Musical Chairs

I used a bank drive-thru for the first time in twenty-five years today.  My three year old son watched from the back seat as I handed over the checks:  first the $11.95 refund from the ritzy gym where I had long since not been a member, the same gym that had been sending me statements every three months for the past several years reminding me of my credit balance, the same statements that, once I compared their collective postage to the actual balance, compelled me back into the gym’s marbled halls to settle my account;  next the $965 windfall from completing a mortgage refi that nearly fell through due to the loan processor’s many delays.  I felt oddly giddy depositing such a large check (“Almost a thousand!  And a ridiculously low fixed rate!”), not for the amount but for the fact that it was my own escrowed money coming back to me.  Strangely, or perhaps not, I’m convinced I wouldn’t feel the same pleasure writing then depositing a check to myself.

I hadn’t previously used a bank drive-thru in my adult life.  It always seemed a bit passé, the type of thing you’d expect of retirees in Cadillac Devilles.  Why bother with the sliding drawer, the calcified creak of the metal snake as the teller adjusts the microphone, all the potential pauses and misunderstandings of human interaction, when you could instead slide a card, press a few buttons, and move on?  I only deviated from my plan to park in front of the ATM at the last second, mid-arc in the minivan, once I considered the logistics of keeping a three-year-old safe mere feet away from a busy parking lot while juggling a wallet, two checks, a secret four-digit pin, and deposit envelopes.  Perhaps better to let the steering wheel unwind an inch and drift into the drive-thru.  Boy stays buckled, dad turns small sheets of paper into tiny magnetic fields in some distant computer.

Before today, I never understood why my mom always took my brother and me through the bank drive-thru.  There were always lines.  Maryland was hot.  But today I understood.  Perhaps somewhere she, too, changed paths mid-arc in order to juggle her many responsibilities.

That was twenty five years ago.  I was my son’s age.  My mom was mine.  An actor was President.  The Soviets were bound to end the world any day.  It was unthinkable that Knight Rider himself would one day dance on the Berlin Wall.

Twenty five years.  Everyone shifted one seat over in life’s musical chairs.  When the music stopped, life didn’t have a seat for my grandfather – my dad took his.  My son joined in at my previous seat, my seat in Childhood, my seat in the back of a sweltering Nissan Sentra wondering why we seemed to visit the bank every other week, wondering why we always waited in that drive-thru instead of just going in.

There’s a photo of my mom taken when I was a toddler.  She is young.  She is beautiful, confident.  Beaming with the optimism of being thirty.  Would she smile that same smile at double her age? Could anyone?

Did she dream the same things for me that I dream for my son?  Did she also sit contentedly for an hour watching me play in the sun? How would she feel looking at that photograph today?  Have the years failed the brightness of her youth?  Did life reward her as deeply as she had expected?

* * * * *

“What does that sign say?” my son asks, pointing to the printout taped to the green glass of the teller’s booth.  I notice a coffee machine right next to her monitor and wonder whether it’s just for her, alone at her perch, or whether other tellers come back during breaks to pour from the same pot.  This matters more to me at the time than it should.

“It lists the things you can do at the drive-thru.”  I quickly scan the sheet and summarize.  “Withdraw less than $1000.  Deposit cash and checks.  Verify balances.  Anything else and you’ll have to go in.”

“Next time, maybe you can take me to the ATM machine.”  He adds the superfluous “machine” like most adults do.  Like I do.

“Sure.  Let’s try that next time.”

I take my receipt and turn towards home.

3 Responses to “Musical Chairs”

  1. Jason Tan says:

    Phil, this is the best piece of writing I have read online in a LONG time.

    Thank you.

  2. Neil Brench says:

    Great writing Philip. Time marches on.

  3. Mike says:

    I found this site through reading an ariticle by you on Microsoft. I am from China and also have a son. Just want to let you know i enjoyed reading your post. Looking forward to your next one.


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