Updated: Jan 13
As you can see from the picture, it’s just a little thing, the Bank of America walk-up ATM on Commonwealth Avenue in Concord, Massachusetts. A bank in a box, just big enough for a single robot teller and one human looking to manage their funds.
I was a human at this little ATM location last week seeking some cash. My family is amused by my penchant to have cash on hand at all times. I know how to use my ATM card to pay for things, and I frequently use it to do so. I am not a Luddite. I know that one can pretty much go without having to use actual money these days. But, call me old fashioned, I like paying with cash too.
I was in Concord to get a massage – part of my efforts to keep my old-fashioned body functional. I sometimes follow a trip to the masseuse with a stop at Concord Teacakes, a lovely bakery just across the street from the ATM. You can keep your thoughts and judgment about the juxtaposition of a massage followed by pastry to yourself, please. Thank you. I don’t get pastries after a massage every time, and I hasten to add that I often work out pretty vigorously before the massage. But it wouldn’t be a complete untruth to say that workout-massage-ATM-Teacakes is maybe kind of a bit of a routine.
On this particular day, I was not the only human looking to manage my funds at this BoA ATM. When I walked up to the cash-in-the-box, there was already someone inside. There being only one machine and room for one person, I waited just outside as the occupant was taking care of their business.
Picture me standing just outside the ATM in the photo above. As you can see, it’s basically a glass tiny house. Anyone outside it can see the person inside, and the person inside can see anyone waiting outside depending on where the outside person is standing and how focused the inside person is on their transaction with the money robot.
As sometimes happens in these ATM dynamics, I found myself waiting for what felt like a pretty long time for the person inside to finish up and vacate the space. That was OK. A chance to practice some patience. Sometimes I’m the person who’s taking too long in there.
As I practiced patience, I couldn’t help but notice that the person inside the transparent teller already had their cash and receipt in hand when I arrived to create a one-person cue. That data point made me wonder why the wait was stretching out as it was. It didn't occur to me that a different kind of automated telling might be going on in the mind of the person in the box.
I did notice that the person inside noticed me outside during a couple of moments when they glanced up from the act of seemingly sorting their cash and (I assumed) preparing to exit the space. “Cool,” I thought, “They saw me. I’ll be in there in a moment and in Teacakes in a couple of minutes.”
And then this happened.
Picture the occupant opening the ATM door.
Picture me moving towards the door in the familiar choreography of one person leaving and one person entering a space. Take a moment to think about how this usually goes. Draw on your own experiences.
Picture me, bright red BoA ATM card as clearly in hand on a sunny morning in Concord, MA, historic crucible of colonialism, site of Revolutionary battles, birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, moving towards the door, anticipating the two-step of the occupant holding the door open as they exit while II thank them as I enter the space.
Erase that picture.
Instead, picture the occupant opening the door barely wide enough for them to pass through it.
Picture them squeezing out of Fort Knox through the crevice of an opening they created.
Picture them somehow managing to not so much as look in my direction as I stand like a human embodiment of that moment when a needle scratches a vinyl LP.
Picture them holding the outside handle of the ATM door and not swinging the door open for me to enter but instead holding tight to that handle so that they could guide the drawbridge back into its closed and locked position. Something every ATM door does quite well, with power, precision, and finality on its own.
Picture them – I kid you not and I exaggerate not one iota – giving the castle gate a tug to make good and sure, good and damn well sure that it was locked – despite the fact that the door had made its unmistakable this-ATM-door-is-now-locked latching sound.
And picture them walking away.
Picture me. Picture the picture inside me.
Picture my internal moments-like-these calculator spinning out what-to-do options. Should I go and talk to them? What might that result in? It could go just fine. After all, I am a professional psychotherapist, a diversity, equity & inclusion expert, and, if I do say so myself, a pretty soft-spoken and gentle person. Shouldn’t I bring all that to bear on this moment and, you know, try to make a connection across perceived differences? But what if they freak out and, faster than I could enter my ATM passcode, I find myself in a conversation with Concord’s finest?
Picture me settling on what to do as the self-appointed guardian of ATMs calmly walks away, never looking back, and disappears into a shop just down the road.
Picture me using my ATM card to open the door, getting my cash, and going home.
I didn’t go to Teacakes. The very thought of something sweet had become alien. Life itself had turned sour.
Have I painted enough of a picture of this moment in my life for you to understand what was happening? Is there more you need to/want to know? Maybe what do I look like? What did they look like? Maybe what was I wearing? Was I whistling Vivaldi? Was there maybe something happening for the other person that…? Any data at all that might maybe help you figure out what was really going on here? What was maybe going on other than what was certainly going on?
C’mon now. If you can’t picture exactly what was going on as easily and efficiently as an automated teller – in this case, a teller of the hard and persistent truths of social bias – there’s really nothing more I could tell you to help you understand.