Listening to Yesterday: Banking On It

The background noise of institutional authority

The bank was quiet yesterday. It was especially quiet for a mid-week visit in the afternoon, especially on the last day of the month. The line was short, two people ahead of me, with three people at the lengthy counter. The bank was sizable, with hard, shiny floors and wide, blank walls. Despite the reflective power of all that surface area, the financial conversations were muffled, muted, their privacy respected by the room’s structure and design. Street noise occasionally became apparent when the front doors, down a short hallway, opened, especially when a bus was pulling up to or out of the stop just beyond the entryway. Keystrokes were heard. The occasional beeping of generic computer equipment was absorbed into the room’s capacious silence. Inside the main hall of the bank, music played lightly, music as background noise, so matched in volume to the hush of the space — a hush akin to a museum, or to a proctored examination — that it took effort to discern the identity of what song was being played.

After I was done with my transaction, I walked down that short hallway and turned to take the stairs to the garage. The music faded slowly as I moved further and further from the main area of the bank. However, as quiet as it got with each step, the music was only suddenly, firmly gone when the stairwell door closed behind me. Immediately the space around me was void, empty, echoing its own silence, reinforcing its absence by presenting nothing more than a voluminous hush, a hush that made the quietude of the bank feel, in retrospect, more like a stage whisper, like a carefully crafted impression of quiet. The bank was private. In contrast, the stairwell was vacant. Private is valuable, comforting. Vacancy is neutral at best; if anything, it is devoid of presence, of comfort.

Stepping into the stairwell was like having the illusion of the bank’s authority dispelled. Inside the bank, its institutional gravitas was everywhere, from the visual depictions of its storied history to the sheer impression made by the activity. To step into the stairwell was to realize how much of that authority was a performance. To step into the stairwell was to step backstage, into the wings of the show that was the bank. I wondered: Had the music continued from the bank into the staircase, would I have experienced the transaction denouement for a longer period of time? Would I have had the song more likely in my head as I exited the garage? Would the authority of the bank have lingered more in my imagination? Would I have remained comforted by its institutional loco parentis, rather than dispiritingly enlightened as to the environmental conceit that had provided that comfort in the first place?

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