When I began working in a bank, well before the pandemic, my son facetiously asked me if people still went inside banks to do transactions? Still a twentysomething, my son does all his banking, not to mention most of his shopping and playing, via the Internet.
The answer to his question is yes, people do still go inside the bank, though I will concede the demographic for such transactions tend to be older folks.
Then the pandemic struck, and the bank where I work closed its lobby. All business was conducted through the drive-up stations.
This was a wise policy, but within a few weeks we bankers began to notice something. People missed coming into the bank. In many cases transactions could be done more efficiently and without being exposed to bad weather, but people still wanted to come inside.
What I did not realize before we were forced to isolate was how important a weekly visit to the bank was for some people. It might seem trivial, but this ritual of social interaction was part of what tethers some people to humanity.
While I would not call them friends, it is remarkable to calculate the number of people with which I have become friendly in this job. Though for only a few minutes a week, we talk to each other. We laugh and joke, share stories, and empathize. We have learned tidbits of each other’s lives like family or hobbies or travel plans.
I have helped people in times of celebration and tragedy, and in a small way our clients have come to count on me and my co-workers. You simply cannot get the same level of connection communicating through a glass window and crackling speaker at the bank’s drive-up lane.
So with each passing week the requests sound a little more desperate. “When will you be opening your lobby?”
I was fortunate when the shutdown hit. One of my primary social outlets, the game of golf, was still permitted. While still socially distancing, I was able to chat with other golfers once or twice each week.
Golf chat is usually superficial: talk about work, sharing vacation plans, and the occasional gentle joke about a bad shot. It’s not deep, but it is still in-person social interaction.
I have come to realize many people have not had such a social outlet during the pandemic. The senior center was closed. Family could not visit. Card club was too risky.
Based on the frustrated bits and pieces I have heard through the drive-up speaker, more people than I would have imagined were completely alone for weeks at a time or longer.
Zoom meetings and phone calls, like the drive-up window, is a poor substitute for face-to-face conversing.
I used to be amused by people who came into the bank and stayed for 20 minutes chatting, getting a free cup of coffee, or just hanging about. I won’t do that anymore.
“When will we be able to come into the bank again?”
It’s not just the bank. It’s the person ahead of you who talks to the librarian while you’re waiting to check out. It’s the lighthearted banter with the clerk at the convenience store. It is the give and take with the waitress and bartender.
Before the pandemic I had not realized how important these moments were to many people. Paul McCartney once sang “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know where all the lonely people go.
They go to the bank.