The Story of My Life as a Banker: The Prequel

Artist renderings of D.B. Cooper on left and right, and photo of Richard McCoy, center.
My parents met in a bank robbery in the one bank in Pollocksville, the tiny town where I grew up on the coast of North Carolina. If you know my father, you should ask him about it. He's a history buff, and he would love to tell you his story. My mom was a banker, and my dad was one of the officers on the scene after the robbery. (I found this local news interview with my dad, which I'd somehow never seen before, while Googling to make sure I had the story straight.)
My dad's theory is pretty intense, alleging that the legendary hijacker D.B. Cooper is actually Richard McCoy, the man who robbed my mother's bank. McCoy hijacked an airplane a few months after Cooper, but he was caught and imprisoned, while Cooper got away. A few months after he was locked up for the hijacking, he broke out of prison and robbed my mother's bank as part of his getaway plan. My dad was part of the team that chased down his accomplices, but McCoy got away. The photos of the D. B. Cooper and Richard McCoy side-by-side and the details of their hijackings are uncannily similar, but the FBI hasn't concluded that they're the same man.

I love everything about the dramatic flourishes of this story - and I love it even more that it's my origin story. The clever bandits - the stalwart State Troopers - the working women handling business in a small town. These are the ingredients that you mix to make a Joy.

My mom recounts the story of my dad courting her mercilessly after investigating the bank robbery and following up a bit more than necessary, but you won't see this part of the story in my dad's interview. She eventually agreed to a first date, and married him after a few years. She was a young single mom to a daughter who was about 12 years old when they got married, and a few years later, they added me.


I grew up in and out of my mom's bank, where she was the branch manager, and listening to her talk shop at home. I watched her wardrobe change from winter wool to summer linen in the Casper suits she preferred - always a matching blazer and skirt, just below the knee. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood feature her stockinged ankles, pumps, power suits, and the smells of White Linen perfume and WinterFresh gum - pulling the rubber bands from her arms that she'd wear home after pulling them from batched checks at the end of a day.

I consumed financial talk with my meals, absorbing the day's drama - listening to her lament the change in culture as her small-town bank was bought up again and again by larger banks, eventually  Bank of America, which was where she worked until she retired. She said she loved her work at first because she truly was able to help people - matching families with mortgages so they could build their dream homes. Helping farmers find financing options to expand their operations. Cautioning against unhealthy credit and coaching young people about how to grow their money. As the banks she worked for got bigger and bigger, the push to sell products to people regardless of what they needed sucked a lot of the fun out of the work for her.


Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the floor beside my mother while she paid bills every 2 weeks, in accordance with her own pay schedule. She'd give me an old check register and a pen, so I could pay the bills, too. She'd throw down the discarded envelopes and the paper that accompanied everything except the return portion of the bill, and I'd draw and scribble on those, pretending - but also learning a financial rhythm. She'd talk to me about what she was doing - explaining that the lights and water and house all had to be paid for. Explaining the cycles of paycheck and bills, income and taxes - vacations and holidays and the savings or borrowing that had to come to account for them. If I learned anything from my mother, it's how to stretch a dollar.


When I was about 7 years old, I'd usually go home after school with a friend of mine who lived near my house down Oak Grove Road, a 10ish mile stretch of rural 2-lane highway through the farmland and family homes in Pollocksville, NC. My mom would grab me on her way home from work. Sometimes, though, if our family friend wasn't available to watch me, my mom would either pick me up and take me back to work with her, or I'd walk the couple of blocks from my elementary school to the bank. I'd color in the boardroom beside her office, or I'd work on whatever homework I needed to finish.

I've always been a fan of my own company, so I didn't mind hanging out in the bank. I liked the big, shiny table in the board room where I could pretend to have meetings or play school. There were interesting things in the bank, too, and I could come out and poke around if it wasn't too busy. Some of my mother's best friends worked there, and they'd hand me a lollipop or a magazine to read. There were usually good snacks or soda in the break room, and the whole business of being there felt deliciously glamorous and adult. I liked seeing my mom in her working life, watching how the rubber bands she wore on her wrists got placed there. I'd put rubber bands on my own arms, pretending to be her.

On one of the days I'd walked over, my mom burst into the boardroom, pale and terrified, and said with quiet urgency, "The bank is being robbed. Get under the table. Don't make a sound. Don't come out."

I wonder what risk she took in coming in there to tell me to stay put and stay silent. I imagine myself in a similar situation, petrified my girls would run out to go to the bathroom, ask me a question about homework, whine for a snack - any of the myriad things a kid could do at the most inopportune of times. But I also think of what it might have felt like, weighing the options to run in the room, quickly warning my kids to stay put versus potentially pissing off an armed robber - or clueing him in to the vulnerability of a child in the room - imagining what leverage he would have if he had my kid.

I crouched under the table and peered out through the legs of the chairs, painfully aware of what little protection the table afforded. I watched the door my mother had closed and listened, my heart beating like mad.

I don't remember what else happened, or how I got out from under the table. I do remember seeing the bank robbery on the news that night, and wondering if they'd talk about me being there. I wondered if my mom would get in trouble because I was there - if the tightrope she walked as a working mom balancing a demanding career with childcare would cost her even more. I've never stared down the barrel of a gun while doing my own balancing act, but it's one I know well.


In college, I worked as a floating teller for Bank of America one summer. My mom connected me with the recruiters who hired me. This was in the late '90s, so online banking wasn't what it is today, and tellers had a crucial role to play as the processors of day-to-day banking operations, and banking centers were really busy. When I was hired, I was most excited about the paid training. All my previous work experience had been working in childcare, restaurants, and maybe a little tutoring - so dressing like a grown-up and getting a direct deposit felt like a foray into adulthood.

I'd get a call or email at the beginning of the week telling me where I needed to go, and I'd show up at the dreadful-for-college-students hour of 7:30 AM. I was majoring in English and had a life-long aversion to working with numbers - but the pay was good, and I was pretty good at it. It required no real calculations on my part - just attention to detail. I enjoyed the accuracy it demanded of me, the careful balancing of ins and outs. The satisfaction of following the procedures to pull money from a vault, process a transfer, make sure every check was endorsed correctly. I loved getting to the end of the day and realizing that my accounts were in order - I'd not handed out too much or too little money, and I'd won the game for the day. I once got a certificate in the mail acknowledging my accuracy, and it amused me that I was able to pull off such a feat with my perpetual college sleep deprivation and frequent hangovers.

Because the nature of my role was to fill in when a full-time employee was out on vacation or sick, I would upset the regular customers by asking for their IDs. We'd learned this would be a part of the gig in our training - that particularly older people who visited the bank as part of their regular affairs would be appalled by a request for identification. It proved true, and I enjoyed the challenge of calming the nerves of the folks I rattled - I'd explain, "I know this is inconvenient, Mrs. Jenson, and I know you aren't used to showing your ID to Janet. But she's on vacation this week, and since I don't know all the regular customers, I have to make sure you're who you say you are to protect your accounts from people who might impersonate you. It's a bank procedure to look out for our customers."

I think of 20-something me often when I'm typing similar assurances into the copy decks I write now - "in order to protect your account" or "for the safety of our customers" or "we're always looking out for you" are part of the repertoire of assuring users that the clunkier parts of authentication are to look out for them.

I spent one week in a bank working alongside another teller whose life was falling apart because she was in the midst of a divorce from an alcoholic. She couldn't stop talking about it between customers, but she held herself together remarkably well when customers were present. Her eyes were sad, and she was terrified - stretched thin financially by her perpetually unemployed alcoholic husband, scared of the future for her children. I pitied her, yet was well on my way to re-enacting parts of her life in my own a decade or so later. I wish I remembered her name. I wonder if she got to the other side of it - if her kids are ok.


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