin and hair. I made note of everyone walking into and out of the bank, sure that if I was ever again asked what a thief looked like, I'd be able to give a clear answer.
And to this day, I continue to take stock of everyone in the bank. I pay attention to people who come in, look around and leave. I remember their faces, their voices, their accents, their posture. Sometimes, I pay too much attention, and worry that I'm bordering on paranoia.
But, really, the robbery made me aware: It made me aware of my customers, and aware of my surroundings. It made me aware of what good women I worked with then. It made me aware of being a victim of a small crime will do to a mother. It made me keenly aware of everything: I know immediately upon setting foot in my house that someone's been here. If it's a door that's closed that was open before, I'll see it. If it's the morning's paper moved from where I left it, I'll notice. And I like being so acutely observant to my surroundings, even if it did take a robbery to do it.