The afternoon sunshine weaves through a slit in the thick curtains, casting white lines on the dark brick floor. The only sound in this cavernous office is the whoosh of cars driving by on the highway about 300 yards away. I am nervous to meet the bank President, my father’s golfing buddy, for an informational interview about working in finance. Informational interviews are last-ditch efforts for college seniors who haven’t found a job prior to graduation.
Dark wooden bookshelves line three of the walls of the room with leather-bound volumes in red, blue, and brown. These books are for decoration and have likely never been read. On the fourth wall, the one behind his desk, there are sixteen portraits of old men. I assume they are past Presidents of the bank. I’m sitting in a high-back chair made of green leather. An identical chair is three feet to my left, tilted ever so slightly to face my chair and his desk. The desk towers over me. It’s almost as if the chairs sit low on purpose so that he can look down at guests from his throne, a huge brown leather version of the green chair I’m sitting in, only placed on a rolling swivel base.
The receptionist who escorted me into this office from the atrium-like lobby instructed me to have a seat. The atrium, with its plants and a water fountain with a koi pond, could not be a more stark contrast to the darkness of this office. She closes the office door behind her, leaving me alone with the highway sounds, the smell of old books, and the old men starting at me from their mounts on the wall of fame.
A door behind the desk opens, and a tall, heavyset man in a navy blue suit enters the room. He barrels toward me, lifting his right hand delicately to greet me. “Miss Hodgson,” he says with a grin as his limp hand connects with mine, “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting, please, have a seat.” His thin, pale lips are visible under a short, trimmed mustache. His grin makes me uneasy. There’s a twinkle in his eye that leads me to believe this meeting is taking up valuable space on his afternoon agenda. He is doing this as a favor to my father, and it’s a waste of his time.
“What can I do for you?,” he asks in a slow, central Alabama businessman drawl. I presume this voice has closed many banking clients over the years. He exudes arrogance. There is a part of me that wants to be like him when I grow up. Well not exactly like him, per se, but to achieve the same level of success.
I am enamored with the world of finance. The concept of making money from money intoxicates me. Michael Douglas’ character in Wall Street is my spirit animal. I know he’s supposed to be a villain, but he makes deal-making and finance feel so thrilling. I want to be part of the action.
I look down at my hands crossed in my lap and review my prepared remarks. The pink pinstripes of my cheap pantsuit from Express feel prickly against my skin. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Bank President. I am a senior at the State University, majoring in finance, and I would love to learn more about the work you do here at the bank. I am still deciding whether I want to pursue investment banking or commercial banking. What advice would you give to a young person looking to work in banking today?” My hand slides across the massive desk with a copy of my resume. “I’ve brought you a copy of my resume, in case it might be helpful to the conversation.”
I’m not sure if he winces or blinks as he takes the resume from my hand and places it on his desk without a glance. I immediately regret bringing it. There’s nothing on it besides my 3.9 GPA, a brief internship at Salomon Smith Barney, and a few waitress jobs from high school. It’s not as if we can commiserate over being members of the same Greek fraternity.
“Well my dear, banking can be a very rewarding career. It’s a relationship business first and foremost. Those relationships take time to develop. I’ve been working with some of my clients for almost 30 years.” He cocks his head to one side and smiles like a lightbulb went off inside. “Banking is also a customer service business. These are skills they don’t teach in school. I find that the best way to learn is by doing the job itself. You might want to apply for a teller position…..”
He’s still talking, but I can’t understand a word he’s saying. He might as well be one of the adults from the Charlie Brown cartoon. “Wah wah wa wah wa wa wa Wah.” Did he just tell me to apply for a bank teller position? Seriously, after graduating top of my class, magna cum laude, with a finance degree, I’m still only eligible to be a bank teller? I might as well have skipped college altogether. I’d be four years, two raises, and a promotion into my career by now. What was the point of college anyway, if not to help me start off on a higher rung of the ladder?
I’ve retreated to my own thoughts as he continues to ramble. My heart pounds inside my chest as I uncross and re-cross my legs, trying not to let him know how upset I am. I smile and nod along even though I have no idea what he’s saying now.
He stands up from his throne and motions me to follow him through the door behind the desk. The old men glare at me as I walk past the wall of fame. He’s giving me a tour of the branch now. We walk onto an office floor filled with free-standing, rectangular, metal desks. It looks like the set of the movie 9 to 5 starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. He introduces me to the woman behind the first desk. I believe he said her name is Linda.
“Linda started as a teller back in the late ’80s. Now she’s the branch administrative manager, overseeing all the operational activity we do on commercial lines.”
“Nice to meet you.” Linda gives me a good, firm handshake. Our eyes meet. She’s wearing a green skirt suit that looks like it came from JC Penney. Her jacket has thin shoulder pads. Her soft blonde curls fall around gold clip-on earrings. I’m smiling politely but can’t think of anything to say. I don’t see myself in her. Linda brushes the front of her skirt and retakes her seat behind the desk to answer a phone call. As we walk by, she looks up and mouths “Bye” with her lips.
Next Mr. Bank President introduces me to a man a few years older than me. “This is Billy, one of our commercial loan officers. Billy went to Other State School where he studied international business. He joined us a few years ago as a loan analyst, but we realized pretty early on that he belongs in front of clients.” Billy gives me a semi-firm handshake and nods. I’m stunned. I can’t find anything worth saying to Billy.
Mr. President leads me off the floor through a door that connects back into the atrium lobby. The receptionist is routing a call that just came through. He gives me a final limp handshake, and we say our goodbyes. I thank him again for taking time from his busy schedule to speak to me today. “Don’t forget to submit that teller application,” he waves to me as I exit the building. I turn my head back and smile nervously at him.
Outside in the afternoon heat of the central Alabama spring, I practically run to my car. As soon as the door closes, I exhale a burst of tears I’ve been holding back since he first uttered those two words, “Teller Position.” It would be years before I’d question why Billy was able to start as a loan analyst while I should be a teller. The message was clear. Brains and book smarts are not enough to be successful in the real world. Breaking into finance was going to be an uphill battle, and my gender would be a headwind. Cranking the car, I pull myself together. The next one will be the one, I think, as I drive onto the highway.
Although this story is based on a real-life experience of mine, I’ve changed the names and circumstances of the characters involved. My memory isn’t perfect after so many years, so I’m sure that half of the details are wrong.