A Pretty Big Deal
It seemed surreal to be sitting there as I had on any weekday after work surrounded by family in our living room in front of the TV. It was hard to pay attention to the show that they’d all decided to watch that night. I kept having flashbacks to the frightening event that took place at the bank today. It was just reported on the evening news and I saw some of my co-workers being interviewed. Luis Ortega turned out to be the hero of the day, and Gus Gonzalez was another teller who agreed to be interviewed.
And here I was, surrounded by family, sitting silently and unable to talk that much about it. It seemed that this was what I was supposed to do. Not talk about it. Minimize it. “Yeah, there’s Luis and Gus who I work with.” Don’t dwell on it. Don’t make others uncomfortable with my emotions. It’s best to be strong and to let it go. Move on! It’s no big deal! So, we didn’t talk about it that night and we all sat staring at the television screen. “This was a big deal for me!” I wanted to shout. “Today something shifted inside of my universe and I need to talk about it!”
The day started out like all the workdays before; riding the bus from home into the Port Authority in New York City and hurrying along with all the other commuters heading down the stairs to the subway train. I had a secretarial position with the New Accounts Manager, Paul Lang, who sat in the desk behind me along the wall at Broadway Savings Bank. I typed letters for him and typed up new accounts documents for customers. I was nineteen, just out of secretarial school and excited about working in the Big Apple.
An older woman, who was an assistant to the manager, sat in the desk in front of me. It was Louise who had helped me settle into my new position there and introduced me to the other employees.
The other desks that were lined along the wall belonged to other managers and their secretaries. On the other side of the room were the bank tellers, about seven in all, and directly across from me was Luis Ortega. Luis was a nice-looking guy, newly married and a new father.
Luis was the one who appeared on the evening news. He was the one who set off the alarm to the police while he was putting the money in the bag they gave him. It was an armed robbery by two men who came into the bank and stood in the middle of the floor shouting at us to stay still and do as they told us. One went to the tellers and got the money. The other stood watching all of us and swinging his shotgun in an intimidating way.
One customer got confused and seemed to be in a daze. She started to walk towards my desk as if she were going to ask me something . I looked away from her frightened face … afraid that if she kept coming it would draw attention to me. The one holding the gun swung around and screamed at her “Stop moving!!” and she froze. I sat there saying the “Hail Mary” to myself while thinking about whether I should try to duck underneath my desk.
“Holy Mary … Mother of God … pray for us sinners … now and at the hour of our death.”
Louise sat motionless, with her back to me, at her desk in front of me.
I could sense my manager, Paul’s, presence behind me and that comforted me. He had a strong, confident way about him and it helped knowing he was there. Two desks further down from him was another bank manager, Walter, a quiet man who I didn’t know that well. He had a slight build, curly dark hair and dark framed glasses. He always dressed neatly in a suit and tie. Amidst all the daily activity on the bank floor you could forget that he was there on most days.
It seemed like an eternity that we sat there while the two men gathered up the money and nervously paced around the center of the floor. Then, slowly, they began backing up towards the exit, signaling that they were leaving. One of them tossed an object that slid down the whole distance of the floor to the back of the room. The canister exploded into a cloud of smoke and people began to scream. The two of them swiftly moved toward the door as the room filled with smoke.
Behind me, I heard Paul’s booming voice shout out ….“Walt, don’t do it!” …. And then I saw Walter sprinting across the room, pursuing them out the door. Just as he reached the door, the gunman turned around and shot at him through the glass door. He was hit in the legs. I learned later that Walter had served as a marine and, unknown to all of us, kept a weapon in his desk.
We heard that the police had shot and killed one of the men a few blocks away. The other was still on the loose at the time that the news reported it that evening. When they did apprehend him, it was reported that he told them he desperately needed money for his family. Walter didn’t return to work, and we were told he would need a lot of rehabilitation before he would be able to walk again.
I went to the phone booth in the bank lobby afterwards so I could call my family and connect with them privately. When I heard my mother’s calming voice answer the phone, my voice began to tremble and shake as I spoke into the phone about what had just happened. “Are they letting you come home? She asked. “Maybe it’s best you come home.” I wondered to myself how she could possibly remain so calm, in control and detached while hearing about all this.
We were all dismissed early as the police began to arrive and the bank was closed for the day. I set out for the subway hurrying down the stairs in the middle of the crowds of people, all going about their day and all heading in different directions. I wanted to shout at them “Look at me! Today was a very big deal!!
**Note** This is a true event that took place in 1961. Back 57 years ago (the 50’s and early 60’s) feelings/emotions weren’t talked about that much. PTSD was first recognized in the early 80’s. Before that it was mainly attributed to war combat. Shell shock one of the symptoms. Most likely I was dealing with some shock after that experience. Now it’s recognized that there are degrees of PTSD due to trauma that stay with you and you learn how to cope.