This week I’ve asked my best friend, Charlotte, to guest write for me. (I’ve been trying really hard to get her to start her own blog so feel free to encourage her on this post!) I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did (which is a lot)!
When your friend asks you to write a blog post… Your mind goes blank. She’s witty and pointed and she cares deeply and she writes intelligently and somehow I’m supposed to produce content that will seamlessly blend with the careful aesthetic she’s been creating? Impossible. But of course, if she wanted seamless she wouldn’t have asked me in the first place.
I mean we have a lot in common, but we don’t share a brain. In fact right now, in a great tragedy of fate, we don’t even share the same state among these united!
I’m way more verbose. Cornelia is good at getting to the point and sticking to it. I’m more of a… go where the typing leads you kind of person. I like ellipses more too.
And while I also work in customer service, being a bank teller is pretty different from your average retail job. I mean, the “product” in retail banking is money. Well technically various ways of sorting, moving, exchanging, and protecting money. But still money. So it can be very weird. Because I spend all day handling what I’ll be paid in.
The little pieces of cotton/paper/plastic blend that we label currency are valuable. Yet they’re probably the most annoying part of my job. They have to be counted over and over again. They have to be sorted, faced, and kept track of at all times. Losing a single one is frustrating and anxiety-inducing. Because you didn’t just lose a piece of paper, you lost all the value that paper had and there’s no way to get it back.
It also feels like a never-ending cycle. People constantly want to exchange bills for bigger or smaller ones. It’s graduation season now so people request fifties and hundreds, crisp ones preferably. They get tucked into cards and delivered into waiting hands. Then those same waiting hands deliver them back to the bank mere days later, seeking electronic credit, or smaller, somehow more spendable, bills.
Breaking hundreds is a very common request. Plastic is more popular for moving larger sums. Places don’t always accept hundreds and when they do the cashier might give you that look that says “you just swallowed half the change in my drawer and now I have to pray the person behind you has exact change and I’m not happy”.
Yet there are also customers who ask if we have any bigger bills. Five hundreds or thousands, bills discontinued in 1969 because there wasn’t demand. Who knows, maybe with inflation they’ll pull a phoenix. But for now I just have to shake my head sadly and offer them the strange blue bills with the weird plastic strips that less cash-spendy customers marvel at. When did they start threading plastic into our bills? When criminals figured out microprinting…
I’ve gotten good at handling cash. I can guess with decent accuracy how much the stack of ones someone just handed me will be worth. I can strap bills quickly, I’m good at facing them, and as long as there aren’t any odd fifties I’m great at counting cash back too. Sadly there’s not a lot of wonder left in it for me.
Not unless we take in an impressive amount of ones, which sometimes happens, armfuls of currency to be strapped. Or when we’re handed oddities: bills from the time before we switched from greenbacks to green/purple/orange/bluebacks. Bills with smaller print and more floral embellishments. Benjamin Franklins who wear shag rugs around their shoulders and peer formally out of their miniature portrait ovals.
They’re not really thaaat rare. Not rare enough to be worth more than face value. But they’re different and sometimes they’re pretty old. The oldest I’ve had so far was a hundred from 1952. That’s a long time in circulation. I didn’t mute it, even though it was old and pretty frail. I didn’t have the heart.
“Muting it” is slang for labelling currency mutilated aka no longer fit for circulation. We sell mutilated money back to the federal reserve and they destroy it, because they’re the only ones who legally can. Of course our term “mutilated” is not quite the same as the U.S Treasury’s, which I just googled to doublecheck. They handle more of the “I can’t even quite tell what this is anymore/it might fall into multiple pieces in a strong wind” situations. We handle more of the “this bill was folded so much it ripped down the middle but I taped it back together so it’s all good now” type of thing. Or the ever-popular weird stains and general gunky-ness that we don’t feel comfortable giving back to customers.
It’s almost sad, muting money. Sometimes I feel bad for the ones worn soft, so that they’re more creases than anything else. They’ve lived long lives, or short hard ones. Some ones from 2009 look newer than beat up ones from 2013. It’s the luck of the draw and in the end I can decide if I want to let that rough-around-the-edges fighter push back into the fray or lay him peacefully to rest.
No one else will make that decision. Few people are willing to give up the value locked inside that paper shell just because it’s beat up. Money isn’t free, you know; that’d be some kind of paradox. So customers just keep taping those bills together and offering them up to us for CPR or euthanasia while they walk away with a fresher, fitter companion.
There are lives in the balance. Not just the working lives of bills, but real lives that I affect with my work as I type strings and strings of numbers into a computer. If I forget a zero someone could be shorted a thousand dollars. If I switch two numbers the wrong person might get that paycheck. Things can be undone and corrected, but I do my best every day to do things right the first time.
Because I’m part of the heart that keeps our country’s lifeblood pumping. Money is crucial in the system we created to reign in the chaos of life. Functional currency can make or break a society. We count on those bills to buy us the things we need to live. The things we use to have fun. The services that keep us happy and healthy.
And it’s cool to be part of that system. The bills I hand off go so many places that I may never see. Customers tell me they’re going to Peru, Las Vegas, Ethiopia. The bills I give them may never return to the continent where they were printed. Or they may only make it to the nearest international airport. Who knows?
It’s one of the things I like about being a teller. I play a minor role, but one that’s part of a great many stories. And as a writer that’s something I’m bound to enjoy.
Charlotte Mazurek is a poet whose writing earned her a full-tuition undergraduate scholarship. She has taught creative writing to inmates at the Chippewa Correctional Facility and served as Poetry Editor for Snowdrifts, the undergraduate literary journal at Lake Superior State University. She lead the English Club as Vice President and was also active on campus in Pep Band and several theater productions.