How Dirty Money and Manicures Led to Life-Long Health Habits

When I was in my last semester of high school, my schedule left me three afternoons a week without any classes, starting at 1p.m. I couldn’t leave campus unless I had a vocational job. I was going to college, so that was out. However, if you could convince the Vocational Director that a job would prepare you for college, he would relent. I pored over the lists of jobs and ‘bank teller’ caught my eye, but not for the needed math skills; I was really interested in how cool it would be to hang around a vault that held a lot of actual cash. I kept that to myself and got the job, including Saturdays.

On my first day, my father dropped me off with this advice: “Listen more than you talk, do what you’re told, and think of this as school.” He explained that while I would be learning applied math (I had no idea what that meant), I would be getting other kinds of applied learning, too, but I would have to look for those lessons on my own because “the bank is a business not a classroom.”

Indeed, I had to catch on quickly, as the afternoon rush accounted for much of the bank’s business — customers who owned liquor stores and made many deposits in lots of dirty multi-denomination dollar bills. There was no Purell in those days and no time to run to the ladies room to wash my hands, so I was careful not to touch my face. Lesson #1. And although the other tellers kept up a steady stream of gossip about customers and their after-hours activities, for the most part, I kept my mouth shut. It was enough for me to concentrate on keeping my money straight and looking out for counterfeit $100 bills.

Once as I was balancing my drawer, the busy head teller passed my station. “Who taught you to count your cash?” she barked. “Um,” I stammered, not wanting to rat out the training teller. “Here,” she said, “let me show you.” As I stood in awe of her fancy, manicured nails, she showed me proper grip and hand position and how the paper then flowed from right to left as she counted aloud, using her fingers to align the bills in the same order. It was magical, took seconds to count a pack, and completely changed my work pattern. I mimicked her movements, but the 17-year-old in me asked, “How come the nails?” As she handed over my bills, she smiled and said, “Customers spend more time looking at their money than looking at me. It’s my way of making their trip here more human.” This was YEARS before the concept of ‘1:1 customer experience’ entered our lexicon. Lesson #2.

My breaks coincided with the senior loan officer’s lunch. The loan officer was someone the others admired: she was pretty, smart, and to me, popular. There was often a line to see her; the fact that she brought in revenue went completely over my head. With my father’s advice ringing in my ears, I peeked from behind my book and watched in fascination as she leisurely ate her lunch: a small sandwich, one piece of fruit, cookies. Never more than two and always last. Meals at my house with six siblings were less about food and more about feed. On a day I noticed there no cookies in her bag, she tugged on the waistband of her skirt, sighed and left. This was my first exposure to balanced eating. One time she looked up and said, “Are you interested in what I’m reading?” “Yes,” I said, not in the least, eyes fixed quickly on her banking newspaper. This smart, kind woman spent her next few breaks thinking she was teaching me about commercial paper but she also taught me about presence and treating yourself with respect and self-worth. Lesson #3.

The bank’s branch manager was a no-nonsense war survivor from Armenia, the perfect complement to the Middle Eastern immigrant customer base who had settled in Detroit. She spoke several languages and much of her job seemed to be holding tough conversations with customers. A colleague told me people made incorrect assumptions about her intelligence and her decision-making authority because she was a woman and she was Armenian. This came as a surprise to me, given I went to an all-girl high school and was told I could do and be anything. During downtimes, she took walks around the block. This was considered unusual because no one walked in the suburbs and not for any purpose than to just walk. I often watched her from the drive-in window, wondering if she cared that people were talking about her while she was gone. I always knew it was her when she returned: the front door swung open wide, she sailed in as if a gust of wind blew her through and she looked as refreshed as the beginning of the day. No, she didn’t care; walking made her feel great. Lesson #4.

These lessons became my self-care health habits. I walk every day and eat in moderation because it makes me feel good. I am conscious of how my hands “present” (as well as the rest of me) so that my interactions with people are more respectful and human. I continue to look for lessons on my own with colleagues, with clients, and especially with those just starting out. Because my health can always use a good, new habit.

By the way, I did get to go into the bank vault. And it was super cool.

Susan Kolon is a healthcare communications consultant and wellness coach. She can tell you at any time — by denomination – the number of dollar bills in her wallet. Right next to the Purell.